Archive: an embarrassment of choice and the communications difficulty have detached modern man from formal belief
Originally published in AR March 1970, this piece was republished online in April 2016, along with other essays from the Manplan campaign
We have suggested that Religion is a good thing, exerting a discreet, beneficial effect on the human environment. But its continuance is not automatic: it depends on the continuance of belief in individuals ; and outwardly, at least, this is by no means sure. Throughout the world we have the spectacle of technology, which is the social consequence of what we call scientific thought, serving as the solvent of religion. As soon as technology takes hold on any human society, attendance at. cult begins to fall. Granted that technology must extend throughout the world and must continually become more far reaching in its applications, is it not inevitable that it will in the end extinguish religion altogether?
We have suggested that religious ideas tend to survive the apparent loss of formal belief and that a given society retains a religious orientation for some time at least after the loss of belief by its most active and influential citizens. But this is not to say that this orientation can survive indefinitely the loss of the perceptions which are its justification. If there are strong reasons for believing that Western society is still motivated by Christianity, it is certainly possible to conceive of a future in which religious ideas no longer count for anything at all. In order to consider the likelihood of this happening, it is worth investigating what it is about technological society which causes it to weaken religious adherence. There are reasons for believing that this arises, not so much from the impact of so called ‘scientific truth’ on beliefs, as from the difficulty in communication which results from the speed of cultural change which technology generates.
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In times of rapid cultural change, the business of communication becomes inherently difficult because those in the avant-garde of change tend to form their own language which it is hard for those in the centre and arrière-gardes to understand, and vice versa. This affects the whole of society, which becomes widely deployed among different groups, each of which responds to different stimuli and has different ways of expressing itself. It is very noticeable, for instance, in the matter of artistic expression. In a society which is changing rapidly and which has become widely extended it is no longer possible for a single work of art to exert a universal appeal.
‘The difficulty of language affects the statement of the truths themselves’
This difficulty of communication poses a very special problem for the transmission of religious ideas. In what language should those transmitting a tradition speak? The difficulty of language affects the statement of the truths themselves, the organization of the faithful, the form of cult and the response the faithful make to the truths brought home to them. In a time of relative cultural stability like the middle ages it was easy for the Christian message (or indeed the Buddhist or the Islamic message) to be brought home to, and to be accepted by, nearly all within hearing distance. But with the deployment of society the difficulty of communication grows, and with it the credibility gap.
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It can thus be argued that the large scale defections from religious membership and practice which have occurred during the last 500 years are attributable in the first instance to the factor of cultural change. If this difficulty of communication is the most significant factor in the decline in attendance at cult, there are others. One is the simple matter of the presence or absence of other things to do. A technological society generates choice ; at all moments of his free time the citizen is free to make a choice between a wide range of very disparate activities. In our society the practice of religion is in necessary competition with the practice of sport, the practice of art (at this moment most commonly in the passive observance of TV drama) and many others.
‘All things considered, the remarkable fact is not how few go to church, but how many in practice do’
A third factor is the presence or absence of social compulsion. Participation in cult is corporate. What the individual does about it is very much influenced by the attitude of society. This exaggerates participation in both directions, making attendance at Church (or at anything else) exceptionally great when it is ‘the thing to do’ and exceptionally small when it isn’t. It is this factor which makes for the huge difference in church going between countries which are otherwise so close as England and the Republic of Ireland. Not to attend church when it is the thing to do, or to attend when it is not, are both acts requiring personal courage. Again, in a free society, the number of active participants in any communications system is, when expressed as a percentage of the whole, quite small. Sport is a communications system in this sense and one which is generally thought to be flourishing. But even when a sport is at the height of its popularity - as football today - the total numbers playing and watching in the rain, when expressed as a percentage of the whole community, is quite small.
