Pre-millennial tension


In a year's time, the opening to this piece will write itself: "I told you so." The world will not have ended. This is of course an entirely safe bet to make, since, if I lose, who is to collect? But there are other possibly more important things to learn from an outbreak of millennial fever. Perhaps the most important is that very little of it will be religious in the sense that "religious" has been understood for the last thousand years.

In Rome, starting on Christmas Eve, the Pope will inaugurate the greatest continuous pilgrimage the world havs ever seen. At least 25m people will descend on the city over the following year, quite likely the figure will be closer to 35m. Fifteen new churches are being built in the suburbs It looks as if Christendom is in great shape. Certainly, the experience of reading the Pope's mediations on the Jubilee, as he calls the Millennium, in his encyclical Tertio Millennio Adveniente is enough to show that there still are Christian philosophers and intellectuals around who should be taken seriously, despite appearances to the contrary in Britain. Yet I still have a sense that this triumph may be illusory: that the last Millennium found the Church on a flood tide, and this finds the same Church on an ebb.

The splendours of Roman Christianity, which are in large parts those of European Christendom, are now largely architectural. The buildings remain, but the people are gone or going fast. There is a Jubilee every twenty five years, and the number of pilgrims coming to Rome has tripled every time since 1950. But no one could argue that this is a development largely driven by spiritual causes. The gigantic and unprecedented tide of pilgrims into Rome is a product of cheap air travel and mass tourism, not of the fervour of their belief.

This has not been accompanied by any great increase in rationality or sophistication. Quite possibly the collapse of traditional religion has not increased even those measures of human happiness which an atheist would recognise. It certainly doesn't seem to me to have led to any greater respect for the truth. And it is possible to draw some huge and gloomy conclusions from the process, about how the world will necessarily get worse as a result. Most of the atrocities of this century were committed by avowed atheists or anti-Christians, in Russia as in Nazi Germany. The Serbs and Croats, of course, regard themselves as fighting for Christian civilisation, even against each other. But on balance, any fair-minded observer would conclude that atheists have brought more misery to the planet than the devout.

It's easy to follow that argument in a direction that says that without religion we have no hope. Many elegaic conservatives, from Matthew Arnold to Roger Scruton, have concluded just this without being exactly Christian themselves. I hope they're wrong for a couple of reasons. The first is that they are in essence claiming that our only hope is to believe something repugnant to reason. This seems to me to lose the most noble legacy of Christianity: the assertion that humanity and truth are - despite all the evidence - compatible. It is also open to the elegant mockery of Christians like Libby Purves, who remarked of Scruton's pessimism that he was the first man to argue that we should throw out the baby and keep the bathwater.

The second reason is that I don't think people will happily and consciously believe things they know to be false. We're just not built that way. It may not be nobility of character. It may simply be that we suspect the truth will give us an edge in dealing with each other. But in any case, the idea that we should believe things because they are good for use doesn't work outside Alcoholics Anonymous, which is extremely vague about what exactly these beliefs should be.

I think it's more interesting to twist the elegaic conservative argument through ninety degrees. Religions, as we know them, are really modelled on Christendom. But Christendom does not describe a mode of thought or even a set of beliefs, so much as a way of understanding and arranging society. It fulfilled a great many lasting human needs that have no obvious organisational connection to spirituality. This disconnection became apparent first intellectually - when people learnt that you could best discover all sorts of truths, philosophical, historical and scientific, without reference to religious authority. In this century it has become obvious socially, as more and more of the special functions of religion are taken over by the welfare state, and to some extent by the mass media.

The one irreplacable function which seems to remain to them is to link an awareness of the transcendent into some kind of workable moral code. So we tend to think that this must be the essence of religion. But it's not clear that religions, considered as social arrangements, can have an essence at all. If our ideas of religion descend from the Old Testament world of the tribe in a salt and bitter desert, clinging mostly to God and always to each other, they may not survive at all their inversion into a Californian world of huge material comfort and no real social bonds at all. The lasting human needs that give rise to what we now call religious belief will remain, but there's no reason to suppose that religions themselves will.



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