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Why religion is a force for good

2007 July 9
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by Paul Vallely

One of the things I find most intriguing in debates like the one at the Manchester International Festival this weekend, which asked “Is religion a force for good?”, is the way that atheists tell me what I believe. They define the God they don’t believe in and then tell me it’s the God I do believe in. When it isn’t. They offer a caricature of religion and then say, there, it’s absurd. They always cite the most preposterously extreme examples.

In his TV series about God Richard Dawkins sought out a Jew, Christian and Muslim who were, each one, wackos in anybody’s book. Or you get Christopher Hitchens tying himself in such knots that he has to maintain that someone like Martin Luther King was only a nominal Christian. By which he really means he wasn’t a fundamentalist. Most believers aren’t.

So I’d like to define what I believe, and not have someone else do it for me. Where I start from as a religious person isn’t with philosophical paradoxes that ask how God can be both all-powerful and all-loving. I start with a sense that there is purpose in existence. That we are connected to something bigger than ourselves. That we find greater fulfilment by relating to that and by seeking the shimmer of transcendence. God is not an “invisible being” who “commands, rewards or punishes. God is not to me a particular “being” at all, but rather the power of Being itself. God is a supreme moral ideal to be reverenced for its value not for its controlling power.

Nor is faith something fixed. Von Hugel talked about three stages in religion. As children we need stories, structure and institutions. As adolescents we ask questions and search for consistency and an identity. And in adulthood we explore the mystical element as we work through our layers of inner consciousness, and reach after the incommunicable. We need all three stages at once sometimes. And we move constantly between them. This is not moving the goalposts. The goalposts are just not were AC Grayling put them in the first place.

Critics of religion get stuck somewhere between the infantile and adolescent stages. Saying that believing in God is the same as believing in gnomes and pixies is an inexact analogy. You don’t start believing in gnomes and pixies as an adult. But you can start believing in God. I did. Religion is embraced in adulthood by people with wide experience of life and with intelligence. Not because it answers questions like why children die of cancer or of hunger in Africa. But it does help believers like me to penetrate deeper into my own psychological self.

There is a coherent social vision running through the Old and New Testament, focused on a God who demands justice, who takes the side of the poor and the marginalised, and who calls for a radical new understanding of human love, commitment and responsibility. That informs how I behave and treat other people.

Take the theological notion that we are all made in the image of God. When I’m dealing with someone who’s threatening, a poser or a prat, that notion acts as an additional check on my instinct to dismiss them uncharitably. I am not saying you can’t be good or moral without religion. Humanists can and many are. But a Christian humanist like me does not premise morality on fallacious foundations; rather my morality is undergirded by my faith at a much deeper level. Religion doesn’t make me a better person than AC Grayling. But it makes me a better person than I would be without it.

Faith isn’t just good for some individuals. It is good for society. Go out in Manchester tonight and you will find people of faith doing soup runs to the homeless; presbyteries giving shelter to asylum seekers; Christians giving up a day’s salary a week to work for those organisations in the city most in need; street pastors out at 2am working, in tandem with the police and city council, with young people and drug addicts who have no one to turn to. It’s the same across the country, whether its shelters for the homeless in London or Salvation Army members in Glasgow who collect food on its sell-by from Marks & Spencer every night and take it to drug addicts in tenements where the doors bear scorch marks and axe blows.

Some 80% of British charities may be non-religious, but the research by the Home Office’s Bureau of Volunteering shows that those committed to one of the historic faiths are between three and four times more likely to get involved in than others. I’ve seen examples all over the world. People of faith are the first in many difficult situations and they are usually the last to leave.

Religion does its bad in public and its good in private, or at least in ways which are considered unnewsworthy. More open-minded atheists accept that. “For every one of the grand tragedies provoked by religion there are 10,000 acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported,” Michael Shermer, the president of the US Skeptics Society has said. Or as Roy Hattersley has written in the Guardian: “It is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand.” He adds, “Men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles, do not go out with the Salvation Army at night.”

Many of Britain’s great political traditions were nurtured by religion. Democracy by the Protestantism of the Puritans. Civil disobedience and pacifism by Quakers. The labour movement by Methodists. The hospice movement. Alcoholics Anonymous. Amnesty International. All founded by religious people.

