Wisdom without Doctrine
The real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where to take the argument once one decides that he evidently doesn’t. The premise of this book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.
We invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.
The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed. Once we cease to feel that we must either prostrate ourselves before them or denigrate them, we are free to discover religions as repositories of a myriad ingenious concepts with which we can try to assuage a few of the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.
Religions merit our attention for their sheer conceptual ambition; for changing the world in a way that few secular institutions ever have. They have managed to combine theories about ethics and metaphysics with a practical involvement in education, fashion, politics, travel, hostelry, initiation ceremonies, publishing, art and architecture – a range of interests which puts to shame the scope of the achievements of even the greatest and most influential secular movements and individuals in history. For those interested in the spread and impact of ideas, it is hard not to be mesmerized by examples of the most successful educational and intellectual movements the planet has ever witnessed.
If we have managed to remain awake to (and for) the lessons of the Mass, it should by its close have succeeded in shifting us at least fractionally off our accustomed egocentric axes. It should also have given us a few ideas which we could use to mend some of the endemic fractures of the modern world. One of the first of these ideas relates to the benefit of taking people into a distinct venue which ought itself to be attractive enough to evoke enthusiasm for the notion of a group. It should inspire visitors to suspend their customary frightened egoism in favour of a joyful immersion in a collective spirit – an unlikely scenario in the majority of modern community centres, whose appearance paradoxically serves to confirm the inadvisability of joining anything communal. Secondly, the Mass embodies a lesson about the importance of putting forward rules to direct people in their interactions with one another. The liturgical complexity of a missal – the directive way in which this book of instructions for the celebration of a Mass compels the congregants to look up, stand, kneel, sing, pray, drink and eat at given points – speaks to an essential aspect of human nature which benefits from being guided in how to behave with others. To ensure that profound and dignified personal bonds can be forged, a tightly choreographed agenda of activities may be more effective than leaving a group to mingle aimlessly on its own.
The Day of Atonement has the immense advantage of making the idea of saying sorry look like it came from somewhere else, the initiative of neither the perpetrator nor the victim. It is the day itself that is making us sit here and talk about the peculiar incident six months ago when you lied and I blustered and you accused me of insincerity and I made you cry, an incident that neither of us can quite forget but that we can’t quite mention either and which has been slowly corroding the trust and love we once had for each other. It is the day that has given us the opportunity, indeed the responsibility, to stop talking of our usual business and to reopen a case we pretended to have put out of our minds. We are not satisfying ourselves, we are obeying the rules.
The best communal rituals effectively mediate between the needs of the individual and those of the group. Expressed freely, certain of our impulses would irreparably fracture our societies. Yet if they were simply repressed with equal force, they would end up challenging the sanity of individuals. The ritual hence conciliates self and others. It is a controlled and often aesthetically moving purgation. It demarcates a space in which our egocentric demands can be honoured and at the same time tamed, in order that the longer-term harmony and survival of the group can be negotiated and assured.
Religions are wise in not expecting us to deal with all of our emotions on our own. They know how confusing and humiliating it can be to have to admit to despair, lust, envy or egomania. They understand the difficulty we have in finding a way to tell our mother unaided that we are furious with her or our child that we envy him or our prospective spouse that the idea of marriage alarms as much as it delights us. They hence give us special days under the cover of which our pestiferous feelings can be processed. They give us lines to recite and songs to sing while they carry us across the treacherous regions of our psyches.
If we want well-functioning communities, we cannot be naive about our nature. We must fully accept the depths of our destructive, antisocial feelings. We shouldn’t banish feasting and debauchery to the margins, to be mopped up by the police and frowned upon by commentators. We should give chaos pride of place once a year or so, designating occasions on which we can be briefly exempted from the two greatest pressures of secular adult life: having to be rational and having to be faithful.
