On BBC Radio 4 this morning there was a comment from Dr Tom Wright, the retiring Bishop of Durham, that we live in an "increasingly religious age". The producers of the programme asked for comment from the listeners on this statement and many responded. Both sides of the argument were represented with a fairly even spread between those who agreed and those who did not.
The debate got me thinking about the term 'religious' and how it is applied to life in the 21st Century. Highly emotive words are often attached to it - religious fanatics or religious extremism appear often enough but so too do phrases such as 'he follows Arsenal religiously'. It would seem that 'religious' is another word that has lost its real meaning. Religion, Politics and Sex were once the subjects most likely not to be discussed in polite company; it was bad form to ask a chap about his politics or his religion and we British have never been comfortable talking about...well...you know...
But now Western society knows no fear and we are happy to discuss our politics and our sex lives candidly(sometimes with accompanying video footage) and yet to mention the 'R' word can still trip us up. The supporters of Dr Wright's statement offered examples of warm welcomes at local parish churches or how they were offering prayers for the plight of the Pakistani flood victims whilst the detractors were claiming that modern society was essentially godless and didn't need religion. After all, religion has caused more wars than anything else is the familiar saw. But are we talking about Organised Religion or the more personal, lower case kind?
Many people I speak to describe themselves as being 'spiritual' rather than religious, and this is an example of how the term has become almost perjorative. To be Religious is to be pious or intolerant or evangelical but to be Spiritual is to have an understanding that there is something bigger than we are. To be spiritual fits nicely with being 'green' or 'liberal' in the list of things that make us 'good people'.
What I think we mean by 'religious' is that we recognise that we cannot exist apart from everyone and everything else. To feel the interconnectedness of things. To have faith in ourselves and one another to be there for others. We may give our 'gods' different names and follow different traditions and rituals in celebrating them but we all need to feel part of something, to have a relationship with something other than ourselves.
The materialistic and selfish lifestyle promoted in the 19th and 20th centuries has failed us. Society is cracking and we have very little time in which to heal it. This is recognised but not always acknowledged by people who deny that they are religious but who seek the community of others. We reach out to others in many ways and technology can play a part. This is seen in the continued growth of social networks such as twitter and Facebook. One of the earliest social networks was 'Friends Reunited' and it is no coincidence that this has a more human and sharing name than the self-centered 'MySpace' which is losing users to other, more social sites. Twitter was given the name in recognition of the way birds communicate to one another by tweeting little pieces of information that contribute to the survival of the whole flock. Online communities may not be a replacement for the real-life, flesh and blood kind but they can have enormous benefits (think of the money raised to help the victims of the Haitian and Pakistani disasters via twitter) and they do provide the opportunity to be part of something; to be an individual within a larger society.
The play we took to Edinburgh, 2020Vision, discusses this very theme and places the discussion in an extreme set of circumstances to heighten the message. Another, much gentler, production in the same venue dealt with the topic on a more intimate level. 'Of People and Not Things' by Andrew J Hungerford concerns the breakdown of a relationship that has far-reaching consequences for the rest of the World. Two very different approaches but very similar messages. A coincidence? Maybe...
As we reach out to one another so we begin to understand that we can only continue to evolve as a species if we work together, care for each other and truly communicate. God is a name we give the thing that is bigger than us, that guides us, that we all know is there but do not always acknowledge. Call it coincidence or fate or chance or chaos, even call it religion, but understand that it is part of us and we are part of it. Recognise the individuality and worth of the people around you and you will be rewarded with the same; turn against them and you will be truly alone.