Monday, 10 February 2014

Religion has outlasted all its competitors

A clever university friend wrote this. It interested me for Terry Eagleton’s point, in Melanie McDonagh's words, 
"that religion has, over time, trumped all the attempted substitutes: Reason (practically deified in the Enlightenment), Nature (ditto, by the Romantics), nationalism, and above all, culture, endowed by what passes for our own intelligentsia with all the ennobling effects of religion without the tiresome necessity of belief." 
She is right, though, that, despite the putative inadequacy of the alternatives to religion, Great Britain is ceasing rapidly to be a Christian country at all.  

This does not mean Britain is ceasing to be religious, just because indigenous Britons are ceasing even to give God a thought. Religion is a sense of the sacred that binds people and cultures together and many things can be sacred. The place of the sacred in Britain is increasingly taken by welfare and equality of opportunity, an essentially religious concept. These form a thoroughly materialistic ideology, but it performs many of the functions of a religion. This creed is buttressed with the imperative of being non-judgemental and being judgemental about being non-judgemental. It is the intolerant ideology of tolerance. 

Christianity is considered right-wing, though most British priests and clerics are leftish. It is gravely tarnished by so many terrible incidents of priests interfering with children and it suffers because post-Christians are terrified of Islam and prefer to oppose religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, rather than get into the post-colonial swamp that is critiquing Islam. 

Christianity would be in sharp decline in any case. In a world of technological change the supernatural seems a hypothesis for which man has no need, as does sin. In W H Auden's words,
What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?
Although a Middle Eastern religion, which draws most of its adherents from the poor world, Christianity suffers because it is seen as white and European. Before I believed, I objected on this ground. It makes absolute truth claims in an era when truth is a suspect idea, it is a tradition in a time when the rebuttable presumption is that traditions are outmoded and oppressive, in a scientific age it is unscientific, it makes value judgements, including about sexual morality, and it even talks about wives obeying husbands, though this is played down nowadays. 

The modern British attitude to Christianity seems to be Lord Melbourne's:
It has come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life.
Still less, of course, is religion welcome in the sphere of public life, or not at any rate Christianity. lslam is a different matter. 


  1. To the slight extent this is true, that is to the extent that religion still exists, it's mainly because we have such a poor reason-based education.

    I was taught no maths or physics at school less than a century old, and most of it was a lot older than that. Some of the things we were taught had been known to be untrue for at least half a century - atoms being like little solar systems, for example, which they're not. This was the case even though I specialised at first in maths and sciences and studied things like astronomy and geology in addition to the usual sciences.

    If schools gave a good reflection of modern knowledge, rather than superstition, to their pupils the situation would be very different.

  2. And of course, the strongest religious belief is held in the least educated societies.

  3. The idea that religion exists because people are not well taught in schools is not very intelligent. Terry Eagleton whose political opinions I loathe is good on the fact that the religion atheists attack is not what believers believe. He wrote a very good review of 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins which you can find on the net, starting:
    Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.
    Dawkins on God is rather like those right-wing Cambridge dons who filed eagerly into the Senate House some years ago to non-placet Jacques Derrida for an honorary degree. Very few of them, one suspects, had read more than a few pages of his work, and even that judgment might be excessively charitable. Yet they would doubtless have been horrified to receive an essay on Hume from a student who had not read his Treatise of Human Nature. There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice. For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion.

    1. Read Melanie's article too to which I linked above.

    2. The Eagleton review is famous, but for the wrong reasons. Its fatuity was well parodied here: "Dawkins has only a superficial knowledge of Mein Kamf Kampf, or the poetry of Marinetti; and he seems entirely ignorant of the much more subtle and intellectually stimulating work of Fascist philosophers such as Hermann Graf Keyserling, Alfred Baeumler, Martin Heidegger, Giovanni Gentile, Rafael Sánchez Mazas, Alain de Benoist and many others. Only somebody who has mastered the complete works of all these thinkers could even conceivably be in a position to advance an anti-Fascist argument. The lack of that necessary body of knowledge fatally undermines Dawkins’s right to attack Fascism in the first place."

      Religious belief has developed an undeniably sophisticated superstructure and veneer but at heart it's about whether or not one of the Bronze Age creation myths is true. None of them are, there is no God, and that's an end to it. Religion continues to wither and will continue to do so until it is the province of the small number of people who today find solace in conspiracy theory, ufology and so on.

      This is what Eagleton (and others) try to distract people from.

    3. Peter, you are not arguing interestingly for atheism. Perhaps you think God unworthy of serious discussion.

    4. I don't believe in God so it isn't a question of worthiness. I don't find the argument in the piece you linked to very persuasive and my comment gave reasons why I don't find the post persuasive either. After all, we're using the internet, part of an incredible technical and scientific development, to say religion has outlasted the medium that's delivering the message. It's a strange assertion.

    5. So you are saying the internet has replaced religion?

    6. There are so many very plausible arguments against the existence of God but to say belief is impossible for people who understand physics is just not an intelligent remark.But it is typical of the ways many science side people think - in straight lines and in black and white. This is what makes them hard to hold conversations with, with some few notable exceptions. (On the other hand because they read little they see clearly in some ways as illiterates do.)

    7. ' To say belief is impossible for people who understand physics is just not an intelligent remark." I was unfair and discourteous. It betrays a complete ignorance of what belief in God is.

  4. "post-Christians are terrified of Islam and prefer to oppose religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, rather than get into the post-colonial swamp that is critiquing Islam. "

    Indeed!I have seen that movie called "Ágora" and i was thinking to myself that our self-anointed secular elites will fight Islam until the last of the Christians...

    One irritating trend that we are seeing throughout the Western World is the rise of eastern spirituality and new age minimalism.If this is the spiritual future of Europe i would prefer the old-fashioned atheists.In the end they are the lesser evil.