Once we are grown up, we are seldom encouraged officially to be nice to one another. A key assumption of modern Western political thinking is that we should be left alone to live as we like without being nagged, without fear of moral judgement and without being subject to the whims of authority. Freedom has become our supreme political virtue. It is not thought to be the state’s task to promote a vision of how we should act towards one another or to send us to hear lectures about chivalry and politeness. Modern politics, on both left and right, is dominated by what we can call a libertarian ideology. In this scheme, the state should harbour no aspirations to tinker with the inner well-being or outward manners of its members. The foibles of citizens are placed beyond comment or criticism – for fear of turning government into that most reviled and unpalatable kind of authority in libertarian eyes, the nanny state. Religions, on the other hand, have always had far more directive ambitions, advancing far-reaching ideas about how members of a community should behave towards one another.
The exhortations we would need are typically not very complex: forgive others, be slow to anger, dare to imagine things from another’s point of view, set your dramas in perspective… We are holding to an unhelpfully sophisticated view of ourselves if we think that we are always above hearing well-placed, blunt and simply structured reminders about kindness. There is greater wisdom in accepting that we are in most situations rather simple entities in want of much the same kind, firm, basic guidance as is naturally offered to children and domestic animals.
An occasional paternalistic reminder to behave well does not have to constitute an infringement of our ‘liberty’ as this term should properly be understood. Real freedom does not mean being left wholly to one’s own devices; it should be compatible with being harnessed and guided.
It seems clear that the origins of religious ethics lay in the pragmatic need of the earliest communities to control their members’ tendencies towards violence, and to foster in them contrary habits of harmony and forgiveness. Religious codes began as cautionary precepts, which were then projected into the sky and reflected back to earth in disembodied and majestic forms. Injunctions to be sympathetic or patient stemmed from an awareness that these were the qualities which could draw societies back from fragmentation and self-destruction. So vital were these rules to our survival that for thousands of years we did not dare to admit that we ourselves had formulated them, lest this expose them to critical scrutiny and irreverent handling. We had to pretend that morality came from the heavens in order to insulate it from our own prevarications and frailties. But if we can now own up to spiritualizing our ethical laws, we have no cause to do away with the laws themselves. We continue to need exhortations to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so. We no longer have to be brought into line by the threat of hell or the promise of paradise; we merely have to be reminded that it is we ourselves – that is, the most mature and reasonable parts of us (seldom present in the midst of our crises and obsessions) – who want to lead the sort of life which we once imagined supernatural beings demanded of us. An adequate evolution of morality from superstition to reason should mean recognizing ourselves as the authors of our own moral commandments.
Christianity never minded creating a moral atmosphere in which people could point out their flaws to one another and acknowledge that there was room for improvement in their behaviour. By contrast with this Christian desire to generate a moral atmosphere, libertarian theorists have argued that public space should be kept neutral. There should be no reminders of kindness on the walls of our buildings or in the pages of our books. Such messages would, after all, constitute dramatic infringements on our much-prized ‘liberty’.
Atheists tend to pity the inhabitants of religiously dominated societies for the extent of the propaganda they have to endure, but this is to overlook secular societies’ equally powerful and continuous calls to prayer. A libertarian state truly worthy of the name would try to redress the balance of messages that reach its citizens away from the merely commercial and towards a holistic conception of flourishing. True to the ambitions of Giotto’s frescoes, these new messages would render vivid to us the many noble ways of behaving that we currently admire so much and so blithely ignore. We simply will not care for very long about the higher values when all we are given to convince us of their worth is an occasional reminder in a modestly selling, largely ignored book of essays by a so-called philosopher – while, in the city beyond, the superlative talents of the globe’s advertising agencies perform their phantasmagorical alchemy and set our every sensory fibre alight in the name of a new kind of cleaning product or savoury snack.
A well-functioning secular society would think with similar care about its role models. It would not only provide us with film stars and singers. An absence of religious belief in no way invalidates a continuing need for ‘patron saints’ of qualities like Courage, Friendship, Fidelity, Patience, Confidence or Scepticism. We can still profit from moments when we give internal space to the voices of people who are more balanced, brave and generous-spirited than we are – Lincoln or Whitman, Churchill or Stendhal, Warren Buffett or Paul Smith – and through whom we may reconnect with our most dignified and serious possibilities.
