Category Archives: Spirituality
In the grand scheme of things, there are arguably two trends that have characterised much of the (post-)developed world during the final quarter of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century to date. Firstly, most people living in these countries have become significantly poorer in terms of purchasing power parity (‘PPP’): real American wages peaked in the early 1970s and have never recovered; a generation of Europeans are having to get used to the idea that many of them may never get a middle-class job in their continent of origin. Secondly, secularisation has advanced to the extent that substantial minorities in nations such as the United Kingdom (25% as of 2011), Spain (14.9%, 2011) and Sweden (23%, 2005) describe themselves as subscribing to one or other variety of non-religiosity.
In other words, this would seem as opportune a time as any for a new non-religious group to emerge, and The Sunday Assembly (‘TAS’) – a self-styled ‘atheist church’ – could be an organisation whose hour has come. Founded by two not particularly famous stand-up comedians – Sanderson Jones, a man who has featured in an advertisement for IKEA, and Pippa Evans, a woman better known via rock chick alter ego Loretta Maine – TAS operates out of a former church in Islington, a part of London ironically best known today for being the old haunt of Tony Blair. Offering the chance ‘to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate life’ without the inconvenience of having to acknowledge an omniscient deity, The Sunday Assembly is already going viral: its monthly ‘services’ are jammed full, and according to Evans there is a whole host of expansion locations, mostly in Europe and North America, about which potential ‘vicars’ have sounded her out.
Could the Church of TAS make a more permanent mark on global culture, or will it become just another Meetup group? After some contemplation, we at Mediolana are finding it hard to keep the faith in the idea that The Sunday Assembly represents salvation:
1. Core Beliefs. Postmodern moral relativism has its place – but that place is probably not a place of worship. To compete with the big-hitting religions which inspire the gnostic billions, TAS needs its version of the Ten Commandments, the Five Pillars or the Infinite Tao. Being ‘nice’, Bonnie Tyler and biscuits just might not cut it.
2. Key Figures. The spread of religious movements from Moses to Muhammad has being massively assisted by their possessing human civilisation’s spiritual giants on their letterheads. Proffering redemption for the sins of humanity, perfecting monotheism and providing a framework for the attainment of spiritual bliss are tougher acts to follow than whatever may have preceded Jones and Evans one wet Thursday evening at Jongleurs.
3. Reference Texts. The Bible is the most influential book in Western history and still sells about twenty-five million copies a year; the Quran is widely-regarded even by Christian Arabs as the greatest literary work ever to grace that language’s classical form. While we have the utmost reverence for the Drama and Theatre Arts programme at the University of Birmingham, we question whether this was really the best possible preparation for penning a world-defining work of theological profundity.
The emergency of Turkey in recent years as a regional power – possibly one with world power pretentions – has generated rainforests worth of coverage and analysis, with many commentators adducing a ‘Turkish model’ that is purportedly at the heart of the country’s rapid ascent. As we have previously alluded to on this blog, we at Mediolana are not quite sure what this model is comprised of: the oft-repeated claim that Turkey offers supposedly unique proof of the compatibility of democracy and the Islamic religion conveniently overlooks Muslim-majority democratic states as diverse as Senegal and Indonesia, while Turkey’s outstanding economic progress of the past decade has been exacted at a fairly high ecological cost and is therefore difficult to cite as a model (though notwithstanding this, there are numerous impressive elements to it).
However, a series of intriguing developments during the past month or so has left us wondering whether the real Turkish model is located in a rather different sphere: religious authority. The start point of this hypothesis is Kuwait, where on 15th March 2012 Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abd al-’Aziz al-Ashaikh, prompted by a question posed by a delegation from a Kuwaiti NGO by the name of the Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage, declared that all churches on the Arabian peninsula should be levelled.
Despite resembling a scenario from the classic sixth-generation console title Destroy All Humans: One Giant Step On Mankind! rather than a considered religious injunction, the grand mufti’s statements were not essentially surprising given that the connection between Saudi Arabia and extremist ideologies is probably the worst-kept secret in the world. By contrast, what has been a genuine surprise is the sustained, detailed and public contradiction of the grand mufti’s opinion by two eminent Turks.
