Religious Bathwater

I’ve been reading Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists.

Religion for Atheists (cover)

De Botton’s big idea is that the least interesting thing about religion is whether its claims about God are true. We should be more interested in the fact that religions have had a couple of thousand years of experience of understanding and guiding human nature through art, ceremony, and moral codes and through the social interactions that come from sitting together for a couple of hours every Sunday. Religions also make a big deal of celebrating life’s important events and the passage of the seasons.

It’s true that we don’t actually need religion for any of those things. Secular art can be beautiful; we can get our social interactions at a football match on a Saturday afternoon or at quiz night at the pub every Tuesday and there are plenty of non-religious ways to celebrate the seasons. The trouble is: we don’t though. Not really.

Virgin at Prayer after SassoferatoSecular artists broke free of the shackles of religion in the 19th century but when was the last time you were truly inspired by a painting? Was it painted in the last 50 years? I didn’t think so. In theory, there is plenty of secular inspiration to be had—De Botton cites Jane Austin and Shakespeare—but they don’t really bring us together the way the Bible or the Ramayana used to.

 

Earlier this month, I stumbled across an interview with Alain de Botton on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast where he expands on some of these ideas.

On Being - The School of Life

De Botton observes that much of what we think of as typically Christian was originally pilfered from pagan culture—not just Christmas trees and Saturnalia; philosophy and ethics too—and it’s about time we took some of it back.

I suppose what I’m arguing for is a kind of reverse colonization. In the same way that Christianity colonized the pagan world absorbing its best elements, so I’m arguing that non-believers today can do a little bit of this with religion just as religion did it with them, because, you know, a lot of what we find in Christianity comes, of course, from Greek philosophy. Even the concept of monasticism was taken from the Epicurean philosophical communities that existed in the mount_athosMediterranean world. So an awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it’s part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments, are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them.

 

Alain de Botton founded The School of Life to lead this recolonisation effort.

The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm, and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world.

school-of-life

From On Being.

I think a lot of what’s attractive in religion is that it puts us in a wider perspective both in time and in place because most of our lives are lived right up against the present moment. We get so stressed. We got so confused. We get so overwhelmed by the kind of people around us, what’s in our diaries, what’s going on right now. And then once a week or more or less, you can go to a religious institution, be it a mosque, a synagogue or church, and you can step outside of the ordinary and you can be brought into contact with very, very old things or very vast things, things that are much greater, deeper, more mysterious than ordinary life. Suddenly that brings a kind of calm to our inner lives because it’s nice to be made to feel small against the backdrop of a vast universe.

At The School of Life’s non-church, they hear sermons, sing hymns and enjoy a nice cup of tea afterwards.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I’ve read a journalist account of coming to “The School of Life” and it’s really interesting. They described it as a place of play and whimsy and big talk, that it’s warm and stylish and serious. I mean, I have to say, I watched a bit online and I watched a sermon that you gave — and that is a word you use, that some of these talks are called sermons. The video I watched, there were a lot of people there that looked like people of all ages and a lot of young people and they were singing “Jerusalem,” this great classic hymn which is at once deeply Christian and deeply British.

MR. DE BOTTON: We could say what on earth is going on?
MS. TIPPETT: Exactly.
MR. DE BOTTON: But, of course, you know, when you talk to people who don’t believe, one of the things they often say is, “Such a pity because the music’s fantastic and the singing is great and I love to have a cup of tea at the end and, you know, chat to neighbors and all the rest of it.”

I have to confess that Jerusalem is one of my favourite songs and I can barely make it through the third verse because I get choked up at the bit about bows of burning gold and arrows of desire. It’s an amazing song.

I think it’s important to sing the original words to sacred hymns like Jerusalem and to not bowdlerise away the religious bits. How profound to wonder, as Blake did, “Was the holy Lamb of God, On Englands pleasant pastures seen?”. And how inspiring to pledge to build a new Jerusalem in England’s green & pleasant land?  Would Odysseus’s adventure be as compelling without the mythical creatures? Would Frodo’s tale be so memorable without the immortality of the Elves? Christian mythology has some great stories too. Let’s keep them and learn from them.

jerusalem

The Odyssey and The Lord of the Rings are both moral tales but we don’t really talk about morality in public any more and the hole left by the absence of morality has been filled by commercialism. De Botton would have us reclaim that space too.

