07 April 2012

Religion for agnostics

Jesus was here, meeting the women of Jerusalem. They wept. Not the most exciting Station of the Cross.
The 8th Station of the Cross, Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem, July 2010
Ah, Holy Saturday, the greatest of all liturgical hump days, bridging the gap between No-Drinking Friday and Chocolate Sunday, at least for the 84% of Irish men and women (bolstered by a good few Polish folk) who declared themselves to be fine upstanding Catholics on the night of Sunday, April 10th 2011 as they filled in their Census forms, not to mention the 2.8% of them proud to be Anglican, and the 1.7% who self-identified as Presbyterian or other shades of non-Orthodox Christian (for the 1% of those who follow the various Orthodox churches, their liturgical hump day comes next week). All-in-all, and despite a decade of clerical abuse scandals, almost 90% of all those in Ireland when given the opportunity self-identified as Christian, compared to a measly 5.9% who ticked the "No Religion" box and a further 1.6% who didn't bother filling in anything in the "which imaginary sky father do you most fear?" section.

Well after five-plus months of declaring to anyone with a microphone, camera or functioning set of ears that I was a proud member of the 99%, on this most holy of high holy hump days let me declare to you all, with the angry sky father of your choice as my witness, that I am the 5.9%!

While I wait for you all to pick up your collective jaws from the floor I will take the afforded moment's pause to try and soften the blow by adding that I am not, horror of horrors, an atheist, for when pressed I will describe myself instead as an agnostic. The concept of god is something that is by definition beyond human understanding, so while it seems altogether implausible to me that such a thing as the Judeo-Christian angry sky father could exist, there is really no way that I, nor anyone else, can ever prove that such a bearded being does not exist. I am not arrogant enough to say that an insignificant speck on the multiverse like me can definitively know that there is no god, but although I am going to live my life on the assumption that there isn't, humility compels me to recognize my galactic insignificance and label myself an agnostic.

An atheist believes that they know god does not exist, but an agnostic knows that their doubt is a belief.

My path to enlightenment was no random stroll through the ontological woods of reason and faith, for I chose the far more direct route of building a four-lane bypass straight through the middle. After six years in a Christian Brothers school I became convinced (with all the certainty that only an eighteen year-old can muster) that religion was the root of all evil, and so I spent the next four years in university studying Theology to prove myself right (which luckily I did), topped off with a Masters in the Reformation and Enlightenment just to make sure (I'm very thorough, you see). Having conclusively shown my twenty-three year-old self that my eighteen year-old self was right all along (about religion that is, the same unfortunately cannot be said about music or clothing. My eighteen year-old self was very, very wrong about both of those. As was my twenty-three year-old self, but that's a story for another day), I then filed all the accumulated theological knowledge away in a mental box marked "Useless" and placed it down in the basement of my brain beside an old washing machine and a box of scratched 45's (kids, ask your parents), never to be seen again.

Some years later I found myself in a small college town in the US with a very good second-hand bookshop or two, the disposable income that comes from running a call centre for a dot-bomb, and a group of friends who were all working on their doctorates (more than a few of whom were philosophers), and under the influence of all three I started to fill my shelves with the books I was supposed to have read while an undergrad. I even read a few just to see if my eighteen and twenty-three year-old selves were right and, to the delight of my thirty year-old self, they were, religion was still evil.

When I joke about being a Consulting Theologian, it is not because anybody actually pays me for my thoughts on religion ("It's evil. That will be €500, thank you"), it is because in the finest tradition of Sherlock Holmes I see religion as the Moriarty of human society, the evil mastermind behind all of our woes, the Napoleon of cultural crime. At the root of almost any problem that humanity has ever faced that other humans have caused I see religion, or that religion has been used to justify the action and mask the true causes. You don't need seven degrees of Kevin Bacon to link any atrocity to religion, you can normally get there in a single bound (double points if you use neither Sleepers nor Footloose in the process).

To be clear here, I am not anti-faith, and I don't mean to denigrate anybody that does believe in a specific angry sky father. My problem is not with the belief of any given individual, rather it is with the structures of religion, more specifically with any organised, hierarchical, patriarchal and proselytising religion. Pray away to your angry sky father all you like, but don't tell me that I have to pray to him, don't try and force me to pray to him, don't discriminate against me when I don't pray to him, and under no circumstances sneak up after I'm dead and convert me posthumously, that's just rude.

