Clearing the Way for Rational Religion
CONTENTS PAGE This is a long article best downloaded and printed. The contents page gives you a flavour of it.
By this I mean non-supernaturalist, non-theist, reasonable religion. This paper summarises where I stand in 2012 and today. Ideally it works best if read after the rather long paper Supernaturalism – actually Christianity and Supernaturalism which I wrote years earlier, but have updated in minor ways. See also World Views : Supernaturalism
1.The Fundamental Truth Science Shows Us.
The cosmos we inhabit is remorselessly and unremittingly consistent. This is something we can say – without any reasonable doubt – as being something we KNOW.
2. Consistency, the Assumption Behind Science
3. Problems with Consistency. Why it has taken so long to recognize it.
4. A look at the nature of religion. An Attempt to Make Sense. Theistic approaches.
5. Religion as a Template and Set of Shared Practices
A way to understand religion I suggest is to see it as a prescriptive belief system adopted in an attempt to make emotional and rational sense of ourselves and of the truly awesome, beautiful and threatening world in which we live
6. Two different approaches to consistency. Science and Religion
7. The Clash between Open and Closed Systems
8. Supernatural Miracles
9. The Koran, the Muslim Miracle
10. Fundamentalist Religion and Morality
11. Open and Closed Religion
12. No Going Back
For those who are serious about truth and honesty however, there can surely be no going back. The old division between the natural and predictable elements in life and the unpredictable and inexplicable being a difference between events which can be understood scientifically and other events which are scientifically inexplicable supernatural miracles is simply no longer an intellectually honest option
13. Evolution and Consistency
14. Theism for Today?
For the theist this whole immeasurably old, awesomely large and relentlessly consistent cosmos is best imagined by humans as being in some sense the expression or product of a conscious, self-aware being who holds an ongoing and infinite awareness of the whole process and of our predicament within it. What is more this means asserting that as self-aware beings we are able to have some sort of relationship with this ultimate self-aware being.
15. The Atheist Option and Human Reflective Consciousness
For the atheist there is simply no evidence to point to the “existence” of such an infinite self-aware being as God other than our natural tendency to anthropmorphise our experience of reality and to posit “will”, “intention” and “creativity” upon the blind forces of nature as we have always been inclined to do.
16. Dawkins and Religion
17. Contemporary Liberalism and Religion
18. Non-religious Secularism
19. The Cult Response
20. Alternatives to Religion. Ideologies and Nationalism
21. Religion and Truth
I would like to see a more credible Christianity emerge from the distortions of supernaturalism and theism, a Christianity with a real claim to express truth about the human condition and so able to survive and flourish.
BA (Theol) Rhodes, MA (Theol) Oxon, M.Ed. (Philosophy of Education) Bristol
Article under RELIGION on www.johnbaxter.org
Clearing the Way for Rational Religion Here follows the actual article.
By this I mean non-supernaturalist, non-theist, reasonable religion. This paper summarises where I stand in 2012 and today. Ideally it works best if read after the rather long paper Supernaturalism – actually Christianity and Supernaturalism which I wrote years earlier, but have updated in minor ways. See also World Views : Supernaturalism
The Fundamental Truth Science Shows Us.
The cosmos we inhabit is remorselessly and unremittingly consistent. This is something we can say – without any reasonable doubt – as being something we KNOW.
From nano-particle to galaxy all our observations have lead us to conclude that there are no exceptions to this. This means that the developments that have taken place in our understanding of physics, chemistry, biology, logic, mathematics, and the workings of matter in space and time we must recognise apply throughout the knowable universe – however much some may wish it were otherwise.
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Pprinciple which deals with probability and the innate impossibility of error free measurement and the current speculative theories promoted by some cosmologists that we live in what is described as a multi-verse in no way undermines the overall conclusion that we live in an ordered, consistent and broadly predictable cosmos, not a random chaos.
The multiverse postulates are actually, as I understand it, attempts to tie together coherently what are currently contradictory theories about the nature of fundamental particles – the very small – and “black hole” – the very big – into a consistent whole. A dramatic illustration of the success of currently consistent theories is the success of the Voyager spacecrafts to turn up exactly where they were predicted to go after years of travel in space along a complicated set of trajectories. When it comes to research the most expensive and complicated scientific project ever undertaken is the Great Hadron Collidor at Cerne which is dedicated to trying to unravel just this problem has been built on the assumption that a consistent coherent answer is there to be found.
Consistency, the Assumption Behind Science
It has taken us some time to accept the conclusion that we live in a totally consistent universe. As time has gone by however and scientific knowledge has accumulated at a progressively increasing rate, it has become clearer that this consistency is not just a conclusion scientists make, it is also an assumption. In fact we can now see that it is the fundamental assumption upon which all scientific investigation depends. This is because every scientist assumes it to be true when, as constantly happens, new discoveries reveal anomalies and inconsistencies in their current thinking. They then assume that somewhere there is an answer to be found, an answer which will make sense of the problem and be consistent and coherent with what is known.
