Sunday, 2 December 2007

A Church For Our Times - article published in The Freethinker in 2005

A Church For Our Times?…
By John Slinger
21 September 2005

Published in The Freethinker, November 2005

Following the appalling terrorist attacks of 7 July, a debate has raged about multiculturalism and the influence of religious belief within the UK. It focuses on the increasing tension that many believe lies at the heart of this country’s policy of encouraging each immigrant community to maintain its cultural mores, allegedly at the exclusion of a sense of belonging and loyalty to the host country. I believe that among the clamour to comment on debates around the 7/7attacks, the issues have not been analysed from a humanist, secular point of view. Surprisingly, when I thought about the issues, I felt like going to church – but not any church. I was reminded of the church attended by an ex-girlfriend of mine, and so began the following chain of thought…

The church is called Unitarian Universalist. According her, the philosophy of this church is a particularly novel and simple one. It is that people of all faiths and no faiths are equally welcome. This would surely be as near to ‘heaven’ for an atheist! Joking aside, I was intrigued by tales of this universalist, mono-polytheistic, agnosto-devout, Judeo-Islamic, Zorrorastrian-Hindu, Catholic-Methodist inclusivity. Apparently, the congregation would turn up and discuss an aspect of one particular faith, or of life generally.

I was amazed by what I heard. As I grew up and began to think about religion (in my case the Anglican Christianity of my schools and of my parents), I had grown increasingly agnostic. My doubts increased through school, culminating in a rejection of all things religious by the time I had finished studying philosophy at university. Much religious doctrine had seemed to posses an inherent lack of logicality, peppered as it is with notions and practises such as petitionary prayer, with its implied acceptance of the mutual compatibility of a benevolent interfering God, widespread suffering, human evil and complete free will. Such juvenile musings drove me from religion, but larger fault lines loomed. I was struck by the behaviour of some religious practitioners and congregations.

I witnessed much hypocrisy among the ‘religious’ organisations I came into contact with –notable exceptions being the missionaries, aid workers or anyone who truly practises what their human-transcribed version of the supposedly divine preaches. I saw Christians of the West, sitting in church for an hour or two on Sunday, listening patiently to a man (in most cases), dressed often in ornate and expensive robes, within a church filled with images and statues, preaching about another man who eschewed wealth, made a point of talking to and concerning himself with society’s outcasts, forbade all killing, preached the turning of one’s cheek, and forbade worshipping idols. I’m sad to say that the comparatively great wealth possessed by these people in the face of the vast levels of international poverty, is but one reason why the word ‘hypocrisy’ entered my mind.

Yet these quandaries for religion are still not as damaging as my central complaint. Not the horrendous manner in which men (yes – men) have taken most religious messages and corrupted them, distorting them into methods of control and political influence over their flock, over wider society and especially over women. Enlightenment, Reformation, Crusade, Islamic Revolution, evangelism, orthodoxy, democracy and communism all came and went and may well come and go again. While religions in the West are currently in the descendant, their internal and external power structures remain, even when tiny proportions of the population belong to them.

None of this constitutes the biggest danger posed by organised religions. Not their predominantly homophobic nature. Not the pain and the suffering unleashed when religious man-made doctrine prevents safe sex, or prevents a young girl from attending school. Not the burkha, or Papal infallibility, or the ‘leadership’ of the Archbishop of Canterbury on gays in the Church of England. Not the attitude of some Muslims to female emancipation and gay rights. Not ‘Islamic’ suicide bombers, or the precision munitions whose launch was ordered by deeply religious Christians. Not Hindu vs. Muslim nukes, or Israeli vs. Iranian WMDs. None of this is the greatest danger posed by organised religion.

Mankind’s greatest weakness, it seems to me, is that which he believes to be his greatest strength – his certainty that his world view is correct and true. When you are right, and benefit from having the full rhetorical, moral and philosophical arsenal of God on your side, where is the space for your fellow human, with their version of the truth, with their God on their side?

Most religious belief is developed during childhood. I was baptised a Christian, and had I accepted what I was taught, I would be one now. Jesus, the Prophet Mohammad and Buddha were clearly amazing people, much of whose behaviour is worthy of emulating. It is the organised structures of the last 2000 years or so that seem to me to dishonour the memory of these ‘deities’, in whose name much mess, confusion and damage has been made out of much human truth and much potential. How many Christians throughout history have killed one another, or sanctimoniously slaughtered those subscribing to other faiths, during their crusades and imperial conquests? How many Muslims have been slain by fellow Muslims? Saddam Hussein commanded an army of Muslims who killed over 1 million fellow Muslims. The numbers are huge, and we should not forget that people who claim to be devout Muslims are currently murdering Shi’a Muslims daily in their hundreds in Iraq, and attacking innocent civilians throughout the world. It is utterly depressing.