Today in an atomised society, where people have walked away from participation in solidarity-based institutions – like trade unions, the cooperative movement, political parties, local councils, clubs and societies, all dwindling in membership – the churches, mosques and synagogues are among the few places where it is possible to get people organised and mobilised. Look at the happiness index and you find that what makes people happy is “doing things together.” That’s something that’s integral to the communities that are faith groups. Being part of something where you pull your weight and do your bit. It makes people feel good about themselves. That translates in them wanting to do good for others.

Atheists who are unable to acknowledge this make two common mistakes. First, in their compilation of all the evils associated with religion, they make a consistent causal assumption. They assume that all the bad to do with religion is caused by that religion. All the bad done under the banner of science or secularism, or the millions killed by atheists like Pol Pot or Mao Tse Tuing, has other causes. That’s because of ideology, greed or lust for power. A massive 30% of all British public money spent on science goes on military research, but no one would say that that problem is intrinsic to science; rather it is an abuse of the creative power of science by corrupt political priorities.

To say religion is the cause of the bad linked to it – whereas science and secularism can take the credit for the good things associated with them, but are absolved of responsibility for the bad – is weird logic. It puts a filter on the atheist argument. It allows them to select only facts that seem to prove their case. But all it really proves is that their logical method is biased towards that result from the start.

It’s ironic then for advocates of religion to be accused of cherry-picking sacred texts to “make them halfway acceptable”. Religion has built into it a self-critical ability. That how the Jewish prophets chastised the priestly cult or the powerful kings who forget the injunction to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God”; it’s why Jesus of Nazareth insisted on embracing people who were “unclean” and deliberately flouting the cultic regulations and rituals of institutional religious power. Those who cherry-pick in this debate are the atheists who pull quotes from sacred texts, with no regard for context or long traditions of scholarship, much as religious literalists and fundamentalists do.

The truth is that it is not religion that is the problem. The problem is the human heart, the capacity we all have for evil. And the temptation we all have to externalise that evil and project it out onto others. When a society rejects God it has a tendency to trascendentalise other values. It makes a God of The Master Race, The Worker’s State, of liberté-fraternité- égalit&eacute:. “Liberty what crimes are permitted in your name,” said Madame Roland to the statue personifying that virtue as she went to the guillotine.

Yes, of course people do vile things in the name of their religion, but the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford – a secular body – has conducted a major study called the Religious War Audit covering the major wars of the last three and a half thousand years. A number are undeniably religious – the 7th century Islamic conquests, the Crusades, the Reformation wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Yet far more have been killed since political leaders shrugged off their religious traditions to experiment with a range of post-religious ideologies like communism and fascism. Nazism murdered 15 million, Soviet Communism had between 9 and 60 million victims, Maoism killed an estimated 30-40 million. Atheistic totalitarianism has perpetrated more mass murder than any state dominated by a religious faith.

Ironically the difference between religion and secular ideologies is that religion understands that humans are flawed and thus always operates with a contingency of grace and forgiveness. When secular movements bump into human failure their own ideology breaks down.

The second logical flaw is the assertion that religion is irrational. Is it any more so than, say, poetry or music, which are taught in our schools without apparent objection from rationalists? Everyone accepts quite happily that there are some truths about human existence that have to be approached obliquely, through art, because they are not susceptible to a scrutiny rooted in the scientific method. What atheists do is confuse the irrational with the non-rational. There is a reality that is not a product of rational deduction. That is why religion has such affinity with art and music.

Religious faith has no quarrel with science. But the two operate in distinct spheres. Science can do much to explain sexual urges. But it can say almost nothing, as Freud acknowledged, about the mysterious workings of love. Religion seeks spiritual truth, not scientific or historical fact. It allows us to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty, with the ultimate mystery of human existence.

Substitute the word sex for religion in the motion we debated and you see the absurdity. “Is sex a force for good in the modern world?” Of course, you can make a list of horrors about miserable relationships, sexual neuroses, domestic violence, female exploitation, sex trafficking, paedophiles and so on. By such a utilitarian calculation you can make a case against sex. But we all know it would be a grotesque distortion. Which is what this case against religion is.


2 Responses
  1. March 21, 2011

    As a life-long atheist and humanist I do not totally disagree with some of your points.

    The argument is often pursued at a level that is not particularly helpful and I will be happy to apologise for any failings by atheists in that regard, but you should also be prepared to acknowledge that it is an understandable overstatement in response to several thousand years in which religion has claimed the moral high ground with scant evidence to back it up. It is very important for atheist to define themselves by what they are, and not by what they are not.

