Kendal mints society values

March 21, 1997

While Christians celebrate Palm Sunday, others find spiritual fulfilment in Celtic and Shinto beliefs, Julia Hinde and Tony Tysome report. Below, THES looks at Lake District community values and Brazilian cults

RAMPANT individualism and moral anarchy have replaced traditional human values in the late 20th century - or so the "prophets of doom" would have it. Now the popular theory is to be tested for the first time by academics at Lancaster University.

They are set to scour a small market town in the Lake District for clues to man's destiny.

Linda Woodhead, lecturer in Christian studies, said it was often claimed in the media that modernity was marked by the collapse of community and tradition. This was said to be reflected in the demise of religion, the family, civic community and national values.

But Dr Woodhead said: "There is absolutely no empirical evidence to back this up."

A team from the department of religious studies at Lancaster has submitted a proposal to the Economic and Social Research Council to discover whether human values really are collapsing.

The people of Kendal have been selected as a test bed. The town's population contains a "good social mix", and it is a fairly self-contained and self-sufficient community which supports all the major institutions such as industries, schools, shops, a hospital and a number of religious circles.

Dr Woodhead said it was widely believed that the collapse of community found its ideological justification in the ideas of the Enlightenment which was suspicious of anything which threatened the freedom of the individual. But she pointed out that the Enlightenment was not wholly individualistic. It did place its faith in humanity and human values.

"In the late 20th century each person becomes the creator of his or her own values in what some see as a postmodern heaven, others as a postmodern hell," she said.

A questionnaire to be circulated in the Kendal area will explore what individuals regard as the good life.

Interviews will also be conducted to test whether values are seen now as purely subjective.

Lancaster's Centre for the Study of Cultural Values which is participating in the research is holding a conference next month in order to explore the relationship between time and value. Delegates will debate whether a so-called "third age" is now upon us in which post-apocalyptic sensibility and cultural proliferation threaten to render society truly "value free".

According to some theories, science and technology have combined with the forces of capitalism to dislodge time from value. But the alternative, more comforting, scenario is that the rebirth of community and the good life signal a return to the integration of these elements.

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