To see how vital this assumption is one only has to try and imagine an alternative scenario. This would be to assume that we do not live in a totally consistent universe. That would mean that some events at least would not just be unexplained, they would be essentially inexplicable. If this were to be the case how would anyone know which problem was susceptible to investigation and which problem would not be? Surely the only conclusion for the would be scientist in that situation would have to be that we appear to live in a quixotic, often chaotic and unpredictable universe. That would make the endeavours of scientists and technologists to find consistent solutions simply stabs in the dark, an enormous waste of time and effort. In other words what the scientists try to do at Cerne could be better carried out by the alchemist, shaman or priest who is not worried or constrained by the search for consistency, but is ready to turn to “the occult”, magic and answers to prayer.
Science and reason however require that the inconsistencies scientists observe have to be regarded as apparent and not fundamental, that further investigation and theorising will sooner or later reveal a solution.
The spectacularly effective way in which human science and technology continues to transform our world and our understanding of it demonstrates dramatically that the assumption that the universe is consistent and coherent is well founded. It is not a case of circular reasoning, but works because it drives science and technology on to give us more and more consistent answers to more and more complicated questions and the ability to make more and more clever tools.
Problems with Consistency
Why has it taken us so long to accept this consistency and why do so many still not accept it, or accept it selectively? In the first place I would suggest it is because we find consistency difficult to attain or even to aim for in our ordinary lives. We are not computers. We would not have survived if we were. We need to be much more flexible. We change our minds. Of course we try to make sense of what happens to us and to live well and be happy, but our judgments and feelings about who we are, what we want and who we trust in order to “be happy” all shift and change in the light of experience and in the light of what we can take, that is what we find psychologically acceptable.
In fact also we are only consistent in patches, patches acquired through education, work and personal experience (like a knowledge of computer science, cooking and the care of children) and we do not bother too much about joining these up. This is natural and usually sensible – but it does mean that being consistent is not something we are very good at. After all we are aware that we all make mistakes and that our knowledge of any subject is partial and that much of it may well turn out to be wrong.
What is more, very few, if any of us, however clever, are able to sustain the intellectual demands needed to be able to hold all our patches of knowledge together in a consistent and integrated way. Too often those who think they do, do so at the cost of gross oversimplification and by ignoring what does not fit in with their preconceptions, so becoming closed minded, bigoted and inflexible. For these reasons it is understandable why many may give up trying to be consistent and just “go with the flow.”
Another important reason why we have not accepted the consistency of the cosmos is I would suggest because for most of our history its consistency has not been apparent, certainly not in the way it is to the educated public now. In fact the record shows that our ancestors found their lives a bewildering mix between the observably consistent and the inexplicable and chaotic. Through observation, practice and the use of language they passed on their knowledge of the consistency of the seasons, the predictable growth and properties of plants, lore concerning their own bodies and the behavior of the animals they hunted, together with the highly predictable movements of the moon and stars. At the same time they faced extreme weather, storms, floods, comets and meteorites, outbreaks of mysterious illness, unexpected droughts, fires, earthquakes, and other catastrophes and accidents, all unpredictable, chaotic and inexplicable. They also had to deal with various types of unpredictable “mad” behaviour breaking out within and between members of their communities. In addition, unlike most of us, we know they also took very seriously and tried to make sense of the weird and frightening dreams they had.
A look at the nature of religion
In order to survive then, human beings always seek explanations. Always they try to make sense of life by developing ways of thinking and patterns of behaviour, which help them cope by placing all their experience within a framework or template, which they can share, with those around them. Such frameworks or templates I would argue are the essence of religion and are to be found in all cultures and at all times from the bands of hunter-gatherers stalking mammoths to the inhabitants of the White House stalking Al Q’aida.
Those influenced by the three related monotheistic religions are inclined to define a religion in terms of it being a system of belief in God, gods or the supernatural. Such a definition though becomes hard to sustain if applied to such developed, widespread and sophisticated religions as Buddhism and Confucianism where the worship of a God or gods is missing or minimal. It is also a definition which does not really fit when applied to tribal religions and the primal religions of the hunter-gatherers where what we are inclined to label as religion, as a question of faith and an acceptance of the supernatural, they would simply see as an incontestable recognition of the powerful, living forces that surround them. For them then what we may describe as their religion, is simply what they see as being reality, the way things are. If the whole gamut of religions is objectively examined then, I think a rather different and wider definition of religion is needed.
Religion as a Template and Set of Shared Practices
A way to understand religion I suggest is to see it as a prescriptive belief system adopted in an attempt to make emotional and rational sense of ourselves and of the truly awesome, beautiful and threatening world in which we live. It is however not so much a “philosophy of life”(a comparatively dry and intellectual approach) as a template which is communicated through a set of inter-related stories, teachings, ceremonies, songs, symbols and rules of behaviour. What is more, use of this template, through its practices and forms of communication brings individuals into a community of shared values.
This set of elements then helps those who make use of it to make sense of their lives, showing them how to behave and inspiring them with a vision of what is good and admirable. Vitally too it also promotes mental and physical healing and strengthens social cohesion in the face of adversity. In doing these things every religion attempts to give an overall explanation of the human condition, an easily assimilated and consistent overview, a narrative telling the story of who we are, where we come from and where we are going that can be grasped and shared by both the simple and the sophisticated, providing a bond of shared experience, values and understanding between them.
