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Only the lonely

01 November 2013

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IF YOU want to be on your own, there is no better religion for it than Christianity. We are good at solitude, Professor Linda Woodhead said on Faith in the World: Living alone well (Radio 2, Tuesday of last week). Our monastic tradition has taught us the benefits of the quiet life, and we are generally better at keeping our own company than Judaism or Islam, for example, where family is naturally regarded as the highest virtue.

An ex-Carmelite-nun-turned-hermit, Rachel Denton, spoke of how intrusive the convent community became on her solitude, and how, after a period contemplating marriage, she realised that true satisfaction for her lay in the middle of a field in Lincolnshire. She now claims to be more extrovert than ever, although how that extroversion is revealed we were not told.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger complained that Judaism was not adapting fast enough to a world in which many people are choosing to be on their own. Mona Siddiqui gave a similar account of Islam, something supported by attendees at an Asian singles night in London, all of whom spoke of the family pressure to get hitched.

These testimonies, and many more, were garnered by Hardeep Singh Kohli for a programme that functioned as the centrepiece of Radio 2's Faith in the World Week. The theme of loneliness and solitude was an imaginative and challenging one for this annual season; and one that, sadly, Radio 2 producers and presenters only barely rose to.

Among the themed discussions and interviews there were items on the loneliness of long-distance runners, mountaineers, and sailors (during the Chris Evans Breakfast Show), and a piece on Thursday's Drivetime about online dating, which turned out to be an extended plug for a particular web-based service. But what these - and the main documentary - lacked was any sense of outrage that faiths are not yet catering effectively for our atomised society.

In his opening address to the Free Thinking Festival last Friday (Radio 3, various programmes last weekend), Sir Michael Marmot addressed the same issue of society in flux from a different angle - that of health. Sir Michael chaired a World Health Organisation commission for health inequality, and it is his work that has furnished many a startling headline about life expectancy in different societies.

He opened with a few: one in ten women in Afghanistan die in childbirth, compared with one in 46,500 in the West; there is an 18-year gap in life expectancy between the wealthiest and the poorest parts of the borough of Westminster, and a 28-year gap between the wealthiest and poorest parts of Glasgow. His research has delineated gradations of life expectancy between ranks of Whitehall civil servants, and his conclusion is that it is not lack of food, shelter, and hygiene that causes these disparities, but lack of empowerment.

There is much here to think about. What, for instance, is life expectancy in Sir Michael's analysis, and is it the correct tool for analysis here? But this was heady stuff. It is just the sort of thing that ought still to be featured in the Reith Lectures over on Radio 4.

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