Contrary to the popular definition, too many modes of belief and behaviour can function as 'religious' for it to be a simple category
John Sulston is one of the smartest men I know – well, he ought to be, as a Nobel prize winner – and last week I got him talking about religion in front of an audience for the Westminster faith interviews.
One of the things that came up in this, as so often before, was the definition of "religion". Sulston was brought up as a low church Anglican, and still feels that religion must involve God and a belief in the supernatural, and that ritual is secondary to theology.
I came up with my usual counter to this – that there are atheistic religions; that there was ritual long before there could be theology and that we ought to take scientists – even social scientists – more seriously than dictionaries. This last point because Sulston had gone to the trouble of looking up and printing out one of the OED definitions of religion, which he felt proved his point.
"Belief in or acknowledgement of some superhuman power or powers (esp a god or gods) which is typically manifested in obedience, reverence, and worship; such a belief as part of a system defining a code of living, esp as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement."
I can see that it must be frustrating, if you have such a definition in front of you to get some slippery Durkheimian answer about religion being actually the way that society understands and defines itself. You might, if pressed, agree that Americans treat their constitution as a sacred scripture, of universal application to the world. But it doesn't seem properly supernatural.
This is probably an argument that is impossible to resolve. But every serious thinker about religion has ended up with a definition as baggy as Durkheim's. There are just too many modes of belief and behaviour that can function as "religious" for this to be a simple category. And if the dictionary says different, then the dictionary is wrong.
The same holds true, of course, for things like evolution: if I want to know what evolution means, I ask biologists, not dictionaries. The meaning that scientists use may not be more correct than the popular one – how would you measure that? – but it is going to be much more useful for investigations of the subject. So, I am quite happy to say that science could function as a religion, in some modes and in some societies, while at the same time functioning as science. And it ought to be perfectly possible to distinguish between the two uses. Here's how.
Let's imagine that some future alien archaeologist, poking around in the remains of the Earth, comes across the pyramids and also the great circular tunnel, stripped of its machinery, which once contained the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva. Unless alien archaeology really is unimaginably alien, both of these giant structures, whose purpose is not immediately obvious, will at once be labelled "ritual structures". They were both feats of engineering, which required huge co-ordinated efforts, inspired by a belief in some non-material, transcendent good. In both cases, the people served a priesthood whose knowledge they had to take on faith. So, is there any test that lets us say that the one enterprise is "scientific", and the other "religious"? It seems to me that there is one.
If you were to work out the purposes of the two structures and try to build working models, the LHC tunnel would produce the same results in the alien future as it does now. The same experiments would produce the same evidence of the Higgs boson. The pyramids could not work like that. We could rebuild a pyramid, stock it with grave goods, and entomb some deserving, eviscerated and mummified world leader inside it. But at the end of these operations we still wouldn't know what Egyptians believed, or how. We certainly wouldn't know that the world leader had passed into the afterlife. If we did – if ritual actions had predictable, if inexplicable, results – that wouldn't be religion, but magic.
There's a very wonderful poem about this inability to understand the religions of the past by the Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, translated here and in the recent collection Chickweed Wintergreen.
Scientific and religious explanations come together in an odd way at Stonehenge and similar monuments. They can be interpreted as megalithic calendars, or devices for astronomical prediction, as well as ritual burying grounds – and the reason we can reconstruct them as gigantic observatories is precisely that we can calculate today exactly what would have emerged from calculations done 4,000 years ago.
Yet to call Stonehenge a purely scientific enterprise is clearly wrong. When you consider the immense labour and complex social organisation required to put all those stones in place, you could be inspired to ask "where would the sun have risen at midsummer 3235 BC". But surely the much more interesting question is why this question should have been thought so important in that culture.
That seems to me a question that only historians and sociologists of religion can answer. What's more, although the scientific question and its answer are independent of any particular cultural and religious matrix, they can't be independent of all of them.
To come back to Sulston – anyone who had sequenced the same material as he did would have come up with very similar results. That's the scientific question and it's the one that interested him. But the money and the resources that made it all possible were not raised by an appeal to intellectual curiosity and probably could never have been. They were raised partly in the expectation of profit, and partly by politicians using a largely religious rhetoric about "The book of life" which all the scientists involved could have explained was nonsense and which would certainly be impossible for an alien archaeologist to reconstruct. Yet the funds would never have been voted without it. So: is the Genome Centre a scientific factory or a ritual centre? It's both, and that's why the dictionary is wrong.
