I don't much associate rugby players with spirituality, so it's interesting to see what is being said about Jonny Wilkinson on his retirement from the game. Wilko was no common or garden sporting star. There was something oddly religious about his quest for perfection on the pitch, especially the obsessive practising at drop-kicks and conversions, that paid off so spectacularly in the 2003 World Cup. He seemed always, as Donald McRae says in his send-off piece, to "delve within himself in an apparent search for purity and truth."
That unflinching mentality was complicated by a puritanical streak that meant Wilkinson imagined every minute of his day was recorded by a hidden video camera. At night, he pretended that the instance of which he was least proud would be screened back to himself and the people he loved most. "I follow this ethos because, when I go to bed, I want to feel I've done absolutely all I can to move forward in my life. I need that intense self-scrutiny."
Was this determination to excel behind the perpetual injuries that eventually blighted his career? In another life Wilkinson might have been an ascetic hermit or a Jesuit, pushing himself to the limits. He seems to have a philosophical bent: he read up on quantum physics and took to Buddhism and meditation to help him moderate his obsessive perfectionism. People "scratched their heads in confusion" about it, McRae says.
Sports interviewers did maybe, but many other people will understand where Wilkinson is coming from. The remark about the hidden video camera recording his life is particularly interesting, being suggestive of the near-death experience. It got me thinking, because it's pretty much what I feel also, although without focusing on it particularly. I've become so convinced by the logic of psychic phenomena in general, and the near-death experience in particular - the materialist dismissal of the phenomenon as a hallucination seems to me to be scientifically incoherent - that I'm bound to pay attention to the implications. That means I take it for granted that everything I do and think is being recorded in some sense, and that one day I'll have to review the whole thing from start to finish. And quite possibly to have to keep on doing so. My past life will be my 'project'.
So the image has become part of the framework that governs my mind and in a certain sense acts as a restraint or as an incentive, as the circumstances require. In my case this has little to do with concepts of 'religion' or 'faith' or 'belief'; it's simply a logical step to take. If I'm going to be stuck with my life, as a product, so to speak, I'd ideally like it to be a class product, not trash.
Now since the near-death experience is so well known, it seems likely to me that a great many people allow themselves to be guided by it in the same way. In which case, the idea of a judgement at the end of life, powerfully present throughout the Christian era, remains equally present now, in a modified form.
I'm not sure how well this is understood by those people who long for the "death of religion". Richard Dawkins is on typically crowing form today in the New Statesman, pointing out that the latest Social Attitudes study published last week paints an increasingly grim picture for religion in Britain. In 1983 one in three did not have a religion, but by 2010 this has become one in two.
[The study] clearly demonstrates that religious affiliation, religious observance and religious attitudes to social issues have all continued their long-term decline and are now irrelevant to all but a minority of the population. When it comes to life choices, social attitudes, moral dilemmas and sense of identity, religion is on its deathbed, even for many of those who still nominally identify with a religion.
One could argue that if 50% of the population said 'yes' when asked if they had a religion this is quite a high figure, in a society that is usually described as secular. The concept of 'having a religion' is a rather vague one anyway: it doesn't imply actual belief. I'd also query what we are actually measuring here. The real decline is in traditional church-going, especially in the Anglican Church, which has apparently halved since 1983 to 20%. But church-going really only correlates with religiosity, not with inner beliefs.
What surveys like this seem to ignore is the growing interest in spirituality. According to Penny Sartori's Hereafter Report last January, in a poll of 3000 Brits, 66% said they believed in some form of afterlife and almost all believed their actions in this life would affect their circumstances in the next. I'd say this is a pretty high number, and not particularly indicative of increasing secularity.
So what Jonny Wilkinson talks about - and what sounds outlandish in the context of a sports interview - is quite likely what a large proportion of the population actually thinks. We may no longer require religion in the traditional Dawkinsian sense of the term to help us make life choices and sort out moral dilemmas. But things have moved on, and there are other models that we can use, that are not exactly secular.