Saturday, 7 January 2012

Community is a need hardwired in the human fabric

I was listening to Stephen Fry talk on a video that someone posted on Twitter about the internet, and noted that he began by talking about how humans are social animals. People need to feel part of a community, he said, and this sets us apart from other animals. This may be true in some cases. On balance, I think it is true to say that people - and many animals - want social interaction as much as possible, and seek it out wherever they can find it. Sometimes we need to be alone, but in the main we feel more comfortable when we are in contact with others of our species.

Community is something that religion provides and I believe that this is the reason for its popularity. And it's not just going to church that I'm talking about. It's also the personal relationship that you can achieve with a God that gives you comfort at those times when life seems to offer up just too many challenges. It's a community of two, if you like, but if you feel like your life offers nothing but some form of solitary confinement then one other person is enough to give you what you need. In a modern secular democracy authority ultimately resides in the collective of individuals and this reality shifts the weight of responsibility for the health of society onto the individual. That is a responsibility in addition to the other responsibilities the individual carries, such as completing an education, keeping down a job, managing family life, balancing a domestic budget, or maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Secularity is a very recent phenomenon but its rise corresponds with the period of greatest improvement in the material wellbeing of the largest number of people. There has always been a lot of debate in the West within established religion, and this conflict has led to schisms and the emergence of new religious denominations. But the forward movement of rational justifications for the universe began in the 18th century, along with science. By the end of that century there had also been big changes in the political settlement in several major countries, including the United States and France. Those changes quickly led to changes in other countries, such as England and Italy. By the end of the 19th century the claims of science and technology had begun to challenge the dominance of revealed religion as an organising principle for individuals throughout Europe, as well as in the United States and other countries with roots in the democratic West.

But secularity was not always easy to support, for the individual. To find evidence of this we can look at how the Romantic poets, for example, decided to order their intellectual lives. These articulate men and women offer us insights that are not available elsewhere, at the micro level, during the period when Western culture was taking on the form that it would largely keep up to the present moment. The Romantics, faced with the triumph of Reason in France after the fall of the monarchy and the clergy, faced a severe trial. On the one hand they welcomed the new world order but on the other hand they sought to retain a spiritual link with the world, because not to do so would conflict with their deepest-held feelings. This spiritual element might be labelled pantheism, or just an overarching organising principle for the universe, or else a kind of visceral sympathy with other people. Whatever it was, it is clear that in the absence of organised, state-backed religion - which the Romantics initially turned away from violently - something other than pure reason was required to enable them to live happy and contented lives. The great poetry that we still read today chronicles these internal debates.

This pattern would continue, later, during the 19th century, among even people we would identify as the most rational beings in history. Different forms of spirituality arose in this period that would go some way toward replacing the apparently indispensable intellectual cognates of revealed religion. Always, something other than reason was needed to enable the people to live happy lives. Victorians were always searching out some larger scheme of organisation for the universe.

And so religion endures as a prop for many people who cannot live without this overarching organising principle for the world. They should know, however, that they are not alone. Even people, like myself, who live without religion, seek out community and attempt to develop theories that will explain the complexity of the world. In a largely secular country, like Australia, where about eight percent of people go to church on a weekly basis, there are myriad props available, such as sport. For those who eschew this rite there are other ways to achieve a state of grace, be it through music, food, literature, volunteerism, or something else. We all crave the comfort that community brings. Like language, it is a need hardwired in the human fabric. We all look for ways to connect with the world, and a reliable conduit for information about distant events is essential for individual happiness.

This is why we criticise the media when it appears that it distorts reality. The media is a contested space. On the one hand, it is a public good, like clean water, safe streets, universal education, or unpolluted air. In a sense a price cannot be placed on it, and so it feels natural to us that online we do not pay for news. But on the other hand journalism takes time, and so it costs money to produce, and so the majority of media is privatised. The conflict between these two aspects of the media is present whenever we consume a piece of news - whether it's in textual form, over the airwaves, or via TV - and we are forced to exercise our judgement in order to interpret it so that we can establish the truth about any event. Because our judgement is linked to our value system, we then judge the media itself in terms of our own political beliefs. And so we seek out media that corresponds most closely to those beliefs.

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