Are humans obsessed with religion?

Twenty years ago, the film industry had every appearance of being in terminal decline. Yet today one box office success follows another. And what are these blockbusters all about? Religion, mostly. We flock in our thousands to watch fantasy films whose storylines are dominated by ideas that our grandparents would have regarded as incredible. Trance channelling, healing with crystals, reincarnation, out of the body experiences, past life recall, altered states of consciousness, UFO abductions - they are all everyday occurrences in the celluloid scenes that influence the thinking of today’s world. In Star Wars, the hero Luke Skywalker is initiated into a league of Jedi knights by mastering ‘the Force’ that animates the cosmos. When the film was first screened, thousands of people greeted their friends with the words, ‘May the Force be with you.’ Indiana Jones first shot to fame with Raiders of the Lost Ark, a mystical tale based on the spiritual enigmas surrounding the biblical ‘ark of the covenant’. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom shows the same hero battling for possession of a primeval magic talisman called a ‘shankara stone’.

We have come to accept the possibility of intruders from other worlds. Sometimes they are friendly, like Superman or ET. More often they are menacing and pose a threat to life as we know it - as in, The Exorcist, or 2001. Occasionally, they seem cuddly and amiable to start with but soon develop a sinister twist. In Gremlins, an innocent child’s pet that looks like a cross between a hamster and a teddy bear ominously multiplies into an army of monsters whose warped sense of humour is exclusively devoted to spreading disorder and death through a small-time American town. Even the familiar and friendly Disney characters of children’s cartoons have been replaced by more awesome beasts who deal in cosmic forces and spiritual power.

Take a look at some of the most popular books of our day, and you find exactly the same. Any one-horse town with a small bookstore is certain to have Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Travelled. It probably also stocks the writings of Hollywood star Shirley MacLaine, and Marilyn Ferguson - two women who between them have popularized a hybrid form of pop philosophy that mixes science fiction with sociology, religion, medicine, healthy living and sport. There are even books claiming to be written by disembodied beings from some other state of consciousness, channelled through human contacts. One of them, A Course in Miracles, is a bestseller. A ‘revelation’ from ‘Jesus’, among others, it was channelled through Helen Schucman of the psychiatry department at Columbia University, New York, in the mid-seventies. Today its three volumes have been translated into a dozen languages, and they are avidly studied in small groups throughout the world, by serious people searching for the key to life’s ultimate meaning.

Television viewers in Britain have become accustomed to seeing violent struggles between police and the many thousands of religious devotees who crowd into the ancient site of Stone-henge each year at the summer solstice, hoping to make some kind of contact with the earth spirit. In America a hundred years ago, pioneers of the Wild West were baffled by the religion of the native Indians, which also focused on the ‘Great Spirit’. It was, they concluded, primitive and unsophisticated. Now their great-grandchildren are reconstructing medicine wheels - circles of stones, each representing a part of the universe - at sacred sites all over the country. The Moray Firth in the north of Scotland is home to the Findhorn community, a group of people with worldwide connections who believe that this isolated spot has cosmic significance for the future of the earth, because many lines of spiritual power allegedly converge there.

All over the world, those claiming to have messages channelled from some other state of consciousness attract a great following. In Los Angeles, Gerry Bowman channels ‘John the Apostle’ every Sunday at midnight on radio station KIEV. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, Luiz Antonio Gasparetto hosts a weekly TV show in which he channels ‘old master’ artists to produce fresh paintings through his hands. Others do a similar thing in large-scale revival meetings across the United States. J.Z. Knight of Washington State is one of the best known. A former home-maker, she channels Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior from the ancient world - otherwise known as ‘the Ram’.

Nor is this a minority interest restricted to cranks and crackpots. Many Hollywood celebrities are sold on it as the panacea to life’s problems. In 1987, Sharon Gless won an Emmy award for her part in the TV series ‘Cagney and Lacey’. In her acceptance speech she claimed that her success was due to ‘Lazaris’, another disembodied personality - this time channelled by a retired Florida insurance consultant called Jack Pursel. In 1988, former White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan claimed that President Reagan and his wife used an astrologer to plan their lives. According to a report from Associated Press dated 3 May 1988, it was on such advice that the president insisted on signing his nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at exactly 1.33 p.m. On 8 December 1987. The president denied making policy decisions on such a basis, but his wife’s press secretary confirmed that she regularly consulted ‘a friend that does astrology’.

Modern education also makes space for such religious influences, especially in the field of management training. Courses aiming to develop ‘self-awareness and personal fulfilment’ are often heavy on religious concepts.

In the New York Times of 28 September 1986 there was a report of a meeting of executives from some of the world’s largest multinationals, including IBM, AT&T and General Motors, to ‘discuss how metaphysics, the occult and ... mysticism might help executives compete in the world market’. These same ideas are also given credence in some of the West’s leading universities. In Britain, even a conservative and traditional institution such as the University of Edinburgh has its professor of parapsychology. In the USA, the prestigious Divinity School of Harvard University offers courses on neo-paganism, and has hosted several conferences of witches. The Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality at the Roman Catholic Holy Names College in Oakland, California, lists among its faculty a self-styled witch by the name of Starhawk.

Of course, there are several ways of understanding what all this means. Cynics want to regard it as fanciful make-believe, or even a marketing trick by those who want to make a fast buck. But there can be no denying that to many people it seems real enough for them to stake their lives on it. Millions in the West today are dissatisfied with what they have heard from traditional spiritual leaders in the Christian church, and are looking elsewhere for clear direction. More than ever before, our culture is in search of a new soul. A source of meaning and value. Something that will be worth believing in - and living for - as we face the dawn of a new millennium.

In 1900, something like 6 per cent of the world’s population were self confessed atheists. Today that figure has shrunk to just a little over 4 per cent - of a vastly larger total world population! Fewer people than ever before are now inclined to deny the existence of something or somebody they can call ‘God’. Every opinion poll for the last fifteen years has shown a steady increase in the level of religious belief. In Britain - supposedly one of the least religious Western nations (certainly by US standards) - about four-fifths of the population believe in God. On top of that, another 9 per cent describe themselves as agnostics: they don’t know what to believe about the God question, but would be open to persuasion. That makes almost 90 per cent who either believe in God or would be open to do so given the right time and place.

In addition, more than 60 per cent of Britons can point to an occasion in their lives when they had what they would define as a ‘religious experience’. Remember too that about 80 per cent of British homes own a Bible, and roughly the same number of people mark the great turning-points of life - birth, death, puberty and marriage - with a religious ceremony. The picture is no different in the US. Almost 70 per cent believe in extra-sensory perception (ESP). One in four believe in reincarnation - almost one in three of under-thirties. And 42 per cent claim to have been in touch with another state of consciousness.

In the light of all these facts, it is hard to understand why philosophers still regularly describe religion as ‘marginal’ to our culture. To say we are non-religious is clearly untrue. Sure, we are less committed to what goes on in the four walls of church buildings on Sunday mornings. But it would be totally misleading to use that as a reliable thermometer for taking the spiritual temperature of our age.

Church can be fun too!