So, you know, we don’t live in the kind of completely neutral public space that’s often fantasized about by secular defenders of a kind of neutral liberalism. We are actually assaulted by commercial messages. So religions want to assault us with other messages, messages to be kind and to be good and to forgive and all these things, and they know that having a feeling of being observed, having a public space that is colored by moral atmosphere, all of this can help.

For de Botton, morality is about how we interact with other people and how we deal with the difficult challenges that life confronts us with. We should make more of an effort to learn about life’s lessons together.

MR. DE BOTTON: You know, the modern secular education system is based on the idea that life is essentially a kind of fairly easy process to get through, so you need to teach people certain skills for the modern economy like accountancy and microbiology and all this sort of stuff. But what you don’t need to teach them is how to live because how to live is fairly obvious. All you need to do is, you know, separate yourself from your parents and bring up some children, maybe, and find a job you like, deal with mortality …

MS. TIPPETT: All those really easy things [laugh].

MR. DE BOTTON: All those really easy things, and then confront your own death and it’s just really simple. You don’t need guidance.

So you’re supposed to know this stuff and my question is, how? I don’t know this stuff. And the fascinating starting point of religions, all religions, is they start from the idea that we don’t know how to live and so that’s why they need to teach us wisdom.

Much of the dissonance between religion and secular life comes about because religion has hijacked many of the words that we use to talk about morality and meaning. Words like soul, spirit and sin are rarely used in a secular setting. But the words are important and should still be significant even if put aside their supernatural meanings.

MS. TIPPETT: So I often make a statement which I think is somewhat controversial that atheists have spiritual lives too. Then it ends up depending on how you’re defining spiritual, but would you say it that way, do atheists have spiritual lives?
MR. DE BOTTON: Of course, I mean …
MS. TIPPETT: Do you have a spiritual life?
MR. DE BOTTON: Yes. I mean, if you — it’s like the word soul, you know. Do atheists have souls? In the strict religious sense, no, but in the loose sense, yes. You’ll know what we mean. If you meet somebody and you say, you know, that person he was quite interesting but he seemed to lack soul or she doesn’t seem to have much soul.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. We have secular ways of using this word.
MR. DE BOTTON: Right. But I think when we use it that way, we’re onto something rather useful. It means an illusion to the deeper sides of a human being, the side that’s going to confront death, the side that’s there at moments of love, the side that is interested in questions of kind of ultimate meaning and direction, the serious stuff, the side of us that kind of we confront at 3:00 a.m. when we’re awoken and suddenly the world seems a challenging place to deal with the in the way that sometimes we might not notice in the kind of busyness of the day. I think that’s the soul bit and, of course, it exists in nonbelievers as much as in believers. Similarly, atheists have amazing moments under the stars as well when atheists look up and see the galaxies and contemplate the sheer nothingness, puniness of humans in the cosmos. It’s just how we choose to interpret it. We don’t leap to a supernatural conclusion. So when I look at the cosmos, I’m not forced to then make the next step, which is to say there must be something out there. Look, there’s so much more in common between believers and nonbelievers than we’re sometimes encouraged to think. At the very last moment under the stars, we may differ about, you know, what’s going on, but we can still have a very nice time together for a long, long part of this journey.

justrememberthatyourestandingonaplanetthatsevolving_8a5e63b457bb2df93d8fdcb65ff4a87a

Ceremonial Shintoism

My guilty pleasure is reading Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative. I’ve been reading him for well over ten years. My New Year’s Resolution this year was to stop but I just couldn’t leave him alone.

