Writing in his preface to Jerusalem Simon Sebag Montefiore comments: ‘Religions must explain the fragile joys and perpetual anxieties that mystify and frighten humanity: we need a greater force than ourselves.’
Religion will indeed never go away, despite the best efforts of campaigning non-believers. True it’s more divided, but in division there’s strength. Old-style belief systems and liturgies still have loyal followers but many look for more personal, more tailored versions, liturgy less important, individual morality (taking ownership of life) more so. Evangelical churches are thriving, with their prescriptive, literalist approach. For others (including myself) religion is better defined as a sense of otherness, of truths (rather than some entity) beyond our comprehension, but which nonetheless define our lives. And at a practical level religion is a spontaneous celebration of life – of living with others, of human connection. If that’s not common ground between all believers of all faiths we need to take a hard look at ourselves,
The major churches and religions have in the past have been the ‘greater force’ Sebag Montefiore refers to. That force is now more personal, found within each of us, or within our own personal responses to sacred texts.
As a warning, there’s the deep irony of the Buddhist and Muslims (Rohingyas) violence in Burma, the Buddhist perpetrators substituting a national/cultural for a religious identity. But it’s also of course about fears of survival – higher Muslim birth rates. We have the same worries. Cultural survival: Buddhism was all but wiped out of course by the advance of a resurgent Hindu culture. Islam took over the Christian Middle East and Asia Minor.
Religion ties closely with nation and culture but true religion stands apart.
The ‘new atheist’ approach to all such issues is mired in academia, in squabbles (Richard Dawkins and EO Wilson aren’t too friendly) and assertions and misses a simple reality – religion is about connection, celebration, wonder. It’s more about others, less about ourselves, about God defined in many ways from the – by definition – unknowable to the intensely personal.
I’ll always argue passionately for rational solutions, I’m not comfortable with the idea of an interventionist God. Natural selection is why I’m here and the path life has taken to culminate (in my mind) in the brief moment of my own existence is inspiring beyond all awe and wonder. But nothing explains life, and by that I don’t mean simple consciousness. I mean life in an experiential sense: our capacity for thought and understanding, for joy and wonder, for love and compassion, our capacity to synthesise and however temporarily make sense of the world. That sense of ourselves in silence, at peace, at one with the world, with the flow of the world. We are where we are because time has brought us here and yet we’re beyond time. We are each of us unique and extraordinary and in that very fire of life lies the only ultimate unquestionable truth.
Religions express that sense and embody it in myriad ways, and they will always do so. If they do so with connection and love and warn us all the while against false instinct and phoney intuition, if they support and intertwine with reason rather than resist it, then generations to come will only benefit.
In the best sense that will be the triumph of religion. God in a different understanding will to the chagrin of the (late) Chris Hitchens and Philip Pullmans of this world be uncaged and be great again.