Age of Homo religiosus

Our annual God issue is always a bestseller, yet there are many NS readers who think we should have

Tolerance is a characteristic on which the British used to pride themselves. But the ever more frequent discussion of religion, and how it relates to science and to our much cherished pluralism, is increasingly marked by an absence of that quality. Indeed, debate in this area reminds me of a tradition at my old school called "the house shout", in which the members of two houses would bellow "Up School House" and "Up the Grange" at each other from two sides of a quad, victory being awarded to whichever was judged the more vocal. The contest did provide a certain brute physical exhilaration, but ultimately proved no important point. It was not a conversation. There was no exchange of ideas or attempt to persuade.

Today, we hear far too much aggressive assertion that serves only to increase intolerance and suspicion. It may have been a thoughtless slip, but too often we hear careless generalisations such as the novelist Sebastian Faulks's recent dismissal of the Quran as "the rantings of a schizophrenic". We are familiar with the opinions and sometimes actions of religious fundamentalists in this country - it is less than a year since the home of the publisher Martin Rynja was firebombed because his firm was due to print a novel about the Prophet Muhammad's bride Aisha. But in their words, many of those who seek to defend reason show themselves to be equally unreasonable and inflexible in their views. A gentle and accommodating agnosticism has given way to an angry and insistent atheism that sees offence as the best way to defend rationalism and science.

Going on past correspondences, the sympathies of most New Statesman readers are with the "God-free". There seems to be a widespread feeling that a magazine of the left should not only display a preference for secularism but for atheism, too: that we should take our editorial line from Richard Dawkins and agree with him that religion is, at best, as silly as believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden but is, more generally, "dangerous nonsense" that devalues human life.

But this ignores the deep association in this country between religion and radicalism. The right may see the parable of the talents as a justification for wealth creation, and Margaret Thatcher once pointed out that the Good Samaritan was only in a position to help because he had money; but others have long looked to the man who washed the feet of his disciples and who consorted with outcasts, and have drawn very different conclusions. British socialism, said Harold Wilson, owed more to Methodism than to Karl Marx, while Keir Hardie was even more explicit: "I have said, both in writing and from the platform many times, that the impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined," he wrote in 1910.

Radical predecessors such as the Levellers and the Diggers would have agreed. And the Lollard John Ball's thrilling rebuke to the iniquity of entrenched privilege would be nothing without its biblical reference. "When Adam delved and Eve span," he asked in a sermon during the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, "who was then the gentleman?"

Just as pertinently, to refuse to engage with faith would be to close one's eyes to the reality of belief, both here, where in the last census nearly 80 per cent of the population agreed they had a religious affiliation, and abroad. The Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, admired by thinkers and leaders from Amartya Sen to Al Gore, once commented that Asian man is "Homo religiosus", but the term could be applied much more widely. At a time when the convictions of billions do so much to shape our geopolitics, is it really wise to discount them as misguided delusions?

Much of the current noisy argument comes down to the status of knowledge, and specifically what is commonly deemed as the unbridgeable gulf between "revealed" knowledge and that of science - which Dawkins's ally Daniel Dennett once told me was the "only game in town" when it came to "facts, and the explanation of facts".

But this is an overly narrow view. Religion consists of far more than "revealed" truths, which are, in any case, obviously of a different kind from those derived from theoretical and empirical study. More importantly, this is to claim far too much for that corpus of conjecture we call human knowledge. As a student, I read David Hume's argument that although we may believe the sun will rise tomorrow, we cannot know it. For me, it was as profound and as revelatory as any religious experience, and as convincing as any scientific proof. And I hope that his words will inform the blog on religion, reason, belief and unbelief that I am about to start on "Where men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken."

All will be welcome to the blog, those who wish to shout as well as those who wish to converse, religious believers and atheists alike. But it is my conviction that the discussions (in which I hope readers will join me) will develop into debates about matters of belief, whether they be over evolutionary theory, the validity of literal readings of sacred texts, or the boundaries between the religious and the secular. For how many of us can truly gainsay the wisdom of Socrates: "All I know is that I know nothing"?

Sholto Byrnes begins his new God Blog on Monday:

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives

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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