We have implicitly charged our higher-education system with a dual and possibly contradictory mission: to teach us how to make a living and to teach us how to live. And we have left the second of these two aims recklessly vague and unattended. While universities have achieved unparalleled expertise in imparting factual information about culture, they remain wholly uninterested in training students to use it as a repertoire of wisdom – this latter term referring to a kind of knowledge concerned with things which are not only true but also inwardly beneficial, a knowledge which can prove of solace to us when confronted by the infinite challenges of existence, from a tyrannical employer to a fatal lesion on our liver.
Christianity meanwhile looks at the purpose of education from another angle, because it has an entirely different concept of human nature. It has no patience with theories that dwell on our independence or our maturity. It instead believes us to be at heart desperate, fragile, vulnerable, sinful creatures, a good deal less wise than we are knowledgeable, always on the verge of anxiety, tortured by our relationships, terrified of death – and most of all in need of God. What sort of education might benefit such forlorn wretches? While the capacity for abstract thought is considered by Christianity to be in no way dishonourable, and indeed even a potential sign of divine grace, it is held to be of secondary importance to a more practical ability to bring consoling and nurturing ideas to bear on our disturbed and irresolute selves.
Christianity concerns itself from the outset with the inner confused side of us, declaring that we are none of us born knowing how to live; we are by nature fragile and capricious, unempathetic and beset by fantasies of omnipotence, worlds away from being able to command even a modicum of the good sense and calm that secular education takes as the starting point for its own pedagogy.
It has been the essential task of the Christian pedagogic machine to nurture, reassure, comfort and guide our souls. By its own standards, Christianity therefore has no choice but to tilt its educational emphasis towards explicit questions: How can we manage to live together? How do we tolerate others’ faults? How can we accept our own limitations and assuage our anger? A degree of urgent didacticism is a requirement rather than an insult. The difference between Christian and secular education reveals itself with particular clarity in their respective characteristic modes of instruction: secular education delivers lectures, Christianity sermons. Expressed in terms of intent, we might say that one is concerned with imparting information, the other with changing our lives. Sermons by their very nature assume that their audiences are in important ways lost.
In the secular sphere, we may well be reading the right books, but we too often fail to ask direct questions of them, declining to advance sufficiently vulgar, neo-religious enquiries because we are embarrassed to admit to the true nature of our inner needs. We are fatefully in love with ambiguity, uncritical of the Modernist doctrine that great art should have no moral content or desire to change its audience. Our resistance to a parabolic methodology stems from a confused distaste for utility, didacticism and simplicity, and from an unquestioned assumption that anything a child could understand must of necessity be infantile in nature. Yet Christianity holds that, despite outward appearances, important parts of us retain the elemental structures of earliest childhood. Just like children, therefore, we need assistance. Knowledge must be fed to us slowly and carefully, like food cut into manageable bites. Any more than a few lessons in a day will exhaust us unduly. Twelve lines of Deuteronomy may be enough, for instance, along with a few explanatory notes which point out in plain language what there is for us to notice and to feel therein.
The redesigned universities of the future would draw upon the same rich catalogue of culture treated by their traditional counterparts, likewise promoting the study of novels, histories, plays and paintings, but they would teach this material with a view to illuminating students’ lives rather than merely prodding at academic goals.
In its methods, Christianity has from its beginnings been guided by a simple yet essential observation that has nevertheless never made any impression upon those in charge of secular education: how very easily we forget things. Its theologians have known that our soul suffers from what ancient Greek philosophers termed akrasia, a perplexing tendency to know what we should do combined with a persistent reluctance actually to do it, whether through weakness of will or absent-mindedness. We all possess wisdom that we lack the strength properly to enact in our lives. Christianity pictures the mind as a sluggish and fickle organ, easy enough to impress but forever inclined to change its focus and cast its commitments aside. Consequently, the religion proposes that the central issue for education is not so much how to counteract ignorance – as secular educators imply – as how we can combat our reluctance to act upon ideas which we have already fully understood at a theoretical level. It follows the Greek sophists in insisting that all lessons should appeal to both reason (logos) and emotion (pathos), as well as endorsing Cicero’s advice that public speakers should have a threefold ability to prove (probare), delight (delectare) and persuade (flectere). There is no justification for delivering world-shaking ideas in a mumble.
