Urbanites Take Leap of Faith

Alternative therapy and made-up pagan rituals find their devotees among supposedly sophisticated city-dwellers

Popular language assumes that our civilisation is much further along the road to perfection than previous ages: bad living conditions are “medieval”; hypocrisies are “Victorian”. It’s the same with beliefs: we are on a one-way street, away from “pagan” towards “rational”. Pagans – at least according to the normal derivation of the word – were credulous country-people, less sophisticated than the city-dwellers, liable to believe anything they were told.

The boot is on the other foot today: it is the townies who seem to have greater capacity to be fooled. The quieter side streets of cities and towns are increasingly populated with alternative therapists: there is no shortage of “urbans” who want to believe in their powers. Next door to my office in an Oxfordshire market town there is just such a business. The board outside advertises a long list of therapies, including cranial osteopathy, hypnotherapy, reflexology and homoeopathy. These are all promoted as more “natural” cures than you would receive from a real doctor. Tucked in here also is “dyslexia assessment”, which strikes me as truly worrying: dyslexia is a recognised and genuine problem – would you trust your child to anyone who believed in all, or indeed any, of these voodoo therapies?

It is not just in medicine that there are fools waiting to believe in anything that comes along. There is no new religion so preposterous that you cannot find someone to believe it, and the new adherents will mostly be city-dwellers. Almost nothing is known about the real historical Druids, for instance – their beliefs, their practices, their clothes, almost their very existence. But that doesn’t discourage the annual gatherings at Stonehenge by barmy urbanites in white robes, claiming to be following ancient practices. (Any belief can be justified so long as it is described as “ancient” and, if possible, “persecuted”, preferably by Christianity.) Wicca, another religion conjured out of thin air, was largely invented by Gerald Gardner, a retired rubber-planter, in the 1940s – but its madder adherents will tell you that it is based on ancient laws, for which no evidence actually exists. There are said to be more than 100,000 wiccans in the UK: I’m willing to bet that most of them are town-dwellers.

Why should urbanites be so liable to such delusions? Common factors tend to be a readiness to believe that these religions were “suppressed”, which grants a measure of self-importance (and explains why there is no historical evidence for them), and the belief that you can be what you wish to be – quite literally, such creeds promise wish-fulfilment. Where once people went to towns to seek their fortune, now the towns are full of people who seek their thrills by “reconnecting” with nature, and by making up their religions, their science and their morality, as they go along.

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