The Straits Times


DEC 19 1998

There's still reason to be jolly this season


THE ubiquitous Christmas song tells us that 'tis the season to be jolly, but it seems more like a season to be grouchy and cynical. The easy cynics note that what is supposed to be a Christmas season of faith has become dominated by commercialism. But the grouchiness about commercialism is merely a superficial suaveness in a much larger age of unbelief. Give Christmas (and yourself) a break -- 'tis really a time to reflect that life is not so bad after all.

The age of religious unbelief has, of course, been a long time coming. Under the onslaught of two centuries of a scientific revolution that explained much of what had previously been explicable only in religious terms, the powers of priests, imams and rabbis has faded. The past century of democratisation has also done serious damage to the clerical claim to decide people's lives. Most recently, the steady empowerment of the female half of humankind has undermined the authority of a male-friendly social order.

The result is devastating to organised religion. Church attendance in the US -- a country where people often wear their religion on their sleeves -- is at a 50-year low at 39 per cent (those who attend at least once a year); and this, despite the trendy marketing of "sacred sneakers" with pictures of Jesus on the tongues.

Even Jews who, one might have thought, would have grown more defensive of their religion after the Holocaust, have found their best defence in the creation of a secular Israel. Fifty per cent of Jews in the developed world, like your author, are marrying non-Jews, leading to a rapid decrease in the numbers of the "chosen people".

But the shrinking band of the religious can take some solace from the fact that the number of believers in secular ideologies -- communism, socialism and even various forms of nationalisms -- is also fading.

China's leaders are about as communist as 19th century Englishmen were really adherents of the Church of England. Italy has an ex-communist as Prime Minister, but like the once socialist Tony Blair, he is merely the acceptable face of market liberalism. The death of religious and secular belief is, as one would expect, stimulating various forms of rearguard fundamentalism. All the major religions have their fanatics -- some kill doctors who carry out abortions, some machine-gun Palestinians, and some threaten the lives of Western novelists.

The fading of secular faith has also stimulated some nasty nationalisms, most notably in the Balkans or the Caucasus. A more avant-garde response has been the creation of a more federal Europe, but with bureaucrats in charge and the creation of single currency marked by a singular lack of popular enthusiasm, Euroland is not a fertile ground for secular faith.

So what is left to attract the faithful? The ruling ideology of our Westernistic age -- a faith in the creative and curative powers of markets and liberal politics -- seems to be little more than a circular belief in progress. It is not surprising that a recent study by the London-based think-tank Demos reports that in the developed world there is even a fading belief in happiness. Incremental additions to wealth have apparently lost their power to increase happiness -- call it an outbreak of "affluenza".

In Asia, the recent economic crisis has shattered the presumption of the new middle-class generation that happiness would come from their recently acquired faith in global capitalism.

But it is at this point that the cynicism and grouchiness, especially in Asia Pacific, goes too far. Stand back a moment and reflect on what the Westernistic faith has wrought.

According to the UN, the Human Development Index in 1998 (a collection of basic data on GDP, child mortality, environmental quality and so on) for Japan is up 250 points to 940 since 1960 and up 36 since 1980.

Singapore is up 377 to 896 since 1960 and up 116 since 1980. Currently crisis-ridden Indonesia is up 456 to 679 since 1960 and up 261 since 1980. China has risen 402 to 650 since 1960 and 175 since 1980. At the top of the table, Canada is merely up 95 to 960 since 1960 and 49 points since 1980.

This is a story of real progress for the mass of mankind that not even the recent minor setbacks can hide. The current crisis in Asia Pacific is not a crisis of faith in Westernistic principles; rather, it marks the natural fading of older orthodox faiths. Asian values, like Victorian values, do not survive a generation or two of prosperity.

And yet spirituality in the Westernistic world is not impossible to find -- in fact, it is disguised cleverly as new forms of social virtue. It is vital to recall Aristotle's argument that true happiness comes only from doing good -- virtue is the path to contentment.

The real values and happiness in post-industrial society come from the support of very modern forms of virtues. Ecological campaigners and the forest of new non-governmental organisations are the new faces of virtue and faith. Animal rights campaigners and even health and fitness activists might even be included among the newly virtuous.

To be sure, there are dangerous fanatics hidden among these new virtues: We have eco-terrorists and animal rights fanatics who kill humans. But just as we should not judge Christians by the quality of commercial art and music on our main streets in December, so the health of the Westernistic age should not be judged by its fringes. I will take ecological busy-bodies in place of religious warriors any day. In the end, 'tis really the season to be jolly.

[The writer is the Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.]


Copyright 1998 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.