If not God, then what?

If not God, then what?

Alison Prince, Scottish Review


Just before Christmas, a poll reported that more than half of the British populace describes itself as having no religion. It was not what you could call a big story – it might have caused more of a stir if most of us were shown to be believers – but at tinsel-and-virgin-birth-tide, it started me thinking.


Religion is a package deal that is fast losing its allure. It demands trust as the basic investment, and its returns centre on spiritual comfort and membership of a community of co-believers – not very much by our current standards. It also requires a certain amount of self-scrutiny, and this is hardly a natural discipline to those who are hell-bent (as one might say) on furthering their worldly interests. 


This conflict is not new, of course; in Christianity’s earliest days, it was described as the fight between God and Mammon. Cynics today may well shrug and say that Mammon has obviously won, but whether or not this is true, it poses a fundamental question for the church. The teachings of Jesus Christ, who was essentially a socialist though he advocated the creative use of available shekels, explicitly condemn greed and avarice. His remark about it being easier to push a camel through the eye of a needle than to lever a rich man into heaven still has resonance, and so does the fact that he threw the money-lenders out of the temple.


These views, for obvious reasons, have never been popular with those in authority. The American administration, for instance, has not shifted far from the stance of Pontius Pilate when it comes to any threat to itself, and the church is guilty of notable foot-shuffling when asked to stand up for its own basic principles. There are exceptions.


Nobody can forget such notable Christians as Bishop Trevor Huddleston and his fight against apartheid, but in the main, the established church backs the prevailing authority. Hardly surprisingly, those on the political left have for many years seen religion as essentially Conservative. Its conflation of ‘respectability’ with respect, both for God and our betters (ie more privileged) has established it as a major upholder of the status quo.


The passionately humanist Attlee government responded to the hopes and demands of the post-war generation by taking a huge step towards genuine democracy, but Mammon won again as the unions became over-greedy. However, those few years saw the rise of a socialist agnosticism that countless decent, caring people still cherish, though there is no political party that supports it. Socialism, though undead, lies deeply buried, and in its absence, agnosticism has lost any point. It has morphed into a sloppy assumption that nothing much matters. Why worry? We are not, in any case, required to think, merely to purchase.


In these circumstances, questions of personal belief have been shrugged off. Everything surrounding us reinforces the message that the main task of every man or woman is to be a spender, and to contest this is to confront a tacit but very powerful taboo. It’s easier now for people to talk about difficulties in the field of money or sex than about any question of ethics or belief. Those who do pursue such topics tend to be looking beyond the church to other, much broader forms of belief.


It is increasingly usual to receive cards at Christmas wishing the recipient generalised goodwill and/or a happy Solstice rather than depicting stars and angels. Pantheism, which never quite went away despite the efforts of Christianity to depict the little horned god as the Devil, is seeing a strong resurgence. It shares its respect for natural mystery with such beliefs as Taoism and Buddhism, and it may be that we are moving towards seeing the Christian faith as historically short-lived, based as it is on a literal belief in a prophet born of a virgin and physically reincarnated after death. Meanwhile, we are surrounded by a pick and mix offering of faiths, together with the option of non-purchase. Rather naturally, many shrug and say they don’t buy any of them.


Our increasingly scanty reading of history tends to increase disenchantment with religion. It shows a terrible record of war and torture in the name of various faiths, continuing to this day. The now reasonably harmless Anglican church was devised by Henry VIII for purely political purposes, and resulted in years of strife and war, notably with Scotland, whose citizens will never forget or quite forgive the Rough Wooing and the slaughter at Flodden. 


The established church remains tied to the reigning monarch as its head, keeping alive the old split with the Catholic belief, still visible in the fanaticism of Orange marches and football clubs. The ecumenical movement is well intentioned but curiously bland, precisely because it is passionless and strives to cause no offence. Thus we are confronted by a massive void in the field of ethics and philosophy. 


The internet is a better educational tool now than our school system, which is still ridiculously devoted to the learning of facts although these are available at a finger touch. Ideas are not explored, and it is increasingly obvious that we are expected to learn only those skills that will enable us to take our place in the business of getting and spending.


What would Jesus have done about Sir Fred? The righteous anger of the supposed Son of God has been air-brushed. 


Conformity or non-conformity with this expectation is now the main political issue of our time. Daily experience suggests to me that older people, particularly women, tend to be dissenters. In a practical way, they see the accumulation of wealth as unjust to others and unrewarding as an aim. ‘Look at all his money – yet he’s not a happy man’. Creative people accept that they will always live on very little, but pursue their own vision for a more essential satisfaction. The Green movement sees clearly that international finance has no truck with ethics and does not care that it will bring human tenure of the world to an unnecessarily early end – but these are movements hamstrung by their lack of funds and political clout.


If the church is to be any use to our current society, it needs to think more carefully about the mythically born child of Nazareth whose passion for the rights of the humble founded Christianity. What would Jesus have done about Sir Fred? The righteous anger of the supposed Son of God has been air-brushed. We are left with platitudes and a gentle, skyward-gazing Christ rather than the man who battled against usury.


It is hardly surprising that over half of us have ditched the concept of God along with church membership, but it leaves a terrible vulnerability. Human beings need to have some picture of the way they fit into the perceived state of things, and their status as spenders leaves them in a recurring state of need and failure, necessary as fuel to the system. 


Years of trying to find an acceptable faith left me facing the fact that I could not accept the dogma of any church. Fritjov Capra’s astonishing book, ‘The Tao of Physics’, opened a new understanding of how the building blocks of life mesh with spiritual understanding, and I live these days in a process of wonder and gratitude that seems to me to constitute a continuous form of worship. I am not sure if this is what can be called God, but I do feel that one needs reverence. It seems unlikely that such a broad religious idea can be grafted onto the existing religious structures, but that is no excuse for not trying.


A rigorous, wide-ranging educational study of ethics and philosophy as part of our education is essential, but it will probably take a revolution before we get it. The new year seems to be laying down the pre-requirements for revolution very nicely, and I will watch the developments with interest. Thanks be to God – whoever or whatever that is – for the fascination of it all.


Alison Prince is an author and editor in Arran