A vague sense of connection to something beyond oneself is no substitute for the concrete bonds of organised religion. It does, however, seem to open one up to a belief in all kinds of nonsense.
A few years ago I was part of a group of volunteers teaching in India. One weekend we took an excursion to an old and rather spectacular palace. Once we had finished our tour, we headed back to our coach and in the process ran the gauntlet of hawkers one finds at any tourist attraction in India. My fellow travellers were not interested in the offer of postcards and figurines but one stall did excite their interest: the palm reader. For some of them it was basically just a novelty. However, a string of others came back wowed by how the palm reader could have possibly known that, for example, they were “better at starting things than finishing them.” I found myself the only person who thought the whole thing was total BS – a view I felt vindicated in when on the plane back I watched an episode of Derren Brown Investigates on mediums who used much the same techniques to give the impression they actually had insights.
My role as rationalist spoil sport would not have come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. However, a stranger having our group described to them might indeed have found it surprising because I was the only actively religious person in our group. And religious people are irrational believers in fairy tales, right?
I thought back to that trip when I heard a recent episode of Radio 4’s Point of View. In it the sociologist Tom Shakespeare discussed people described as Spiritual but Not Religious (SBNR):
SBNR reflects a rejection of the dogmas of organised religion, even repugnance at the abuses committed in the name of Christianity and Islam and Judaism and Hinduism and Buddhism. I think it connects to the explosion of so-called personal growth movements in the West since the 1960s, such as yoga or transcendental meditation, as well as to new religious movements like paganism and Scientology….But few members of this group are fully paid-up followers of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or other humanist prophets. People might say, “I am not interested in organized religion, but I do have room in my life for spirituality.” They have a sense that there is something “above and beyond” the everyday. They have beliefs, a faith in some transcendental force, or whatever, however inchoate it may be. It reminds me of the quotation from Carl Jung: “You can take away a man’s gods, but only to give him others in return.”
This unsurprisingly struck a chord with me. I am not suggesting for a moment that religion provides some kind of inoculation against mumbo-jumbo: only yesterday morning I got a leaflet through my door advocating spirit healing as a way to cure schizophrenia. However, I see little indication that the opposite is true. When traditional organised religions stumble this seems not to release Man’s inherent rationality but sends her off in search of ever more wacky alternative sources of meaning: spiritualism in the early twentieth century, the new age in the sixties and seventies, and conspiracy theories today. In fact, there seems a real danger that as G.K Chesterton almost but didn’t quite say: “When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.”
If we accept that people will seek out meaning and that they cannot find it down a microscope then even the most hardened New Atheist ought not to look too unfavourably on religion. Mainline Protestantism, Reformed Judaism and the like promote little that is irrational. Yes, they teach that the world was created by God but whether or not you regard that as a likely proposition or not you have to concede that its truth is unknown and most likely unknowable. By contrast, it does not lead one to reject the known facts of medicine, science or history. Relative to scientology or spiritualism they are a manifestly more rational option.
Now having read this you could be forgiven for thinking that I am advocating religion as a least worse option. So to redress this let me quote what Ton Shakespeare says about the benefits of belonging to an established faith community
I worry that SBNR can just be vague, lacking the rigour which comes from centuries of refinement and debate. And unlike traditional religions, it doesn’t have much to say about charity and justice.
I think what we need today is more connection with each other, and with our damaged world. I don’t think humanists offer us much help with that. Humanism is not positive but negative – it centres on rejecting religion. I think traditional religions do offer connections, but at the cost of demanding that we believe improbable things. So that’s why I’d advocate being religious in a non-traditional way.
Without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he or she is the centre of the universe. Religion asks more of you than just to look after yourself. Because religion is a collective practice, it enables us to learn from others around us, and from a history of sincere and disciplined examination of the problems of life – a history which is sometimes called the Wisdom Traditions. Through reflection and discussion in the context of religion, we can achieve discernment, which means seeing reality more clearly.
I think that many people who identify as religious are not spiritual, at least in the sense of having a belief in a god or supernatural force. They may have a non-realist view of religion, which means that they consider religions to be human and pragmatic, not supernatural and god-given.
In my case, I am a Quaker, so I sit in silence for an hour a week with like-minded people, and I try to live according to Christian principles. But a few years ago, I stayed with a colleague’s family in upstate New York. They were Jewish, and around the house there were mezuzot, a menorah and the newsletter from their local synagogue. But as we talked, I realised that although they attended services regularly, they did not have any particular belief in God. In fact, they had pretty much exactly the same outlook on the world as I did. And I suspect many people who sit in Anglican pews on Sundays are similar. They’re going through certain rituals, and value membership in a community of folk trying to lead more meaningful lives, but their belief in a supernatural being is minimal or non-existent.
If you’re an atheist, I can heartily recommend involvement in religion. It offers a sense of belonging and it offers tradition, which can be reassuring and comforting. It offers discipline, teaching us that there is something outside ourselves to which we should bend our personal will. If we do it right, religion helps us lead better lives, with a commitment to justice and social action. Sociological research shows that involvement in organised religion is good for our health and well being.
So this week, why not find a time to sit in silence with your fellows, or sing with them, or read a holy book with them, or commune with them. Take a moment to reflect on your place in the universe and your obligations towards others. Belief in God is strictly optional.
The only thought I would add is that if one doesn’t want to join a dogmatic religion then there are plenty of undogmatic denominations.