How has drug use in Europe changed? Which are the most popular drugs and what is the 'legal highs' phenomenon?
Find which drugs are most widespread by country
• Download the data
• More drug data from the Guardian
• More data journalism and data visualisations from the Guardian
An estimated 15.5m Europeans have used cocaine at least once in their life according to the latest results from an annual drugs report.
Published by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) the report found cocaine, over the past 10 years, to have become the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug in Europe.
Survey findings also showed that more than one new legal high goes on sale every week. Alan Travis writes today:
A record 57 new legal highs have been detected so far this year, with the EU's early warning system reporting the appearance of more than one new psychoactive drug on the market every week.
The rise and rise of legal highs is being driven by an explosion in the number of online retailers selling the new drugs in Europe, which has risen from 170 in 2010 to a record 693 internet "head shops" identified in a snapshot earlier this year.
So which drugs are most prevalent in Europe? And who uses what?
Cocaine remains the second most commonly used illicit drug in Europe overall according to the latest EMCDDA report and the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug in Europe. Prevalence differs by country with the latest results showing high levels of cocaine use only in a small number of mostly western European countries.
Approximately 4m Europeans are estimated to have used cocaine in the last year with Ireland, Spain, Italy and the UK all reporting higher levels above the European average. In those countries last year prevalence data showed cocaine to be the most commonly used illicit stimulant drug.
The most widely available illicit drug in Europe, it is estimated that cannabis has been used by around 80.5m Europeans at least once in their life - that means almost one in four 15-64 year-olds.
Cannabis is largely used by young people. The highest prevalence of cannabis use within the last year was found among 15-24 year-olds. The report also found cannabis use to be higher among males. The data is also broken down by country; the ratio of males to females using cannabis in the last year was just over six to one in Portugal.
The European average lifetime and last year use of cannabis stands at 32.5% and 12.4% respectively. Australia, Canada and the US all recorded higher than average rates.
Amphetamines and ecstasy
The EMCDDA report finds amphetamines or ecstasy to be the most commonly used illicit substance after cannabis in many European countries. About 13m Europeans have tried amphetamines with about 2m having used the drug within the last year. The findings also show higher levels of last year use among young people linked with dance-music or nightlife settings.
Of the 15-34 age group, the highest prevalence of amphetamine use in the last year is found in Estonia (2.5%) followed by Bulgaria (2.1%)
The highest prevalence of ecstasy use in the last year within the 15-34 age group was found in the Netherlands (3.1%) followed by the UK (3%).
New drugs and 'legal highs'
164 new psychoactive substances were detected through the EU's early warning system between 2005 and 2011. The EMCDDA report states that the increase in the number of substances notified "is occuring in the context of a continually developing 'legal high' phenomenon."
The rise of 'legal highs' has been driven an increase in the number of online retailers providing them. The table above shows the 'legal highs' most commonly offered for sale in online shops (surveyed in 2011 and 2012).
Natural products kratom, salvia and hallucinogenic mushrooms are the 'legal highs' most frequently offered online. These are followed by synthetic substances such as Methoxetamine, MDAI and 6-APB.
Data on drug use by country can be found in our downloadable spreadsheet. Countries that reported data for at least four years since 2000 are only included. For example, even though Estonia recorded the highest prevalence of amphetamine use in the last year it does not feature in the spreadsheet as it had less than four years of data since 2000. The full data can be found in the EMCDDA statical bulletin.
Download the data
NEW! Buy our book
More open data
World government data
Development and aid data
Can you do something with this data?
Brooklyn gig is an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and just one aspect of rock's effort to raise relief funds
Vampire Weekend, Devendra Banhart and members of the Dirty Projectors will be among the performers at a benefit concert for victims of superstorm Sandy, which struck the east coast of the US late in October, killing 121 people – plus 78 more in other countries – and causing an estimated $50bn (£31m) of damage in the US alone. Saturday's gig will raise funds for Occupy Sandy, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
"This came together with 10 phone calls, 10 emails and 10 texts," organiser Morgan Lebus told the New York Times. "Everyone's doing this for free … People just felt compelled to be a part of the cause."
