Humans are not just cogs in a vast machine

By Giles Fraser
13 Dec 2007

Last month, headlines were grabbed by the Archbishop of Canterbury's attack upon US foreign policy. But the deeper point, widely missed, was his attack upon western modernity in general. "There is something about western modernity which really does eat away at the soul," he insisted in his interview with the Muslim magazine, Emel. And his argument was simple: our brand of modernity turns people into things defined by their function. All too often, we are what we do.

This was the sort of thing that used to be said by Marxists back when they were a more potent cultural force. In the world of efficiency savings, productivity and league tables, humans are more and more treated as tools in some vast machine-like system. We all too easily cede our humanity to the impersonal workings of the day-to-day routine.

Which is why for the archbishop, as for a great many religious leaders, the key battleground is time. He wants us to slow things down, to resist the frantic fascism of the diary. He calls on us to fight back with a battery of practices: art, prayer, holidays. Not art to make us more sophisticated; not prayer to lobby God; not holidays to get us ready for yet more work - for all this is to render them in overly functional terms, as if they always must have some further purpose. Rather, we must learn from our children and, specifically, from children's play: something that is both joyous and yet, as far as they are concerned, wholly without deeper purpose.

In 2006 I received just such an epiphany from my kids who decided that the most important thing to do on a sunny day was to produce a world cup of crisps. Often a reluctant holiday goer, I had persuaded myself that I needed a break so I could return to work with great vigour (always the functionalist's justification for time away from the desk). For Alice and Isabella, the debate heated up and took on a world of importance. The crucial question: Wotsits or Quavers? As it happens, I too have strong opinions on this subject and I entered the fray. Graphs and lists were drawn up. New candidates considered. The winners and losers endlessly renegotiated. It was the happiest day of the year, and yet, as far as I could see, we achieved nothing beyond the sheer enjoyment of each other's company.

It's for the same reason that the archbishop commends the Muslim practise of praying five times a day. Simply put, prayer is time spent with God. "What is prayer for?" isn't an easy question because there are vast acres of time where it doesn't seem to be for anything at all. And yet, perhaps because of this, it offers the mental and spiritual space that is so hard to come by within the fraught culture of western modernity.

Religion resists the oppressive efficiency of time management because there is nothing to measure. Atheists think that it's the fatal weakness of the God idea that it lacks empirical verifiability. But a world where everything is measurable and testable, and can be turned into a league table, is a world where competition can find its way into every nook and cranny of life. And this, in turn, allows no escape from the omnipresence of market forces.

Marx made the point that capitalism turns everything into a commodity - and thus people into objects. Christians would agree, but also see Marx's uncompromising materialism as being part of the problem. For in spite of Marx, this materialism has been conscripted into the service of capital and forms the bars of our cage. Which is why the Marxists failed, and why the people offering a genuinely countercultural critique of western modernity are to be found in churches, mosques and synagogues.

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(c) Giles Fraser is vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford. This article is adapted from one first published by The Guardian, with acknowledgements.

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