The Law of Conservation

The recently departed Czech writer, Milan Kundera, criticised “judging instantly, ceaselessly and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding”

The law of conservation of energy is fundamental to science. It was however formulated in the days before Einstein started redefining physics. As a result of his thinking we now have his formula E=mc2 which says that, actually, we can convert energy into mass and vice versa. They are two sides of the same coin. Hence the heat we receive from the conversion of matter in the sun.

It seems, however, that conservation and conversion do not stop there. A few years ago, a writer called Samuel Goldman proposed what he called “the law of the conservation of religion.” He said: “in any given society, there is a relatively constant and finite supply of religious conviction. What varies is how and where it is expressed.”

An interesting thought. One which implies not only a constancy but, I would suggest, also an interchangeability between the outwardly religious and the apparently secular. It aligns with my own observation that so many people in so many fields adopt the sort of thinking which is typical of traditional religions.

High-profile events such as international and even minor town football matches have very similar effects to religious gatherings: fans can feel that their life has meaning through social involvement. An essential part of this is seeing one's team as worthy of support - despite everything - a support that for many fans borders on worship. And, the clubs, instead of Peter's pence, ask for payment from those supporters for the shirts, changed with regularity, and other sacred memorabilia, to keep the money flowing in.

Of course, ritual is fundamental in both sport and religion. In the days when religion ruled supreme, it was not unusual for people to go to mass very frequently. Now, many people's lives are taken over by a belief that they have to go to the gym or go running before going to work. Others put in 10,000 steps each day in order to attain - well, no-one's quite sure - the scientists tell us that simply doing housework gives enough of a workout to keep us in working order. But they believe that it's what they should do. It's their sacred ritual.

A recent poll found that only 49% of Brits believe in a god. As religion fades we ought to be entering a new age of enlightenment. Rational debate should blossom and science ought to come to the fore. But. Instead, we see that gullibility is still with us and seemingly on the increase. Thanks to the internet, astrology is a booming industry. We have the resurgence of witchcraft and tarot readings. Absurd claims are made for ‘natural cures’. Anti-vaxers and climate-change sceptics hawk their theories on the internet, on GB News and Talk TV.

There is a faith in the existence of "my truth” which ‘trumps’ objective reality.
QAnon is now a quasi-religion dedicated to opposing blood-sucking shape-shifiting aliens who are controlling the world, just like the depictions of Satan in times past. A fascination with the end times afflicts climate-change eco-warriors and AI pessimists alike: they warn, just like the believers in the apocalypse in times past, that the end of days is near.

In the 20th century there was a decline of participation in churches and other social organisations. But now, thanks to the internet, mass movements are back – but virtually. As an influencer, you can have millions of followers who will hang on your every meaningless word and put money on the modern version of the collection plate.

Despite the decline in religion, the moral certainty typical of religion is still with us.
It seems we need absolute moral laws by which to live our lives. If there is indeed a ‘relatively constant and finite supply of religious conviction’, then it should be no surprise that the decline of traditional religion has coincided with the outbreak of an age of secular moralising. Even worse than religion it produces a form of moralising rage, stoked by instant mass communication on the internet.

The similarities between the “woke” movement and religion are striking: the obsession with heretics, with spiritual purity, with the idea that we all, or at least the white folk,  bear the “original sin” of racial prejudice for which we must self-flagellate.

Colonialism though is the equivalent of the biblical ‘unforgivable sin’. We see that a connection with it will be looked for and traced back over centuries in order to determine if an institution or a statue can be allowed to survive.

Lankelly Chase, a charitable foundation with about £150 million in assets, administers the bequests of two entrepreneurs who made their fortunes from north London property developments in the 1960s. The foundation can make grants for any charitable purpose, and on average has handed out about 13 million per annum to a wide variety of causes.

It has now though decided to concentrate on tackling racism and inequality. To do this, it will abolish itself. Why? Because the charity sees traditional philanthropy as “entangled with colonial capitalism” and part of a “cult of benevolence”. They say that existing structures for charitable giving perpetuate “the harms of the past into the present”. Its trustees are unable to reconcile its charitable mission with being an investor in global capital markets which they consider to be rooted in racial and colonial exploitation.

But it goes further than that. In building their property empires, the developers committed the cardinal sin of borrowing money from Royal Bank of Scotland, a bank which had its roots in the slave trading era. And so the funds have been rendered irredeemably evil.

As a result, the charity will spend the next five years handing over its assets to organisations doing “life-affirming social justice work”. But does that mean that these organisations are without benevolence, or just free of its cult? Will the money miraculously become clean in their hands? Will they not have a bank account? Have the trustees not thought of using building societies for their banking and ‘ethical’ investment trusts for their investments? 

The philosopher John Gray argues that in the 20th century, faith in progress replaced religion. Barack Obama’s Oval Office had a rug woven with the legend, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice”. If only.

That myth of progress was attractive not only for those with ‘progressive’ politics, but also for others who saw it as a mark of hope. There was comfort in the widely-held assumption that your children would be richer and, so, happier than you.

Nowadays progress is harder to believe in. Real wages decline, the planet heats up, parents no longer believe their children will have better lives than them. And, accompanying it all, there is a lurch to the right throughout Europe.

In 1969 Kenneth Clark presented a 13 part television series called ‘Civilisation’. It was a look at civilisation through the lens of art, architecture and philosophy. He noted that civilisation is actually quite fragile. “...its enemies? ...fear - fear of war, of invasion, of plague and of famine, Fear makes it simply not worthwhile constructing things, or planting trees or even planting next year's crops. And fear of the supernatural, which means that you daren't question anything or change anything.” He said of the declining Roman Empire: “The late antique world was full of meaningless rituals and mystery religions that destroyed [civilisational] self-confidence.”

Over the last few centuries traditional religion unintentionally provided us with the benefit of being able to group together our irrational impulses – mainly on a Sunday, in church – and so they could be largely divided from our mainstream living.

Now that irrational wokery, superstition and a scepticism of science worthy of Galileo’s interrogators are becoming embedded in our lives, it is much harder to pick our way through it.

Even in universities, which should demonstrate the benefit of reason, prejudice creeps in - this through fashionable scepticism of “western science” as a colonialising force, or the belief that certain actual facts, such as the immutability of biological sex, are morally impermissible and must be ‘rejected’.

How in the twenty-first century did we come to this?

Unless there is indeed a law of conservation of religion...

Paul Buckingham

18 July 2023

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