Firstly, Professor Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu – the current Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and a man the length of whose CV shames most telephone directories – provided a comprehensive rebuttal of al-Ashaikh’s statement on the basis of sharīʿah law, pointing out that the skylines of major cities in the Islamic world such as Damascus, Istanbul, Baghdad and Cairo are studded with historic churches and synagogues as well as mosques; İhsanoğlu invited al-Ashaikh to ‘amend’ his erroneous position.
The professor’s rejection of the grand mufti’s opinion was echoed by Mehmet Görmez, the head of Diyanet, Turkey’s highest religious body. Görmez quoted one of Muḥammad’s many notable sayings on the status of other denominational groups within Muslim societies to illustrate the illogicality of the grand mufti’s sentiments: ‘Those who persecute non-Muslims living under the authority of Muslims persecute me. And who persecutes me, persecutes God.’
The significance of these occurrences will doubtless be clear to anyone who follows Middle Eastern affairs. By openly and convincingly defying the position taken by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, İhsanoğlu and Görmez – intentionally or otherwise – are creating a space for their country in the domain of religious leadership.
This has potentially enormous consequences. For over thirty years, Saudi Arabia and Iran have vied for regional dominance and influence over the Islamic world more generally, but both nations are hamstrung by two partially interconnected factors: neither country has Sunni Islam – followed by between 75% and 90% of the world’s Muslims – as its orthodoxy, and neither state can presently vaunt much in the way of soft power. The reverse is the case for Turkey, a largely Sunni Muslim country with soft power assets ranging from industrial might to soap operas; indeed, according to a 2011 survey published by the Arab American Institute Foundation, Turkey is evaluated ‘favourably’ or ‘very favourably’ by no less than 98% of the Saudi population. The emergence of a Turkish model of religious authority with real international potency can no longer be ruled out.
In these recessionary times, it seems that it takes the scion of a Swiss banker to show us that transcendent values – no matter how gloomy the economic outlook – are priceless. Alain de Botton, author of the richly-acclaimed pop philosophy classic Status Anxiety (2006), has posited the construction of a 46 metre-high tower which is designed to engender reflection of 300 million years of life on Earth. The location of the planned tower is the Corporation of London, an area of the United Kingdom’s capital where many major national and international financial institutions are headquartered.
However, perhaps the most intriguing modality of de Botton’s tower is that its primary function is to serve as a ‘temple for atheists’, a setting in which to experience awe. And it is this aspect of the building that has opened a fissure between the leading lights of the UK’s atheist community. De Botton has explicitly cited biologist Richard Dawkins and the late writer Christopher Hitchens as being ‘agressive’, ‘destructive’ and basically unrepresentative of a large number of people who might not believe in God, but are not hostile to those who do or religion in general. Perhaps predictably, Dawkins has ridiculed the notion of a spiritual space for atheists as an ‘unnecessary’ contradiction in terms.
This provocative project has set the Mediolana CSO ruminating:
1. A Makeover for Atheism? De Botton’s evaluation of Dawkins and Hitchens has confirmed that there are those even within the atheist fraternity who are all too aware that such figures lack appeal to a large section of the public: to many, they come across as fanatical, angry and irrational. To those who mistrust atheism – because of the consistently lamentable record, historically and geographically, of atheist states in protecting the most basic human rights, for example – being confronted with these kind of spokespeople is only likely to entrench them further in their opinions. A new approach is needed.
2. A Makeover for Religion? While the likes of Richard Dawkins may continue to needlessly antagonise and alienate vast swathes of the general public for years to come, they at least are not claiming any divine guidance; the same cannot be said of the world’s great religions, which with the exception of ‘Yellow Hat‘ Tibetan Buddhism – charismatically led by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama – have suffered from a bizarre communication deficit in recent times. At the risk of being excommunicated, is Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger really the best figurehead the Roman Catholic Church can muster? And though Islam does not have a church as such, the prominence given by both the Western and parts of the Middle Eastern media to fringe figures with no scholarly or spiritual validation to speak of never fails to amaze us.
In a contemporary wordscape defined by banality, a journalist that is always worth reading is a rare treasure indeed, but the Paris-based author and Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper – author of the legendary, genre-creating early 1990s tome Football Against the Enemy – can safely be counted in this category. Mediolana’s CSO found his recent Why American teens should go Dutch (12th January 2012) predictably thought-provoking, with Kuper addressing the differences between parental approaches in the United States and Holland towards the issues of drug abuse and teenage sex.
