Danny Boyle and his team, aided by a cast of thousands, got the London Olympics started at last. The whole thing was original, quirky, very British and technically brilliant. It avoided stereotypes of Britain, or treated them with great humour. It also avoided massed ranks of people simply moving around in formations with military precision.
Some people, of course, are not happy. While I see some validity in the points they raise, I believe they are desperately wrong in their understanding – or misunderstanding – of what the opening ceremony was about. Some complain about the omission of elements of our culture that they think important. Others saw the themes presented as too ‘left wing’. A few regard the history as mangled.
These quibbles in themselves could be sensibly debated, but there would be little point in the exercise. The purpose of the ceremony was emotional. As human beings we need such things. We need a narrative, even when the connection with history or actual facts is partial and prejudiced. Above all, we need to feel part of something bigger than just ourselves and everyday life.
I raise this subject here because a narrative and a sense of something bigger are exactly what used to be provided by religion. That now applies on a regular basis only to a minority of people. Science sometimes attempts to fill the gap, but is not equipped to do so. Danny Boyle’s creation ticked boxes to do with nationhood, community, mutuality, celebration and identity. These things – and a whole lot more – fall within the realm not of science, but of the humanities, including religion.
One major function of narrative is to give a sense of hope. Affirming the past and the present supports the idea that the future is potentially good, worth living for, and worth making sacrifices for. Science cannot do that. If we bring it down to harsh reality, science and its bedfellow, technology, have been used as much to destroy hope as create it.
Many of the anti-religious are aware of all this, of course, but that awareness does not often take them in the direction of religion. Instead, they take refuge in calling themselves humanists, which today tends to mean ‘secular humanists’, typified in the UK by the British Humanist Association. Globally, the International Humanist and Ethical Union flies more or less the same flag. Both organisations have a conspicuous flaw – endless repetition of words like ‘ethical’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘human rights’, ‘rational’, ‘scientific’,’creative’ and so on, with no attempt to resolve contradictions or to show how all this is meant to work in practice.
Humanists’ attempts at creating a narrative for themselves are slender and, in parts, simply untrue. The main reason for this, I suspect, is that they will not recognise that historically humanism is actually rooted in religion. Outside the humanistic elements that developed within the major world faiths, the cupboard is pretty bare.
The question is, then, what provides the narrative between events like Olympic ceremonies? I doubt we can look to Danny Boyle here, for his much-acclaimed films are generally rather bleak. I despair from seeing anything from the humanists other than criticism of religion and the exaltation of science. If we cannot solve this problem, I fear that we face a cultural dead-end and will be open to the forces of extremism of all types.
However, I believe we can find a narrative, and that it will include elements of our Christian past as well as other religious insights. It will also include affirmation of science – and a true humanism no longer locked into an anti-religious mindset.