BY iain martin
Counterpoints Good idea, bad PR
To the long list of flagship ideas and slogans that have failed to catch on (which includes Tony Blair’s Stakeholder Society and Gordon Brown’s British Jobs for British Workers) David Cameron has added the Big Society. The shoeless bicycling guru who convinced the Prime Minister to put it at the centre of his bid for power is frustrated with life in government and is departing for California. As far as most Conservatives are concerned, Steve Hilton can take the Big Society with him and keep it. But, before it is dispatched, the failure of the concept should be properly understood. It was not, contrary to how it is usually presented, purely a piece of marketing which obscured an absence of ideas. It was the reverse. It was a very good idea, appallingly badly marketed. Cameron thinks the state has too much power. He wanted all sorts of other groups and individuals— volunteers, churches etc—to be liberated from the grip of big government, to provide services that evolve organically rather than according to the diktat of the distant bureaucrat. It is a Victorian impulse, and I mean that as a compliment. When the Tory leader said, “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state,” he infuriated Thatcherites who perceived it as an attack. But Cameron and Margaret Thatcher were not, in this regard, a million miles apart. Mrs Thatcher put more emphasis on the role of the individual, which was hardly surprising considering the context in which her thinking developed. She had seen the postwar state grow to crowd out individual initiative. Cameron, reflecting his upbringing in an English village, looks more to community and to volunteering. Essentially, both were saying that the big state is not the answer and that personal responsibility is. Cameron’s and Hilton’s error was to talk pat
Alain de Botton: The apostle of atheism claims we “expect too much” of secular artists if we hope they will compensate for religious ones ronisingly, in a way which suggested they were the first to discover these truths. The pitch should have been more modest and, yes, conservative: how can we encourage more of what is already being done? All over Britain are people who help out. It might involve assisting in the running of their son’s or daughter’s sports club, or volunteering for a local charity. They think of this as life, not the Big Society.
Steve Hilton will be back in some form, probably to help with the general election campaign, but it is unlikely he will ever occupy a position of power equivalent to the one he has enjoyed at Cameron’s side for the last six years. The Big Society will not be back.
BY Piers paul read
Meaning only to skim through Alain de Botton’s new book Religion for Atheists (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99) I read every word, engaged by his wit and limpid prose, impressed by the sheer plenitude of facts on display, and finally delighted to find such an effective apologia for religious belief.
Of course there are the occasional pro forma gibes at the absurdity of superstition: raised as an atheist, de Botton survived a “crisis of faithlessness” in his midtwenties and now regards it as “boring and unproductive” even to ask whether the claims of any particular religion are true. But unlike most of today’s apostles of atheism, de Botton eschews the optimism of a JeanJacques Rousseau. He is steeped in the gloomy pessimism of Qohleth (the Preacher) and understands that the first step towards human happiness is the acceptance of the reality of Original Sin.
De Botton divides his study into chapters on “Community”, “Kindness”, “Tenderness”, “Pessimism”, etc, and illustrates it with photographs embedded in the text. Time and again, he shows how the rites, traditions, teachings and devotions of religion cater for the profound and often contradictory needs of our human nature—even the wild indulgence of Mardi Gras or the Feast of Fools.
Can atheists replicate a religious culture—perhaps with culture tout court? “It was no coincidence,” writes de Botton, “that during the period of revolutionary government in France in 1792, only three days separated the declaration of the state’s official severance from the Catholic Church and the inauguration of the Palais du Louvre as the country’s first National Museum.” However, admiring the gilded 14th-century figure of the Virgin and Child looted from the cathedral of St Denis does not provide the same psychic nourishment as the veneration that the statue was crafted to inspire.
It is the same with tourism versus pilgrimage, museums versus shrines, or the Jewish Passover meal or Catholic Mass versus the “Agape restaurant” that de Botton would like to take their place. The hopes that literature might stand in for scripture—that Middlemarch could replace the Psalms—have been disappointed. “It may be,” he writes, “that we are expecting too much of our own secular artists, requiring them not only to impress our senses but also to be the originators of profound psychological and moral insights.”
It is difficult not to conclude, after reading Religion for Atheists, both that faith brings enormous benefits to the believer, and that a godless culture will always be barren because the numinous is intrinsic to the nature of man.