Browsing the shelves of Waterstone’s, there seems more space devoted to the esoteric than to traditional religion. Perhaps a measure of the mood of the times, the rejection of all authority. Perhaps it is a vindication of the old maxim, “When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.”
Why believe in the sort of thing found on the bookshop shelves, though? When there is instant Internet access offering possible answers to every imaginable question, why do esoteric concepts from pre-modern times still have a hold on the imagination?
Conversations in the classroom reveal that secondary school students are nothing if not eclectic in their ideas about things that might be described as “spiritual.” The selection of books in Waterstone’s would strike a chord with those who share their thoughts about life after death in discussions during our lessons.
When I was a child, there was a range of odd beliefs in our community. Stories of ghosts were more plentiful. Accounts of sightings of Roman soldiers were common, though the legionaries must only have been visible from the knees upward as the surfaces of the roads are much higher now than in the Second and Third Centuries. Past residents of houses also seemed to put in the odd appearance, usually in the same spot each time.
Perhaps things are more rational than they were in the past. No-one I know would now claim to have met Merlin and tales of Arthur and his knights riding from Cadbury Castle are no longer heard. Even Glastonbury has become a rather humdrum mix of New Age paganism and plain silliness.
Perhaps the esoteric and has become popular because it offers people a touch of excitement. The stuff of the books sold in Waterstone’s is attractive because it is completely removed from the mundane business of everyday life in the Twenty-First Century. Perhaps people need something exotic, something mysterious, something that pushes the bounds of the imagination.
Fifty years ago, science provided an alternative reality, the space race offered the prospect of the discovery of planets and stars and galaxies. Space was the final frontier, and within the lifetimes of those of us who were young we thought that frontier would be crossed. It never happened.
Science turned inwards. Technology was applied to the manufacture of consumer goods. Smartphones were revolutionary, but they were not Captain James Kirk and the Starship Enterprise. In the absence of rational diversions, the irrational offers excitement, even if it is only an amalgam of old superstition and modern imagination.