New Internationalist

Who needs religion?

Issue 370

Most people, in most times, in most cultures, it seems. David Boulton examines the persistent religious itch.

THERE was a time, beginning around the 1850s and culminating perhaps in the 1920s, when it really did seem that the jig was up for organized religion – at least in the Western world. Poet Matthew Arnold had caught a whiff of its death in 1859 with Dover Beach, where he mourned ‘the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar' of the sea of faith, ‘retreating, to the breath of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world'. Others rejoiced at the death of God and mocked those who mourned his passing. But whether they mourned or celebrated the twilight of gods, devils and things that go bump in the night, educated folk shared a sense that religion was on its way out.

In Europe a new secularist nationalism was replacing the tired old frameworks of superstition. In Britain churchgoing went out of fashion, morality began to be defined in humanist and humanitarian terms and for a time, in the industrial north, the Socialist Sunday School movement, singing from its god-forsaking hymn-sheet, looked like rivalling the ‘I am H-A-P-P-Y' Sunday schools in the churches and chapels.

In the US a large slice of the then hugely influential Unitarian church, having disposed of two persons of the trinity, decided that even one was one too many and moved on to a kind of religious humanism where God was replaced by a gaseous ‘Somethingbigger- than-ourselves'. (It is hard to recollect that the American liberal tradition was once far more powerful than Bible-bashing fundamentalism). And from 1917 on, tens of thousands of churches in the USSR were turned into museums and warehouses as religion was commanded to wither away – helped, when it failed to wither fast enough, by a sharp dose of the gulags.

But tides turn, and this one rolled back over Arnold's naked shingles of the world with an even louder roar than that which had marked its retreat. The growing complexities and insecurities of the 20th century paved the way for a triumphal return of the old certainties, promises, reassurances. God was resurrected. Today, 20 million grown-up Americans and 33 per cent of the Republican Party believe the Rapture is imminent, when Christ will return to allow born-again evangelicals to share with him in divine governance of the universe. Hollywood finds the flagellation of Jesus a bigger turn-on than the female orgasm. The Rapture books in the Left Behind series – you'll be left behind unless you get washed in the blood of the lamb – outsell Harry Potter.

In Britain, the churches continue to empty, but the ‘ mind/body/spirit' shelves in our bookshops groan under the weight of tomes recommending a thousand varieties of bottled spiritualities – three for the price of two. One in ten men and one in four women tell pollsters they think there's something in reincarnation. One in three women say they believe in angels, particularly the guardian variety. Churches, both Orthodox and those planted by Western telly-evangelists, flourish in the new Russia. Africa is awash with mission-planted happy-clappy churchianity. God is invoked by all sides in what is sometimes still called, with apparently unconscious irony, ‘the Holy Land'. And above all, a century after free-thinkers organized God's funeral, two monstrous, murderous religious fundamentalisms square up to each other, for God's sake and in his name, to devour the world's precarious stability.

Those who made their humanist sand-castles on Dover beach as the sea of faith retreated, failed to anticipate that what had ebbed could flow back with a vengeance, demolishing their works and their dreams.

Is religion, then, inevitable? Do we need it, as we need food, drink and sex? Do we, after all, have some kind of god-shaped gene which defies even the most ingenious genetic modification? Are we made with a religious itch which we must scratch – perhaps ‘the itch whereof thou canst not be healed' which, along with ‘the emerods' and ‘a sore botch in the knees and in the legs', God promised fallen humanity in Deuteronomy 28: 27- 35? After all, religious belief and practice seems to have been part and parcel of virtually every human culture from the Neanderthals onwards. Where it has been suppressed, it has bounced back with renewed strength or virulence. Can it be just one long mistake? Was the whole of humanity on the wrong track from the year dot till the formation of the Rationalist Press Association?

Chris De Bode / Panos
Colombian cyclist takes out holy insurance before the big race. Chris De Bode / Panos

If we are to take the question seriously, we have to be clear about what we mean by ‘religion' and ‘ God'. Most dictionaries define religion in relation to belief in, obedience to or worship of ‘a divine ruling power' or ‘some higher unseen power'. The binding or ‘ligature' to which the Latin religio relates is traditionally understood as a bond between humanity and the gods. But that leaves out faith systems like Buddhism, which are usually regarded as religions although gods are either absent or optional extras. Anthropologists rather than theologians tend to see religion as that which has bound not humans to gods but humans to humans: belief systems providing tribal or ethnic solidarity, defining one group against another. Religion then becomes naturalized rather than supernaturalized, culturally evolved on earth rather than revealed from heaven. By this measure, galloping consumerism is worship of a god called Mammon: the IMF is the high temple of the god of Growth.

