Piety – religious and secular

It is not by chance that the three different parties in power in England, Scotland and Wales respectively were all winners in the elections last week. They have obviously benefited from a vaccine bounce. The government's early response to the pandemic cost a lot of lives, but that has been forgotten in the euphoria generated by our emergence from our period of darkness.

In contrast, in each of the UK’s governing bodies, the opposition’s entire job has in effect been put on hold for the last year and they have suffered accordingly. The losers have now, however, as is traditional, started in-fighting over whose fault it was.

There is though an exception to the joy of being the one in charge. Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, and Northern Ireland’s First Minister has been forced to resign. It is not however the result of a decision by the electorate - there were no elections there - but of a letter of no-confidence signed by a large majority of the DUP MPs and Assembly members.

Her fall has come about partly because of her willingness to trust Boris when he said that there would be no customs border between NI and the rest of the UK. It is an article of faith for the DUP that Ulster must not be seen in any way to be different to the mainland. But Boris is not known for having any articles of faith, except perhaps those serving his personal advantage. Boris's statement came before his election victory, when he was still dependent on the DUP's eight votes in Parliament. Having later won a definitive majority, his promise turned out to have at its core the emptiness typical of all his promises.

But there are many other articles of faith to which DUP members hold very tenaciously.  They are all in the Bible and include the condemnation of homosexuality. A Bill put before the Northern Irish Assembly provides for the outlawing of so-called ‘conversion therapy’, designed to ‘cure’ people of their homosexual tendencies. Arlene committed the mortal sin of abstaining rather than voting against it.

The front-runner as her replacement is Edwin Poots. Like the founder of the DUP, the Reverend Dr Ian Paisley, that shining light of religious fundamentalism, he believes that God brought the earth and the rest of the universe into being in the year 4004BC, because that’s what the Bible tells us. When asked if it might have happened somewhat earlier, when the Big Bang occurred, he said: “You’re telling me that cosmic balls of dust gathered and there was an explosion. We’ve had lots of explosions in Northern Ireland and I’ve never seen anything come out of that that was good. And you look at this earth and you tell me that there was a big bang and, all of a sudden, all that is good about this earth came out of it?”.

Obviously a deep thinker - just not about science.

But this takes us to the whole question of what religion does for us, what has promoted its existence. Clearly it must provide a benefit which has been selected for by evolution. After all, we have taken to the concept on a massive scale and kept believing in various religions from, perhaps, even before 4004BC.

It seems that religions exist to fulfil several psychological needs. They include the need to find meaning in life, to feel that we have some sort of control over things that happen (I imagine by cosying up to the god in charge) and the need to define a community with a shared set of beliefs.
But we are now becoming quite rapidly secularised. This is not true everywhere, but where there is a higher standard of living, this tends to be the direction of travel. Neither does it mean that those not signed up to religion do not believe in an afterlife. Many who are not religious would still say rather vaguely that there’s probably something more after death, even if they don’’t know what it is.

However where religion has waned, piety has apparently not diminished. Indeed, it seems, if anything, to have increased. The internet is full of it. There are now, in fact, various academics who believe that our intrinsic desires, which in the past favoured some form of religion, are now increasingly expressed in many of these new pieties.

The right have always had their dogmas, often supported by the state religion. Latterly, though, we have seen a debate, ostensibly about economics, turn into what can only be described in religious terms as the ‘cult of Brexit’. Only the most extreme form would do and all non-believers would be excommunicated. We even saw Ken Clarke booted out as a Conservative MP.

With the left, however, we are talking about the woke world, one which has expanded as religion in the traditional sense has contracted. The suggestion is that, in particular, leftist identity politics represent: “a roughly religious structure that services the same human needs that religions do, but from within a remarkably different paradigm”. Religion-like aspects of this structure, include the formation of a moral tribe and the adoption of a social mythology to explain the world.

The cult of Brexit told us that being part of a bloc of countries was all that held us back from again benefiting from the economic success achieved in the good old days.

In the case of the left, the structure of society is believed to be shaped by conflict between groups defined by race, gender and sexual orientation. There is then a typically religious focus on an inward search for recognition of one’s unconscious wrongdoing or bias or unacknowledged privilege, and the importance of publicly demonstrating one’s commitment to the belief system.

And then we come to the adoption of sacrosanct beliefs: they are ones that have been, for ‘moral’ reasons, removed from the realm of inquiry as to their truth. They’re viewed as too important to be subjected to the corrosive influence of doubt or debate.

Any data or arguments suggesting that 4004BC may not be correct, are regarded by creationists as invalid, by definition. And with secular belief systems, we find that there are indeed sacrosanct beliefs which are removed from rational inquiry.

We see this in America, with the need for every Republican to accept that the presidential election was stolen from their orange god. Indicating dissent will lead to removal from whatever post is occupied, as Representative Liz Cheney has found out.

At the other extreme we have the requirement simply to accept that a man identifying as a woman is a woman or vice versa, no qualification of that status being allowed. As we have discussed before, however, it goes much further. There is for example, the incoherent idea of cultural appropriation or the ever changing vocabulary which is deemed acceptable by anti-racists or anti-whatevers. Indeed, the Morris Dance Society has now altered its rules to stop ‘black-face’. This, even though many hundreds of years ago when it started, it was done, using soot, in order simply to give anonymity to the dancers. This sort of narrow, absolutist thinking is very similar to the approach taken by religions over the millennia.

I think that the analysis of secular beliefs as a response to the evolutionary drives which have until recently pushed us in the direction of religion is really quite convincing. It underlines the similarity between those trying to impose their secular views on us without being willing to engage in any reasoned debate, and the members of any religious cult acting in the same way. If we refuse to comply, they will look down on us as lesser beings.

The cancel culture of secular piety is redolent of the extremes of the religious disputes of the Middle Ages, except that they used torture and the stake. We use hatred conveyed by social media instead. Let’s hope that extremist secularism will eventually die down in favour of tolerance. Mind you the dispute between Church founded by Martin Luther and the Catholic Church did go on for rather a while...

Paul Buckingham

10 May 2021

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