LOSING FAITH IN AN AGE OF EXTREMES

Trump Fear

I recently came across two short but very interesting articles by journalist Lucy Mangan. The first sees Lucy bemoaning her own lack of faith, whilst the second is about how we now live in an age of constant extremes, especially politically.

At first glance these two articles may not appear to be directly linked but upon further analysis I think they are, more than it would seem. In a society where people are becoming less religious and more secular, a society where faith in political leadership is waning daily, it is clear that the once safe middle ground no longer holds any mass appeal.

Votes for Trump and Brexit clearly showed large swathes of the population feeling let down by the middle ground, a place where they have gravitated towards for most of their adult lives. Having lost that faith (both spiritual and political), people have become unmoored from their middles and now find themselves drifting more easily towards the extreme edges. As the common saying goes, those who stand for nothing will fall for anything, and I guess with the world becoming less religious people are now falling a lot more than they were standing.

The notion of moving away from your own common ground was one of Trumps campaign rhetorics. He appealed to all those lost and fed up with the current swamp of Washington. At one point he even asked “What have you got to lose?” It seems many voters agreed with him and, having voted traditionally with the political status quo decade after decade, and with no improvement in their lives to show for it, they decided to leave that well trodden safe middle ground and head elsewhere, in this case straight into the extreme lying orange arms of the Donald.

Fatihah Path

Qur’anic calligraphy, taken from Surah Fatihah (The Opening), Chapter 1, Verse 6.
The Arabic reads: Ihdinas-siraat-ul-mustaqeem.

The middle ground is something central to the Muslim faith. Islam has in its theology a concept known as siraat-ul-mustaqeem, the straight path, the path that leads to that elusive eternal salvation. Islam not only encourages you to seek the straight path and do your best to stay there, but it also encourages you stay in the middle of that path, not to drift too close to the edge, simply because you may wander beyond the edge, you may go too far and find it hard to get back to where you were and where should be.

This anger that seems to be so prevalent now in our societies is something that author Pankaj Mishra addresses in his recent book Age of Anger: A History Of The Present. In a recent Guardian article he explained the global reach of our collective feeling:

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States is the biggest political earthquake of our times, and its reverberations are inescapably global. It has fully revealed an enormous pent-up anger – which had first become visible in the mass acclaim in Russia and Turkey for pitiless despots and the electoral triumph of bloody strongmen in India and the Philippines. The insurgencies of our time, including Brexit and the rise of the European far right, have many local causes – but it is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world. Savage violence has erupted in recent years across a broad swath of territory: wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, terrorism and counter-terrorism, economic and cyberwar. The conflicts, not confined to fixed battlefields, feel endemic and uncontrollable. Hate-mongering against immigrants and minorities has gone mainstream; figures foaming at the mouth with loathing and malice are ubiquitous on old and new media alike. – Pankaj Mishra, Dec 2016, guardian.co.uk

Here is Mishra in a short video explaining how 18th century ideas of self-empowerment may have led to our current age of anger:

The brilliant journalist Owen Jones also referred to this age of anger in a recent article in New Humanist magazine:

We live in an age of insecurity, of fear, of bigotries and deceits that are indulged, of rights and freedoms that are imperilled. Building societies that maximise human freedom and well-being, that allow us to develop our potential unencumbered, that emphasise our common humanity rather than the artificial barriers that divide us: these are aspirations we must realise. It will be a struggle, but social change always is. In the decades ahead, future generations will look back at these turbulent and difficult times, and they will ask what we did…The illusion of every age is that it will last for ever. – Owen Jones, Mar 2017, New Humanist magazine, Spring 2017 edition

New Humanist Age

Angry drifters or not, as we all bullishly charge to the edges of our extremes we should perhaps heed the warning of Mick Jagger who, as the lead singer of the Rolling Stones, is no stranger to travelling to the great beyond:

It’s all right letting yourself go, as long as you can get yourself back. – Mick Jagger

Jagger Letting

Wise words indeed. Anyways, here are those two articles, well worth reading in full as always. Enjoy!


Why I Regret Losing My Religion

Lucy Mangan, 03 May 2017, stylist.co.uk

I’m a lapsed Catholic. For those of you who don’t know what this means, it means I feel namelessly guilty all the time but have no way of offloading it onto a handy divinity. The best I ever feel is bad that I don’t feel worse.

I am, according to new research, one of an increasing number of ‘nonverts’ in the nation. This is not as painful as it sounds; it refers to the people who grew up with a faith but do not adhere to it any longer. The report, analysing data from the annual British Social Attitudes Survey and the biannual European Social Survey, revealed that nearly half the population of Britain now professes itself secular, and 60% of them grew up in Christian households. Another 2% come from other religions and the remainder grew up in homes that didn’t practise any religion in the first place.

