"A policeman can control a small crowd only for the time he is watching them, but a priest can put a policeman in the mind of every one of their flock, forever".
With the UK becoming increasingly secular, is it any wonder society seems to be coming off the rails? If we’re lacking an internal policeman, then what has taken its place?
According to the 2001 census 72% of the UK regard themselves as Christian, with another 5.2% making up the rest of our religious diversity, practicing Islam, Sikhism, Judaism, Hinduism (or even Jediism). At first glance it might seem that we are in fact a rather theistic people, but under closer examination the high rate of response tends to fall apart.
An Ipsos Mori poll commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation, questioned those who ticked the Christian box in the 2011 census found that surprisingly few are actually religious in the strict sense. Just under half hadn’t visited a church in the last year except for weddings or funerals, 37% of people who said they were Christian rarely or never prayed outside of church and only three in ten said they ticked Christian because they genuinely try and follow Christianity, with four in ten saying it was because they try to be a good person and associate that with Christianity.
The most interesting question was on where people go to for guidance on right and wrong. A little over half said they consult their own moral compass, a quarter said they ask family and friends and only 10% of “census-Christians” look to religious teachings and beliefs. So even amongst the nominally religious parts of our population most people draw their own moral boundaries. Boundaries that are far more plastic than they used to be in the past.
At the root of it, is a problem of choice, and that nowadays there’s too much of it. Back in the middle ages, you learnt nearly everything of the wider world in Church, and crucially so did everyone else. God is great, the earth is flat and stealing is wrong. You might disagree, but with a society so homogenous you’d find it difficult to say so without being burnt at the stake. With a lack of alternative faiths or belief systems, then the Church can tell you the Truth, and you’ll accept it.
But today no-one holds a similar monopoly on Truth. Most respectable religions, philosophies, life-styles or moral codes can only offer at best a truth, or some truth and that puts everything into question. For every moral absolute you can find another viewpoint that says something different. Human nature may not have changed in centuries, but the world we live in certainly has. We have always picked up our personal morality from a blend of the morality of society, from our family and friends and from our own moral judgement. Nowadays that moral guidance is no longer seeded through religion but we do get influenced by other means.
Nowadays you’re less likely to be religious but more inclined to align yourself to the dominant media conglomerates of our times. You attend the holy church of The Guardian, read the gospels of The Mail or the sutras of The Independent, you might follow the sermons of saturday night ITV or the subversive cult screenings on Channel 4 or maybe you prefer a more evangelical sect and like to tune in to the demagogues from across the pond on Fox News.
The media you consume fulfils the same role as religion did, it teaches you about the workings of the world, it teaches you the Truth. The difference is that people are more free to pursue their own interests and inclinations, rather than the more prescriptive teachings of religion. But whatever your mode of consumption, the more media you expose yourself to, the more the message will bleed into your subconscious and quietly adopted as your own. It isn’t to say that it is a bad thing, just something that needs to be handled with a little caution.
Isn’t it better that we can seek out the people, the reportage, the TV shows and and websites that best suit us? Rather than having to conform to a one-size fits all value system. Some might say that the rise of moral objectivism in the wake of dying religions is the cause of what might appear on the surface to be a kind of social breakdown. On balance however the plurality of culture, taste and opinion, fed by a diverse media surely does our society a greater service.
That isn’t to say that our modern media driven world isn’t without its pitfalls. Just as with religion, to consume without analysis is to be indoctrinated. It certainly doesn’t help that the mainstream media, and advertisers in particular, have gotten very good at pushing all your subconscious buttons to keep you passive and receptive to the message they’re preaching. If you’re going to survive amongst the countless hoards of people trying to get your ear (and your money), you need to become a crafty consumer of your media, drawing from many sources and never following blindly. Need I even mention the Murdoch press?
Religion in its traditional sense may be dead, but it lives on as part of the cultural milieu. As religion’s power has dwindled it has been less able to hold the population into a single hegemonic mass. To some extend society has suffered from it, as social cohesion gives the appearance of breaking down. But with today’s rich cultural landscape taking inspiration from film, music and reportage alongside the more established art, science and religion the sources of inspiration, joy and understanding have never been as rich. Society may not have quite corrected for this sea-change in moral values, but I have faith in the ever adaptable human race to adjust to tolerate the most diverse societies in world history.
The loss of religious hegemony has undoubtedly cost us in some sense, but what some might call a fractured society is more like a celebration of quite how varied the human species is.