In recent posts here, I’ve been setting out where I am in the freethought community, or more precisely where I’m not – specifically, why I don’t call myself ‘A+’ or ‘humanist’, and why I don’t focus on secularism. I’m going to discuss romantic religion here – or, as it’s sometimes been called, atheist religion.
By this I don’t mean religions without deities. (Insert appropriate Dharmic tradition here.) I also don’t mean liberal religion, which tells us God is love and that the gays will go to Heaven. I’m talking about postmodern religion, and theological nonrealism – the idea that, while God doesn’t in fact exist, we should still use religious narrative and ritual to shape our lives.
The best known recent proponent of this approach, or something very much like it, is probably Alain de Botton. I’ll confess not to having read Religion for Atheists, his recent book – I’ve followed his journalism writing and public speaking enough to understand his stance, and found them generally quite unexciting – but am told by Amazon.com that the volume ‘boldly argues that the supernatural claims of religion are entirely false—but that it still has some very important things to teach the secular world’. ‘Probably’, de Botton wrote at CNN, ‘the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”’
To call him a faithiest would be justified, but that word usually describes the non-religious. There are those who are atheists at least in dictionary terms, of whose thought de Botton’s writing seems highly derivative, who actively practise religion.
The former nun and religious historian Karen Armstrong, for example, said the following in the Wall Street Journal three years ago:
There is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and [.] life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation…
One might expect to read that on a godless site like this, but Armstrong’s heading is ‘We need God to grasp the wonder of our existence’, and she declares in the next paragraph, ‘What we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence’. In the case this lacked mistiness, her book A History of God tells us ‘God is experienced in the scarcely perceptible timbre of a tiny breeze in the paradox of a voiced silence’. I apologise if, on a WordPress blog, I can’t replicate the portentous wisdom-tone in which this is no doubt meant to be read.
But Armstrong is a Christian to all practical extents. ‘Religion isn’t about believing things’, according to her, ‘it’s about what you do. It’s ethical alchemy. It’s about behaving in a way that changes you, that gives you intimations of holiness and sacredness.’
This treatment of religion is found with many different mythologies, and sometimes in different takes on the same one. The Church of Satan, for example, denies the existence of gods or devils outright, but holds the historically constructed character Satan to represent desirable traits – self-indulgence, for example, or moral opposition to the Christian God – and sees ritual in purely naturalistic, symbolic terms.
Its counterpart is the mostly Christian Sea of Faith Network, formed in the 1980s by the Anglican priest Don Cupitt to ‘explore religion as a human creation’: in practice, to perform religious rituals like the Eucharist and corporate prayer, not out of belief in Christ as an existent deity but out of sympathy with New Testament ethics, or a desire to frame one’s life with ceremonies, metaphor and narrative. I’ve met similarly minded Pagans, who don’t think gods and goddesses are real for a moment, but who find the aesthetics of daily chanting or solstice celebrations attractive on some level.
As forms of religion go, I don’t have much against this. As a skeptic, I’m against unsupported religious truth claims, and as a secularist, against religious groups holding political power. Romantic religion rarely seeks it, and by definition involves no truth claims. I can even relate to parts of it: I wear pentagram t-shirts to remind myself being angry is okay, for the same reason some people kiss photographs or get tattoos of lost loved ones’ names. It’s fine to do symbolic things for emotional, non-rational reasons when they won’t affect your future behaviour or other people. Of all the ways there are to be religious, I probably have least against this one.
That said: I think it has problems.
Often, proponents of this approach say things I find unhelpful; often their views about religion in general seem misguided; and at times, this specific devotion to metaphor and narrative has dangerous results.
As formulated often by de Botton and his influences, it credits religion with far too much. As has been said elsewhere, ‘he is misattributing natural human behaviours to religion’. The use of metaphor and narrative to frame our lives is not specific to theology, and this is usually what romantic religionists say to explain their views. It’s a basic consequence of our biology that we like symbols, and I’d suggest this tendency is part of what gave rise to pre-institutional religious thinking, before detailed scriptures and doctrines were formed, not the other way around. What de Botton calls Atheism 2.0 is actually Religion Beta.