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All these things considered, it is unwise to assume that the decline in churchgoing is a reliable index of belief or that the trend, though so long sustained, is irreversible. All things considered, the remarkable fact is not how few go to church, but how many in practice do. When we come to consider the future of cult there are two main factors on which we have to make a guess: the circumstances in which religion has to operate and the response of believers. The first concerns the rate of change in society: will this become even faster? And will society as a consequence become even more widely deployed and communication within it even more difficult? If this were so, attendance at cult would continue to decline. On the whole it seems likely that we are entering on a period of consolidation and that progress will be concentrated, less on space travel, more on bringing forward the lagging sections of the human caravan. This arises because the religious orientation of culturally advanced Western man has caused him to be deeply shocked at the widening gap between his own society and what he would call ‘primitive societies’. With the narrowing of the gap the circumstances in which religion and every other communication system - has to operate will become more favourable. This means, other factors being equal, attendance at cult would tend to increase.
‘It would be wrong to suggest that the areas of difference have disappeared or even that they have notably contracted’
But are other factors equal? In the long run the second factor, the attitude of believers, is of much greater weight in the issue of survival. Here we can speak with much more confidence because in the last thirty years or so there has been a profound change in the attitude of the believer towards the things he believes. During the last two millennia the man of faith considered that he had inherited (or otherwise come by) a complete, closed system: that he was right, not only in matters of faith, but in everything else; and that everyone else was wrong. This it was that made religion the great cause of division in the world: for though it was a mainspring of action, it was too often a mainspring of conflicting action. This became scandalous as the world became smaller, giving rise to more conflict and raising the question ‘How is it that God has spoken so differently to those of different beliefs ? ’ The change which has taken place can be described simply by saying that the believer now accepts that what he has received is not a closed system but a core of truth which must be ceaselessly expanded and complemented by new information. This change is most marked in Christianity because (with Judaism) it has been longest in contact with the modern situation, but it is becoming evident in other world religions also.
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[Thus, the Islamic world is also in process of change. Meshad in Persia, left, the site of the shrine of Imam Reza, has now been opened to non-Moslems. A plan has been prepared (architect Dariush Borbor) to enclose it with a new circular city, above.] It would be wrong to suggest that the areas of difference have disappeared or even that they have notably contracted. But it is significant that there is a large measure of agreement between world religions on the main issues which concern Western society: on euthanasia, abortion, contraception and the treating of sex as though it was a matter of casual entertainment. At the level of formal belief, the situation is necessarily more complicated, but knowledge of the complexity of the human mind and of its ability to operate at different levels opens up the possibility that many opinions that were formerly thought mutually excluding could well be complementary. In this way different religions can be seen as working in different areas of human personality.
‘The most evident cleavage in the world is not between the different sorts of believer, but between those who believe and those who don’t’
It is impossible to’ estimate what will come of the sympathetic contact of different religions: we can only record the solid fact of this sympathy and draw attention to its immense cultural importance. For even though religion may remain multiform throughout the foreseeable future, this mutual sympathy will restore it once more to its natural position as the unifier of human society. How similar, in fact, the practices of the different religions are! This is emphasized by the underlying similarity of their architectural arrangements. [The small interior, on the next page, could be taken for a pre-Vatican II (that is, before the cult for participation began to influence church planning) Roman Catholic church designed, perhaps, by a French architect. In fact, it is the interior of the new Gokoku-ji Temple, top, in Kamakura for the Nichiren Seishu Buddhist sect architects Sozosha). We hear of Ecumenism as something happening within Christianity; but in fact it is happening as between different religions also. Thus, for instance the Monastere de L ’Unite at Yarzeh, above right, in the Lebanon (architect Liger-Belair) was built last year to open up the Christian-Moslem frontier.]
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In the second half of the eighteenth century, in the ‘Age of Reason’ it looked as though religion was going to fizzle out. In fact it didn’t and, in the west, there was a very determined Christian Revival. But this revival did not get to the bottom of the matter and as a consequence had blown itself out well before the beginning of this century. By contrast the change in religious psychology which we have been describing is much more far reaching. Already it is true to say that the most evident cleavage in the world is not between the different sorts of believer, but between those who believe and those who don’t. But the change will lessen and ultimately do away with this second cleavage also. The profound shift in religious psychology makes it certain that the number of those identifying themselves with religion will increase, slowly at first, but at some point, more rapidly. But though we can be sure about an increase in the number of adherents of religion, this does not necessarily mean an increase in cult.