Lebus is the founder of Ribbon Music, an imprint of Domino Records. As an A&R scout for the label he helped sign Dirty Projectors, members of which will perform at this weekend's show in Brooklyn. "These people are friends," Lebus said. Other guests include songwriter Cass McCombs, the band Real Estate, and members of the Walkmen; all will play short acoustic sets, according to Pitchfork. The concert will take place at Brooklyn Heights' St Ann & the Holy Trinity church; tickets start at $30 (£19) and are on sale now.
In addition to the Occupy gig, many other Sandy benefits are happening across the United States. The Dave Matthews Band have pledged the proceeds from a forthcoming concert in New Jersey – estimated at at least $1m (£600,000) to the relief operation. Dan Deacon, Ween, Justin Bieber and Crystal Method are also raising funds. On 12 December "some of the biggest stars in rock and pop music" will perform at Madison Square Gardens in a benefit show called 12-12-12; the concert is organised by the same producers who produced a charity gig in 2001, featuring the Who, Paul McCartney and Elton John, and which collected more than $30m (£19m) for victims of 9/11.
Thousands of people in New York and New Jersey are still without power following Sandy's landfall on 29 October. There are even greater challenges further afield: in Haiti, more than 20,000 people have reportedly lost their homes, and the country faces a major food shortage.
- Vampire Weekend
- Dirty Projectors
- Devendra Banhart
- Pop and rock
- Voluntary sector
- Hurricane Sandy
- United States
- Natural disasters and extreme weather
Scores of people are medically isolated after outbreak 40 miles from Kampala, months after a separate strain killed at least 16
Scores of people have been medically isolated to prevent the spread of a new outbreak of Ebola in Uganda, the scene of increasingly regular outbreaks of deadly haemorrhagic fevers that have left health officials grappling for answers.
The cluster of Ebola cases was confirmed on Wednesday in a district 40 miles (60km) from the capital, Kampala, and comes roughly a month after Uganda declared itself free of the disease following an earlier outbreak in a remote district in the west of the country. Last month at least five people in south-west Uganda were killed by Marburg, a haemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola.
The latest Ebola outbreak, officials say, is of the Sudan strain of the virus and not linked to the previous one, of the Congo variety, which killed at least 16 people between July and August in the western district of Kibaale. At least three people have died in the latest outbreak, and up to 15 are being monitored for signs of the disease, officials said. They advised against panic after it was revealed that two possible Ebola patients had since checked into Kampala's main referral hospital.
"The ministry of health once again calls upon the public to stay calm as all possible measures are being undertaken to control the situation," Christine Ondoa, Uganda's health minister, said.
Multiple outbreaks have occurred over the years, and news of the disease can cause patients to flee hospitals to avoid infection. In 2000, in one of the world's worst Ebola outbreaks, the virus infected 425 Ugandans and killed more than half of them in the north of the country. Another outbreak in 2007 killed 37 people in Bundibugyo, a remote district close to the Congolese border.
Ebola is highly infectious and kills quickly.
Denis Lwamafa, the director general of health services in Uganda's ministry of health, suggested that there were more reported cases of Ebola in Uganda than in other countries because its "diagnostic capability" had increased. But a World Health Organisation (WHO) official in Kampala said there were progressively more cases of Ebola because of an increase in "the interaction between man and the forests".
Investigators believe the first victim of Ebola in any outbreak acquires the disease after coming into contact with a "reservoir" – an infected animal, often a monkey.
"Whenever there is contact between man and the reservoir of Ebola then you get the first case," said Miriam Nanyunja of the WHO.
Ebola was first reported in 1976 in Congo and is named after the river where it was recognised. There is no cure or vaccine for it. Ebola is "characterised by fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, sore throat and weakness, followed by diarrhoea, vomiting, and stomach pain. A rash, red eyes, hiccups and internal and external bleeding may be seen in some patients," according to a factsheet by the US-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
The virus can be transmitted through direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person, or objects that have been contaminated with infected secretions. During communal funerals, for example, when the bereaved come into contact with an Ebola victim, the virus can be contracted, officials said, warning against unnecessary contact with suspected cases of Ebola.
Nanyunja of the WHO said Ugandans near the centre of the Ebola outbreak should practise what she called "social distancing", avoiding handshakes and similar contact.