Other points also need to be kept in mind. All religions are self-replicating, organic and dynamic. They are good examples of what Richard Dawkins calls a meme, operating almost like a gene. All religions over time develop and express a specific style, subculture and aesthetic. While many are long lasting, going on for thousands of years, others die out, some surprisingly quickly. In fact even the long lasting ones are also always changing in the light of circumstances, though adherents often like to think of them as eternal and static. They also always encompass a wider range of thought, practice and levels of sophistication than at first appears to be the case.
Secular ideologies like Communism and Fascism come very close to meeting the definition of religion used here. Perhaps they are best thought of as quasi-religions. Political parties and nationalist movements also share some features of a religion, though usually in a weaker sense.
Religions can be small, ethnically restricted and tribal, or world-wide and international, transcending cultural, linguistic and national boundaries. Currently the major world religions are the three “Abrahamic” monotheisms starting in the Middle East, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Starting in India we have Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. In China Confuncianism and Daoism. Buddhism appears to have been the first world religion in that it spread West to Syria and East to Japan and most places in between jumping across cultural, political, ethnic and liguistic barriers.
Rather like science then, or as the precursor of science, religions work on the assumption that behind the contradictions and chaotic events in life, there lies an underlying order and consistency, a consistency each religion sets out to explain, demonstrate, and on occasion influence. Not surprisingly, given our nature as human beings, this is usually (though not always – see the Buddha Way) done by anthropomorphising the forces of nature. We project upon and behind them beings with the attributes of human personality, but with mysteriously supercharged and transformative powers, beings such as ancestral spirits, totemic powers of the Dream Time, daemons, immortals, angels, gods, or in the case of the monotheisms, the high all powerful One God – Yahweh, The Father Almighty, Allah the Merciful.
Two different approaches to consistency. Science and Religion
The underlying consistency asserted by each religion however, is not the same as the underlying consistency of science. Science is based upon the testing and modification of theories in the light of measurement and experiment. If measurement, observation and experiment result in baffling, unexpected or contradictory conclusions, the scientist tries either to devise a better experiment or to revise or discard the theory upon which it is based. The “laws” and theories of science as we have already noted are thus not immutable, but approximations, explanations which are constantly re-examined, re-tested, fine-tuned, expanded on, or on occasion discarded for newer, simpler, more wide ranging and more elegant versions. This unending re-appraisal, modification and revision of templates, theories and paradigms is what makes science science and an open system.
The underlying consistency seen in the religions however, is different. Generally speaking the basic story and set of teachings which each religion gives after its initial formulation is not regarded as open to reformulation in the light of experiment and new evidence, but as being fundamentally definitive and only open to further elaboration and to minor “updating” modifications. This means the religions usually operate as closed systems which means (as Popper pointed out,) that they are not susceptible to being disproved by any evidence. For example in the primal and tribal religions the idea that anything could be a random accident is unthinkable for everything that happens is considered to have been caused by some ancestor or totemic being. Success and survival is seen as dependent on keeping them propitiated and living in tune with them. Questioning their power and significance is simply unthinkable within a traditional cultural context.
In Jewish, Christian and Islamic monotheism where the natural world is seen as being under the control and the work of the one God “maker of heaven and earth”, and that God is seen as the author of all order, science has in fact been able to grow and develop in its understanding of the world as a consistent system. As a result experiment and the testing of theories as to the how and why things work as they do has been increasingly tolerated and even encouraged as displaying more fully the handiwork of God.
The Clash between Open and Closed Systems
It is however an oversimplification to describe all religions simply as closed systems. In fact all religions change to some extent in their practices when there are significant changes in the economic and political circumstances of the communities they sustain. Often however they label such changes as being a return to first principles. (eg Luther) From the time of the 18th Century Enlightenment onwards however, for Christians and Jews the spectacular growth of scientific knowledge and the success of scientific method in making sense of the world, explaining things and changing things, threw into question the nature of many of the stories in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. If these stories were to be regarded as true, then in what way were they true? Increasingly the answer came back that if a story is true then it must be historically true and if the event described cannot be explained in natural terms, that is scientifically explicable, then it must be a record of a supernatural and essentially inexplicable event. Such supernatural events were defined as being “miracles” and acceptance of the existence of a supernatural realm and of divine actions where the strictures of scientific consistency do not apply has become commonly understood as what it means to have “religious faith.”
Applying this to the stories in the Christian and Jewish scriptures from the creation of the world on through to the story of Jesus raised problems. Increasingly those influenced by scientific and historical-critical thinking found many elements in such stories incredible for two basic reasons. Firstly on the basis of what was known about the relentlessly consistent way in which the world was seen to work they seemed inexplicable as natural events, and secondly that the evidence for them having actually taken place as historical events, such as those who would insist on a literal reading of the sacred books claimed, was simply not good enough to constitute evidence that should or needs to be taken that seriously.
On the other hand those who saw their scriptures as being “true” asserted that for believers acceptance of them as history was an essential “act of faith.” This put science and religion as regards the claims of Christianity on a collision course which continues to rumble on bitterly to this day.