Rod’s blog is addictive because, while his worldview is so foreign to me, he is a smart, (usually) fair commentator on contemporary mores and he often challenges the way I think about society. Part of the attraction is the civility of the folks who regularly comment on his blog. You won’t find a more diverse commentariat anywhere on the internet. Rod’s comment section includes the usual smattering of liberals and conservatives but he also has socialists and white supremacists muslims and gays and even a handful of folks who think that western civilisation has been doomed since the reformation. But they are (almost) all smart and eloquent and utterly unable to see each other’s point of view. It’s must-read internet for me.

A running theme, chez Rod, for the last couple of years, is that The West has given up believing in all the things that sustain a civilisation. In particular, it has given up on traditional Christianity and will—any day now—start persecuting Christians like it was AD 64. Rod is writing a book about how Christians need to start preparing for the day that Christians are fired for traditional Christian beliefs (for Rod, this is usually code for Christian sexual ethics—no gay marriage, no transexuals in the girl’s toilet, etc). Christianity, according to Rod, has largely vanished from most of Europe and it’s only a matter of time until it suffers the same fate in America.

Even though I do not believe the supernatural claims of Christianity, I am largely sympathetic to the Christian project. For all its mistakes in the past, Christianity has and continues to contribute a great deal to society. I think we’ll be worse off without it and I have an interest in helping sustain a tradition that has been an important component of European society for two thousand years.

Rod and his fellow travellers have a ‘with us or against us’ mentality regarding religion. According to this way of thinking, if you are not a traditional Christian (liberal Christian congregations like Anglicans or Lutherans don’t count) you are probably just waiting for your chance to start persecuting Christians the way that Christians used to persecute everyone else in the bad old days.

To the contrary, I think there’s a tiny minority of potential persecutors and a much bigger tranche of sympathetic atheists who have no desire to persecute anyone as long as Christians aren’t trying to get any special privileges in the halls of power.

I have often wondered whether there is a deal to be had between Christians and the folks who think Christianity is a net positive to society even if they don’t necessarily believe the supernatural claims.

For the sake of this thought experiment, we’ll pick a flavour of religion to be adopted by society. Rod happens to be Eastern Orthodox but I think we could make it work with Catholicism or Anglicanism or any non-virulent strain of religious tradition.

In our new established church, the true believers will be free to practice their religion freely. The rest of us will be free to respectfully attend the ceremonies (or not; there will be no coercion), support the clergy, say the prayers and enjoy the benefits of religious community but there would be no obligation or expectation that anyone believe the truth of the religion’s historical claims. In return, the church will agree to baptise us, marry us and bury us but there would be a background assumption that most of the congregation values the religious practices more than they subscribe to the religious beliefs.

The church is free to preach traditional beliefs and may reject or expel from the church community anyone who does not conform to the required practices. The church has no special authority over civil laws or vice versa. Single sex marriage is still the law of the land, for example, but the church is free to exclude gay married priests  or refuse to conduct same sex weddings if that’s what traditional teaching requires.

Would Christians welcome these respectful unbelievers into their church or would they rather we stay away?

I was prompted to write by this wonderful article on religion in Japan.

https://aeon.co/essays/can-religion-be-based-on-ritual-practice-without-belief

This quote stood out for me:

The disparity between common Japanese religious practices and belief-centric views of religion was again brought into relief when a prominent psychology professor from the US, who was temporarily visiting my lab in Japan, encountered the domestic co-existence of Buddhist and Shinto altars. Most traditional family homes in Japan house both a Buddhist altar to honour deceased relatives (butsudan) and a Shinto altar, called a god-shelf (kami-dana), to bring blessings. This pluralistic practice goes largely unremarked upon by Japanese people, but it can be striking for those from more exclusive religious backgrounds. When the US professor learned of the practice, he turned to a Japanese colleague and asked if he had two altars in his home. Yes, at his family’s house, he answered. The professor asked in astonishment which of the two systems, if either, was the one that he really believed in. My Japanese colleague was puzzled. ‘Neither,’ he said, and then clarified: ‘…or maybe both!’ He had never really thought much about whether he believed in altars before, he explained.

It seems to me that Japan has found the right balance between traditional practices and modern belief systems and I wonder if we couldn’t find a similar balance here in the West.

