Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Myths of Christianity - 6
The End of Religion

Richard Holloway

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 Dawkins:

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 [1].

This echoes something that Nietzsche wrote:

Becoming aims at nothing and achieves nothing [2].

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 from.

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 [3].

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.

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