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Never on a Sunday?

Religion is irrelevant to modern life, says Marilyn Mason. Not so, says Andrew Shanks, it is now more needed than ever

Marilyn Mason and Andrew Shanks
Saturday October 30, 2004


Dear Andrew
I hope that “Back to church Sunday” goes well, though I won’t be joining the churchgoers. I know that there are people who find support and comfort in religion, but I don’t, and I doubt whether society as a whole has much need of religion either.

There are countless examples of religious societies that are hostile to change and to science, misogynistic and intolerant of difference – to the point of violence. And even in constitutionally secular states like the USA, fundamentalist Christians seem to have a worrying amount of influence over government policy at home and abroad.

British society, on the other hand, is fairly irreligious, and I’m glad of that. I think it helps to make our culture more tolerant and open, even though we are not yet a secular state and vestiges of religious privilege and influence remain. A pluralist society like ours shouldn’t favour any one religion – or religion over atheism or humanism.

Of course, individuals and societies need hopes and values to live by, but for many of us these will not be religious, and there is no going back to the piety and conformity of the past (if indeed they ever really existed). Modern societies need to recognise that.
Best wishes, Marilyn

Dear Marilyn
I’m weary this evening, my bones are aching. I’ve been doing jury service. Gazing fixedly into a world, it seems, quite without faith, or hope, or any sense of the sacred at all.

Does society need religion? No, indeed. We moderns, in our wisdom, have found other ways of holding things together: consumerism, sport, celebrity gossip, party politics. And yes, I thank God that we no longer think we depend upon religion for social cement.

Because that means that now, as never before, religion is set free to do its real job – of vindicating truthfulness. We jurors swore an oath to be conscientiously fair. Most of us did so on the New Testament. This, I think, represents what true religion is all about: a commitment to just such conscientiousness about truth, in life generally. Of course, I’m not for one moment suggesting that purely secular “affirmations” are any less sincere. Only, what I value is the extra poetic oomph that religion potentially gives, in this regard.

Religious fundamentalists, secular fundamentalists: both mostly talk about the same “God”, for and against. And both no doubt offer comfort, the comfort of a rigid self-certainty. But true religion, as I understand it, has a rather different God in mind. A God who, on the contrary, only takes away such comfort. Makes life more difficult. Confronts us with truthfulness, precisely, as an infinite demand.
All the best, Andrew

Dear Andrew
Jury service must be sorely trying, but perhaps your faith in humanity will be restored when you and your fellow jurors engage in conscientiously seeking truth, fairness, and justice – as most juries do, I believe. Life after religion is not all crime, sex, football and shopping, as religious pessimists often seem to think. Most of us know that a good life depends on various permutations of friends, family, meaningful activity, nature, art, poetry, music … and trying to leave the world a bit better than one found it. Even the party politics you despise, though it can be trivial and dirty business, is often motivated by a desire to improve society.

I’m probably just as interested in and committed to truth as you are, though I find it outside a religious framework. I am by no means as certain about everything as you imply, but I don’t find it difficult to live with a few “don’t knows” in my life. I don’t know how life on Earth started (and neither does anyone else at the moment), and I don’t know for sure what will happen to me when I die (and probably never will), but I don’t find the religious answers at all convincing or helpful, even the more liberal ones that talk in terms of metaphor and religion being a human construct.

So I just try to live life as well as I can without supernatural support. I wouldn’t say that life as a thoughtful humanist is particularly easy – the obligation to think things through for oneself can be irksome, and any commitment to moral values, whatever they are founded on, can easily produce a state of impotent fury and misery, faced with the suffering and horrors we see every day in the news. I just have to keep telling myself that the world is not full of terrorists who kill children and saw off hostages’ heads, and that ordinary goodness and moderation rarely make it into the media.
Best wishes, Marilyn

Dear Marilyn
Thanks for the concern. But let me assure you, my faith in humanity has never been in doubt! It’s just that, as a Christian priest, I identify it with faith in God incarnate.

And then, if I may say so, I do feel slightly patronised by your evident assumption that the one and only possible source of such faith is a craving for – as you put it – “supernatural support”. I’m really just asking you to acknowledge the possibility, at least, that there might be other forms of religiousness. Ones that are, on the contrary, all about knocking away the false “supports” of conventional prejudice.

Of course, that you’re a public spokesperson for Humanism immediately tells me you’re a serious lover of Truth. And if only all serious lovers of Truth could be allies! But I know you won’t allow it. You Humanists have converted your lack of feel for religion into such a dogma, such a distraction.

I don’t at all “despise” party politics, by the way. God forbid! I have a real admiration for party politicians’ thick-skinnedness. What troubles me, though, is when people deal with religion as if it were something like party politics, a matter for propaganda. Let’s argue, certainly. But propaganda’s something else. I’m personally just as allergic to propaganda for religion as I am to propaganda against it. In a culture saturated with propaganda, I go to church looking for the very purest opposite. (And just occasionally do find it).
All the best, Andrew

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