I wonder what you think.

 

No Apologies

I’ve developed a habit in recent years of getting so excited after reading the first few chapters of a book that I want to write a provisional review before I even really know what it’s about.

Two chapters into Unapolagetic, I was shouting yes! yes! yes! and couldn’t wait to capture my agreement in digital ink. I even, for the first time ever, used the highlight feature on my kindle so that I could accurately report all the many, many points that resonated with my own experience.

On one point in particular Spufford was singing my life with his words. When he described that transcendental moment when I meditate on the immensity of eternity – Spufford calls it ‘praying’ but, whatever – and I experience a little shimmer in the corner of my mind’s eye and suddenly everything makes sense and the whole universe lines up for my inspection and appreciation….  I didn’t know that other people experienced it too. I thought that was just me and I had no idea that some people called that shimmer ‘God’.

Seeing my secret thoughts in pixels, I was tremendously excited to document my assent to Spufford’s project which, as I understood it from tentatively supportive reviews by a couple of Christian bloggers that I follow, was to describe Christianity’s benefits in words that a non-Christian could identify with. I could get behind that project.

Real-life intervened though and the reviewable moment was lost. An emergency dash down to Santa Barbara later and the blogging window slammed shut. As I ploughed on through the next chapter on theodicy all my admiration fell away.

Spufford concedes that the problem of evil  is not a problem for atheists. It’s only a problem if you believe in one very specific kind of God: that is, a God who loves the world and is in full control of all the outcomes. There is no problem of evil if your God doesn’t care about children with cancer. Without love, there is no problem to be solved.

Likewise, there’s no problem with a God who cares an awful lot about you but is powerless to do much about it. That God would be lame and not much worthy of all the cathedrals that get built for him and he’d create all kinds of problems for his marketing department but he wouldn’t create any particular challenges for philosophers.

Since the God that Spufford worships is allegedly both omnipotent and benevolent, the problem of evil is a big problem indeed and Spufford absolutely demolishes all the usual excuses for why God allows evil to happen to good people. Let’s just say that if Spufford were in God’s marketing department, God would’ve fired him by now. Spufford works in mysterious ways.

I just went back to my Kindle to read over all the sections that I highlighted back when I thought  this was a great book. Spufford really is an astoundingly good writer. He wasn’t just singing my life; he was strumming my secret pain in ways that make me wonder if he isn’t in league with the NSA. I really want his project to succeed but chapters three and four make me despair for the whole liberal Christian project, cuddly new popes notwithstanding.

I’ll report back if I learn anything new.

 

The Priest with the Cold Hands

When Rita was in intensive care there was a moment where it seemed like it was all over and her mother told me to go find the priest.

I went down to the chapel and there was an old, old priest in there. As old as Methuselah. I was frantic and I couldn’t get the words out.

That old priest held both of my hands in his and the words he spoke were like the wisdom of the ages. They slowed the whole world down and we all made it through another day.

Always go to the funeral – redux

A few years ago, the wife of a dude I used to work with died. I didn’t really know him well – and his wife not at all – but word got around and a friend of mine said “are you going to the funeral?” I said “well, no probably not. I didn’t really know him that well. I feel like I would be intruding.” My friend told me “That’s really not the point. It’s not about who knows him. It’s about being there.” and he sent me a link to an essay on the Internet called ‘Always go to the funeral’. It’s an amazing essay and it changed my mind about a lot of things to do with religion.

Here’s a little snippet.

On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.

http://thisibelieve.org/essay/8/

Among my circle of friends, we have have adopted this rule and have a little ceremony when someone dies, that goes like this.

“Are you going to the funeral?”
“What’s the first rule of funerals?”
“Always go the funeral.”
“See you there!”

Now it’s my turn.

My Dad died last week and I am so very, very sad. We now have a big family debate about how to honour his passing. Dad fulfilled a long-standing ambition to retire to Spain (actually – he always said Portugal, but Spain is right there next door) and, after decades away, my family is worried that there is no one left who remembers him to remember his passing. There’s also a bit of a debate as to whether whether a christian memorial service is appropriate for a man who did not have a religious bone, vein or gristle in his body.

