Fundamental change

Both politically and theologically, conservative Christianity is now a militant and rapidly growing

If you went to a Church of England service last Sunday, especially in the suburbs, the chances are that the vicar was an evangelical. There are a lot of them about and, although the term carries loaded meanings for many outsiders, conjuring up images of Bible-bashers and bigots, it also covers a wide range of Church practice.

Evangelicalism, which centres around the Bible as the revealed word of God - with an emphasis on personal conversion and an imperative to spread that word - is almost the default position for many Anglican clergy these days, but also for most other Protestant and Nonconformist sects: from the good old Methodists and Baptists to some of the more exotic fringes of Pentecostalism. The latter is the world's fastest-growing Christian faith, allegedly gaining a million converts a year to its various churches, mainly in the developing world. Pentecostalism started only at the turn of the 20th century and now has about 500 million adherents.

There are many different shades of English evangelicalism. Since evangelicals decided that the Church of England was "a convenient boat to fish from" in the 1960s, the movement has come to occupy many of the commanding heights of English Anglicanism. These range from the charismatics (the happy-clappies) to the open movement, placed pretty well in the centre of Church life, to the conservatives, whose more militant fringes are now consciously mirroring some of the highly politicised techniques of the religious right in the US (they get some funding from there, too). The conservatives' tactics are also quite similar to those of the old Militant Tendency in the 1980s Labour Party.

You think I'm joking? Here is Edward Armitstead of Bath and Wells diocese, writing in the magazine of the conservative Church Society about how to take over a parish: "The rural Church is likely to be dominated by the 'old guard' who are suspicious of innovation . . . do they actually understand about the issues or even care about them sufficiently to make in telligent dialogue worthwhile?" The answer, he says, is to recruit small groups of the like-minded to infiltrate congregations "to help others see the need to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus". The conservative evangelicals are the ones who do not hesitate to tell that nice, Guardian-reading, self-designated hairy lefty, Rowan Wil liams, Archbishop of Canterbury, that he's a false teacher and a heretic. They noisily assert that they wouldn't allow him in their churches to preach because he would only confuse their congregations with wrong doctrine.

They are also the ones who have chosen opposition to homosexuality as the litmus test for Anglican orthodoxy and have made it the issue that has come close to dividing the 70 million-strong worldwide Church. In this, they have made common cause with conservatives in the US Episcopal Church, who have long sought a cause with which to disassociate themselves from that Church's socially liberal leadership. They decided they had found it when, five years ago, the diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson - as opposed to all the closeted gay bishops the Church has had over the centuries, and still has.

The particular sinfulness of homosexuals was a visceral issue, one which they believed would unite their supporters in a way that a few years earlier women's ordination could not. Female priests divided them: many evangelicals knew women (some had even married them), whereas gay people are more easily demonised, especially as the Bible in a few scattered references says homosexual practice is wrong. These groups have been able, thanks to the instant communication offered by the internet, to enlist the heavy artillery of third world bishops, particularly in Africa - a continent in which Anglicanism is growing - to threaten to divide the Church.

The Christian voice in Africa is largely a culturally conservative one and some of its bishops are threatening to boycott this summer's ten-yearly episcopal gathering at Canterbury because they might have to mingle with American bishops who had the temerity to consecrate a gay man. To make matters worse, Williams has said that Robinson - virtually alone of all the Church's bishops - will not be welcome at the conference. The archbishop is now contemplating whether he should even be allowed to speak, let alone lead a service, inside a church when he visits England next month.

So much for internal convulsions. Church leaders have grown more assertive in other matters, too, and this spreads beyond evangelical Protestantism, as the recent spats initiated by the Roman Catholic hierarchy over same-sex adoptions and embryo research have shown. Outbursts such as the one by Cardinal Keith O'Brien, head of the Scottish Catholic Church, who condemned the Embryology Bill as "monstrous", mirror similar interventions by Catholic bishops in the US, where part of the religious right's electoral clout has arisen from the willingness of Catholics and evangelicals, previously mutually antagonistic, to make common cause on selected issues such as abortion.

Taking orders

For generations, Catholic politicians such as John F Kennedy had to deny they would take their orders from the Church. So it is ironic that now Catholicism is in the mainstream, cardinals and bishops assert that politicians from their faith should do what they tell them - or else. There is no doubt that certain strands of politically and theologically conservative-leaning Christianity are becoming more assertive. This has quickened since the 11 September 2001 attacks and there is a whingeing rancorousness which claims that Muslims wouldn't be treated as badly as Christians are. One conservative member of the General Synod, Alison Ruoff, has even argued that no more mosques should be built in Britain because there are enough already.

Conservative Christianity has been much less effective in Britain than in the US because it has less social and political influence, less unchallenged access to the media - and less money. But there is certainly a desire in some quarters to mimic the tactics of the US right. They think they are winning the argument, but fear they may be losing the war. They assume that because the world is against them, that means they must be right. But the ultimate irony is that the more urgently they profess the need to win the nation for Christ, the more they repel those they say they most wish to save.

Stephen Bates was the Guardian's religious affairs correspondent (2000-2007) and is the author of "A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexuality" and "God's Own Country: Power and the Religious Right in the USA"

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood