|The Myths of Christianity - 6
The End of Religion
Some years ago I copied into my notebook an
aphorism from a Russian writer called V V Rozanov:
All religions will pass, but this will remain:
simply sitting in a chair and looking in the distance.
I would like to adapt Rozanov's saying and suggest that religion is a
consequence of sitting in a chair and looking in the distance.
Another way of expressing the same thought is to use the vocabulary of
Paul Tillich. Tillich said that, as well as the usual matters which
preoccupy us, deep questions about the meaning of life came with our
humanity. He called this dimension of our lives "ultimate concern".
We are creatures who can't help wondering about the meaning of our
lives and the universe in which we spend them. This is our "ultimate
concern" and our response to it, no matter how despairing or empty, is
what we call religion. Even if we reply that life has no discernible or
ultimate meaning, we are still offering that as an answer.
This is the kind of reply that is given by the scientist Richard
Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the
hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might
be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous -
indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose .
This echoes something that Nietzsche wrote:
Becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing .
These replies to the question put by life may appear to repudiate the
idea that there is any kind of meaning out there for us to discover. But
the idea of the non-meaning of the universe is itself an answer to our
question and must mean something. Whether it is paradox or irony, the
discovery of non-meaning or nihilism is itself a kind of meaning, if only
because it means something to us, is something we ourselves read
out of the reality that confronts us.
Just as interesting as the answers that Nietzsche and Dawkins give is
the fact that they themselves are so passionately engaged in wrestling
with the question. It is the nature of humans to do this. In us life has
started to ask questions about itself. That is where religion has come
Unfortunately, religion has been dominated by special interest groups
who claimed that only their answers were true and that everything else was
error and falseness. It is no surprise that this has happened. It is just
another example of how the world ran itself for so long.
Those in authority not only organised things to suit themselves, they
interpreted things to suit themselves. From their position of power they
may have said that there is a god and the rest of us must accept the fact.
Or they may have said, from their position of power, that there is no god
and the rest of us must accept the fact. Whether it was the Vatican or the
Politburo, it didn't matter, as long as they called the shots.
The folly of subjecting the religious passion to the politics of power
is that it cannot be controlled in this way and refuses to be the subject
of external direction. I suspect that this is at least part of what the
writer and film-maker Dennis Potter meant when he said just before his
death from cancer:
Religion to me has always been the wound
not the bandage .
This is a particularly difficult statement for religious officials to
live with, especially if they work for religions of salvation. They do not
sit alongside us in the chair looking in the distance, comparing points of
view. They want to protect us from what we might discover for ourselves,
by telling us exactly what the official view is and how dangerous it will
be for us if we do not accept it.
Or, to mix the metaphor slightly, they want to sell us their special
spectacles, which have been theologically tested by experts to give us
maximum power for long-distance looking. Given the extraordinary energy
and variety of the human species, none of this should surprise us - but
buyers should always beware of sellers. By definition they want to move
their product, whether it is a Mercedes or a metaphysic.
To punish the metaphor a little longer, in the culture of global
capitalism everything has become a commodity, including religion. The most
blatant exponents of religious consumerism are the television evangelists,
the best of whom are brilliant salespersons.
But even the subtler and more traditional religions try to push their
brands. None of this would particularly matter if it were the case of
rival systems inviting us to view reality from where they are sitting:
"Come, try our view and see if you'd like to build your dwelling place at
our bend in the river". More of that is going on today and I shall return
to it in a moment.
In the past, however, religion. like everything else, was dealt with in
an authoritarian way. We were told, for our own good, what to think and
what to look at. And we were told, for our own good, what not to think and
what not to look at.
And because they believed they were dealing with momentous issues that
determined eternal destinations, religions tended to be at war with each
other. It is no accident that the vocabulary of religious vituperation is
so gross, particularly in the Christian tradition, and more particularly
in the long feud between Catholics and Protestants. We get riled with each
other in areas where it is difficult if not impossible to establish the
truth. We don't beat each other up over the multiplication tables, but we
get very agitated about religion and politics because it is impossible to
establish their incontrovertible truth.
The fascinating thing about our own day is that the intellectual
attitude to these matters has changed utterly. If I can use the Rozanov
metaphor one last time: today we positively revel in and celebrate the
fact that there are almost as many chairs for distance gazing as there are
people to sit in them. There is no universally accepted answer to the
question posed by our ultimate concern. The dominant characteristic of
what is called post-modernity is the absence of agreement on the core
meanings and values that undergird the human experience.
Sociologists call these underground streams of value and meaning
"meta-narratives". They tell us that the main characteristic of our
society is its lack of agreement on how to understand and order human
communities today. In their language, we have no common meta-narrative. We
describe our society today as "multicultural" and its values as "plural".
The leaders of most religious institutions deplore this situation, for
fairly obvious reasons. They talk contemptuously of "pick and mix"
Christians and "cafeteria Catholics" who take what they want from
traditional religious systems and ignore what is not congenial.
While unattractive, their dyspepsia is understandable. After all, if
you are invested in the proclamation of a particular system of meaning and
value, not because it is one among many, but because it is the only true
and saving one, then you are bound to be disturbed by the new plural
culture. Religious officials feel the way all monopolists feel when
competition invades their marketplace: they resent it, precisely because
it threatens their dominance.
Before returning to the effects of post-modernity on religion, it will
be instructive to look at some of the things it is doing to politics.
In a brilliant paper, Robert Cooper, Deputy Secretary of Defence and
Overseas Secretary in the Cabinet Office, applied the concept of
post-modernity to the political realities of the world today. He said
there were three kinds of state around at the moment.
What he called the post-modern state had no territorial or imperial
ambitions and no taste for war. It was willing to share sovereignty with
other states, not just in defence, but in law and economics. Members of
the European Union were the purest examples of the post-modern state.
Other countries, such as China and Iraq, were still modern states. He
characterised "modern" states as expansionist, suspicious of the
intentions of other nations and with more than a residual taste for war.
He warned that post-modern states might still have to resist the
aggressions of modern states in the traditional way.
He went on to point out that much of the world had fallen into a
pre-modern condition in places where the state no longer fulfilled Weber's
criterion of possessing a legitimate monopoly on the use of force.
Pre-modern states have no legitimate authority and no central control.
They are kleptocracies, areas controlled or dominated by gangsters
and robbers. In its relations with these chaotic areas, he advises
post-modern states either to conquer or keep out.
Cooper used his analysis as a basis for advising European governments
in situations of conflict with modern and pre-modern states. I do not want
to engage in that part of the discussion, except to observe that truly
post-modern states find it difficult if not impossible to conduct
traditional warfare with sufficient ruthlessness, even if they are
persuaded to the justice of their cause. This is mainly because they find
it difficult to endure the deaths of their own military personnel.
However, because of the phenomenon of the global village and the fact that
we are able to look in on the tragedies that are daily enacted in modern
and pre-modern states, public opinion often prompts the leaders of
post-modern states to interventions that are rarely effective, because
they lack the kind of callousness that might make them stick.
Cooper's analysis can be applied to the global religious situation.
Just as there are significant minorities in all post-modern nations
that crave to return to the nationalistic and xenophobic style of the
modern state, so there are elements in the Christian world that long for a
return to the old days of dominance and control that once characterised
the life of the churches.
In Cooper's typology, most churches in the North Atlantic region are
"modern" institutions uneasily operating in an increasingly post-modern
culture. One of the main characteristics of post-modernity which is
reflected in effective business ventures, is the flattening of the
hierarchies and the sharing of patterns of governance. Though still more
honoured in theory than in practice, there is also a commitment to equal
treatment for women and sexual and ethnic minorities.
All of this is in marked contrast to life in the traditional or
"modern" churches, the greatest and most characteristic of which is the
Roman Catholic Church. Though it is increasingly disturbed by pressure
from post-modern elements at the grass-roots level, it is still, at the
top, an intensely authoritarian and interventionist church which practices
the rhetorical equivalence of warfare, usually upon its own clergy and
laypeople, though not infrequently upon society at large. The Roman
Catholic Church is, in many ways, an ecclesiastical version of the state
in China. Like China, it is enormous and extremely powerful, so it is able
to make many of its interventions stick.