Within Judaism active compliance with the rules of behaviour set out in the Torah has generally been seen as far more important and far more a focus for learned argument than a literal acceptance of all elements of the scriptural stories being historically accurate, so the conflict was not initially so divisive, though it did take place (and is asserted by contemporary fundamentalist Jews who claim a divine right to rule and control agreater Israel regardlessof international agreement). Increasingly for Christians however, both Catholics and Protestants came to see their “faith” as being dependent on their acceptance of the stories in their scriptures being regarded as historical events for which scientific thinking could give no explanation. These stories described Jesus as having had a virgin birth, the capacity to heal serious sicknesses, cast out devils, raise people from the dead, calm storms, turn water into wine and multiply loaves and fish. Most importantly it is claimed that he came alive again after being crucified, dead and buried These events it is then asserted, need to be seen as being both “supernatural” and “real and historical”. In particular any interpretation of these stories as having had from the start primarily or exclusively a symbolic, poetic or “theological” meaning and that they should be used (as Hindu and Buddhist stories have been used) subjectively as useful aids to meditation and reflection rather than accepted as objective historical events, is rejected as “faithless.”
This last event, acceptance of a supernatural and historical “resurrection”, has become non-negotiable even for many Christians who would argue that most of the other “miracle” stories should be seen as symbolic, or susceptible to some natural explanation. Generally then in Christian circles to speak or think of the resurrection stories of Jesus being symbolic rather than historical is commonly regarded as a sign that one has “lost faith.” This makes it very difficult for even the most perceptive and scientifically aware Christians to completely reject supernaturalism.
The Koran, the Muslim Miracle
In Islam the issue has been rather different. The stories about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (in the Hadith more than in the Koran) are far more numerous and contemporaneous than those concerning Jesus, and they do not raise questions with regard to their believability and historical accuracy to the extent New Testament miracle stories do. Rather as with the Jews and the Torah, their importance is seen in the examples they provide for Muslims of right behaviour. For Muslims however, there is one basic and over-riding “miracle” or supernatural event to be accepted and that is that Muhammad really was the prophet of God and that when he recited the words now preserved in the Koran he was simply acting as the mouthpiece of God and the rules of behaviour and teachings he declared in Arabic were simply God’s last word for humanity – to be accepted as the ultimate truth and acted upon accordingly.
This in fact makes the Muslim treatment of the Koran closer to the Orthodox Jewish treatment of the Torah than to the supernaturalistic treatment by Christians of the New Testament texts as regards “miracles”. This has meant that for many western and science educated Muslims there has been little sense of a conflict between the Koran on the one hand and paleontology and evolution on the other. Those Christians however who read the Jewish (“Old Testament”) and Christian scriptures in a literal and supernaturalistic way, reject the conclusions of science and regard themselves as “Creationists” and advocates of “intelligent design.”
Fundamentalist Religion and Morality
Increasingly it appears that the divide between those who see themselves as members of “faith communities” and those who do not is seen from both within their own ranks and without as being a divide between those who accept supernaturalism – at least as regards their own religion and its sacred writings and stories – and those outside who do not. In a fascinating article in the Economist (April 19th 2007) entitled In the Beginning. The Debate over Creation is Fast Going Global, the author (always anonymous in the Economist) draws attention to a bizarre development. A Turkish Muslim writer named Adnan Oktar who writes under the name of Harun Yahya (see website!) shows extreme Muslim literalism at work. In a prodigous output of books which are being distributed in huge numbers throughout Europe and the Muslim world, he attacks Darwinism as a godless atheistic assault on Islam and the Koran.
The article goes on to describe a move against Darwinism and a re-assertion of supernaturalism both within the Catholic Church, lead by Pope Benedict V1 (Joseph Ratzinger) and in the Orthodox Church in Russia, while of course in the US Darwinism and evolution is rejected by a majority of the population who are in favour of Creationism and “intelligent design.”
Amongst Jews there has also been, particularly from settlers coming from the US to Israel, those who read the Jewish Scriptures in a literalistic way, rejecting Darwin and evolution and also affirming a divine right to settle in Palestine, “the Promised Land” and the supernatural hand of God in the victory of Israel, the “Jewish State” in the Six Days War.
A very serious consequence of this acceptance of supernaturalistic interpretations of the religions as being the authentic way to express “faith” is that it effectively destroys the possibility of dialogue, discussion and the acceptance of similarity. When people say, “I don’t care what you say, that is my faith and I believe in it,” there really is little that can be said and in some circumstances the choice becomes one between walking away or preparing to fight. In such a context “tolerance” does not mean mutual understanding based on respect, but a capacity to live parallel lives with a minimum of interaction – except at best in economic life. Such a situation we see every day is dangerous and unstable.
More generally however the point of conflict between Islam and Western and secular culture is not over Science, but between a Western consequentialist and more or less utilitarian based approach to ethics which encourages reasoned debate, and a morality which is seen to be based upon divinely decreed absolutes. (Again this same conflict arises between the way supernaturalist Christians use their scriptures as a source of “moral laws” and liberal and secular culture as we see in the “debates” over abortion, birth control, gay rights, women in Church and assisted dying ).
