by Ian Harris Otago Daily Times March 8, 2013
THE humanist did not pull her punches: “Religion means absolutely nothing to so many people today – nothing. My daughter just can’t fathom how all those churches could be dotted around the countryside. As far as she is concerned, they’re just so many monuments to superstition.”
No doubt this reflects the view of those who either have never known what religion at its best can contribute to human experience, or have rejected one or other version of it. Religion covers such a wide spectrum that even those who value it for its positive qualities are bound to feel embarrassed by its weirder distortions. Shocking things done in the name of religion and outmoded doctrines can and should be rejected. But the contemptuous dismissal of all religion strikes me as rather sad, and in no way superior to blind belief. There has to be an intelligent middle ground; and that is where the future of religion will lie.
Even an out-and-out atheist like the humanist’s daughter could reasonably be invited to substitute curiosity for contempt. She might ask herself, for example, what was operating in our culture and history to move settlers to build all those churches in the first place. Why does faith persist in this secular era? Has it nothing at all to offer? How is it changing? Its downside is clear to her – but what are its upsides?
There are many. Religion puts people today in touch with where our society has come from – not just the previous generation or two, but over centuries past. It offers an over-arching and integrating world view, and our own place within it. It provides a framework of meaning and values. It affirms not only our personal worth and dignity, but also the responsibilities we owe to others. It does this within a continuing, evolving faith tradition that holds it all together. Its institutions, though imperfect, serve as the vehicles to carry that forward from one generation to the next.
Those churches sprinkled around the rural landscape could be seen as symbols of all that. They were not built out of ignorance about the way the world works or superstition, though no doubt there was an element of that, but because what went on in them was important for the lives of those who met and worshipped in them, married in them, brought their children to them, and were buried from them. They were a focal point for their community. For many, they still are.
In an age when people are more aware of the fragmentation of society than in what binds it together (the word “religion” is believed to come from the Latin ligare, meaning to bind), even the sceptics must wonder whether the widespread spurning of that heritage is all gain. For one thing, its rejection can lead to a kind of cultural double-think, where people may admire the magnificent paintings, sculptures, architecture, music, literature, values and lives inspired by our Judaeo-Christian past, but dismiss the religion from which they sprang as not worth the time of day.
For another, as the years pass it is not quite so obvious as secularists assume that release from the claims of religion automatically produces a superior species. Religion may have messed up all over the place, but nothing comparable has yet emerged to take its place – least of all political messianism. Communism waxed and waned in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, but the churches it despised weathered and outlived it.
Whatever shape religion has taken, it has shown a remarkable ability to sustain that network of symbols, meanings and relationships that turn a collection of individuals into a cohesive society. Even in decline, it still provides for its followers in church, synagogue, mosque, or temple a valued community within the wider society. In a memorable phrase faith, in the sense of a trusting orientation to life and its possibilities, provides “habits of the heart”. And throughout history those have proved most enduring when they are rooted and nurtured in religious understandings that integrate them within a total world view.
For me, the secular world is the environment to which contemporary religion must acclimatise if it is to flourish. It is the world of space and time. It is neutral towards religion. It becomes hostile only when secularists – those who make an “ism” of it – make it so.
So while the churches have some rethinking to do on religion’s place in the modern world (Pope John XXIII’s word was aggiornamento, or updating), so do the secularists.