The Spaniards were very efficient with the cremation. The cremation was not even a thing but now we want to do something with a bit more significance and the choices at hand are:

  1. Scatter ashes in Footscray Meadows – the scene of many of a childhood memory.  Dad taught me to fish there. Most of my early misdeeds were there. That’s the first place I ever tried to cycle across a river. I have very fond memories of Footscray Meadows.
  2. Memorial service at the church in Rectory Lane. It’s the only church I really know well. My Dad was married there (first time round) and I was christened there along with my brothers and sisters. My grandmother was buried there a couple of years back.

The nub of the debate is whether it is inappropriate – disrespectful, even – to a man who was not so much an atheist as a never-really-gave-religion-any-thought-iest to give him a memorial service in a church. Here’s my response.

I am the biggest atheist I know but I think the one thing that religions do well is a funeral. Secular funerals feel kind of empty to me – like they are missing the point. I think the best kind of funeral connects you with two thousand years of western tradition and then sends you to the pub where you drink Guinness and laugh about the awful couch that your parents had in the 1970s and the good times that you shared and then you cry about the loss that you all feel. That’s a funeral. Scattering ashes in a park is not quite the same for me.

My sister Carol researched our family tree a few years back. She traced our heritage back many generations – back into the 16th century – and discovered that no one in our family moved more than two or three miles from Footscray in all those centuries. But in a generation or two we have scattered to the four winds. I have cousins all over England and Northern Ireland and in France and Australia and we made it all the way to California. My dad’s family was not from Footscray though. His was from way, way north – about 4 or 5 miles north- in Eltham.

So, is it appropriate to give a decidedly non-christian from Eltham a Christian memorial service in Footscray where all his children were born and christened? I can’t think of anything more appropriate.

My sister is a bit worried that it’ll be just us there in that church – four sad children remembering the life of a very special man and the very special lady who took care of him during his most vulnerable days. If it’s just us, it’ll be wonderful. But I’m willing to bet that there will be more than a handful of folks who remember us and are willing to fill the empty pews behind us. I hope you’ll read that essay and remember the edict: Always go to the funeral. I’ll buy you a Guinness if you come. You can buy me one too.

I’ll never forget the moment – at my nephews’ christening where my sister and I had to renounce Satan and all his works and we looked at each other and my sister said something like “This is the bit where we get struck by lightening or arrested for perjury “.  But I feel very grateful for the privilege of being a godfather even if neither I nor more my god sons believe in God. Religious ceremonies are not about religion, they are about ceremony and tradition and the Church of England does those particularly well.

That little church in Footscray is like a Tardis for me. Sitting in those pews transports me back through my memories and even further back into the memories of so many centuries past.

I shared some of these thoughts once before in Don’t Break the Chain. I imagine a chain of tradition and mythology stretching back for a thousand years and we shouldn’t be the ones to break it. It’s too precious.

The Least Funny of the Marxes

A series of short lectures on religion from my alma mater.

Stalin and his gang had found lots of other ways to oppress people that didn’t have any of the fun bits of religion. Or, indeed. opium.

Those hilarious people who put ‘Jedi’ on the census form.

Two more in the series. Look out for the heretic mouse torture and God with a hosepipe.

Religion for Atheists

[It’s that time again. That time when I rummage through my unfinished posts folder and decide which one’s would be better out than in and which belong in the digital toilet bowl. This one from March 2012 (barely) made the cut. 3 others weren’t so lucky. Two more (Run Silent, Run Deep and Confessions of a Comic Sans Lover) get to remain in limbo for a little while longer before the reaper calls again or my muse returns whichever comes first.

I still haven’t read the book but it’s waiting on my Kindle.]

I love reviewing books before I have read them then cycling back afterwards to see how completely I got the book wrong. In a sense, my pre-reading review is purer; unsullied by actual knowledge of what the book is about.