Recently the God revered by dictionary editors as ‘some higher unseen power' has begun to be understood and defined in the academies – if not yet in the pews and on the prayer-mats – more broadly and less mystically. Since the 17th century there has been a developing tendency, at least within the Christian tradition, to naturalize (or de-supernaturalize) him, along with religion itself. Gerrard Winstanley equated God with Reason. William Blake saw him as the imagined embodiment or incarnation of values generated by the wholly human spirit: ‘mercy, pity, peace and love' – to which the visionary poet would no doubt have added justice if he'd found a way of scanning it into his spare, translucent line.

But only a blinkered, anorexic humanism chooses to ignore the heritage of religious culture

God as poetry, a figure of speech, a linguistic symbol, has been the focus of modern Christian thinkers from the young Hegelians of the early 19th century to radical Anglicans like Don Cupitt and postmodern Quaker humanists in our own time. Movements like the Sea of Faith networks in Britain, Australia and New Zealand/ Aotearoa and religious humanist groups in the US understand God as a poet might understand her muse: an imagined source of inspiration firmly embedded and embodied in the creative consciousness of the human animal. The vanguard of radical naturalism may be pretty small beer numerically compared with the big battalions of the old supernaturalism now threatening us with Armageddon, but it illustrates the capacity of religion to critique, naturalize and re-invent itself.

Or are we kidding ourselves? Do we make too much of the thin smear of liberal jam between the thick wodges of fundamentalist crust which constitute the religious sandwich? Probably. There's nothing liberal, modern, progressive, rational, truthful or beautiful about the tide of Christian, Islamic, Hindu and Zionist bigotry which is turning half the world into Arnold's ‘darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night'.

Do we need it? Apparently most of us do. It once seemed that reason was leading us to lose faith in religion, but we woke up to find, instead, that we had lost faith in reason. So all the old appurtenances of religion which we had chucked out through the doorway came creeping back through the window. We blind ourselves to the irrationalism, the bigotry, the fantasy of it all, and allow ourselves to be seduced once again by George Herbert's ‘ furniture so fine', God's ‘glorious household-stuffe': the music, art, pageantry, ritual, architecture – and, above all, by the blessed assurance that somewhere in this mystic mix there's a promise that ‘all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well'. We know we don't have to take it literally. We know that the things we are liable to read in the Bible ain't necessarily so. But religion gives us suitably solemn funerals, suitably sentimental nativity plays, provides us with life markers. It gives us our roots and our reassurance that there is meaning, even if it is located above the bright blue sky and we don't have a clue what the meaning means.

For all of us, perhaps, the itch whereof we canst not be healed is the deep-seated need to find or create purpose and meaning in the crazy business of living. As modern humans – homo sapiens – developed the closely linked capabilities of language, imagination and reflective consciousness perhaps a 100,000 years ago, they acquired the capacity to ask, and then couldn't stop asking, ‘What's it all about? What, when, how, why…?' Facing an apparently hostile, wholly inexplicable universe, they told stories, sang songs, danced dances, invented rituals to impose a framework of meaning on an otherwise chaotic existence. They used symbols and symbolically mediated behaviour to signify who they were, creating art, ornament, design, a sense of beauty and truth to map their world, give it shape, coherence and purpose.

Today's itch may lead us to seek meaning and purpose in the quest for social justice, or art, science, astrology, shopping, or sex, and drugs. But only a blinkered, anorexic humanism chooses to ignore the heritage of religious culture: its myths and make-believes. We still need a little salve-ation, healing, from time to time; a sense of at-one-ment with ourselves and the rest of the universe; redemption as restoration; an assurance that our ludicrous inability to be the people we would like to be is ultimately forgivable and forgiven.

We may no longer look for all this to the old all-smiling, all-smiting Authority riding his chariots of wrath through thunderclouds on the wings of the storm; or to his enfeebled, cock-and-ballobsessed church; or to his rival priests, preachers and holy assassins who think they are his vicarious representatives on earth. But we can still draw inspiration and sustenance from the old, old stories – not forgetting that they are old, and that they are stories, and that we made them up.

Enabling dreams of Paradise, a world where swords will be beaten into ploughshares, a counter-reality which glimpses an alternative republic of heaven on earth, where peace is built on justice rather than conquest… this, not virgin births, second comings, holy wars and infallible books, is the real stuff: hard-core religion in action. And we have a basic need for that, even if we know the need can never be wholly satisfied, the itch never healed.

David Boulton is a former Head of News, Current Affairs and Religion at Britain’s Granada TV. His latest book is The Trouble with God and his next The Republic of Heaven, a study of Philip Pullman’s trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’.

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