Aside from needing to be delivered eloquently, ideas also have to be repeated to us constantly. Three or five or ten times a day, we must be forcibly reminded of truths that we love but otherwise will not be able to hold on to. What we read at nine in the morning we will have forgotten by lunchtime and will need to reread by dusk. Our inner lives must be lent a structure and our best thoughts reinforced to counter the continuous pull of distraction and disintegration.
How free secular society leaves us by contrast. It expects that we will spontaneously find our way to the ideas that matter to us and gives us weekends off for consumption and recreation. Like science, it privileges discovery. It associates repetition with punitive shortage, presenting us with an incessant stream of new information – and therefore it prompts us to forget everything.
Even if we do not concur with the specific messages that religions schedule for us, we can still concede that we have paid a price for our promiscuous involvement with novelty. We occasionally sense the nature of our loss at the end of an evening, as we finally silence the television after watching a report on the opening of a new railway or the tetchy conclusion to a debate over immigration and realize that – in attempting to follow the narrative of man’s ambitious progress towards a state of technological and political perfection – we have sacrificed an opportunity to remind ourselves of quieter truths which we know about in theory and forget to live by in practice.
If we lament our book-swamped age, it is because we sense that it is not by reading more, but by deepening and refreshing our understanding of a few volumes that we best develop our intelligence and our sensitivity. We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption.
Religions understand the value of training our minds with a rigour that we are accustomed to applying only to the training of our bodies. They present us with an array of spiritual exercises designed to strengthen our inclination towards virtuous thoughts and patterns of behaviour: they sit us down in unfamiliar spaces, adjust our posture, regulate what we eat, give us scripts detailing what we should say to one another and minutely monitor the thoughts that cross our consciousness. They do all this not in order to deny us freedom but to quell our anxieties and flex our moral capacities.
It is to religions’ credit that they have never sided with those who would argue that wisdom is unteachable. They have dared directly to address the great questions of individual life – What should I work for? How do I love? How can I be good? – in ways that should intrigue atheists even if they find little to agree with in the specific answers provided.
Religion is laden with ideas for correctives. Its example proposes a new curriculum: a scheme for arranging knowledge according to the challenges to which it relates rather than the academic area in which it happens to fall; a strategy of reading for a purpose (to become better and saner); an investment in oratory and a set of methods for memorizing and more effectively publishing ideas.
In the broadest sense, the cult of Mary speaks of the extent to which, despite our adult powers of reasoning, our responsibilities and our status, the needs of childhood endure within us. While for long stretches of our lives we can believe in our maturity, we never succeed in insulating ourselves against the kind of catastrophic events that sweep away our ability to reason, our courage and our resourcefulness at putting dramas in perspective and throw us back into a state of primordial helplessness.
The cult of Mary recasts vulnerability as a virtue and thus corrects our habitual tendency to believe in a conclusive division between adult and childhood selves. At the same time, Christianity is appropriately delicate in the way it frames our needs. It allows us to partake of the comfort of the maternal without forcing us to face up to our lingering and inescapable desire for an actual mother. It makes no mention of our mother; it simply offers us the imaginative pleasures of being once again young, babied and cared for by a figure who is mater to the world.
Despite occasional moments of panic, most often connected to market crises, wars or pandemics, the secular age maintains an all but irrational devotion to a narrative of improvement, based on a messianic faith in the three great drivers of change: science, technology and commerce. Material improvements since the mid-eighteenth century have been so remarkable, and have so exponentially increased our comfort, safety, wealth and power, as to deal an almost fatal blow to our capacity to remain pessimistic – and therefore, crucially, to our ability to stay sane and content.
We may derive some benefit from the availability of hot baths and computer chips, but our lives are no less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, jealousy, anxiety or death than were those of our medieval forebears. But at least our ancestors had the advantage of living in a religious era which never made the mistake of promising its population that happiness could ever make a permanent home for itself on this earth.
We should cease to view the pessimism of religions as belonging to them alone, or as indelibly dependent on hopes for salvation. We should strive to adopt the acute perspective of those who believe in paradise, even as we live out our own lives abiding by the fundamental atheistic precept that this is the one world we will ever know.