The blurb on Alain de Botton’s website says:

What if religions are neither all true or all nonsense? The boring debate between fundamentalist believers and non-believers is finally moved on by Alain’s inspiring new book, which boldly argues that the supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false – and yet that religions still have some very important things to teach the secular world.

Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.

My initial expectation was that de Botton was proposing a project similar to my own campaign for ceremonial deism but, actually, as I learned from watch Bob Wright interview him on bloggingheads.tv, he is proposing something far more profound.

I have written many times about my reverence for the Church of England and how I wish we could keep the rituals, the traditions and the trappings while just quietly assuming that the myths, though stirring and deeply meaningful as they often are, are not actually true. de Botton covers all that (I’m guessing) and funerals but tackles a lot of other areas where there is a religion-shaped hole in modern, secular society.

I found one idea particularly intriguing. When you go to church, they have sermons that are explicitly about virtue. While morality tales abound in cinema and books and, I assume, modern kids get to discuss ethics in the context of a novel or poetry, there is no context outside of a church where someone sits you down and says here are some important moral principles and you should follow them.

Now clearly, religion’s choice of topics, especially in 21st century America, does not entirely match my own. I expect that’s a big part of the problem. When Santorum  talks about morality and virtue, he is talking about abstinence and contraception and gay marriage and other evils of the modern world.

[I’m sure the next paragraph would have been profound but, sadly, I forgot what I was going to write.]

Religion’s best hope is secular democracy

I gave up on reading or writing about atheism and secularism partly because it struck me that everything that can be said has already been said. If you haven’t heard the arguments by now, you are not listening.

But this, in a Guardian-hosted discussion – Is religion a force for good or would we be happier without God, struck me as new and insightful.

“But a liberal, secular democracy is the best protector of religious freedom, because it says that we need to guarantee the absolute freedom of belief. There is no theocracy that has ever provided for religious freedom, let alone emancipation of women and equal rights for gay people.”

The whole discussion was enjoyable and Harris and Grayling made some good points – even if they have been made a thousand times before.

Grayling:

“What we think of as distinctive of western morality has its roots in the non-religious secular tradition of ethics that comes from classical antiquity.”

Pious Fraud

I was determined to not like or even read Robert Wright’s Evolution of God but Kindle makes it much too easy to buy books.

Fortunately it is excellent.

Even shamans who got no fees or gifts might benefit from their work. Among the Ona of Tierra del Fuego, payment for service was rare, but, as one anthropologist observed, “one abstains from anything and everything” that might put the shaman out of sorts or irritate him. Moreover, in pre-agricultural societies, as in modern societies, high social status, however intangible, can ultimately bring tangible benefits. Ojibwa shamans, one anthropologist reports, received minimal remuneration, working for prestige, not pay. One of the symbols of religious leadership prestige was polygyny. Male leaders took more than one wife. In his classic study The Law of Primitive Man, E. Adamson Hoebel observed that, among some Eskimo, a forceful shaman of established reputation may denounce a member of his group as guilty of an act repulsive to animals or spirits, and on his own authority he may command penance. An apparently common atonement is for the shaman to direct an allegedly erring woman to have intercourse with him (his supernatural power counteracts the effects of her sinning).
So here is the pattern: in pre-agricultural societies around the world, people have profited, in one sense or another, by cultivating a reputation for special access to the supernatural. It’s enough to make you wonder: Might they, in the course of establishing their bona fides, sometimes resort to deceit? Was the average shaman a fraud” or, as one anthropologist put it, a “pious fraud”?

Go on then – kill me!

This is awesome in so many ways that I don’t know where to begin.

When a famous tantric guru boasted on television that he could kill another man using only his mystical powers, most viewers either gasped in awe or merely nodded unquestioningly. Sanal Edamaruku’s response was different. “Go on then — kill me,” he said.

From The Times via Secular Right.

When the guru’s initial efforts failed, he accused Mr Edamaruku of praying to gods to protect him. “No, I’m an atheist,” came the response. The holy man then said he needed to conduct a ritual that could only be done at night, outdoors, and after he had slept with a woman, drunk alcohol and rubbed himself in ash.