Open and Closed Religion
If religions have a tendency to begin or easily become closed systems is it impossible for them to become open systems? I would argue that for many they certainly can and have. In the 19th and 20th centuries Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have all been the focus of serious modernizing, liberalising movements. Western scholars subjected their scriptures, teachings, traditions and practices to more or less sustained historical-critical scrutiny and philosophical analysis while scholars from within each tradition attempted to develop an open and consistent synthesis of their religious thought and practice with modern forms of knowledge. In the 20th century there has also been an enormous growth in the scholarly, open and academic study of all religions in general, rather than of single religions in isolation.
Sadly, but possibly inevitably, modernising attempts to interpret religious traditions in an open, comparative and critical way have also been met with widespread fear and rejection by members within each tradition who have suspected what they have seen as a secularising sell-out with the modern tail wagging the traditional dog. The result has been that they have re-asserted claims that their religion alone is true and their scriptures alone are the word of God and that events described in them should be regarded as historical truth. In this way a significant number from Pope to peasant, have been promoting their religions as assertively supernaturalistic closed systems. This is the essence of fundamentalism, Christian, Jewish and Islamic.
No Going Back
For those who are serious about truth and honesty however, there can surely be no going back. The old division between the natural and predictable elements in life and the unpredictable and inexplicable being a difference between events which can be understood scientifically and other events which are scientifically inexplicable supernatural miracles is simply no longer an intellectually honest option. There are many things which current science cannot explain, and of course scientific theories are open to revision in the light of new evidence, but all the evidence we have points to the ever consistent nature of reality and no evidence can be sustained that there exists a class of events so inexplicable that only “supernatural intervention” can be regarded as the most likely explanation for them.
Evolution and Consistency
We are surely right then to assert that we know we live in a cosmos of total consistency where the same principles apply to the behaviour of time, space, matter and energy. We are also surely right to assert (as Dawkins has explained so eloquently and clearly) that in this cosmos matter has evolved into self-replicating forms of life and forms of life have evolved through a process of natural selection triggered by random mutations. This circuitous, haphazard but completely consistent route, has over milennia resulted in producing that most mysterious and incredible of developments, self-aware, self-conscious beings capable of rational understanding and moral behaviour.
That then I would suggest becomes the fundamental set, paradigm or template which any religion which is to continue to claim some purchase on the truth of how things are has to accommodate itself to and incorporate into its thinking and teaching. In particular for the monotheisms any understanding of God has to recognise that whatever God, Divine Spirit or Ultimate Source of Reality there may be, the “divine” works through and never against this totally consistent cosmos.
Theism for Today?
What then is the difference between atheist and theist? As I see it an intellectually plausible case for theism may still be possible even if so far I have not come across one I find convincing. On the assumption that such a case can be made then it surely has to start by accepting the consistency of this weird and mysterious cosmos which scientific analysis and discovery is showing us. This includes accepting the conclusions of what for most of us innumerates is the inaccessible theorising of contemporary cosmologists, fuzzy logic, string theory and quantum physics buffs and of course the comparatively more easily accessible story Dawkins gives us of the evolution of species through natural selection (Darwinism.)
As I would see it this means asserting for the theist that this whole immeasurably old, awesomely large and relentlessly consistent cosmos is best imagined by humans as being in some sense the expression or product of a conscious, self-aware being who holds an ongoing and infinite awareness of the whole process and of our predicament within it. What is more this means asserting that as self-aware beings we are able to have some sort of relationship with this ultimate self-aware being – as fleshed out in the particular theistic religious traditions; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu etc. Random and undeserved suffering and the creation and destruction of countless species and worlds, together with evolution not as some sort of guided process but as taking place through an inexorable process of natural selection triggered by random mutations has to be accepted as a troubling yet neccessary consequence of the way this ultimate intelligence has set things up and works through the cosmos.
We may though also believe that this ultimate intelligence has so set things up that certain individuals as a result of their natural capacities, personalities and key cultural positioning were able to see and express (Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Sidhartha Gautama, Guru Nanak etc etc) significant insights concerning the human condition and how we should live to be “in tune” with this ultimate intelligence or reality. As a result they have inspired followers to use their teachings and example in order to get on with each other so as to be able to experience reasonably happy and useful lives and build communities on the basis of shared values. Finally, even if we fail to survive as communities or as a species and are eliminated by some human caused or natural catastrophe, the ultimate mind, the theist will believe, will always “remember” us.
Some may also argue that theism is for us more natural, more human, than atheism, and that continuing to use the practices of a religious tradition is deeply sustaining, steers us towards compassionate and responsible living, maintains an awareness and experience of community beyond the family, gives us a sense of hope, and keeps despair and a sense of alientation and hopelessness at bay.
The Atheist Option
For the atheist this means accepting that there is simply no evidence to point to the “existence” of such an infinite self-aware being as God other than our natural tendency to anthropmorphise our experience of reality and to posit “will”, “intention” and “creativity” upon the blind forces of nature as we have always been inclined to do. Now we may do better to accept what our growing knowledge of reality shows us, namely that the cosmos as a whole is blind, purposeless, yet relentlessly consistent. No-one is looking out for us, progress is not built into the nature of things and the underlying structure of reality is fundamentally mindless. No-one is to blame for allowing suffering or catastrophe – except in those cases where we or other self-aware and autonomous beings are.