Christian and Jewish marriages, while not always jovial, are at least spared the second order of suffering which arises from the mistaken impression that it is somehow wrong or unjust to be malcontent. Christianity and Judaism present marriage not as a union inspired and governed by subjective enthusiasm but rather, and more modestly, as a mechanism by which individuals can assume an adult position in society and thence, with the help of a close friend, undertake to nurture and educate the next generation under divine guidance. These limited expectations tend to forestall the suspicion, so familiar to secular partners, that there might have been more intense, angelic or less fraught alternatives available elsewhere. Within the religious ideal, friction, disputes and boredom are signs not of error, but of life proceeding according to plan.
A pessimistic worldview does not have to entail a life stripped of joy. Pessimists can have a far greater capacity for appreciation than their opposite numbers, for they never expect things to turn out well and so may be amazed by the modest successes which occasionally break across their darkened horizons.
The signal danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation. When God is dead, human beings – much to their detriment – are at risk of taking psychological centre stage. They imagine themselves to be commanders of their own destinies, they trample upon nature, forget the rhythms of the earth, deny death and shy away from valuing and honouring all that slips through their grasp, until at last they must collide catastrophically with the sharp edges of reality. Our secular world is lacking in the sorts of rituals that might put us gently in our place. It surreptitiously invites us to think of the present moment as the summit of history, and the achievements of our fellow humans as the measure of all things – a grandiosity that plunges us into continuous swirls of anxiety and envy.
To return to one of the familiar themes of this book, we need art because we are so forgetful. We are creatures of the body as well as of the mind, and so require art to stir our languid imaginations and motivate us in ways that mere philosophical expositions cannot. Many of our most important ideas get flattened and overlooked in everyday life, their truth rubbed off through casual use. We know intellectually that we should be kind and forgiving and empathetic, but such adjectives have a tendency to lose all their meaning until we meet with a work of art that grabs us through our senses and won’t let us go until we have properly remembered why these qualities matter and how badly society needs them for its balance and its sanity.
We might modify Hegel’s definition to bring it more fully into line with Christianity’s insights: good art is the sensuous presentation of those ideas which matter most to the proper functioning of our souls – and yet which we are most inclined to forget, even though they are the basis for our capacity for contentment and virtue.
Inspired by Buddhism’s heavy-handed and yet productive curatorial directions, we might ask of many works of art that they tell us more explicitly what important notions they are trying sensually to remind us of, so as to rescue us from the hesitation and puzzlement that they may otherwise provoke. Despite a powerful elite prejudice against guidance, works of art are rarely diminished by being accompanied by instruction manuals.
When Protestantism took hold in northern Europe in the first half of the sixteenth century, it manifested an extreme hostility towards the visual arts, attacking Catholics for their complicated and richly decorated buildings. ‘For anyone to arrive at God the Creator, he needs only Scripture as his Guide and Teacher,’ insisted John Calvin, giving voice to the anti-aesthetic sentiment of many in the new denomination. What mattered to Protestants was the written word. This, rather than elaborate architecture, would be enough to lead us to God. Devotion could be fostered by a Bible in a bare room just as well as it could in the nave of a jewel-encrusted cathedral. Indeed, there was a risk that through their sensory richness, sumptuous buildings could distract us, making us prefer beauty over holiness.
It was not long before Catholicism was goaded into a response. Following the Council of Trent in 1563, the papacy issued a decree insisting that, contrary to the impious suggestions of the Protestants, cathedrals, sculptures and paintings were in fact integral to the task of ensuring that ‘the people could be instructed and confirmed in the habit of remembering, and continually revolving in mind the articles of faith’. Far from being a diversion, sacred architecture was a reminder of the sacramental truths: it was a devotional poem written in stone, wood and fragments of coloured glass. To drive home the argument, the Catholic Church inaugurated a massive programme of construction and decoration.
Upon examination it in no way logically follows that an end to our belief in sacred beings must mean an end to our attachment to values or to our desire to provide a home for them through architecture. In the absence of gods, we still retain ethical beliefs which are in need of being solidified and celebrated. Any of those things which we revere but are inclined too often to overlook might justifiably merit the founding of its own ‘temple’. There could be temples to spring and temples to kindness, temples to serenity and temples to reflection, temples to forgiveness and temples to self-knowledge.
