Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Taming Religion

Tony Blair's justification of faith | Andrew Brown | Comment is free |

"Faith is not going to disappear", he said: 'We have this view in Europe that once peope get a bit more sensible, a bit more rational, faith will go out of the window. That's not the way the world works.'..the one thing he did not say or claim, even by implication, was that faith was harmless. It seemed to me that he thinks of it as thoroughly dangerous – which of course it is – but that is what makes it so necessary to tame, and such an interesting challenge for any politician. "If people can't find a way of taking their religious faith into co-existence with others, we're in for a really dangerous time."

When I was an undergraduate my fantasy was the Middle Ages, in particular, what I thought of as "Chaucer's Merry England." Here was a world, at least as Chaucer represented it, where there was pageantry and color, sex, drunkenness and jollity, and lots of religion--which no one took very seriously.

This of course is what the Society for Creative Anachronism calls "the Middle Ages as they should have been" and most certainly were not. But it provides an agenda for taming religion.

What should religion be? That depends on what you think religion is. Nowadays people seem to have high-falutin' notions of what it is that are quite detached from what most religious folk historically would have imagined. They claim it has to do with the Big Questions. According to one of my colleagues who does Freud, religion is a "palliative" in the face of our recognition that the universe is without purpose and that our lives are "meaningless."

I'm not sure in what sense our lives could have "meaning" or what their being "meaningless" comes to but I agree that the universe is without purpose. I'm just not bothered by it, and don't see why anyone should be bothered. I don't see the problem.

Most people as far as I can see aren't bothered by it either and in any case historically most have not thought of these non-issues as the stuff of religion. For the folk, including me, religion is cultic practice and belief in the supernatural. That's the core. In addition religion promotes moral decency--honesty, kindness, diligence and a sort of generic uprightness.

That seems pretty tame to me. To be a religious person is to believe in the supernatural--to believe that there is a God, or gods, or something or other beyond the material world, which may or may not intervene in human affairs but generally does not interfere--and to engage in various religious ceremonies, traditions and practices. What's the problem?

In the US for decades advocates of separation of church and state have fought to keep religion out of the public square--to get prayer out of the public schools, Christmas creches out of public parks, and hilltop crosses off of public land. The New Atheists have joined the crusade. The idea I suppose is that these innocuous symbols and practices are a gateway to the harder stuff: oppressive puritanism, theocracy and superstition, inquisitions and crusades.

It is an empirical question whether suppressing the innocuous trappings of religiousity would make the world a better place. The Beatles, imagining there was no Heaven, seem to have thought so but I rather doubt it. People enjoy religiousity and believe that it promotes moral decency. When crusading secularists work to take it away, they get their backs up--as well they should.

Religious folk have their backs to the wall. In the US the religious white working class is a shrinking minority. They're scared and angry because they believe that their way of life is under attack and that chaos is breaking in. What would satisfy them? Do they really want nothing less than the whole religious right agenda--including "creationism" in the public schools, the suppression of gays and the institution of a whole range of puritanical constraints?

I really doubt it. I think they would be quite happy with displays public religion--creches in the park, ten commandments in front of courthouses, prayer in schools and invocations by clergy at public ceremonies--and the promotion of generic moral decency along the lines of the Girl Scout code. And there is nothing wrong with that. I'd like it myself--along with processions in the streets and other high church fun.

So that seems to me the way to tame religion. Maximize innocuous religiousity.

It's an empirical question whether this would work but it's worth trying. As a thought experiment at least, imagine that there were processions in the streets and prayer in the public schools, that high school athletes huddled in the field to invoke Jesus' support for their team and in time of drought there were public prayers for rain. Imagine that religiousity was pervasive, that the events of the liturgical year were publicly celebrated with public Christmas festivities, passion plays, and other ceremonies in due season.

If we had all that stuff, would anyone care about gay marriage, evolution, stem-cell research or any of these symbolic issues? Call me naive or call me cynical: I doubt it.


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