The New Paganism

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My early education was in a Church of England primary school, in which we the pupils were taught the superiority of everything that was English. Our Head Teacher always spoke of regret of the passing of the empire and its replacement by its much inferior substitute the Commonwealth. Although I’m sure that she called it the British Commonwealth. Religious education as should be expected formed a significant part of the curriculum. However our religious education was infused with a strong sense of Britishness. We learnt about David Livingstone who took Christianity to the primitive idol worshipping tribes of Africa. Of Gladys Aylward who took Christianity to the barbarous Chinese. What we were taught was the superiority of the British religion to that of the barbarous foreigners. The religion of England was surely the culmination of religious development over the past two thousand years, it was the physical embodiment of Christ’s promised earthly paradise. Heaven was very much an incidental feature of this religion. It was an unspoken assumption was that a heavenly paradise was hardly necessary if you were fortunate to be born an Englishman.

A phrase was much used then in the description of the non white commonwealth as ‘idol worshipping’, a phrase used to insinuate the superiority of English culture. It was a strange education, as my only knowledge of Hinduism was the practice of suttee or widow burning, a practice stopped by enlightened Englishmen. I am being a little unfair as I also learnt about the practices of a cult of Kali called the thuggee, who murdered people as a sacrifice to Kali. Another devilish practice stopped by enlightened Englishmen. We also learnt about the paganism of classical Greece and Rome, which was brought to an end by St. Paul and the Christian fathers. It was a curriculum I imagine that had remained largely unchanged since the height of Empire in Victorian times.

The purpose of this digression into the nature of primary education is to suggest that this superiority is unjustified. There is in Britain a new paganism in which the idols worshipped are as barbaric and cruel as those of classical Greece, Rome and the non-white British Empire. However it is not recognised as such.

At the risk of over simplification the Greeks and Roman’s made deities out of natural phenomena. Vesuvius was the workshop of the blacksmith God Vulcan, night was the work of the Goddess Nocturna and Aeolus was the God of wind. Natural phenomena were given human like personalities, which made communication with these formidable powers of nature possible. While control of these phenomenon was impossible, through sacrifice and prayer they could be persuaded to look favourably on mankind and not release their destructive powers on them. Romans of the late empire even took to the practice of chaining up statutes of their Gods in their temples in an effort to control them. Mars the destructive God of war was one of those most frequently chained up, as if he ever left the temple devastation would follow in his wake.

Contemporary practice is very different instead of deifying natural phenomena, human practices of a certain kind are deified. The purpose of giving certain human practices and institutions the status of Gods, is to give them power over us. Once they are defied the rules and practices of these institutions cannot be questioned. Any questioning or disobedience of the rules and injunctions will bring about human suffering. The human institution that has been given this God like status is the market. Belief in it is so complete amongst the political, financial, commercial and industrial elites that no action contrary to its mores can be contemplated. This belief leads to practices as nonsensical as chaining up the statute of Mars to prevent wars.

One such bizarre practice is the payment by results inflicted on the probation, employment and welfare services. Worshippers (politicians) of the God Free Market, believe that probation will be made more effective if the service is incentivised by a payment by results system. Probation officers will be incentivised to work hard and use the best methods of reforming former criminals if they know that the income of their business and ultimately theirs depends on their success at reforming former criminals. While this practice betrays a poor understanding of human nature (one motivated primarily by fear and greed), it is as unworkable as chaining up the God, Mars. The only real measure of the success of this scheme will be at the end of the life of this former convict. If they had after probation lead a relatively blameless life, then the payment should be made. However no business could wait thirty or forty years for payment, so instead a series of arbitrary and meaningless targets are imposed. I am not sure of the targets but if an ex offender has not offended say within six months payment is made. This says little about the effectiveness of the scheme as they may go on to offend at a later period. In the profit driven companies since profits depend on results, all types of statistical manipulation to massage the figures to suggest that they are more successful than they are in practice. The short time span of the memory that is that of the average government minister is remarkable, as the manipulation of the statistics for the tagging of offenders by G4S and Serco has already been forgotten.

What can be expected is that violent offenders who have been declared reformed as they have not offended within a given time span, will inevitably offend again. There appears to be no scope the reclaim payments made for such ‘apparent successes’. If cash payments motivates people to do their job well, the fear of losing that payment should make them even more eager to work well. Its a scheme that does not seem to have any consistent logic. However for true believers in the free market, there can be no flaws in the market driven schemes they propose.

Blindness to reality is suggested by the fact that the most difficult of cases will be left in the hands of the rump of the old public service motivated probation service. If the scheme works for one group of offenders it should work for all.

There can be objections to my use of the word religion to describe the actions of advocates of market economics. However if religion is seen as set of non rational beliefs (not open to rational debate) or first principles that guide human practice, belief in the superiority of the free market is a religion. Men have created a new idol to worship, the free market. The principles of the free market should guide and inform any human action. It is not a philosophy a coherent set of rational principles which can be subjected to debate. If in doubt listen to the words of any government minister, as their speech is full of unquestioned assumptions about the superiority of the free market.

It was Varro who coined the term popular religion, by which he meant the stories and festivals that captured the popular imagination. The market is the new popular religion, it has subverted religious festivals into festivals of consumer over indulgence. Easter the time in which Christ’s sacrifice and rebirth is commemorated has been replaced by a celebration of pleasure, chocolate Easter eggs are eaten, it is the time of spring holidays, the benign Mediterranean spring climate making it a popular holiday destination.

There are also a set of new stories of the popular imagination that explain the world in which we live. Stories that can only be called consumer morality tales. On such is rooted in the housing market, stories of wonder about house buying and selling. Morality tales about the successful home buyer, the one who brought and sold at the right time and who now is a millionaire abound in the popular culture. Boris Johnson is one of the prophets of the new popular consumerist religion. In his speech as Mayor of London, he extolled the virtues of greed and envy to the assembled dignitaries. Self servicing virtues that justify the activities of London.

Given the lack of any counter ideology or religion within the governing classes, change can only come from outside of them. Is Occupy the precursor of future popular movements that will be needed to reclaim Western society for the people from the plutocrats? However any resistance movements will need to be motivated by a greater vision, a religion of optimism. Is Pope Francis with his reforms of the corrupt Roman Curia, a sign that the time of the old religion of the market is finally in decline?

One final thought the Roman Catholic Church is dying within Europe through lack of recruits to the priesthood, as was the Church of England. They have both sort solutions in different ways, the Roman Catholic Church is importing priests and nuns into Europe from the developing but Christian Third world and the Anglican Church is replacing the missing male priests with women. Is this the solution that Western societies salvation as the churches must come from former marginalised groups. Groups who through their very exclusion from power were not tainted with the religion of pessimism, that permeates the dominant white male culture. Do they only have the vitality and enthusiasm necessary to transform society?

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