Citing the work of Amy Schalet – an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst – Kuper posits that while US culture essentially addresses these issues by prohibiting them, in Holland these activities are instead heavily regulated and controlled through legislation, custom and parental supervision: the narcotics industry is taxed by the government, and while there is little stigma surrounding teenage sex, social obligations pertaining to the extended family are very rapidly imposed on both partners, with the consequence that Dutch permissiveness can start to resemble something altogether more nuanced; adolescent disorder in forms such as teenage pregnancy and drug abuse are indubitably more intense in the United States.
But we at Mediolana think that Kuper’s analysis – fine though it is – is missing at least one essential dimension. By treating the issues of teenage sex and drug abuse as essentially problems of administration and management, he seems to have overlooked crucial elements of the equation. Many if not most of those adolescents who use drugs and/or are sexually active will not necessarily come into any contact with the legal system or incur the wrath of their families, but that does not at all mean that their choices are free of negative consequences:
1. Wasted Potential. A fact that is known to anyone who attends a reasonably representative educational institution in much of Europe and North America is that far too many adolescents in the Western world are seeing their academic and life potential erode through usage of a panoply of chemicals, from the legal but insidious (alcohol, prescription drugs) to illegal substances supplied by maniacs with machine guns; teenage pregnancy, meanwhile, is synonymous with low academic achievement, with incredible amounts of emotional energy and time being expended even in relationships that do not culminate in conception.
2. Economic Competitiveness. In an era where West-East capital flight is taking on alarming proportions, Western economies need every inch of competitive advantage they can muster. While prohibitive approaches may be ineffective in some contexts, legitimising phenomena that are a clear economic drain in terms of human capital is hardly ideal, either. Socially conservative immigrant groups from South Asia and East Asia which shun drug consumption and extramarital teenage sex considerably outperform native populations academically in countries such as the United Kingdom; rinse and repeat on a global scale, and an economic zone which is already in danger of terminal decline will see its trajectory exacerbated.
3. Transcendence. The kind of approach that sees sex in particular as something to be addressed in an almost technocratic fashion all but denies the possibility of transcendence in this context. An approach that educates adolescents as to the psychological, emotional, economic and spiritual benefits of meaningful relationships may be far more inspiring that a societal disposition which, as Kuper concedes, makes sexual intercourse seem dull.
As already alluded to in our Christmas message, we at Mediolana were not exactly resting on our laurels (such as they are) on Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve – that time of revelry and resolutions – was no exception to our efforts to remain firmly in the zone. Not for us the pleasure of shuffling into central London several hours before the midnight fireworks, straining to catch a glimpse of coloured streaks against the clear night sky and then ambling into the netherworld of handshakes, goodbyes and the long walk towards a distant destination.
Instead, as Big Ben rang out, the mind of Mediolana’s CSO was dominated by other considerations. To the observer, all that could be discerned were fragments: thoughts on how today’s students use academic tools such as study guides; contemplation on the relationship that China’s up-and-coming generation have with communications software of the ilk of Weixin; and how the synergies between education and technology have, for all the remarkable developments of recent decades, barely begun to be developed.
Indeed, 2012 promises to be an exciting year in the life of Mediolana, and we would urge our burgeoning readership to check back to this blog daily for more details on all kinds of interesting happenings that will occupy our attention in the months to come. ‘Til then, Happy New Year, and remember: dreams are always true; their reality does not depend on our perceiving them, but on opening our hearts to the fact of their existence.
Although - as our loyal and burgeoning readership will no doubt have seen – Mediolana is something of a 24-7-52-365 organisation, this does not at all render Christmas insignificant; for those of all denominations and no particular one, this time of year – with cold temperatures, unusual body rhythms and the near-universal predilection to eat vast quantities of chocolate cake richly in evidence – is one of contemplation. This is no less true for all those who, our of either choice, circumstances or insanity, are working through the festivities.
Who are we? What do we want to be? And what is the road that we must take to get there? These eternal questions are ones that are ultimately inescapable, and the CSO of Mediolana – who is hoping to view some chocolate cake later today – would like to pose them to all who read this blog post. On an even deeper level, the readers of this blog are invited to think about what it actually means to be – on what is real, and what is ultimately ephemeral. By forgetting preconceived notions and focusing on the transcendent if only for a second, maybe we can begin to formulate responses to the most pressing issue of all: the answer to the question of ‘Your Life?’