March 31, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
I have largely avoided one of the biggest topics of all: religion. I have my reasons. Spirituality and religious belief are considered private and sensitive matters. For fear of causing offence, we are often embarrassed to talk about such things publically. Hardly anything in this world is quite so controversial, especially now that so many conflicts are divided on religious grounds. Even as I write, I realise that a word out of place could incur someone’s wrath.
But today is Easter Sunday. It is said to be the day that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and is thus the most holy day of the Christian calendar. Now is the time to broach the topic. I am not sure how many believe the resurrection to be a literal truth or whether the Bible is largely read metaphorically. I confess to feeling very few religious inclinations. Having read essays such as Russell’s ‘Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilisation?’, it is easy to think of religion as an unmitigated blight. With churches trying to hold back women’s equality and gay marriage while remaining silent on the plight of the poor, I can’t see any signs of improvement since Russell wrote. And having watched the old Swedish film Häxan it is tempting to dismiss religion as part of a primitive and pre-scientific view of the world in which evil spirits could be blamed for wrongs. Prayer to God could be seen as a desperate lack of understanding.
Through the years, however, I’ve come to be more accepting of those who do not see the world the way I do. And I have also tried hard to understand the continuing appeal of religion and why many people of science seek to retain spirituality and reconcile it to an enlightened outlook. I think I get something of it. There is more to the world than matter, wealth and the claims that are verifiable empirically.
With a sole aim for the acquisition of material possessions, a bleak and empty existence awaits. More important are abstract ideas, learning, appreciation of the arts, intercultural understanding, morality, love and friendship irrespective of wealth. These all enhance and improve our lives and give us a sense that there is something deeper and more meaningful to the world that what we are usually given. This sense – that there is something more – is what tempts us to explore a spiritual dimension of life. And as I follow Plato in thinking of the world of ideas as the most important realm, I see that I too am spiritual, with a small s, despite my atheism. I see that there is a common feeling I share even with those whose beliefs stand so far from my own.
Happy Easter to all true Christians! Peace to those of other faiths!
A lovely, well-rounded perspective, Stephen. I think I’m spiritual with a small ‘s’, too. It’s important to remember nobody has a monopoly of such things.
By the way, one thing I would take issue with is churches ‘remaining silent’ about ‘the poor’ – although this is lamentably widespread, it’s important to note that the majority of people giving international aide are in fact part of religious organisations, and presumably religiously motivated. This is one issue I often had with both Russell and Schopenhauer’s respective evaluations of historical religious impact: they missed out the material gains for the poor.
A better way was offered by the 1945 welfare state – this, more than any atheistic argument, offered the real end of religion, at least for the worst-off. With the removal of the welfare state, we shall no doubt see a rise in the impact of volunteerism, an inevitable return to religious fortitude. This then shall be the Easter egg reaped by our great grandchildren.
Thank-you for posting your thoughts. Philosophers like yourself are best qualified to critique theologians who purport to peddle metaphysical certainties to the masses. It’s one thing to ponder about “there must be something beyond human comprehension”, it’s quite another thing to try to impose your beliefs in that unknown on others.
Good piece, Stephen. However, if you ask the question “Is spirituality good?”, the answer depends on how you conceptualise what spirituality is. If you define it as a desire or tendency to be religious, then the answer is its a bad thing. This is because religions are institutions which promote bad world views that are a reflection of pre-civilized attitudes in human history. You know a world view is bad when you have to give that world view a liberal re-interpretation to stop it from committing you to dubious political, ethical, or empirical claims. And every religion I know has to be liberally re-interpreted to become benevolent for the believer’s overall moral character. I do take the point that there are lots of good religious liberals who do good things in the name of their religious beliefs. But this doesn’t excuse religion itself from being bad. I can re-interpret Stalin or Hitler in ways that get rid of most of the morally objectionable commitments being a Stalinist or Nazi would seemingly commit me to. I can even do good things in the name of Stalin or Hitler. But the presence of a good hearted liberal within the Stalinist or Nazi camp doesn’t mean those camps should suddenly become exempt from condemnation. If you examine the original versions of any religious belief system, I can’t think of any occasion where the belief system in question is not in someway backward and reactionary. Even today, religions don’t gain converts by promoting their more benevolent liberal interpretations. The same religions which promote their liberal face to the world also gain converts using the more reactionary versions of their doctrines. These reactionary versions, I think, represent religion in its purest form. They are what religious institutions have traditionally stood for. And they are also the doctrines that religious institutions primarily use today to keep themselves from dying out. Liberal religion doesn’t generally appeal to secular liberals. It appeals to people who are already religious who don’t want to be conservatives. But religion generally appeals to those non-religious people who find secular liberalism unsatisfying and have the potential to wholeheartedly embrace reactionary dogmas. This is how religion primarily depends on the weak and psychologically damaged to sustain itself.
I really like this post Stephen and I don’t mean to narrow it down to one tiny point but I don’t understand why people still feel like religion is something that cannot be talked about critically because of the offence it may cause. I feel the same way, I am not religious and to be honest I have ideas regarding religion that one day I might be able to express coherently but I still feel like there will inevitably be hostility against any words I do end up writing/saying. How does religion still have this hostile grip over us? just pondering aloud.