Community, Faith and Religion

I stumbled across a discussion on social networks that concerned itself with the nature of social networks and whether or not the Web 2.0 features of Facebook, MySpace etc constitute a real community. I thought that the discussion had closed, but as with all the best things, you never know when inspiration will strike and from whence it will come (Sorry about that, I just wanted to use ‘whence’).

I have a wonderful bedside radio that also serves as an alarm clock. The beauty of a Tivoli Model 3 is that it is completely analogue in clock, radio and speaker, but that is also its downside: the functionality that you get with modern radios, such as the ability to have different wake up times on different days or listen to different stations, is singularly lacking. All of which meant that on Sunday morning I found myself listening to Good Morning Sunday on BBC Radio 2. Anyone familiar with my taste in music and my opinions on religion will know that this is about as far from my normal listening taste as it is possible to get. But that is also what makes us complete people, and is the beauty of broadcasters like the BBC, CBC and many others around the world; we need to hear, see, read and learn from people with different and opposing viewpoints to our own. It is my considered opinion that the fragmentation of media in the world today is partly to blame for the narrow minded, ill informed society that we are forming around us. A mark of the well rounded mind is the ability to hear opposing views and reject them if they have no merit, or agree with them (and therefore change your own opinion) if these opposing views have sensible, coherent and well made arguments. But that rant is for another day- this post is about something far more positive.

One of the guests on Good Morning Sunday was Tobias Jones to talk about his latest book, Utopian Dreams (isn’t it always an excuse to talk about something that we need to sell). The book is a report on Tobias’ year long odyssey in which he visited 5 communities that had rejected traditional religion, such as christianity. Some of the communities attempted to create their own faiths and some rejected all faith based systems completely.

But what became apparent as the journey progressed was that although we may reject traditional religions most, if not all people substitute a new form of worship. These people may have rejected traditional religion, but they they are not able to exist without any faith. It is a sublte difference- this difference between no traditional faith and no faith at all, but it appears that even people who are willing to adopt life outside of regular society are not able to exist without any faith. At the most simple and obvious level; it may not be a traditional church, but if one considers the parallels between football (either kind) and religion then similarities spring up all over the place: gathering together every week, holding up heroes, be they saints or sportsmen etc etc. I wonder if this also explains the ever increasing rise in celebrity culture; for people not interested in sport perhaps their idols are Paris Hilton, Jordan or whoever is the latest fodder for Heat, Hello and all the rest of the celebrity press.

Whether or not the communities were successful or not in creating their faith is discussed in the book, but the point that I picked up on in the interview was possibly not the obvious one. Where the communities worked it was because of the collective spirit with which the people lived: There is more to inhabiting this world than simply existing as an individual- we as a species have developed through social interaction with each other. Technology means that we can now create the interaction without physically being present, but I wonder if this is yet another case of us not respecting the past. I believe we need real physical interaction- living connected by wires (or wireless) is not really living- but Tobias Jones takes it further than that. His experience of observing these communities is that the late 20th Century notion of the nuclear family is a one fraught with challenges. Now it may not be the most academic of sources, but even The Nanny Diaries appears to back this up: Traditional i.e. non-western cultures believe that it takes an entire village to raise a child, but we perhaps naively believe we know better: We cocoon ourselves in our houses with our toys and technology, we move to find work but that takes us away from family, support structures and the community that we are familiar with. We live as small units and are so frightened by the society we have created that it is rare to see children playing on the street or neighbours just stopping to talk.

I know that it is impossible to take society back to a simpler time in the past- not least of which is because that rose tinted place we hold up in our mind’s eye has just as many downsides as today, they are just different drawbacks. But I do think that the inability of traditional religion to connect with people today has led to a vacuum forming. People don’t want to believe in nothing- but the somethings that are on offer are not enough. Maybe I dream of Nirvana, but then they certainly wouldn’t be played on a Sunday morning on Radio 2.

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