Jonathan Wright threw this book against a wall, but nevertheless admires its infuriating brilliance
Returning to Religion
BY JONATHAN BENTHALL IB TAURIS, £20
This, from stem to stern, is a book that deploys words and phrases that only a sociologist or an anthropologist could love: “religioid”, “para-religion”, “faux-faith” and a dozen more besides.
It is just the sort of book that, a few chapters in, will make the general reader shake his head and put it back on the shelf. I do hope you buy and read it, however, because, beneath the layers of jargon and the spectacular generalisations, it has some very interesting things to say.
Not so long ago, the grand narrative of secularisation was in the ascendant. The gods had gone, by most accounts.
In recent years there have been many ways to stem this interpretative tide. First, there is the fact that lots of people still believe in, and worship, a deity. This is easy to prove.
Second, there is the rather trickier business of anatomising what Benthall calls a “religious inclination” that is a “human universal”.
Churches might be in decline, and “traditional religious authorities” might be “increasingly weakened”, but religiousseeming instincts (and this is where the infelicitous word “religioid” comes in) seem to be everywhere.
This looks, at first blush, like old news. Lots of people have written lots of books about how Communism and Nazism took on a quasi-religious character. New dogmas were asserted, new fascinations with compelling (if grotesque) personalities were cultivated.
Benthall’s purpose (and he is refreshingly evenhanded in this regard) is to extend the list. He adds a dose of reputability to an enduring debate. Everything from humanitarianism to environmentalism, from competing schools of architectural thought and psychoanalysis, earn their place in Benthall’s analyti cal grid. Apparently – and this is both bold and absurdly reductive at the same time – there are 19 criteria by which seemingly secular enterprises can take on religious-looking characteristics. They might appeal, for instance, to the notion of an ideal world, they might assert dogmas, they might insist upon conversion experiences, they will have their ceremonies and rituals, they will demonise their enemies, they will laud their supposed martyrs, they will encourage sectarianism, and they will develop what Benthall calls a “patina”: the older a movement gets, the more authentic it will appear. He even has a score-sheet.
Secular-seeming pursuits can rate as strong, medium, or weak on the religioid index, and the reader is invited to determine how something like animal rights activism or the aspirations of Médicins sans Frontières measure up.
I can’t quite decide whether all of this is an insult or a compliment to things that are actually religions. I’m fairly sure that comparing football to a millennia-old religious tradition is a dubious proposition.
Soccer, as Benthall reminds us, has its “demigods, hymns, ritual, vestments, ecstatic experiences, [and] tribalism”, and he sees this as part of the leakage of religious vocabulary, imagery and assumptions into a decidedly worldly and well-paid enterprise.
But is standing on the terraces (which I often do) quite the same thing as sitting in a pew (which I haven’t done in a long while)?
The argument is elegant. We need to create a mythology, a way of differentiating ourselves from the rest of the crowd. We need to dream up modes of conduct, things to believe in, enemies to hate, and goals to achieve.
Bnethall seems to be suggesting that allegiance to a cause serves this purpose just as well as obeisance to a deity.
He falls short of calling this a biological imperative, which is just as well, since that only leads to no end of trouble and an intellectual morass.
Instead, he hammers his contentious point home with an extraordinary amount of vigour and an exquisite disregard for the difference between worshipping God and cheering for Chelsea or rescuing bunnies from their vivisective fate.
The trouble is, he might be right. I threw this book (once physically, a hundred times metaphorically) against the wall.
But, my goodness, it made me think. And if a book annoys you and enlightens you in equal measure, then it is doing something right.