Its practitioners frequently say, moreover, that this is ‘what religion actually is’ and suggest that attacking ‘fundamentalists’ misses the point. At these moments, it implies ‘fundamentalists’ are a tiny splinter group, and in discussions on religion, we should see people who actually believe supernatural claims as incidental. Armstrong in particular suggests in her Wall Street Journal piece that religion was all mythos rather than logos up until the 17th century – that no one really read the Bible as a set of accurate truth claims. (When they began to, she troublingly suggests, it was science’s fault.)
Now: Karen Armstrong’s knowledge of religious history dwarfs mine in an instant. Probably, her knowledge of theology does too. But there are questions I would ask.
Why, if members of ancient societies didn’t really think their gods existed, did they cut off parts of their own bodies as tributes to them? Why did they tear apart their children’s genitals as acts of faith? Why did groups try to exterminate each other whose religions were highly similar, if they were only metaphorical? (A perceived order to kill from an all powerful, perfect being explains this, to me, much better than cultural differences over symbolism.) Why did the founders and subsequent saints of Armstrong’s religion, by their thousands, submit to gruesome and excruciating forms of death in the name of their god, if they didn’t really think he existed?
I’m not denying politics and anthropology played a role in any of this, but I am saying these don’t seem like actions based on non-literal symbolism. Believers sometimes offer early Christian martyrdom as evidence of the resurrection, because they wouldn’t have gone through that unless they really believed it. That doesn’t mean their beliefs were accurate, of course, but on the face of it, that’s true. If you hung upside down on a 1st century cross because of your religion, I’d generally assume you were really a believer – for the same reason I’d assume that, if you flew a plane into a building, you really believed your soul would escape. Generally, people don’t go to grisly deaths for metaphors.
‘Ahh’, an imaginary de Botton tells me. ‘But imagine if they did.’ Wouldn’t that be a profound, consciousness-raising possibility?
No, imaginary Alain. It would be horrific.
And speaking of suicide bombers, let’s talk about the world today. Because this school of religion tends to see actual belief as marginal or incidental, it sometimes criticises atheists for focusing too much on ‘extremists’ or ‘fundamentalists’. This is a common complaint from liberal theists too, but in the case of romantic religionists, the point is we’re supposedly missing the wood for the trees.
- Both in Britain and the U.S., large segments of the population say they don’t think evolution occurs and/or that God created humans as he does in the Bible. That’s a supernatural belief, and it’s not unpopular. It’s tens of millions of people here, and over a hundred million there.
- In Africa and South America, Catholic countries suffer exploding populations and epidemics of HIV/AIDS. These populations are a major part of the billion-plus membership the Catholic Church enjoys. Would they face these problems if they didn’t believe, en masse, what the Vatican has said about condoms not working or being immoral?
- In the Indian subcontinent, belief in karmic retribution is used, en masse, to justify the existence of the caste system and the terrible poverty experienced by so-called Untouchables who are said by Hindus to suffer it because of wrongs done in past lives. There are over a billion people in India, and 800 million or more of them are Hindus – more than twice the entire population of the United States. This isn’t an obscure belief.
I could go on, but my point is that across the world, the consequences of so-called extremist religion are a normality for billions of people. The liberals, and certainly the nonrealists, are a tiny minority, and it’s completely fair for us not to concentrate on their ideas. (That said, their ideas are getting a whole blog post out of me.)
A lot of romantic religion’s practitioners are in mainstream religious bodies. Most of the members of the Sea of Faith Network whom I’ve met, for example, are Anglican clergy; Karen Armstrong has taught at a rabbinical college, most of whose alumni will presumably have gone into perfectly theistic Synagogues. Another of my issues with romantic religion, then, is that it supports conventional religion which does harm.
How many of those Synagogues will mutilate the genitals of babies? Quite a lot, I’d imagine. How many young people hate and fear their gender or sexuality as a result of upbringing in the decidedly un-liberal end of the Church of England? How many queer people in the world experience worse at the hands of Ugandan or Nigerian churches in the Anglican Communion, who go unchallenged by Rowan Williams? As I said, I’ve nothing against nonrealist priests in the Church of England. Of all the priests they have, those are clearly my favourite, and several are good friends. But when they deliberately avoid stating their non-belief in an existent god, when they help to fill the coffers of the church at large or tacitly defend the privileges their religion gets, then honestly I think their approach has something to answer for.
Often, it also fails to recognise that even as a metaphor, God’s horrible. Whoever created this planet and the universe around it would be the inventor of childhood leukaemia, HIV and cancer; the designer of tsunamis in Malaysia and mass floods in Bangladesh; the founder of the brutal, bloody evolutionary process which produced us, and in which billions of conscious life forms die in pain. Even accepting there is no such creature, what are we worshipping when we build symbolic altars to it? The specific biblical god is even worse – warlike, tyrannical, infanticidal and more. Just what is it we should value, for which he is a metaphor?
But there is one, final argument I’d make for the danger of romantic religion; for why even religious practise which is purely symbolist and concerned with narrative is dangerous. It’s the argument from Giles Fraser – or, in longhand, from the importance of reality.
Exhibit A: last month, the following was a by-line to one of Fraser’s columns at Comment is free.
There’s nothing wrong with holding self-contradictory views. In fact, it’s the path to wisdom
To slightly paraphrase what Spitting Image said of Grace Jones…
In is a kind of out,
Sure is a kind of doubt,
Goldfish is a kind of trout,
Bullshit is what that column is all about.
(I know, right? Wise words.)
Giles Fraser is easily identified as a nonrealist at heart, and even says there that he both does and doesn’t – read: doesn’t – believe in God. When you’re screamingly postmodern to the point of not caring what is and isn’t the case, and when you’re more interested in metaphor and narrative, your view of the world can get pretty skewed.
Exhibit B: another article from July, in which Fraser declares the then-topical German circumcision ban ‘an affront to Jewish and Muslim identity’. Some quotes:
- ‘Angela Merkel set herself against the court ruling by telling members of her CDU party that “I do not want Germany to be the only country in the world in which Jews cannot practise their rites.” It beggars belief that a German chancellor ought to have to utter such a sentence.’
- ‘Without informed consent, circumcision is regarded as a form of violence and a violation of the fundamental rights of the child. Which is why I regard the liberal mindset as a diminished form of the moral imagination.’
- ‘I was circumcised by the mohel when I was eight days old on my grandmother’s kitchen table in St John’s Wood. It wasn’t done for health reasons. It was a statement of identity.’
- ‘I still find it difficult that my son is not circumcised. The philosopher Emil Fackenheim, himself a survivor of Sachsenhausen concentration camp, famously added to the 613th commandments of the Hebrew scriptures with a new 614th commandment: thou must not grant Hitler posthumous victories. This new mitzvah insisted that to abandon one’s Jewish identity was to do Hitler’s work for him. Jews are commanded to survive as Jews by the martyrs of the Holocaust. My own family history – from Miriam Beckerman and Louis Friedeburg becoming Frasers (a name change to escape antisemitism) to their grandson becoming Rev Fraser (long story) to the uncircumcised Felix Fraser – can be read as a betrayal of that 614th commandment.’
- ‘Circumcision is the way Jewish and Muslim men are marked out as being involved in a reality greater than themselves.’
- ‘It is because the Cologne court had so little sense of history that it made such a ridiculous and offensive decision.’
I really fucking hate that I have to share a planet with this man.
Note how when he discusses foreskin-cutting, he refers to a series of cultural and religious narratives: the narrative of entry into Judaism via ritual circumcision; the narrative of Germany, Jews and the Holocaust; the narrative of liberal capitalism’s ‘moral language’ versus his particular form of groupthink; the narrative of his family, and his personal religious history. When Fraser looks at foreskin-cutting, he sees powerful symbols from all these grand stories. He doesn’t see adults plunging knives into babies’ genitals. This is the ultimate risk of romantic religion – it risks obscuring reality in a haze of scented oils, and leaving adherents able to assess ideas or actions only in symbolic terms, and not at face value.
Yes, context is sometimes important. Yes, something’s symbolic resonances can inform how we deal with it. But I think a central part of ethics has to be unravelling grand narratives, stripping figurative baggage back and seeing things for what they actually are.
I’m not against ritual. I think metaphor can be useful. And as it goes, romantic religion is far better than most. But that isn’t to say it’s risk-free.