We should revive and continue the underlying aims of religious architecture, by expressing these through secular temples designed to promote important emotions and abstract themes, rather than through sacred shrines dedicated to embodied deities. No less than the church spires in the skyscapes of medieval Christian towns, these temples would function as reminders of our hopes. They would vary in terms of their style, dimensions and forms – they could range from huts to hangars, they could be made of recycled tyres or gold tiles, they could hang from the sides of office buildings or be buried in illuminated grottoes under the streets – but they would all be connected through the ancient aspiration of sacred architecture: to place us for a time in a thoughtfully structured three-dimensional space, in order to educate and rebalance our souls.
Although these sceptics proved to be caustically entertaining critics of the faiths, they failed to appreciate the fundamental difference between themselves and their enemies: the latter were not relying primarily on the publication of books to achieve their impact. They were employing institutions, marshalling enormous agglomerations of people to act in concert upon the world through works of art, buildings, schools, uniforms, logos, rituals, monuments and calendars.
Religion’s great distinction is that while it has a collective power comparable to that of modern corporations pushing the sale of soap and mashed potatoes, it addresses precisely those inner needs which the secular world leaves to disorganized and vulnerable individuals. The challenge is hence to create – via a study of religious institutions – secular entities that could meet the needs of the inner self with all the force and skill that corporations currently apply to satisfying the needs of the outer.
Because we are embodied creatures – sensory animals as well as rational beings – we stand to be lastingly influenced by concepts only when they come at us through a variety of channels. As religions seem alone in properly understanding, we cannot be adequately marked by ideas unless, in addition to being delivered through books, lectures and newspapers, they are also echoed in what we wear, eat, sing, decorate our houses with and bathe in.
We need institutions to foster and protect those emotions to which we are sincerely inclined but which, without a supporting structure and a system of active reminders, we will be too distracted and undisciplined to make time for. The secular, Romantic world sees in commodification only loss, of diversity, quality and spontaneity. But at its finest the process enables fragile, rare but important aspects of existence to be more easily identified and more dependably shared. Those of us who hold no religious or supernatural beliefs still require regular, ritualized encounters with concepts such as friendship, community, gratitude and transcendence. We cannot rely on being able to make our way to them on our own. We need institutions that can remind us that we need them and present them to us in appealing wrappings – thus ensuring the nourishment of the most forgetful and un-self-aware sides of our souls.
[Auguste] Comte’s ideas proceeded from a characteristically blunt observation that in the modern world, thanks to the discoveries of science, it would no longer be possible for anyone intelligent to believe in God. Faith would henceforth be limited to the uneducated, the fanatical, children and those suffering the final stages of incurable diseases. At the same time, Comte recognized, as many of his contemporaries did not, that a secular society devoted solely to the accumulation of wealth, scientific discovery, popular entertainment and romantic love – a society lacking in any sources of ethical instruction, consolation, transcendent awe or solidarity – would fall prey to untenable social maladies. Comte’s solution was neither to cling blindly to sacred traditions nor to cast them collectively and belligerently aside, but rather to identify their more relevant and rational aspects and put them to use. The resulting programme, the outcome of decades’ worth of thought and the summit of Comte’s intellectual achievement, was a new religion, a religion for atheists or, as Comte termed it, a Religion of Humanity, an original creed expressly tailored to the specific emotional and intellectual demands of modern man.
A central problem with any attempt to rethink some of the needs left unmet by the ebbing of religion is novelty. Whereas we are for the most part well disposed to embrace the new in technology, when it comes to social practices, we are as deeply devoted to sticking with what we know. We are reassured by traditional ways of handling education, relationships, leisure time, ceremonies and manners. We are especially resistant to innovations which can be pegged to the thought of one person alone. To have the best chance of being taken up, ideas should seem like the product of common sense or collective wisdom rather than an innovation put forward by any single individual. What would likely be seen as a bold innovation in software can too easily, in the social sphere, come across as a cult of personality. It is to the benefit of most religions that they have been around for many centuries, a characteristic which appeals strongly to our fondness for what we are accustomed to. We naturally defer to practices that we would reject as extraordinary if they were newly suggested to us. A few millennia can do wonders to render a fanciful idea respectable.