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Our new hymn for Easter . . . Anything Goes

This year I am spending Easter in Cyprus. It is the first time for years that the Greek Orthodox Easter and ours coincide so it's possible to make some useful comparisons. In Britain all the talk this Easter every Easter is of jetting away. Nobody leaves Cyprus at Easter. On the contrary, Easter is the time when expats do their best to come home. Easter is a time for the whole family to get together.

The churches have been bursting since Maundy Thursday and restaurants and shops not directly involved with the tourist trade have been kept firmly shut. Today, Easter Sunday, is a day of national celebration.

How different from our own country. The other day one of our newspapers talked about the 'run-up' to Easter. Funny that, I thought, whatever happened to Holy Week? Runup to Easter indeed! In the future, I suspect, historians will spend a great deal of energy discussing how it came about that a country which once took religion very seriously ended up with virtually none. When I was a boy I remember a Britain which in this respect at least was very much like Cyprus today. We, too, used to be closed for business for much of the Easter weekend. There were no newspapers on Good Friday, the most solemn day of the Christian calendar, and all shops, cinemas and pubs were shut. That wouldn't work today. We now live in a strictly secular country. The right to shop has become enshrined as a basic liberty.

Closed for Easter? Barbarous.

Because we are no longer primarily a religious people, many will read the above and say: 'A good thing too.' I am not so sure. We have lost our religious faith but what have we gained in its place? Precious little, I'd say.

There appears to be in us all a basic need to have somebody or something greater than us, outside our own personal experience to whom we can attach mythic powers and virtues. I have long since argued that the modern cult of celebrity fills a void left by the saints of the Christian calendar. I really don't think that's too farfetched. People need icons.

For most societies religion has fulfilled this want. We have rejected that course. We bow before the altar of a consumer society. Our heroes are bimbo TV presenters, pop stars or footballers. Great sports arenas are described as cathedrals; young boys and girls will 'worship' their idols.

Someone like David Beckham is routinely described as a sporting god.

You may think I make too much of this but as long as we have ears to hear the language people choose to use we have a glimpse into their subconscious.

Thou shall not worship graven images, say the Commandments. We sure as hell have forgotten that one.

They don't get much more 'graven' than the lot we have before us today.

I don't think there can be many who believe society has on the whole benefited even though religious observance has sometimes been dangerous.

We all know that zealotry combined with religious faith can be a volatile brew. But we also know that the ethical foundations of the Judaeo-Christian tradition which has dominated the political and social philosophy of this society for the past several centuries lies at the very heart of describing the kind of people we are. You cannot simply disregard that great edifice, or seek to dismantle it, and expect that as a result we will necessarily change for the better.

Schools, in this politically correct age of ours, teach that all religions have equal value. This is not entirely undesirable. The belief that there is only one true faith, whatever that faith may be, has led and leads still to the assumption that it is acceptable to persecute those of a different persuasion. But there is a downside too.

Here is my list, in alphabetical order so, in the modern way, no favourites, of world religions with more than three million adherents: Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism and Vodun (Voodism). There are thousands more with fewer adherents some pretty obscure such as Caodaism or Macumba, some less so like Zoroastrianism. All are interesting and worthy of study and respect.

It is perfectly possible, as many do, to believe none of them. It is quite simply impossible to believe all of them.

Yet that is what is implied by our educational system. Our political class has so lost confidence in itself, its own history and beliefs, that in this matter like so many others it is afraid to lay down a line which we can follow for fear that we might reject it. Instead, it lays before us a Religious a la Carte, which permits us to pick and choose with few parameters to make that actually possible. If you say all religions are equally valid you must end up believing none is. That is dangerous. We are left with a society without direction or the compass with which to find one. Denied the idea that we are on Earth for some greater purpose, the young are encouraged to believe there simply isn't any. So, in the words of the song Anything Goes, we accept any behaviour provided it is not fattening or illegal. The ethical restraints which religion imposes have all but gone.

Some rationalist philosophers used to argue that when religion disappeared we would enter a new age of reason.

Some hope. We have dispensed with the old and in its place all we've got is sex, sin and rock 'n' roll. This is the Age of Unreason!

Cyprus is not a perfect society by any means. They have great problems which they don't look close to solving. There's as much corruption and greed here as there is anywhere.

But on some important levels which will never show up in official statistics they are to be envied. The family is still at the heart of everything. The old beliefs have not simply been jettisoned because of passing fashion. There is here still a sense of cohesiveness and community which comes from shared beliefs, disappearing fast in our own country.

People feel they belong.

It would be nice to imagine that in our forthcoming Election some of these issues, overarching all others in their seriousness, would be discussed by our politicians. But somehow I doubt it, don't you?

©Copyright 2001, Mail on Sunday - London

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