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Columnists

Who are you?

Agnostics Anonymous

Grayson Perry's TV series Who Are You? examines identity in Britain today. From a gay couple raising a mixed-race child to a marriage weathering the onslaught of Alzheimer's, it explores how people define themselves today. Perry then portrays his subjects in delicate artworks.

Religion emerges as one of the scaffolds we use to build our identities. Kayleigh, a single mother of four, led a lost and dissolute life on a Kent council estate until she found contentment and happiness in Islam.

Kayleigh's brother struggles to articulate his discomfort.

'Don't you think I've changed for the better?' she asks.

'Yes,' he admits. 'But you could have done all this without changing to a Muslim. You could have done this as an English woman.'

Kayleigh disagrees. 'I believe that Islam has made me better. Not that I've made myself better.'

And she does seem to have found security and peace. What Islam offers young white Englishwomen, Perry comments, is 'a refuge from the nagging consumer pressures and constant, often sexual, scrutiny of women in western society.'

He creates a silk hijab portraying Kayleigh on the path from the temple of consumerism (the Ashford Designer Outlet) to Mecca.

In the following episode, Matt, a parentless, friendless, homeless 22-year-old, finds security and love in the bosom of the Jesus Army. Same shelter, different décor. The $64,000 question is this: if religion can rescue people like Kayleigh and Matt, does it matter that it isn't true? Some of us might feel uncomfortable with people speaking in tongues or shrouding themselves in black, but this gives succour to the lost and lonely, why should anyone object?

This takes us back to the 'Noble Lie' of Socrates. As recounted in Plato's Republic, the original lie is a creation myth that describes the different metals that god has infused into the souls of each class: the natural rulers shot through with gold, with 'silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen'. If everyone believes this, they will more readily fulfil their assigned roles.

But the cost of this is freedom. Kayleigh's brother knows that there's something not right.

'I'm not going to live my life out of a book,' he says. 'I'll live my life free and happy. And when I'm on my deathbed…'

'But I'm free and I'm happy,' says Kayleigh.

'But you can't eat pork, yeah? You can't drink. You can't smoke. I don't have to do none of that. I can go out with the lads and think that was a quality night. I can wake up the next morning and have a nice bacon sandwich because I like bacon.'

It's not quite right, as an argument, and you can see that he knows it. But it's not not right, either.