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Radio review: Connections, Beyond Belief, and In Our Time

06 May 2022


In Connections (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Douglas Alexander attempted an assessment of Britain’s divisions

In Connections (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Douglas Alexander attempted an assessment of Britain’s divisions

HOW long does it take for a friend to become merely an acquaintance? When you’ve had little or no contact with them, about three years. So says Professor Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist who gave his name to the law stating that one person can have no more than 150 friends. So, if you’ve not engaged with your 150 since before lockdown, you’d better get cracking.

This nugget was brought to us by the former Labour Cabinet minister Douglas Alexander, whose documentary essay Connections (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) attempted an assessment of Britain’s divisions post-Brexit, post-Covid, and in the thick of the Ukraine war. In his conclusion, Mr Alexander declared, “Even in tough times, we still need each other”: a summary commensurate with the level of both discourse and insight throughout the programme.

No amount of anthropologists, sociologists, or economists was going to imbue this with the rigour to raise it from the level of limp sermon to sturdy analysis. We were told by a social geographer that we don’t mix with other social groups, and that wealth inequality is growing; and by an economist that the “social contract” is broken. No indication was given of when things were better: the foundation of the Welfare State, or Magna Carta?

Mr Alexander dropped in on a foodbank and a Ukrainian refugee charity to show us how volunteering could help. Unless it happened during the periods when I nodded off, there was no mention at any point in the programme of the part played by church communities in fostering social cohesion, or of faith-based charities as examples of effective altruism. Mr Alexander has moved on from the grime of British politics to a grace-and-favour Harvard fellowship. Let’s hope he tries harder in his lectures to his transatlantic audiences.

A recent survey suggests that the young are getting more serious about religion. More specifically, those in Generation Z who are religious are more likely to be engaged in “full-fat faith”. This is the term used by Ernie Rea on Beyond Belief (Radio 4, Monday of last week) to describe a commitment to religious practices which is intense and immersive, and which may also entail conservative attitudes on social issues.

The programme concluded with a question posed to each of the panel, speaking for different faith groups: did they think that we were now living in a “post-religious” world? Only Professor Stephen Bullivant, who has embarked on a large-scale survey of Roman Catholic attitudes, agreed; Islamic, Sikh, and Hindu representatives were all more sanguine; and whether or not this indicates the difference between the wishful thinking of the advocate and the cool-headedness of the academic, one could not feel moved by the optimism.

Providing a long view on religious commitment in a pluralist world, the experts on In Our Time (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) discussed the early Christian martyrs. The message that they and their hagiographers wished to convey, in the most dramatic manner possible: there is no middle way.

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