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Last Updated: Friday, 14 April 2006, 14:03 GMT 15:03 UK
The spiritual journey
Brian Walden
By Brian Walden

People are losing their sense of spirituality and should contemplate more and do less, says Brian Walden in his weekly opinion column.

Several years back a journalist called David Margolis interviewed Tony Blair for "Vanity Fair." Naturally enough he was very interested in the relationship between the Prime Minister and President Bush.

He asked Mr Blair if his religious beliefs bonded him to the American President. At which point Tony Blair's spin doctor Alastair Campbell stepped in sharply and famously said "We don't do God." Mr Campbell is a controversial figure, but on this issue public opinion was on his side.

Most of us don't want to see politicians dragging God into political arguments. But we go beyond that. We don't want to hear God discussed in an extremely dogmatic way that might upset others of different faiths. So we don't do God.

The Dalai Lama
Dalai Lama: No obsession with self
But unfortunately we don't do much of anything else that isn't strictly secular. We're losing our sense of spirituality, which doesn't necessarily have to involve a belief in God. What it does have to concede is that there's more to life than material values. We're reluctant to talk about the human spirit, a process which began when the Enlightenment shook traditional opinions about Christianity.

The Enlightenment was a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th Centuries in which Britain played a leading role. Its central message was that it was by the power of reason that man understands the universe. That idea goes back to Greek philosophers, particularly Socrates. It gained strong support among the educated and caused dramatic changes in politics, philosophy and the arts.

But it also had important consequences for Christianity. Take Isaac Newton. He presented the law of universal gravitation when the Royal Society published his work in 1687. In a few mathematical equations Newton captured the laws that govern the motion of the planets. That set people thinking - and not just about gravity.

If the universe was a structure governed by a few simple laws and laws which could be discovered by men, what did that do to the teachings of Christianity? In the 17th and 18th Centuries Christianity wasn't presented as a universal benevolence.

It was a strict doctrine which ran like this: Christ, the Son of God was crucified and rose from the dead. He promised mankind that if it would live by his laws and believe in his resurrection, men too would be raised from the dead and live an eternal life with God. Newton's discoveries were born into a Western world dominated by that faith and they were dynamite.

Not altogether surprisingly, the Enlightenment helped create a mood whereby increasing numbers of nominal Christians ceased to believe in Christianity, though Newton himself retained his faith. Since that time many people unconsciously in some cases, have looked for a substitute to replace the mystery, miracles and promise of salvation that Christianity offered.


In the last century political doctrines often provided such a substitute. Some people believed passionately in Fascism, Socialism or Communism. But political conviction no longer acts as a replacement for religious faith.

The belief that now dominates some Western societies, including Britain, is a particular kind of secular humanism. It asserts that mankind is the central fact of the universe and that our duty is to make progress ever more rapidly. We mustn't spend much time on idleness or contemplation, but must be endlessly active, conquering new worlds and facing new challenges.

Isaac Newton
Newton's discoveries 'were dynamite'
It's basically an optimistic view and it certainly has a very high opinion of humanity. But I have serious doubts about it. And what's more I think it might endanger us. Yet there's little public debate about it. This doctrine of inevitable progress tends to be accepted uncritically. Of course people think that there are plenty of things that have gone wrong and need to be put right. And there's an uneasy feeling about military conflicts and perhaps about climate change. But not about progress itself.

Now we can't find definitive answers to questions about life and death that have been asked since civilisation began. But that's no reason not to continue asking questions. The monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam can't be proven true by science. Christian clerics say that Christianity is an act of faith, not a question of scientific proof. So it's not an unreasonable question to ask, how much scientific proof is there in humanism's belief in man's progress and his significance in the universe?

That the entire universe exists simply to serve the purposes of humanity may be true, but we have no proof that it's the case. Our knowledge of the universe grows all the time, but there's an enormous amount about it that we don't know.

Blind optimism

Take a more fundamental claim. That man is different from all other animals. Some religions believe this. But they do so as an act of faith, not as a scientific assertion. How wise is it for secular believers in progress to give man this same status? Many scientists list a series of reasons, ranging from the simple to the very complex, to assert that man isn't essentially different from other animals.

Of course it isn't religious faith or scientific knowledge that's at issue. Religious faith will exist for some in all ages. Scientific knowledge can't be unlearnt and indeed it's the one area where we can be sure progress will be made. Living with religion and science is something we all have to accept. The harm is done when we derive from religion or science the message that man is, or soon will be, the master of all he surveys.

Our narrow view of progress leads us to be hyper-active and our imperialistic desire to dominate evermore aspects of the planet is the most serious problem we face. Personally, I believe we should contemplate more and do less.

Tony Blair and George Bush
Blair and Bush: Religious beliefs
I was told by a prominent public figure a few years ago that it's always better to do something than do nothing. No it isn't. The penalty for sitting and thinking but eventually not reaching a decision is that we've wasted some time. The penalty for acting without taking sufficient thought can be catastrophic.

Environmentalist professor James Lovelock believes that we have irreparably damaged the Earth because of our thoughtless activity. I lack the knowledge to judge whether he's right or wrong. But I notice that governments, the least contemplative of human institutions, seem to be taking carbon emissions seriously. My own worst fear is that the United States and Britain could gradually slip into believing that by constant activity and a little military force we can compel other cultures to become more like us.

Perhaps you think that I ought to ask myself why my reservations about human progress seem to be shared only by a minority of people? Well I do ponder that and I think it's because most people assume that not to believe in progress would mean that we'd all give way to gloom and despondency.

I have some sympathy with that view. But it's possible to reject blind optimism without losing hope. Though I'm dubious about mankind's ethical progress, I also know that we're an inventive and resilient species. Cheerful pessimism is an underrated virtue. To be aware of the dangers, but to keep up your spirits is perhaps the most rational of all outlooks.


Dick Crossman was an Oxford don and a Labour politician. He used to urge impressionable young men like me to adopt the active Western spirit. Be like Prometheus and steal fire from heaven. He detested what he called Eastern passivity and was especially critical of the Buddha.

I don't take that view. I'm not a Buddhist, but Buddhism can give us another perspective on human life. For instance, the thought that our sense of individualism is illusory and a disengagement from obsession with the self.

Often I see the Dalai Lama on television when he's laughing and joking. If a man who doesn't share our lust for progress and doesn't believe in immortality either can get such pleasure from life, surely we don't have to be glum to accept that mankind isn't the measure of all things?

So we don't do God. Okay. Do we need to do progress and its grinding materialism with such intensity?

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