‘What we now think of as ‘cult’ is different and much less attractive than the sort of cult which will be rife when the revolution’
It is certainly possible to imagine religious practice without cult and without any form of assembly-indeed agonstic England in the first half of this century conceived of religion precisely in these terms. But in fact these two components of life, cult or ritual and assembly, are in themselves necessary to society and it seems that only religion is able to give them a fully satisfying form and content. Secular life is full of rituals-repeated actions which gain meaning because they symbolize, give form and style to, the transactions which occasion them. Likewise people have an innate need to assemble, to feel physically their membership of large groups. The various types of secular ritual, in which we must always include such modest occasions as going out to buy a packet of cigarettes or taking the dog for a walk, and the various types of secular assembly going to the pub, the political meeting or the football match - all emphasize the existence of this need, but do not involve the participants at a sufficiently deep level to stop the growing sense of isolation and of purposelessness which are both so characteristic of modern life.
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Even so, it is not easy for those who have been separated - perhaps for several generations - from religious practice to imagine how cult and religious assemble could possibly come to occupy a central position in their lives. At this point we must take notice of the cultural revolution among believers and its likelihood of making religion more accessible. The broad effect of religion as a closed system was the creation of a culture peculiar to it and which was distinguishable from any culture which might be evolved by those outside its orbit. This is just what happened in the Christian West. The church-whether Protestant or Catholic-tended constantly to make itself distinguishable from ‘the world’ by freezing its cultural forms : in architecture, liturgy, dress, organization, everything. As a consequence, Christian ritual and the Christian assembly have been frozen for so long that they are now conceived in a form and style belonging to an age which is out of reach of modern people. This masks their purpose absolutely, (even from many believers) and gives them that special sort of dullness which comes from incomprehensibility.
‘Architecture and environment are indicators, an early warning system’
The whole area is in rapid evolution. The monumental dullness which still characterizes cult is unnatural, for it is the nature of religious practice to be absorbing and pleasurable. Vestiges of this undoubted truth can be seen in all ‘primitive’ cults and, in the Christian community, among the Protestant negroes of North America and the Catholics of Southern Italy. What we now think of as ‘cult’ is different and much less attractive and comprehensible than the sort of cult which will be rife when the revolution, now well under way in the Christian Church, is fully complete.
In fact, of course, religious practice has its very special pleasures outside of the area of formal cult. [As witness these Sikhs at a ceremony at the Albert Hall (right) or, in a private setting, at the Kindling of Lights in a Jewish home on a Friday night (left and below). Will cult and religious assembly become universal once again among Western people? All we can say is that it is possible. The change, if it were to come, would take place imperceptibly at first but at some point conceivably within the time scale envisaged by Manplan there might come a flash point, with large increases in attendance. Let us, for the purposes of this issue, argue that religion will be restored.
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On the evidence, we accept the thesis that man is a ‘religious animal’ and that the religious side to his nature is on the point of reasserting itself. Accepting this, we believe that we are about to see a profound change in our use of technology. There will be no Luddism - that is, if those who control the machines, both administrative and actual, respond to the change at roughly the same rate as other people. No damping down of scientific ingenuity or slowing up of technical progress, only a change in the direction in which progress is sought. We think this because the direction in which we are still going does not serve the purposes of the sort of animal man is. These progressive concentrations of power and initiative, with their unintended taking away of power and initiative from people, produce each day situations which are progressively less acceptable. Architecture and environment are indicators, an early warning system, giving us the tell-tale signs of approaching inhumanity. But is it such an early warning? Are there not signs in other spheres of life which are just as compelling, all testifying to the same thing?
