A Matter Of Faith

In my blogging, I have often written on subjects or re-blogged articles concerned with religion. In GibberLog, I might be interested in how religion interacts with politics and policy on such matters as education. In BlatherLog, the concern will be the role of religion in history, or its engagement with the sphere of science (often again touching on how science is taught in schools). It is pretty common for me to play Devil’s Advocate when I blog, and it isn’t always clear whether I have a consistent position on anything at all. Partly this is deliberate, but partly it also reflects the fact that I am not an ideologue, and my genuinely held views are often inconsistent or hail from different parts of the philosophical spectrum. I think most people are like that, really. It is only academics and politicians who have to pick an ideology and stick to it come hell or high water (and often not even politicians!).

But I thought it might actually be an interesting exercise to try to articulate exactly what it is I do think about religion, if for no other reason than to reflect. I’m not talking about my opinion of specific faiths, because I am not well-enough informed about any faith to hold a view worth elaborating here. I am talking about religion in general. Is that even possible? We shall see. And I will make no claims to consistency.

To start, let me be clear that I am not a dogged materialist atheist. If forced to label myself, under pressure I would call myself an agnostic. I don’t consider this to be a fence-sitting position; I simply believe that religion concerns itself with unknowables, with assertions that, in the main, cannot be empirically proved or disproved. It deals with the realm of the spiritual, that class of phenomena and concepts which somehow transcends the merely psychological and which are, in essence, utterly subjective.

Neuroscience and the psychological disciplines have not yet been able to promote a comprehensive model of consciousness, its nature and workings. The current weight of informed opinion seems to lean towards a somewhat reductionist proposition which explains self-awareness and free will as cognitive illusions produced by a set of essentially computational processes in the brain. The emerging discipline of neurotheology even explores the possibility that spiritual experiences and a tendency to religious belief is the product of evolved neurological processes (though whether this renders faith similarly illusory or suggests God hard-wired us to believe in Him is moot). My guess is that many – I would guess the vast majority – of people, regardless of educational or religious background, instinctively recoil from this hypothesis. The richness of inner life expressed publicly in communication and creative pursuits, and privately in the world inside our heads, seems irreconcilable with the idea that our essential “selves” are a fake, a trick of complex electrochemical reactions inside a meat computer. Of course, the neuroscientist might say I – we – have simply not fully understood the hypothesis, or have not been immersed in the ocean of convincing experimental data. They might just shrug and say we’ve been conned by the illusion, which is after all the point.

And yet, however persuasive the hypothesis that thought and consciousness is a property of a computational model of neurology may be by certain criteria, I personally believe that it is not the whole story. The weight of my experience of life, including my vicarious experience of others’ lives and minds conveyed through relationships, art, literature and so on, convinces me that consciousness is somehow more than just neurology. Perhaps it is emergent from and dependent on neurology, but it also transcends the brain in some undefinable way. Perhaps mind isn’t an emergent property at all, but some other order of reality with which the brain interfaces. I don’t know and speculation would be mere fantasy.

But not only do I feel that the mind is more than just the brain, I also feel that consciousness is a spectrum with rational thought at one end and “spirituality” on the other. By that I do not mean that “spirituality” – or transpersonal experiences in psychological jargon – is just another class of thought, but that it stems from some level of awareness of a numinous quality of the world, something which again might be emergent from physical reality, or might be in some sense eternal, separate yet intersecting with the material. Our understanding of this aspect is profoundly imperfect and perhaps always will be. It is explored and conveyed using clumsy language, fumbling art and solitary meditations. And many of us will devote some part of our lives – whether internal or external – to pondering this great imponderable.

But acknowledging a spiritual dimension to life does not necessarily equate to a belief in a divine, supreme creator being. I am, first and foremost, a “Science-ist”; that is, I believe that the scientific method, though subject to some ultimate limitations, is the best and indeed only viable, reliable way to understand the universe and its workings. I believe in the Big Bang and evolution because I think there is ample evidence for those theories. I accept that the universe has unfolded in accordance to natural laws, though those laws may be imperfectly understood or even outright mysterious. I am not even a Deist because I do not see the hand of God anywhere around me or see the need for a deity to explain my existence. If I was going to consider the existence of a supreme being, I would lean towards a Deistic concept of God as an impersonal abstract entity, utterly inhuman, incapable of being attributed with human motives, and non-interventionist. But having not personally had any kind of experience that would incline me towards belief in such an entity, I don’t feel the need to climb down from my agnostic fence.

But just because I don’t see it, does not mean that it is not there. But I can tell you for sure what kind of god I do not believe in. I don’t believe in a god who cares what we wear or eat, or who wants us to cut off our foreskins or remove our labia. I do not believe in a god who seeks obedience through oppression or conversion through violence. I do not believe in a god who is particularly bothered by who we have sex with or whether we work on Sundays or Fridays. I do not believe in a god who would enforce orthodoxy and burn heretics. I do not believe in a god who would not want us to use the mental, intellectual tools he is alleged to have given us. I do not believe in an intimate god who is inclined to answer our prayers.

(The usual inclusion would be to also challenge the existence of a benevolent god who allows or encourages suffering. Ironically, there is a strong tradition of the use of self-applied, regulated suffering to achieve altered states of consciousness. A god who wanted sentient beings to achieve, en masse, enlightenment might well consider it rational to ensure persistent suffering. Personally, I find that idea both curiously sensible and distastefully perverse at the same time, so I choose to put it to one side. It also seems odd that a god who has an ulterior motive for suffering – accepting that divine motivations are likely to be ineffable anyway – would engender a religious faith that preaches the alleviation of that same suffering).