Bar the odd feline singer song-writer or boxer who floats like a butterfly, people are mostly indoctrinated with religious belief at an age when their intellect is often incapable of understanding the concepts or resisting the prevailing power dynamic. Organised religions teach children many things, often for the good. But one thing they invariably teach is that the boy or girl, the man or woman, is different from his or her fellow citizen by virtue of one key aspect - religion. Worse still, many organised religions teach their flock that they are better, nearer God, more holy, more moral and more civilised. It is difficult to overcome the damage this does. For while teaching a child that skin colour is an insignificant difference without any moral consequence, it is difficult to square the circle of the following statement: ‘your friend’s religious belief is different - he thinks our view of the world is totally misguided and will result in sin and lack of salvation…’ Secularists such as me feel compelled, rightly, to accord the religious with a great deal more respect than the religious often afford those of a different sect, creed, denomination or faith.

I for one have as many faults as any other person, but I believe one thing to be true with all the certainty of a religious person. It is that I am not ‘different’ from my fellow human. I am the same. We are the same. No one will shake my ‘faith’ in this universal concept. I am English, I am British, I am European and I am a citizen of the world. I am endowed with human rights by virtue of being a human being, not because I was created by God. These rights are enshrined (although sadly not sufficiently protected) by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What does that really mean – nothing more than that I was born to my parents at that moment in space and time. I don’t deny that I landed a very good deal in this cosmic life chance lottery, but I am the same as anyone else on the planet. No better, no worse.

Why the government of an advanced democracy like Britain supports, and if we are to be believed, will shortly enhance, the ability of religious people to set up ‘faith’ schools, which will surely indoctrinate children into the religious beliefs of their parents, is beyond me. We wouldn’t allow state schools to indoctrinate children into the belief structures of a political party – leave that to the North Koreans. Why is religion different? It is still, ultimately, just one of many competing belief systems, whether one believes in the divine or not. And before people scream that there is no harm in children being so indoctrinated, I should explain that I am not imagining overt, immediate, physical or mental harm. Indeed, much of what ‘religious’ schools teach is a sense of purpose, a sense of spirituality and understanding about the world. The harm is more subtle, and affects both the child and wider society. I do not like the fact that we human beings, in a world in which ‘difference’ lies under the surface everywhere – in some places more than others - have a propensity to perpetually divide ourselves up into groups which accentuate our supposed differences, be they racial, political, national or religious. These issues are ever more prescient today, when Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, is warning the Government of the danger of the ‘ghettoisation’ of ethnic minorities within the UK.

This brings me back to where I began – with the debate about multiculturalism, and the debate about the influence (or not) of fundamentalist Islam, or indeed any extreme version of other religious belief, on impressionable minds. I shuddered at the cold certainty of the statements in the posthumous suicide bomber Mohammed Sidique Kahn’s recent video. He clearly describes how the perceived injustices committed against the Muslim umma compel him, with the righteousness that I believe only religious belief can provide, to callously murder innocent civilians (including, ironically, several Muslims). Such hatred knows no bounds.

This young man clearly thought that he had God on his side. He, and many others like him, had lost his humanity, his belief in the sacred nature of all human life. He was concerned only with ‘Muslim’ human life and the perceived injustices being committed against the Muslim umma (global community). His warped view of life is as extreme as can be, and is in no way representative of the genuine, peaceful view of Islam held by the overwhelming majority of Muslims. It is, however, indicative of the dangers posed when people are imbued with a perverted religious zeal. In the interests of fairness, I need only remind readers of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, or bizarre religious suicide cults, such as Heaven’s Gate, or the Maronite Christian Phalangist thugs who committed the Sabra and Shatila massacre of the Palestinians in 1982, or the Orthodox Christian Serbs who butchered the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo. These examples show it may be the peculiar nature of religious belief, per se, not solely Muslim beliefs, that can in extremis, lead to misplaced certainty in the committing of inherently evil acts.

For me, no one has a monopoly on the truth - not the religious scholars, the scientists, the agnostics, the atheists and, certainly not I. But when I see the debate about the hijab-wearing, or about religious sectarianism in Kashmir or Northern Ireland, or the debate about the supposed need for more ‘religious’ schools throughout the UK, I think to myself – there is a church somewhere in Massachusetts, New England, called the Unitarian Universalist church, to which anyone of any and no faith is welcome to attend. This is a place where all that is encouraged is the exploration of shared human truths together, not from within the exclusive, self-styled religious sects that we humans seem to like creating. On occasions such as this, whenever I am faced with arguments which, however subtly, result in the greater accentuation of difference – this church is where I want to go. I gather that there are a few churches like this in the UK and throughout the world, but they are a tiny, tiny minority. Perhaps a few more might do some good, for such messages of tolerance and inter-faith dialogue are much needed in these dark times, as is respect for common humanity over religious dogma.

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