The atheist however needs remember that the mindless structure of reality has within itself the capacity to bring about self-replicating life forms which we have increasing reason to believe are probably seeded across the cosmos and which may in turn have the capacity – in the right sort of environment as is the case here – to evolve into a community of self-aware beings, (ourselves). That said the evolution of human reflective consciousness through a process of natural selection triggered by ranbom mutations is by far the most awesome, mysterious and challenging phenomenon confronting our understanding as atheists, theists or scientists.
From an atheist perspective random and meaningless suffering for humans and the evolution and destruction of species, ecosystems and worlds are simply a consequence of the nature of this relentlessly consistent cosmos being what it is. Now we need to accept that our future as a community of self-conscious beings, unless we have the bad luck to be wiped out by some natural catastrophe such as a direct hit from a large meteorite, is up to us.
We can however be quite sure that there will be no intervention from some divine being if we refuse to face reality and do not recognise that our future and that of our beautiful planet is very much up to us. We have to make our presence here sustainable or we face imminent catastrophe within this century. Perhaps though we have evolved sufficiently to be able to do this, though behaving in a consistently rational manner is not something we have so far been very good at.
How is the atheist to view the founders of the “great religions” their teachings and the traditions they have inspired? I would hope with respect and as being worthy of careful study. They all, and here I particularly add Sidhartha Gautama (the Buddha) who was no theist, have shown insight into the human condition and all have founded religions which sensitively used may inspire, guide and humanise those of us who are easily weak, feckless and selfish when left to ourselves. The basic human values such as respect for people, respect for stable families, the promotion of honesty, the search for truth, the promotion of justice, the forgiveness of the penitent, the support of the poor, sick and needy, these are things shared and commended to a greater or lesser extent by all of them.
Dawkins and Religion
Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion has done an excellent job in exposing the irrationality and moral shortcomings of literalist, supernaturalist fundamentalism as seen particularly in its Christian, Jewish and Muslim forms, even if others such as Karen Armstrong have done the same job more subtly and years earlier. (The Battle for God) With his clear and readable style he has though driven home the point that the thinking person who is honest really has no alterative now but to accept the consistent nature of reality and to reject all forms of supernaturalism as an irrational cop-out. At the same time in dismissing the Buddhist and Confucian traditions in one sentence as being best understood as “philosophies of life” rather than as religions, he distorts his case badly.
Speaking as a former Christian and an atheist who has very little knowledge of Confucianism but who has found Buddhist practice and teaching useful and who has associated with the Theravada Buddhist community and the monastic Sangha, it strikes me as simply laughable to regard the Buddha Way as anything other than a religion. Certainly it fulfills the definition I have advanced in this paper. With its temples, monks and nuns, chanting, rituals, scriptures, stories, ceremonies, teachings, and precepts for behaviour, in particular its practice of generosity, morality and meditation and its promotion of a just and compassionate social order and its historical impact on a range of societies and cultures, it just strikes me as ridiculous to consider it as anything other than one of the most clearly defined, long lasting and influential of the religions. This is of course not to say that there are aspects of Buddhist life and culture which Dawkins and others (including humble self) might consider ripe for criticism, nor is it the case that crude fundamentalism and supernaturalsm cannot rear its ugly head within the Buddhist community – despite the teachings and practices within the tradtions which discourage such an approach as being “unskillful.”
As a leading Therevadan Buddhist monk, the Ajahn Sumedho once said to me, “It is not the religion you follow that is so important. All the major religions contain wise teachings and good practices. It is how you use your religion that is important.”
Dawkins’ book is good to spell out some of the appalling thinking and behaviour that is carried out in the name of the religions, but I would suggest he is quite wrong in attempting to argue that the way ahead is to do away with all religions as if they were simply different strains of some ghastly disease that could be eliminated by some form of vaccination. For a start we have to admit no such vaccine exists and then we need to look at what the alternatives to religion are.
Alternatives to Religion
There are several alternatives to the religions. The most powerful and continuing one is surely that collection of thought and practice which has been called The Enlightenment. Getting going in the Eighteenth Century with the thinking of Hume, Rousseau, Locke, Tom Paine, the Dutch Republic, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England, and later with John Stuart Mill and the rise of Utilitarianism, ideas concerning human rights, representative democratic government, freedom of conscience, speech and religion spread across Europe and in particular were embodied in the American Constitution with its radical separation of religion from the state.
The development of the ideas of the Enlightenment has been anything but smooth, with its bloody perversion in the French Revolution, backlashes against it and the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars, but the ideals of Liberalism, Democracy, Human Rights, Religious Freedom and the Rule of Law continue to grow and be recognised as the best deal on offer for running society and are today most visible and universally adopted in the member states of the EU after Europe has gone through two world wars to get there.
Contemporary Liberalism and Religion
Growing out of the Enlightenment of the 18th Century of which it is an essential part, the liberal political tradition has always basically been one which has espoused freedom of conscience and freedom on the part of individuals to practice the religion of their choice, or to practice no religion at all, and to commend their religion publicly and for religion to be publicly criticised.