But it is a little bit painful. I wish I believed in God. Any god. The older I get and the more chaotic the world gets, the more I wish I could trust in a higher power. This is partly a variant on the imposter syndrome most of us suffer from to some degree; just as I can never believe it when my pay packet arrives each month (HOW have I not been found out yet?), I can’t believe that I’m supposed to deal with the world all by myself.

This is surely some kind of hoax. And it is partly that all the traditional authorities, all the old, protective layers between mankind and our worst instincts seem to be disappearing fast. The idea of trusting your government was risible even before an actual orange actual madman was elected to the actual White House. The monarchy? Please. We lost faith in our “betters” even before we did politicians. They even took The Great British Bake Off away from us. Even the rightness of our Victoria sponges is a matter of mere opinion once more.

It would be such a relief to feel that there was someone, anyone, in charge. Someone in true all-embracing authority and with the unerring moral compass to go with it. My own gyrates so wildly (in the last few weeks I have found myself discussing whether I could kill a paedophile, a suffering animal and/or a parent with dementia – and I became very frightened by myself indeed) that the idea that humanity is in sole charge of itself becomes utterly untenable. There is a basic, natural human urge to believe in something bigger than ourselves, whether it’s a god or self-certified guru with a bunch of healing crystals. If you don’t have that, life can feel at times – and often for very long times – quite comfortless. You have to believe in people instead and bloody hell, people make that hard sometimes.

But maybe like any faith we nonverts (and secularists-from-birth, if they are plagued by the same yearnings) have to work at it. I recently helped judge the Prix Clarins award, which (in partnership with this here magazine) offers money and mentoring to a charity founder who is helping make a difference to the next generation. And by the end of the day spent interviewing the shortlisted candidates, I felt better than I had in years. They were all amazing, outward-looking, compassionate, ambitious women who saw a need in the world and stepped up to fulfil it. They renewed the faith in human nature that I habitually let headlines, horror stories and Twitter trolls erode. Hallelujah! Now I just need to stop feeling bad for feeling good.


Lucy Mangan Is Exhausted By The “Age Of Extremes”

Lucy Mangan, 28 Jun 2017, stylist.co.uk

I offered my six-year-old a choice between half an hour of telly and half an hour of being read to the other day. “Can I have a bit of both?” he said. “I like things to be medium.”

‘God, mate,’ I thought. ‘So do I. So do I.’

I am utterly exhausted, nearly broken, by the age of extremes in which we now seem to live. Everything must be not just black and white, but the very blackest black, the very whitest white. It must be all or it must be nothing.

We must have not just Brexit – quite an extreme thing in the first place, the decision to leave the European Union – but hard Brexit. We must not have healthy eating but ‘clean’ eating, when whole food groups are rejected and the others must be forced into narrower and narrower forms of acceptability; raw, organic, juiced, shredded, spiralised, only eaten in conjunction with certain seeds, or standing barefoot in a natural rock pool under a hunter’s moon. We mustn’t just have controversial columnists, we must have people who actively seek to inflame, demoralise and harm. Every misstep or unfortunate facial expression by a politician or celebrity must damn them, their work and everything associated with them for all time. And of course it seems like almost every day there are more people using extreme interpretations of religion to carry out acts of extreme violence.

Why? Why must we always be polarised – or polarise ourselves – in this way? Beyond perhaps some short-term and briefly lucrative notoriety for the columnists, it does no-one any good.

Why was there ever a ‘choice’ between hard and soft Brexit? Why is there not just “the best Brexit” option? Why can’t we admit that a healthy diet, for all those of us who don’t have genuine allergies or medical conditions, just means eating everything in moderation? Why can we no longer listen to people and see what they have to say about lots of things and then take a view on the whole, rather than working off split-second soundbites and images that make good memes?

Is it because the middle way is unappealingly undramatic? Are we such children that we would rather feel we were following a soap opera than have our political, cultural and media institutions operate responsibly?

I feel like my mind is constantly being yanked in one direction then the other. It’s not about whether I end up believing one or the other – it’s about the fact that the increasing amount of energy we all have to put into resisting the pull of each is becoming unsustainable.

I want a passionate advocate of the middle way – of compromise as a sound working principle, not of fatal weakness. In real, day-to-day life, we compromise all the time. With friends, with colleagues, with partners, with commuters on the train (shuffling to make room is the greatest and most vital of all British traditions) because it’s the only way things work in the long-run. It’s the thing that brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people – or at the very least, the smallest amount of harm to the smallest number. It’s not flashy, it’s not soundbite or Twitter-friendly. But it works. Quietly, softly – it works. I would like us to embrace it. Extremely.

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