Regardless of the existence or otherwise of God, perhaps certain enlightened individuals may, from time to time, gain a better insight into the numinous or achieve some leap in ethical sophistication. You might point to such individuals in history but disagree on which of them was genuinely inspired and which was merely deluded, or cynical. Regardless, some of these individuals have – intentionally or inadvertently – founded religions. And this is where the trouble starts.

The trouble begins because these founders – and lets assume for a moment that they are genuinely enlightened and of good intentions – fail, ultimately, to communicate their vision and insight to others. Sacred texts are often written by disciples and observers, in the most famous cases well after the founder of the spiritual movement in question has died. They are riddled with errors, misunderstandings, hearsay and blatant untruths from the very start. They get mistranslated (a serious risk with writings trying to convey concepts which are both innovative and utterly abstract). That is even before politics comes in.

Because when religious movements gather pace and scale, they usually also become organised. They gain leaders who are often not the originating teacher. Debate and argument begins on the interpretation of founding texts. Conversions spread to different geographies and cultures on the backs of energetic, charismatic missionaries with an imperfect grasp of the source material. Local cultural practices and stubborn survivals of predecessor faiths are pragmatically, syncretically absorbed. Rival claims to absolute truth are staked, and the pursuit of temporal power and doctrinal orthodoxy leads to conflict, factionalism and schism. Mundane motivations intrude and human nature emerges triumphant. I need not refer to any one specific example here as the same story is endlessly recycled across hundreds of religions, living and extinct, dominant and minority, established and persecuted. What does this often lead to? Ultimately, repression, suppression, oppression and atrocities large and small.

But not just that. I am not convinced by the Dawkinsian argument that Western moral structures arose from the evolutionary advantage gained from instinctive altruism. It is a seductive idea, but one not really sustained by a study of global history or current affairs in my humble opinion. No, I think there is far more evidence to support the notion that organised religions and spiritual movements (if there is a difference) have, for all their failings and unintentional evils, played a major role in the emergence of accepted moral frameworks in Western civilisation and possibly others as well. This is not to support any assertion that those ethical codes are divinely inspired or dictated, simply that whatever inspired those few enlightened teachers survived sufficiently intact in the religions they spawned to make a profound and lasting contribution.

I would go beyond that and give credit where credit is due to religion for both inspiring and enabling countless great works of music, art, literature and architecture both through patronage and some manner of psycho-spiritual catalysis. It has undeniably motivated countless individuals to great and selfless acts. Culture indeed owes organised religion an immeasurable debt. On a more personal level, for billions of individuals it offers private solace and comfort, and some of the tools that may lead to insight and provide daily guidance. Ritual itself seems to be a deep human need, serving social, cultural and personal functions. Many non-believers cheerfully admit that they enjoy and benefit from attending churches, temples and religious services and regard them as a way of honouring their backgrounds and traditions, of belonging. Even meditation and practices of mindfulness have come to use through religion.

But however important, even necessary, religion may have been in human history, I feel that it has largely outlived its usefulness except as a respected vessel for a shared culture. Humanity is simply moving beyond it, as a child learning to ride a bicycle outgrows training wheels. Too often, contemporary religion is seen in negative terms, summoning associations with institutional child abuse, corruption, medieval cultural relics, oppression, psychological damage, socio-cultural isolation and even terrorism. None of them offers a genuine path to spiritual insight, a true glimpse of the numinous. Religious figureheads criticise New Age movements and “pick-and-mix” theology, as though their faiths weren’t themselves designed, in the distant past, by committees holding rival viewpoints. Religions have no monopoly on truth and their faiths are not unsullied by scandal and crime.

Of course, we are still far from morally perfect. But whatever our problems, religion no longer has the solutions.

In practical terms, where does this lead me in my thinking about religion and its role in public life?

  • I believe that, in England, the Church of England should be disestablished and have no favoured position in the running of the United Kingdom.
  • Religious views should not have a privileged role in debates concerning the value of life (such as contraception, abortion or the right to die).
  • State-funded education should be strictly secular with religious education being taught as comparative religion, a social science.
  • State funding should not support religious schools in any way, shape or form (private schools in general should receive no state funding or advantageous tax status).
  • Private schools should be free to promote a religious ethos but should also be bound to teach the same broad curriculum as state schools, and be subject to the same standards and inspection regimes.
  • Creationism, intelligent design and other unscientific perspectives on science should not be taught as a rational alternative in science classes; they should be seen for what they are, that is a religious viewpoint, and taught – if at all – in religious education classes.
  • Religious instruction should, in general, be a private family matter.
  • However the State should not be reluctant to enforce laws regarding equality or criminal conduct (for example) because of a fear of offending religious groups or infringing religious choice.
  • Religious choices and practices should be free and respected but not at the expense of social cohesion or the liberty of those who cannot make their own decisions or who are vulnerable to domination.
  • In general, we must recognise that cultural relativism does not hold all of the answers and is not an inviolable dogma.

I don’t know if that catches everything; it is the sort of list to which I will think of something to add as soon as I click “Post”.

I reject organised religion, but I do not wholly disavow what religion represents or what it aspires to be. Religion is a giant on whose shoulders Western civilisation stands, but I believe Humanity is evolving wings. I hope it will not be long before we take to the air and leave that giant dwindling beneath us.

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