Leading liberals have covered the complete spectrum as regards religion, from those who have been very religious Catholics, Protestants or Jews to those who have been completely without or against any religion. All are agreed however that no religion has the right to impose its teaching, practice or rules of behaviour upon society. That is the task of freely elected democratic government passing laws.
The general liberal tradition then is that as regards religion in general and any religion in particular the role of the state should be one of scrupulous neutrality, safeguarding the rights of citizens to practice their religion without suffering discrimination while also making sure that no religious hierarchy or pressure group is able to dictate public policy. This separation of powers has been a hard lesson for the Roman Catholic Church to come to terms with. Protestant forms of Christianity, including the C of E, have found this easier and it has become practically normative throughout Britain and the EU.
The consequences then of the Enlightenment and of the Liberal Tradition on the practice of Religion in Western Europe in particular have been profound. Generally the religions living in the liberal democracies have become much more open, liberal-minded and tolerant themselves, but most obviously there has been a huge fall-off in active membership as a process of secularization has developed, particularly in all the nations of the EU with the possible exception of Poland and Malta. In the US, unlike Europe, no religion receives support from the state, and religious observance and active church membership have remained extremely strong. Sadly the strength of more open minded and liberal forms of Christianity has waned while supernaturalism, both conservative Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant, remains extremely assertive and widespread and a rampant and divisive element within American popular culture and thinking.
The second great alternative to religion has been Nationalism. This really got going in the 19th Century and is the belief that national, cultural, racial and linguistic identity should be the guiding and unifying force in people’s lives, and that “religion” could be tacked on to that (Ireland, Poland, Greece,) or in some cases discarded (Turkey, Egypt, Syria). Secular nationalism has many of the features of a religion as here defined, though usually in a more attenuated form. As an alternative to religion however, nationalism has shown itself to be a template which has inspired both unselfish heroism, cultural and artistic creativity, enlightened social, health and education policies and appalling ethnic cleansing, rape, discrimination, pillage and cruelty. Does that make nationalism and patriotism necessarily bad? Surely not if freed from racism and allied to Liberal Enlightenment values. A simple but potent example of how this can be achieved was shown positively at the last Football World Cup final held so successfully and symbolically in of all places Nuremberg.
The third and fourth alternatives to religion have been the secular ideologies of the Twentieth Century, Fascism and Communism. Both of these as Popper analysed them in “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (the latter as “vulgar Marxism” – not the same thing as the sophisticated philosophy of Karl Marx) were terrible examples of closed systems and both in the hands of Lenin, Stalin an Mao Tse Tung brought about the most appalling human degradation and suffering. Both have all the marks of a religion as defined here, story ceremony, symbol, rules of behaviour etc., etc., in a potent and circular brew of closed thinking where there visions of a “utopia” became capable of driving whole cultures and peoples towards annihilation. Neither however found they needed to claim supernatural support to work their devilry and both attacked traditional religions. They do however provide us with a terrible warning that simply attacking traditional religions, in this case Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and the Jews can result not in a more reason based society, but in double-speak, irrationality, terror and injustice on a vast scale. This Dawkins does not properly take into account.
Dawkins and many advocates of secularism may be unrealistically optimistic about our capacity as human beings to live personally satisfying, socially useful and harmonious lives without some identification with some religion. Whether we believe in God or not or resort to supernaturalist superstitions is not the issue. The issue is do we need a template to give us a basic vision of the good life and a group to identify with in seeking it or can we simply get by with working everything out for ourselves as individuals? Can we get by with simply considering ourselves to be humanists and responsible citizens, or do we need a more active association and deeper experience of community with others whose views and values we share? Do we need opportunities for retreat, training in meditation and reflection, or just time out at a health spa? Do we need to connect with the myths and stories of those who have gone before, or is only the present important? Do we need to share in rituals and ceremonies which help us affirm our values and bring us face to face with others who do the same, or can we operate well in an anonymous mass society without such things? Are we really able to flourish in a state of secular independence without ending up feeling overwhelmed, isolated and rather lost?
In the US it seems the reaction is that in a secular state, most individuals feel a need for an explicit religion to identify with and to practice. In Europe where some “established” religion lingers on, most seem to think they can get by very nicely on their own thank you – unless they are Muslim or come from immigrant communities which feel a strong need to keep their cultures going.
Has non-religious secularism delivered as a satisfying life-style or is there not significant dissatisfaction with the fruits of non-religious living? Many seem to live lives of desperately shallow consumerism, relentless selfishness and personal emptiness, victims of the pressures of the market to spend, accumulate, and ignore others. These seem poor substitutes for the personal fulfillment and sense of self-worth that comes from doing useful work, helping and supporting family and feeling part of a community while contributing towards society. Also the search for personal pleasure and gratification has ended for many in shallow and transient relationships, an inability to parent adequately, in loneliness, alienation and a sense of worthlessness. As a result huge numbers slip into patterns of addictive behaviour seeking relief from their unhappiness and failures through resorting to an excessive consumption of junk food, drink, drugs, violent entertainment and impersonal sex. Then there are those, usually inadequate to start with, who turn to crime and become, as most of them do, repeat offenders who cause huge social disruption and suffering to others, as well as to themselves. The question is can these ills be seriously addressed simply by the courts, social services and voluntary social effort without the help and involvement of organized religion, or has organized religion really very little to do or say except help its active members steer clear of such destructive behaviour? I see no clear answer here.
