On Religion

When I was 16, I was a member of my school’s debating society. As with all school debating societies, it wasn’t long before we landed on the topic of ‘Science vs. Religion’. It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that, at the time, I strongly self-identified as a scientist and atheist, and so I naturally took the position of ‘Science’. I think the teacher was pretty pleased by this, mainly because he hadn’t had any luck in finding any other people prepared to take that position.

The debate attracted the largest audience the society had ever seen – at least two dozen! I was up against a couple of people from the neighboring girls’ school, and I must confess that I don’t remember a single word they said. In fact, the only thing I remember from that debate is my declaration that religion had caused wars, created strife, impeded scientific progress and was essentially good for nothing. Was there anything good about religion, someone asked.

Well, I suppose it made some pretty good artwork, like the Sistine Chapel, I replied airily. To their credit, and my consternation, everyone present looked at me in horror. For some time afterwards, I really didn’t think that I had said anything particularly outrageous, such was my complete dismissal of religion.

A normal story would feature a Road to Damascus conversion at this point, but I’ll have to disappoint you. Instead, I remained an atheist (after mulling over the true definition of agnostic for quite some time) and gradually, as I read more, experienced more and talked to more people, I realised that I was mistaken in my belief that religion was no good. Clearly it was perfectly good for some people, and it wasn’t any of my business to harp on about it.

In recent weeks, a few things have changed my view yet again. The first was when I was talking to a good friend of mine. She’s a Christian and is a very active member of her local church, along with her husband. I’d always been struck by how friendly their church was, having visited it a couple of times myself, and I could see the attraction of belonging to it. Apparently the church had banded together with another and organised a fun ‘prison break’ event for all their kids, in which they transformed one of the churches into Colditz and had the kids try to break out. Smoke machines, high power torches, puzzles, prison guards, secret map fragments, you name it, they had it. Of course, the event was completely free. All the equipment was donated and everything was run by volunteers.

I was taken aback. This was exactly the sort of thing I do for a living, and yet I’d never had the opportunity to help out on such a fun event for kids. Why did they get to do it, and not me, just because they belonged to a church? Clearly there were a few requirements to hold such a thing. You needed a reasonably large group of people who were willing to donate their time, money and resources to a common, non-profit cause. You needed a great deal of trust to exist between those people, in order for them to allow their children to take part. And finally, you needed them to meet fairly regularly, so they could actually get the project off the ground and know each other in the first place.

Religion didn’t seem to figure into it, although it did provide an awfully good reason for those people meeting every week. Ultimately, you could hold a similar event without a church or religion, but it just so happens that religions make it incredibly easier. Indeed, I’m not sure there is any other institution with a similar ability to bring people together on such a massive scale, and instill such trust and co-operation.

I fretted about this for a little while, and then read the newspaper (I was in Oxford at the time and I always read the newspapers there). On the front page was an article about Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In it, he warned of a ‘rising tide of secularism’ in the UK. I tossed the paper aside in disgust. As many would understand it today, ‘secularism’ means ‘godless atheists who have no morals’, thanks to people like Rowan Williams. What it really means is the separation of church and state.

I doubt that Rowan Williams has a problem with the separation of church and state. What he’s bothered about are atheists who seemingly have no morals or values are now controlling the state. As an atheist, I thought was absurd, and repeated the mantra of ‘religion doesn’t have a monopoly on morals’ to myself. The irritating fact, however, is that it might as well do. For all atheists talk about the ability to have a strong code of ethics and morals without religion, they very rarely take the time to expound those values. In fact, all they do is bang on incessantly about how religious people are misguided or stupid, and that if religions vanished overnight, the world would be a better place.

(When I speak of ‘atheists’ here, I refer to those vocal who have the temerity to attack religion in the media and seek to speak on behalf of all atheists)

That’s far from clear. For all their faults, there is no institution that does so much social good as religion. There is no institution that makes places such an importance on teaching trust, and co-operation, and community, and humility, and ethics, as religion. Atheists look on in horror at the megachurches in America, and yet they think there is no reason why people go to them other than that they’re either stupid, or brainwashed, or both. What they fail to recognise is that there is something incredibly important that churches offer, and can provide, that ‘atheism’ or ‘science’ cannot.

Some would argue that it’s not the place of atheists to offer those things, and that we should first eliminate religion and let science sort them out. That’s ridiculous. Religion is not going anywhere, and the same will be true for the beleaguered atheists unless they show they have something equally good to offer people.