For me religion (as opposed to belief) is an implement of power, wielded by a minority to control a majority, but not all non-believers have such a problem with the structures of public faith. In his latest book Religion for Atheists Alain de Botton makes the case that religion (minus faith) can influence society in many positive ways:
"It is when we stop believing that religions have been handed down from above or else that they are entirely daft that matters become more interesting. We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away when we have been nudged to perceive some scientific inaccuracies in the tale of the seven loaves and fishes...

... Secular society has been unfairly impoverished by the loss of an array of practices and themes which atheists typically find it imposible to live with because they seem too closely associated with, to quote Nietzsche's useful phrase, 'the bad odours of religion'. We have grown frightened of the word morality. We bridle at the thought of hearing a sermon. We flee from the idea that art should be uplifting or have an ethical mission. We don't go on pilgrimages. We can't build temples. We have no mechanisms for expressing gratitude. The notion of reading a self-help book has become absurd to the high-minded. We resist mental exercises. Strangers rarely sing together. We are presented with an unpleasant choice between either committing to peculiar concepts about immaterial deities or letting go entirely of a host of consoling, subtle or just charming rituals for which we struggle to find equivalents in secular society.

In giving up on so much, we have allowed religion to claim as its exclusive domain areas of experience which should rightly belong to all mankind - and which we should feel unembarrassed about reappropriating for the secular realm."

- Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton, pp 12,14-15
and over the course of three hundred or so pages he proceeds to identify customs, structures and practices that secular society, and particularly atheists, can liberate from organised religions for the betterment of society as a whole.

Now while there is much to disagree with in his assumptions (and I believe that many of the "deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses" he describes are symptoms of capitalism, and not an essential part of the human psyche), I find myself nonetheless intrigued by his thesis, being as it is the almost polar opposite of my own viewpoint of individual belief = harmless, structured religion = evil. I also find de Botton quite trying at times and wouldn't normally read him, but as my grandfather says, why would I want to listen to something that I already agree with, where is the fun in that?

De Botton gives an overview of his thesis, what he calls "Atheism 2.0", below in a TED talk from Edinburgh back in July of last year, and watching it made me go out today and pick up the book (again illustrating my easily suggestible nature and low money-to-sense ratio).

Reconciling spirituality with atheism is something that seems to be on the mind of a good few British-based philosophers lately, for AC Grayling tried it last year with his Good Book that attempted to put together a 'bible' for atheists drawing on the philosophical traditions of many cultures, aiming to be a source of inspiration but being rather more an unfortunate exercise in hubris. Even that other Great British bastion of irreligiosity Richard Dawkins (on whose Spectrum of Theistic Probability I rate a firm 6) isn't as dismissive of spirituality as you might think, saying in an interview with Al Jazeera that:
"Spirituality can mean something that I’m very sympathetic to, which is, a sort of sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time. All those things create a sort of frisson in the breast, which you could call spirituality. But, I would be very concerned that it shouldn’t be confused with supernaturalism."
though I doubt he would approve of de Botton's approach (something which de Botton acknowledges in his TED talk with a little dig at the residents, or one specific resident, of north Oxford).

I'll hold off on judgements for now, given that I've only started to work my way through de Botton's book, but as I said I find the idea intriguing, if only because it affords the thirty-nine year-old me an opportunity to revisit the assumptions and certainties of my eighteen year-old self.

And if, once again, my eighteen year-old self is proved right, maybe it is time to revisit some other certainties of my youth, like The Cure and Paisley Shirts.

Ah, Paisley Shirts. If they rose from the dead I would never, ever doubt them.

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At 10:29 pm, Blogger copirineo said...

Very enjoyable read as usual. And that's coming from one of the 90%!

At 5:42 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fine essay, well done, says another of the 90%. But this is surely a howler:
'and I believe that many of the "deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses" he describes are symptoms of capitalism, and not an essential part of the human psyche.'
Too much theology and not enough ancient and mediaeval (i.e., pre-capitalist) history in your studies, perhaps?


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