Thursday, December 16, 2010

Time for a new god?

Paul Saffo of Discern Analytics writes in the Economist that, with all the innovation and upheaval of our age, we are due a new God:

Our current religious order formed in what Karl Jaspers termed the “axial age” — that extraordinary period between 800BC and 200BC that witnessed monotheism’s move into the mainstream with Zoroastrianism, the appearance of Buddhism, the establishment of Confucianism and the efflorescence of Greek humanistic philosophy.

Jaspers’s axial age shares close parallels with today. It was a time shaped by innovations in government, transport and ommunications. Population growth created new challenges demanding political innovations. New sailing technology transformed the seas from barriers to highways for ideas that
travelled with trade goods to new lands. The consequent intellectual ferment yielded new world views, new uncertainties—and new religions.

Three technologies have brought us to the edge of another axial shift today. Air travel has given entire populations unprecedented mobility. The intermodal container has delivered a cornucopia of products to every corner of the globe. And cyberspace has become a promiscuous, meme-spreading hotbed of ideas.

Throw in the usual round of human misery served up by war, revolution and natural disasters, and the result is a potent cultural Petri dish from which a new god could spring. Populations around the world are struggling to find security and identity in this strange new future-shock world. The rise of fundamentalism is a sure indicator of dissatisfaction with the current religious order. Unhappy believers first look back to their roots for comfort, but origins rarely comfort and thus they will inevitably search for a new god.

Well, I really can’t imagine what new god might be thrown up in Africa, Asia or America (perhaps my readers can help?); but here in Europe, I have a suggestion.

A few months ago, I read a piece on futurology (I can’t remember where) suggesting that most wild trends are obvious in hindsight. That is because the roots of these game-changers go back far in time; they bubble away relatively quietly until all of a sudden, they take off. The technology on which certain ‘hit’ items are based, for example, has been around for a long time. It just takes a while until someone makes something popular out of it, or until someone turns it into a craze.

All the more so, it seems to me, with religion – which history has shown can take centuries to really spread.

And so, coming back to Europe – the currently godless continent. Isn’t it obvious that the “new” god’s name is Allah?

Granted, this particular deity has been around for some time. But in his Islamic form, he has really only arrived in Europe properly in the last 30 years. And the nature of Allah, and the demands he makes of his followers, seem to me sufficiently different to those of the Christian god who previously ruled the continent to qualify as “new” (and certainly as exotic).

Europe, in particular, is ripe for a new god. Living in London it seems really clear that too many in the population are “Bowling alone” (as Robert Putnam famously put it) – cut off from family, social structures and support (witness the 13,000 Frenchmen who died in 2001 in a heatwave, many of them elderly people with no one to look out for them). It's not just the move towards extremism which shows that Europeans are 'searching''; it's the attraction to all the 'isms', such as environmentalism, socialism, nationalism etc which seem to indicate Europeans are looking for definite meaning in their lives, despite supposedly having dropped religion.

Islam has a solution for that: like Judaism, it is a very community oriented religion. I can definitely see a time, decades or centuries away, in which lonely Europeans, living detached lives in impersonal cities, are attracted to the community life offered by Islam – which is now very firmly on their doorstep, and will only grow more prominent. The Times recently ran a piece (now behind a paywall) on the young British women already converting to Islam, finding comfort in the structure and community. It doesn’t take a prophet…..

When it comes to appealing to Westerners, by the way, Islam’s advantage over Judaism, (other than the fact that Judaism does not proselytize while Islam is aggressive about it) is that Judaism has become a pretty middle-class religion, in the British sense of the word – for the relatively affluent – while Islam is still for the masses.


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