When I read articles about earnest conferences organised by middle-aged scientists on how scientists should advance the cause of atheism, I’m frankly contemptuous. They spend all of their time discussing whether or not to bash religion, and how to do it. There is hardly any discussion of what organised religion does well and how ‘science’ might replicate it. What little there is proposes that ‘science’ – the Big Bang, the story of the universe – is far more beautiful than any scripture. Not only is this naive, but it completely misses the point. The scientific method is not at issue here, as should be obvious from the masses of highly educated and intelligent people who continue, bafflingly (to atheists), to go to church and yet have no problem with evolution and the like. Religion isn’t just about what you believe in, what’s what you do and what it gives you.

Churches have had the luck and foresight to understand that the social institutions they provide are just as important – if not more – than their actual beliefs. Atheists must create similar institutions if they ever hope to convince anyone at all; institutions that can give everyone the same hope, community, trust and moral education that churches do – but without the religion.

5 Replies to “On Religion”

  1. Lovely post. Do you identify with the “Brights” movement at all? (I don’t.)

    I was taken aback. This was exactly the sort of thing I do for a living, and yet I’d never had the opportunity to help out on such a fun event for kids.

    The other day I was googling for sick twisted games (for entirely honourable, properly nefarious purposes) and was rather surprised to see that the top page was a list of suggestions for games that might be played at a youth ministry session at a church. Surprisingly aggressive stuff – but onward, Christian soldiers, and all that.

  2. What a nice post to find this morning. The thing that often confuses people is the blurring of lines between “church” and “religion” and “organized religion” – they are very different things. A church is a community gathering place and support network. And, as we become more and more transient, the role of the church becomes more and more important.

    I’m not sure how popular the Universal Unitarians are in the UK, they’re fairly easy to find in the more liberal areas in the US. A lot of people refer to them as the church for Athiests. They seem to recognize and celebrate the wide variety of beliefs held by people. And, because of that, they tend to talk in terms of moral guidance rather than a religious guidance. Which makes it much more Agnostic and Athiest-friendly. There’s a definite need or market for such an organization.

  3. Glad you guys liked the post.

    Chris: I don’t identify with the Brights at all. I don’t think I saw a single person who approved of the choice of the name, other than the Brights themselves. There are just so… many… things… wrong… with it. It manages to be self-congratulatory, arrogant, insulting and counter-productive all at once. And people thought scientists were supposed to be smart.

    Interesting list of games there, although most don’t seem like that much fun!

    Brooke: I completely agree with the distinction you make. The interesting thing is how people’s lives are shifting between those different areas. While in the past, ‘church’, ‘religion’ and ‘organised religion’ were all a single thing, nowadays they mean very different things. You can go to church without being religious, and vice versa – and that church may not belong to part of a larger organisation.

    It’s interesting to look at religions other than Christianity. One of my friends is Jewish, and when I was talking to her about this subject, she told me how wonderful it was to be able to visit a completely foreign city and simply drop in at a synagogue to meet people, get advice, and generally say hello. Clearly this is a more extreme example than Christianity, which doesn’t have quite the same solidarity or cohesion as Judaism, but it’s telling that there really is *no* analog for atheists. The implicit trust that exists within those communities is staggering.

    Sure, you could pretend that online social networks or coachsurfing are substitutes, but let’s face it, we all know that a ‘friend’ in those networks can mean nothing when many people have hundreds and you can add – or remove – them with a single click.

    What’s more interesting are the thousands and millions of miniature communities that are springing up on the web around niche interests. I’ve been more to a few real world meetups of online communities such as Metafilter and Unfiction, and clearly those communities have built up a lot of trust. But ultimately, they mostly pale in comparison to what you get from real world communities that expect more than just posting on a forum.
    You have to work and make sacrifices in any church in order to get something out, but as the cliche goes, the more you put in, the more you get out. Atheists don’t want to put anything in.

    There’s a Universal Unitarian church just down the road from the home I grew up in. The concept of a humanist church sounded intriguing, but then I saw the episode of the Simpsons where Maude Flander died. Bart and the Flanders kids are playing a game of ‘Billy Graham’s Bible Blaster’, where you’re trying to convert heathens using a holy Bible gun.

    Bart: Ooh, full conversion!
    Rod: No, you just winged him and made him a Unitarian

    That’s the way I feel about Unitarians. It’s pretty wishy-washy stuff that doesn’t address the issue of religion at all. I might abhor the methods of Dawkins, but I still don’t believe in any religion and I don’t think it’s necessary.

    There is a way of having an institution that has all the positive parts of churches, but without religion. It just takes a lot of work, and it needs people to make a stand, not just for what they *don’t* believe in, but for what they *do* believe in.

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