The conversation on religion seems, in my recent experience, to be taking a new shape or at least extending a new pseudopod. While Dawkins et al still rage against the existence of God and various opponents rush Pell-mell to the defence of the besieged deity a more considered conversation is developing. It is one that appreciates the roles Christianity has played, and struggles to continue to play in Western society, and yet speaks from a position in which the claimed authority of Christianity, divine revelation, is no longer intellectually tenable.
My own history may be relevant here. It became obvious to me in my early teens that in an account of the physical world, neither the Bible nor its interpreters, were reliable sources of information. This led quite naturally to questioning the validity of all Christian contentions. To my teenaged mind, firstly, if they can’t be relied on to get the simple physical stuff right, especially as God is claimed as both architect and builder thereof, why should I take them seriously on the subtle stuff. Secondly, as there are a great many supernaturally based claims to revealed truth, why should this particular one attract my belief especially given my above point.
So, due to Christianity being one revelation among many, and no revelation having much useful to say about the physical world, their claims to authority seem vacuous. Also, as a teenager, I was impressed by the hypocrisy evident in behaviour of prominent Christians and Christian schisms.
It is only as an adult that I’ve come to appreciate the fundamental and constructive role that Christianity has played in the development of Western society, and I am a great appreciator of the strengths of the Western European societies.
Looking at other current civilisations, we seem to be, or sadly perhaps to have been, unique in the levels of trust in each other that our culture has fostered: from contract law to traffic regulations we have been able to rely on each other to, usually, abide by comparatively high standards of ethical compliance.
I have little hesitation in giving Christianity credit for much of this through emphasis on being my brother’s keeper, even when that person is not part of my family, and thereby helping to create an orderly kingdom of God. The presumption of a law-giving God implicit in Christianity underpinned confidence in the early days of science that regularities in His creation were there to be found.
Christianity has been the focus and font of moral and ethical judgement, if not always wisdom. Social values that transcended the immediately contingent were held primarily, and with human unreliability, by the church speaking through the particular local representative and interpreter. It was the representative of God in unpredictable but frequent opposition to the demands of Caesar. Particularly, it was there as a strong ally of parents in the perennial struggle to civilise their children.
The very progress and social power, which Christianity fostered, has resulted in the undermining of the basis for its authority. For many of us, God is not so much dead as non-existent or at best is another human social construct with no absolute call on our belief. This means that religion’s role as ethical navigator and compass bearing is no longer widely accepted. And yet that compass bearing is still essential. The pre-eminence of the mundane, economic and expedient in our daily considerations is a symptom of an atrophy of our ethical sense: of a sense of the importance to a healthy society and healthy humanity; of a strong ethical orientation and a high place in our social values for honesty, integrity, diligence and mutual care.
This is the “religion shaped hole” to which my title refers. It is difficult to see how any high level prescription can hope to fill it. Here though is perhaps a sketch, drawn on my search for a sensible naturalistic foundation for ethical behaviour. It’s widely remarked that we cannot derive “should” from “is”: that science cannot provide a basis for ethics, morality or the values that underpin them. I’ll mischievously suggest that the “is-es” asserted by religion likewise do not in and of themselves point to “shoulds”. That God is asserted to want us to behave in certain ways is utterly irrelevant to those believers who don’t particularly care what God wants.
The point is that we are taught to see implications for behaviour in particular sets of circumstances, implicit values on which ethical systems can be based. The existence of God in and of itself provides no foundation whatever for ethics. It is, arguably, implications of the existence of God as adduced by believers that inform their values.
So perhaps the “is-es” of science can provide sets of circumstances from which we can draw implications supporting particular, recognisably humane ethical positions. Some will argue that interpretations will vary and thus so will values. Well, the same is true of religion. Even within Christianity, differences of selection and interpretation have given rise to radically different ethical-moral stances. We can look at the different attitudes to slavery, black civil rights in America, homosexuality, contraception, wars, capitalism, women’s’ rights. All are present in current and past debates to understand that belief in God does not guarantee ethical unanimity.
My own ethical foundation rests in part on our shared vulnerability to pain and death, our constitutional inability to achieve anything like certain knowledge, and on the ever strengthening evidence that treating each other well benefits both parties to the relationship and influences us to treat others, outside the relationship, well. As an example of the differences of interpretation that are possible, this view is in contrast to the view that holds that brain science is pushing us away from psychotherapy and towards more mechanistic interventions. My experience is almost diametrically opposed. We now understand why therapy, for conditions where there is no major organic dysfunction, is at least as reliably effective as pharmacological intervention.
From this interpretation we, I anyhow, can easily reach a philosophical orientation which is congruent with religiously based concern for my fellow humans and which impels me toward ethical choices which foster mutual well-being and fellowship in a kingdom of life.