Can A Computer Really Know What You Believe?

Remember those old personality tests they used to have in teen magazines? My school friends and I used to spend lunchtimes poring over them. I like to think I've put all that nonsense behind me having discovered rather quickly that the results rarely had any bearing on my life. But recently I came across a test that intrigued even the adult me and in an unlikely place. Beliefnet.com is a website full of articles, comparisons and information concerning just about every one of humanity's faiths. I visit from time to time because I've long been fascinated by how different, yet similar, the world's religions can be. I know this all sounds a bit overly serious, and I guess you could say that God and religion and all that is pretty serious, but it's actually pretty interesting. And, on occasion, light-hearted. You see, Beliefnet.com has sections devoted to 'Favourite Nun Jokes' and 'A Priest, a Rabbi and a Minister walk into a bar…'

And it offers a number of tests you can take. One of which is the wittily titled 'Belief-o-Matic' and promises to assess your personal beliefs and suggest compatibility between your mindset and many of the world's religions. You enter your answers to a series of questions about your religious or spiritual beliefs (or absense of them). Things like how many Gods do you think there are - one and only one, one with many facets, or many gods each representing a single thing. Or what your opinions on divorce or reincarnation and so on are.  Then the Belief-o-Matic assesses your answers and presents you with a list of religions, or at least denominations of religions, that it deems best suits you. 

Why, you might wonder, am I interested in what a computer programme thinks my beliefs should be? Well, I'm not, well I am but only up to a point. You see for several years now I've yearned just a little to go back to a church on a regular basis, rather than the usual wedding-funeral-Christmas visits. I used to go when I was a child. I went to Sunday School every week and every month attended our local Anglican church's family service. I stopped attending some time in my teens but recently I've fancied returning. But church seems to be so different these days. While I have no problem with other people grooving to electric guitars and what some might call the happy-clappy type of service, it's not really for me. Oh, I like a good bop, I do Zumba several times a week and once you've done your booty circle to a Latin beat, you lose a lot of inhibitions, but I'm just one of those people who prefers a slightly more restrained way of worship.  What I'm looking for is three hymns (two traditional, one modern is fine), prayers, a shortish sermon and a good local community. But every time I see that a church has a 'worship group' rather than an organist, and 'youth leaders' instead of Sunday School teachers I get cold feet. I simply feel too exposed to throw myself into a trendy, modern service. When we first moved to our present house more than twenty years ago, we attended a couple of services at our nearest church. The first week, it was rather too formal with sung prayers and the next was more laid back, but confused my reserved (at least when it comes to religion) nature when the vicar told us to hug the person next to us. And do began the long, and so-far fruitless, search for a church I was comfortable with.

Like most people in the UK, I usually shy away from even discussing religion in public. We barely acknowledge its existence. Which is, I suppose, a puzzle. For a country with a semi official national religion we're remarkably reticent to acknowledge whether or not it's part of our lives. So I'm surprised, given the natural religious shyness the average Brit seems to have, that it's so difficult to find a church offering an old-fashioned, slightly demure, family service. Or at least one that is prepared to advertise it.

There must be one. But it's proved (and pardon the analogy here) the devil's own job trying to find one. Believe it or not, I've even tried emailing the odd church to find out what kind of services they run. I'm yet to receive a reply. So either hi-tech hasn't yet reached our local diocese or I've so far been regarded as a bit of a simpleton. Which is really not very helpful. I'm beginning to think I'm hankering after something that just doesn't exist any more. But then, come Sunday tea time I do enjoy watching the BBC's 'Songs of Praise'. Well usually I do. Unless it's being presented by former angelic choirboy Aled Jones. I won't go into the many and varied reasons I dislike Mr Jones but let's just say, if Aled's on, so is SkyPlus and, during playback, we make good use of what we call 'the Aled Button' or the fast-forward key to the rest of you. So is that it? Am I just way too picky?

This dilemma is why I eventually turned to Beliefnet.com and it's Belief-o-Matic quiz. What did it tell me? Well, the results were interesting, if not entirely helpful. It turns out I have a compatibility of 100 per cent with 'Mainline to Liberal Protestants'. Probably not all that surprising for someone taught in a 1970s Anglican Sunday School. But I also have 82 per cent compatibility with a 'Liberal Quaker'. Again not all that surprising since I have a very equalist aspect on the world. The 74 per cent compatibility with 'Reform Judaism' was more of a surprise. It was a similar score for 'Unitarian Universalism'. But at least I could see the reason, once I read the description in full. Other surprises were my score of 49 per cent for New Age, 45 per cent for Neo Pagan, and 44 per cent for each of Islam and Secular Humanism. In fact, I was astonished to find I had anything in common with the latter, since I do happen to believe in God and Humanists (as far as I know) don't, but there it was … just like the 30 per cent compatibility with Scientology - a religion I thought was a Hollywood craze and largely based on humans being unwilling hosts to alien souls or something of the sort. Although I'm sure that's not quite how the Scientologists would put it.

So a computer programme really could know what I believed? Do I even know what I believe? I know I believe that God is God is God. That, while I may see God in one way, you may see him/her/it/them in another, but that doesn't mean it's not the same God. I was raised Anglican, but that doesn't mean I don't value other denominations or religions just as highly. And I get that lots of people don't believe in anything (other than that there is nothing in which to believe). But, even if you're not convinced that God exists at all, isn't it better to follow the Albert Camus line? He wrote: 'I'd rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is …'

Oh, and I'm still looking for that traditional-contemporary-laidback-formal-friendly-reserved perfect little church …