I’m watching the BBC series ‘Around the World in 80 Faiths‘ with great fascination and enjoyment. Anglican vicar Peter Owen Jones is an engaging, entertaining and (up to a point) honest guide to the world’s rich variety of spiritual wackiness.
Owen Jones ‘heard the call’ 15 years ago, having previously spent his time running discos and advertising campaigns. According to the BBC’s website, this rustic padre feels that the Church of England “is too much a faith of the head and not enough a faith of the soul”. This televised journey, then, is a search for the pure spirit of the divine and how it manifests itself in so many ways.
As our guide, Owen Jones is remarkably willing to immerse himself in beliefs and practices very alien to the genteel rituals of an Anglican service. Sometimes he is moved, sometimes bemused and (so far – I’m three episodes in at this point) only once really disgusted. A voodoo ceremony at which animals – including a kitten and a puppy – were bloodily sacrificed left him very disturbed. His revulsion, it seems, was not on theological grounds but simple humanitarian ones and was easily shared by atheists like me. Believe all the hocus pocus you like, but leave the kitten out of it.
Naturally he has his limits. As a believer, Owen Jones is rather too willing to see people – and feel himself – moved by the holy spirit where a more neutral observer might witness hysteria, hyperventilation or simple credulity.
On the whole, though, Owen Jones is accommodating and open. Indeed, the only note of disdain so far was reserved for atheists. He said something to the effect that we infidels would regard all these manifestations of the divine as a “form of disease”. I’m not sure if Owen Jones is aware of the variety of attitudes towards religion among atheists, or whether his generosity of spirit simply stops short of those who don’t share his belief in the divine. Either way, it’s worth noting that not all of us consider religious belief per se to be a disease or shared dementia. In fact, I believe that a predisposition to spiritual experience is a natural result of evolution – a subject to which I will return in a future blog.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the series, keen to know if Owen Jones will address the one big question that so far he has avoided. There seems to be a implication, from what he has said, that the prevalence of religion across the world means that there is a common phenomenon behind it – no less than the divine itself. This is an argument that crops up often: if so many people believe in a divine spirit, it must be there.
This, of course, is poor logic. There is an obvious counter argument which hinges on the fact that the very nature of religious belief is exclusiveness. Religions are not mutually compatible. You cannot accept more than one. You must, by that token, believe that all the others are wrong. And yet there are thousands of separate religions and, within each faith, many variations of the type. The divisions between them are so hotly debated that the supremacy of one over another is often expressed violently, at the cost of many lives and much suffering.
And it’s self-evidently true that they can’t all be right. At most, there could be only one true faith. Therefore, even if you are a believer, you must believe that the vast majority of faiths are … well … nonsense. No matter how fervent your faith in your god and your prophets and your mythical tales, you have to contend with the simple fact that the majority of people in the world – even the religious ones – think that what you believe is rubbish.
How would we recognise the true faith? For me, a key test would be reliability. If a faith is real, it should work – not now and again, not in strange and oblique ways, but reliably and repeatedly. And yet we know that no faith matches this criterion. Prayers and imprecations are, at best, a hit and miss affair. Even the most extreme piety, the most self-abasing unctuousness, only rarely seems to deliver results. And if a faith really was the genuine article, then surely it would seem self-evident. Everyone would flock to it. All others would fall away.
The faithful, of course, get around these problems with a blinding array of excuses and prevarications. Chief among these is the idea that we are being tested. Yes, even supposedly loving gods, who are keen to bring us to their ethereal bosoms, enjoy tormenting us – to an extent, in fact, which means that most of us will fail.
Now try applying common sense to this situation. If even the faithful insist that the vast majority of religions are wrong – indeed, all but one of them – then it stands to reason that there is a very good chance that all of them are. As we’ve already seen, if you pick any one faith you’ll find most of the people in the world are against it. You can do this for every religion.
So, if all the religions are demonstrably wrong, and they all have the divine as their common thread, the inescapable conclusion is that the very concept of the divine is itself wrong. It might be a delusion. It might be the ‘misfiring’ (as Dawkins would put it) of part of our psyche (which is kind of where I’m heading with the evolution thing). It might simply be that we poor mammals are simply not up to the task of comprehending the entire universe and must weave stories to accommodate what we can’t fully grasp.
Whatever the explanation for our tendency towards superstition, if we are honest we must at least acknowledge the possibility that at the heart of the world’s religions lies … nothing. That the divine is merely a common and rather simple device employed by the other thing we all share – our brains. So far, this is what Owen Jones has failed to do. Oh well, just sit back and enjoy the wackiness.