Monday, September 7, 2009

"The founder of my religion" and the wisdom of crowds

The wisdom of crowds: the many founders of post-Christian religiosity


            I am here as a representative of the largest faith community in this country, viz. the ex-Catholics. That is not a community with a sense of unity and structures of its own, like the Catholic Church. As a leading unbeliever in this country used to say: “No, freethinkers don’t need structures of their own. It’s not because diabetics get together in their own self-help group, that non-diabetics should likewise get together.” So, I have not been mandated to represent the millions who fall in the category of ex-Catholics, I am only representative in the sense that I am a typical case. I am an apostate, I no longer espouse the beliefs I was brought up with. An earlier generation of ex-Catholics, when they were still a small minority of the Belgian population, often became anti-Catholic, anti-Christian and anti-religious with a vengeance. Today’s far more numerous ex-Catholics no longer have serious accounts to settle with the Church of their childhood. They, i.e. we, are simply sceptical of its defining beliefs. No hereditary sin of Adam and Eve, no virgin birth of Jesus, no resurrection.

Not that we reject everything about Jesus. He’s still popular for some of his sayings, especially when he was being anti-authoritarian like ourselves, when he went against the stifling weight of tradition and prejudice. But Son of God, no, most baptized Belgians don’t believe this anymore. That defining belief of Christianity is doubted now even by many of those who still go to church on Sundays. I understand that Muslims likewise venerate Jesus but reject his divine status. This at least proves that it is possible to be religious and yet not believe in Jesus as the divine Saviour.

One component that recurs in many though not all religions is God. People who have had bad experiences with a tough and authoritarian religion, tend towards a wholesale rejection of religion, including and especially God. They find something heroic in atheism, like standing on top of a mountain with no one above you. Or as John Lennon used to sing: “Above us only sky.” To assert human freedom, they would find it a crucial point to reject God. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s words: “Si Dieu existe, l’homme est un néant. Si l’homme existe, Dieu n’existe pas.” Among ex-Muslims, this is still common, e.g. Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes her discovery of atheism as a liberation.

By contrast, now that Catholicism has lost its teeth, most ex-Catholics don’t bother to rebrand themselves as atheists or God-deniers anymore. The anti-authoritarian generation dislikes the idea of a monarch in the sky, but then He can be redefined as something hazier, genderless, faceless, a mere “something”. We are the Something-ists. If you ask us whether we believe in God, we say: “It depends how you define God.” Tongue-in-cheek, God is still okay, though the old expression “the fear of God” can now only be used in an ironical sense. Conversely, long-standing atheists have lately explored the idea of an “atheist religiosity”. Their rejection of the Pope and of Biblical authority need no longer imply a wholesale rejection of religion. Or “spirituality” as some insist on calling it, with studied vagueness.

We learn that Buddhism and some lesser-known Asian tradition also fall into this category of “religion without God”. That’s why the Buddha is so popular in modern culture: he reputedly doesn’t want you to submit to some omnipotent authority in heaven. At the same time, the millions of modern Westerners who do Buddhist things, like practicing “mindfulness”, don’t become card-carrying Buddhists. They don’t want to put all their eggs into a single basket.

It is like in science. Everybody accepts that many pioneers have contributed to the present state of our scientific knowledge. Nobody swears by only one of them, nor denies the importance of all the others. Everybody knows that Aristotle’s work was, by all accounts, path-breaking, yet his knowledge was tentative and often clumsy. Both these facts, glorifying as well as belittling Aristotle, are equally true, and uncontroversial. Of course his work was a tremendous contribution to science, and of course it was very incomplete, in need of improvement by others who came after him. Nobody faults him for the immaturity of his theories, because everybody knows a single man couldn’t have created the whole edifice of science. Nobody says that Aristotle was the only son of the science god, nor that he was the seal of the scientists never to be equalled.

A poet has said that after Isaac Newton, “all was light”, so decisive was his breakthrough in physics. Yet to those who would dismiss the preceding generations of thinkers and researchers as merely caught in darkness, Newton admonished that he could only see as far as he did because he stood on the shoulders of giants, i.e. his predecessors in thought and research. No scientist would ever say that he received the whole of scientific knowledge in a flash, devoid of any prehistory nor in need of any additions or improvements.

In the experience of most moderns, the same is true in religion. Earlier, a very monarchical view of religion prevailed: one founder, a single leader with a single book, and the rest are devout and obedient followers. Or if they aren’t, they are outsiders to and enemies of the religion. Today, we are evolving towards a more democratic view of religion. It is open-ended on all sides.

It is open-ended in a geographical sense: valid religious teachings have originated in many parts of the world. In the colonial age, Christian travellers were puzzled to find noble people in China, in Arabia, in Africa and other heathen countries: “How can they be so good and not be Christian?” And they had qualms of conscience: “How sad that this Chinese new friend of mine, this thoroughly good man, will have to go to hell because he isn’t baptized!” Today, ex-Christians and quite a few Christians are confident that even God hasn’t put all his eggs in a single basket: non-Christians had been provided with their own Zarathustra, their own Yajñavalkya, Confucius, Bodhidharma, or Shankara. Post-Christian people quote from Jesus, Laozi, Kabir or Jalaluddin Rumi with equal respect.

It is open-ended towards the past. Every teacher was a pupil once. Everyone has a navel as visible proof that he was born from a mother and is indebted to earlier generations. The Buddha, who is often venerated by Buddhists as totally unique and original, acknowledged that he had merely walked the path that all the earlier Buddhas before him had walked. After him, his tradition spawned equally important masters like Bodhidharma, Huineng or Dogen. Evolutionary psychology shows that the germs of religion go back very far. We now know that a sense of morality, of altruism and fellow-feeling, which religious teachers usually claim as a special merit of religion, is present already in the higher animal species. Apes already have an (admittedly very embryonic) sense of religion. Some of you may have seen the documentary in which a gorilla flares up in anger against a burst of lightning: he is caught in the act of inventing a personal god behind the phenomenon of thunder and lightning. Right there, he just thought up a thunder god, like Jupiter or Indra or Thor. Later mankind has discarded this belief in personal agents behind the natural phenomena, but it was a step on the way forward and upward. While it is still controversial here and there to say we have descended from apes, I dare say that we are, moreover, the pupils of the apes.

Modern religiosity is open-ended towards the future. More teachers are bound to come, equal in rank with the ancient teachers. Nobody is the last prophet. We’ve heard that after Mohammed, some Muslims had a Baha’ullah or a Mirza Ghulam Ahmed. Without going into the merits of these specific individuals, we can generally say that most people agree that renewals are called for once in a while, and that even in religion, progress is made once in a while. Nobody has a monopoly on the road to truth or salvation in our post-Christian religiosity.


Brussels, 3 May 2009.

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