    To move this argument beyond the trivial dialogue of the deaf I would like to assert that I also participated in soup runs, I try to be helpful to my fellow man/woman, that I believe strongly in the wonder and magic of a universe that is awe inspiring in its scope and majesty, and I understand the social drivers that compele us to be happiest when participating in a community. And am liberated by the understanding that there is no purpose to our existence beyond that which we attribute to our own lives.

    The main difference between me and a religious person is that I would instantly change my belief (that a God does not exist) if I was given evidence that he does. A religious person, by definition, is acting out of ‘faith’ and therefore cannot be convinced by evidence.

    We live in a world in which our understanding of how things really work, is accelerating so fast that in the relatively near future we will have sufficient understanding of many new areas of science that we will be able to manipulate them and watch them transform our lives in ways that we cannot currently even imagine. How our brains work, how our DNA manages its particular miracle, how to control nano technologies, communications and computational technologies and so many combinations and permutations of different sciences that the products that come out of the process will be as like magic to us, as our current technology would look to a caveman.

    If we want to survive and flourish with the growing population that is coming (regardless of our collective wishes), in which 75% will live in urban environments, we have to harness those changes for the good of mankind.

    Who is most likely to contribute to the future well being of the human race, the person who adjusts his/her world view according to the unfolding miracles of our increasing understanding , or those who are stuck with eternal verities of a faith? This is not an argument about better or worse, it is the Darwinian race for survival.

  2. March 30, 2011

    Paul Vallely claims that humanists set up straw men versions of religion to knock down. But what is his version of religion?

    First: he mentions aspects of religion that can in fact be shared by humanists. There is the sense that we are “connected to something bigger than ourselves” – we are indeed part of a very vast universe which can easily evoke awe. There is the concept of “a supreme moral ideal” – humanists would call it Goodness rather than God. There is a self-critical ability based on the injunction to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly”. Since these ideals are compatible with humanism I would not count them as essentially “religious”, they are part of philosophy. The claim that “religion understands that humans are flawed” whereas secular philosophy doesn’t, is simply absurd.

    He turns to the scriptures to claim: “There is a coherent social vision running through the Old and New Testament, focused on a God who demands justice, who takes the side of the poor and the marginalised, and who calls for a radical new understanding of human love, commitment and responsibility.” This is surely “cherry-picking” of those bits of the bible that suit this philosophy, which is indeed shared by most humanists. There is much more in the bible that is barbarous.

    His claims that more religious believers are active in the community doesn’t seem to be borne out by his own statistics. He claims that “Many of Britain’s great political traditions were nurtured by religion.” Indeed so, but many of them, often the same ones, were also opposed by religion (presumably not his kind of religion).

    Second: what is left that is essential to his idea of religion? First he requires “a sense that there is purpose in existence”. As humans we all develop our own individual purposes in life. Perhaps some humanists might say that human beings serve the “purpose” of being the minds and eyes by which the universe achieves consciousness of itself. Does he mean anything beyond this? He does not clearly say.

    More poetically, he talks of “seeking the shimmer of transcendence”, of God being not a being but “the power of Being itself” and that in adulthood “we explore the mystical element” and “work through our layers of inner consciousness” and “reach after the incommunicable”, and seek “to penetrate deeper into” our “psychological self”, and that “Religion seeks spiritual truth” and “allows us to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty” and “with the ultimate mystery of human existence”. Well all these are very vague poetic thoughts mixed in with a bit of psychology. Humanists are capable of introspection and day-dreaming too. Calling such experiences “mystical” or “transcendental” or “spiritual” isn’t really saying anything very definite.

    Third: I would agree that most of the bad in the world has been caused by ideologies, greed and lust for power. However ideology cannot be separated from religion as it is usually understood. An ideology is a system of belief not subject to the self-correcting constraints of science.

    Nazism was based on false ideas of racial superiority, Pol Pot practiced a kind of anti-intellectual primitivism, Stalin and Mao sought to purge thinkers who did not conform to the party line, just as heretics were burnt for their deviation from religious orthodoxy. The fact that more deaths occurred under these movements than in earlier more religious times is surely simply due to the increased killing power of modern technology. The atheism of some of these dictators was not their motivation.

    As regards the amount spent on scientific military research, personally I would indeed favour reductions in spending in this sector, e.g. the abandonment of Trident, but there is nothing morally wrong in having a military capability.

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