The Cult Response
A small, significant, sometimes very dangerous but more often simply pathetic minority react to what they experience as an aimless and corrupt secular society by turning to the most extreme forms of religion, to the sects and cults. These go one step beyond fundamentalism in submitting themselves completely to the norms dictated by some “charismatic” leader of their adopted group. For cult members those outside, be they former friends or family as well as everyone else, become simply part of what they see as the lost, damned world. In such groups ordinary intelligent people can be conditioned into behaving in extreme and twisted ways, driven by the sick logic of a skillfully manipulated closed system.
Now we rightly think of jihadi Islamists, as posing the greatest threat, but they are only one example of cult thinking and behaviour. In Europe, Africa, America, China, Japan and Russia – to mention but a few – at times when groups in the population become alienated and subject to social stress, extreme cults which are seriously irrational and usually crazily supernaturalist, have suddenly sprung up within or related to the main religions in ways that have created serious social chaos. This can happen again and the presence of the cults is a powerful reminder of how human beings, being what we are, are susceptible to manipulation and can become seduced by weird and irrational religious templates.
Religion and Truth
If the cults show us how irrational religion can become and what a twisted and distorted understanding of reality they can convey, they focus our attention on an important problem. If a religion is fundamentally a template of stories ceremonies, symbols, teachings and rules of behaviour, a template which is there to help us make psychological sense of life, then it needs to be fundamentally based upon the truth, upon the way things actually are in the world or at the very least to provide significant and helpful insights into the human condition which “ring true” even if parts of the template do not.
Here it seems that those who speak of their own religion and the religion of others as a “faith” have as their starting point an assumption that their religion may be contrary to or at the very least not supported by sustained reasoning and critical enquiry. Usually this also goes together with a denigration of reason as timid, partial, sterile and of very limited value when it comes to dealing with such “ultimate questions” as how we decide on our basic values and life choices. For these it is asserted the heroic role of “faith” is needed.
However to regard “Reason” and “Faith” as inherently contradictory is as we have seen the great mark of supernaturalism, and supernaturalism divides phenomena into those which are explicable according to scientific theories and those which are inherently inexplicable and miraculous because they are signs and expressions of the workings of the gods or some version of God. Such a divided way of thinking is as we have seen, simply not sustainable. It is literally incoherent. Of course such thinking will continue to remain sustainable on a non-reflective, anti-intellectual “culture of common-sense” level for many, but that is a shallow and fickle basis for any religion.
Again, if out of respect for those who are cleverer and better than myself I am prepared to accept that a liberal, rational, historical-critical understanding of theism may still be possible, what if it turns out not to be? What if it becomes increasingly recognized by reflective, thinking people within the churches, mosques and synagogues that a God driven universe is fundamentally not the way things are? Where then are religiously disillusioned people to turn? Is Richard Dawkin’s secularism and the Humanist Society the only place to go or is it possible to find a non-supernaturalist, non theistic religion? As I have hinted and as I have found, the Way of the Buddha may be a congenial possibility, but it is not without difficulties, both practical and theoretical which I will not explore here. What future though can there be for the three Abrahamic monotheisms, Judaism, Chistianity and Islam?
With reference to Christianity might it be possible for its thinkers and advocates to commend and adopt a non-supernatural non- theistic form? Since the sixties there have been attempts to do this. Starting with Paul van Buren’s The Secular Meaning of the Gospel and then Alastair Kee’s much more profound and well argued The Way of Transcendance (1971) and finally with Don Cupitt’s Sea of Faith.(1980) and the network it has given rise to. So far the church has not responded well to such moves, but perhaps now with a deeper and more positive understanding of the value of Christianity as a religion, and of the role of religion in society, the time may have come for this option to be explored again.
I continue to admire much that is to be found in ordinary Anglican practice and respect many friends, family and others I know whose religion has definitely helped them become generous, sympathetic and admirable people. I come from South Africa where under apartheid the witness of the Anglican Church was powerful in its rejection of racism and an inspiration in its advocacy of social justice. It also promoted a real vision of brotherhood and community, Mandela’s Rainbow Nation.
On the other hand I find all forms of closed or fundamentalist religion, be they Jewish, Protestant, Catholic or Muslim depressing, examples for me of what Marx called “false consciousness.” Even here however I have found that even Evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholicism can act surprisingly well as motivators and sustainers of generous humane behaviour, sympathy for those who suffer and critical thinking in the face of the mindless low-grade hedonism and selfishness that is often accepted as “popular culture.” Again, perhaps it is not so much the religion we choose or are born into that matters as how we use it.
For this reason I would like to see a more credible Christianity emerge from the distortions of supernaturalism and theism, a Christianity with a real claim to express truth about the human condition and so able to survive and flourish.
BA Theol Rhodes, MA Oxon, M.Ed. (Philosophy of Education) Bristol
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