Take education. Nothing is more striking in England than the huge disparity between the sort of society which our liberal and (on the whole enlightened) educationalists have been preparing the young for, and the actual society our administrators and industrialists are able to offer them. This, at bottom, is what the demos are about. Never before has the gap between expectation and ‘real life’ been so great. In the face of this apparently irreversible trend, our religious traditions point out that we are in fact free to choose. Techniques which have so far been used to concentrate power can equally be used to disperse it and new techniques can be brought into play to reinforce the success of dispersal policies. However important material benefits may be, what man really wants is a fulfilling existence.
‘Something which has been going on for two hundred years cannot be turned round overnight’
In the early sections of this issue we concentrated on some of the characteristics of ‘religious man’s’ environment - on the characteristics of virtually all environments prior to the present - contrasting these with the derogations of them in our comparatively secularized present. We spoke of the sense of the intrinsic importance of human acts, an importance which gives rise to craftsmanship and, in building, gives rise to the idea of expressing, in a relatively durable form, the pleasure of designing and making. In this, buildings are only a special instance of something which is fundamental to human activities. It is one thing to remove some of the mechanical. Unskilled effort from an activity to make the products more freely available. But once you drain the substance of an activity of its human content, the time has come to pause and think.
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Mass production and its child, the consumer society, has enjoyed a deserved success from being able to offer many people a choice where they would have had none before. Though the consumer’s own work may be duller - so the argument goes - the things he can buy with the money he earns from it are more varied. This was true, up to a point. But when you pass beyond that point, as we have done, you begin to realize that the choice the manufacturer is offering is in the end Hobson’s. Once more the building industry prefigures this disagreeable truth: if you want a better product, the industry says, then you must get together with all the other suppliants and agree to all ask for the same thing. It is our religious instincts which have blown the gaff. On paper, the arguments for greater dependence on technology are unanswerable. It is those ‘reasons of the heart’ Pascal spoke about which tell us they are fallacious. Once agreed upon, the trend will not be difficult to reverse, though we must recognize that something which has been going on for two hundred years cannot be turned round overnight. The effort to turn it round will be made at many levels. But perhaps the most important are the levels of industrial technique and personal relations. Industrialization is very much a western phenomenon. It is therefore interesting to notice that the Christian Church, the principal repository of the western conscience, is itself showing the way out of the material impasse.
‘We could well be at the beginning of an era in designer/user relationships’
The buildings illustrating this issue are small and, being small, are highly local. The church could very well argue (as everyone else still is) that she would ‘do much better’ if she were to concentrate on huge, splendidly equipped central ‘power houses’, one in each major city. All to be built, by a single package deal consortium, to the same design (using a standard partition ordered in advance for all the schools, hospitals and office buildings in the country). Cult could be standard, too, with green shield stamps for those attending. But the mentor of the west has not gone this way. Instead it has opted for freedom, acceptance of diversity and an approach to building which starts afresh at the human end. We have earlier discussed the possibility of bringing personal expression back to building technique. This seems a long way off, for people have not called for it: all they have done is to express dislike of its absence. Also architects have been too immersed in the technicalities of mass production to think about it. Will it come through the leisure timers, on the parallel of horsemanship or sailing or cooking? Or will it come through the rising value set on ‘antique’ craftsmanship and on the ultimate necessity for modern building to emulate it?
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But, as we have seen, mass production is fast failing the acid test of human requirements. It is much easier to believe that the future of design lies not in further abdications to the wrong sort of production but in resuming contact with the actual people who use buildings. We must remember that we have, growing up before us, a new, more imaginatively trained generation. People who will appreciate much more easily ‘what the architect is talking about’ (if he cares to tell them) and who will be potentially much better contributors to design than the bewildered committee men whom alone the architect can confer with now. We could well be at the beginning of an era in designer/user relationships. Once more, the new pattern of relationships envisaged by the church could prefigure this. The community commissioning a church already exists before design is begun. Several of the buildings illustrated in this issue are the outcome of far-ranging discussions, drawn out over months if not years, between the architect, the priest and the parishioners. It is easier to imagine a restoration of architecture through this than through better familiarity with the long term economics of rolling, pressing and stamping.