Connections, Beyond Belief and in Our Time

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HOW long does it take for a friend to simply become an acquaintance? When you had little or no contact with them, about three years. So says Professor Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist who gave his name to the law stipulating that a person cannot have more than 150 friends. So if you haven’t committed to your 150 since before lockdown, you better crack up.

This nugget was brought to us by former Labor minister Douglas Alexander, whose documentary essay Connections (Radio 4, Tuesday last week) attempted an assessment of Britain’s divisions post-Brexit, post-Covid and at the heart of the war in Ukraine. In his conclusion, Mr. Alexander said, “Even in difficult times, we still need each other”: a summary commensurate with the level of discourse and insight throughout the program.

No anthropologist, sociologist or economist was going to imbue this with the rigor necessary to elevate it from the level of a soft sermon to a solid analysis. A social geographer told us that we do not mix with other social groups and that wealth inequality is increasing; and by an economist that the “social contract” is broken. No indication was given of when things were better: the founding of the welfare state, or Magna Carta?

Mr. Alexander visited a Ukrainian food bank and refugee charity to show us how volunteering could help. Unless it happened during the times I was dozing off, there was no mention in the program of the role played by church communities in promoting social cohesion, or faith-based charities as examples of effective altruism. Mr Alexander went from the grime of British politics to a Harvard scholarship of grace and favor. Let’s hope he puts more effort into his lectures to his transatlantic audience.

A recent survey suggests young people are getting more serious about religion. Specifically, Gen Zers who are religious are more likely to be committed to a “fat-full faith.” This is the term used by Ernie Rea on Beyond belief (Radio 4, Monday of last week) to describe a commitment to religious practices that is intense and immersive, and which may also involve conservative attitudes on social issues.

The show concluded with a question posed to each of the panelists, speaking on behalf of different religious groups: Do they think we now live in a “post-religious” world? Only Professor Stephen Bullivant, who embarked on a large-scale survey of Roman Catholic attitudes, agreed; Islamic, Sikh and Hindu representatives were all more optimistic; and whether or not that indicates the difference between the pious wish of the lawyer and the composure of the academic, one could not feel moved by the optimism.

Carrying a long vision of religious commitment in a pluralistic world, experts in In our time (Radio 4, Thursday last week) talked about the first Christian martyrs. The message they and their hagiographers wanted to convey, in the most dramatic way possible: there is no middle ground.

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