The trouble with religion

This was a sermon I was asked to deliver at Emmanuel College in Cambridge. I felt rather sorry for the young woman, presumably full of faith, who had to read out my chosen Old Testament passage.

Sermon for Emmanuel

Since this is armistice day, I want to start with a historical fact. The German army, in the First World War, believed it was fighting for civilisation. In those days, no one thought it necessary to add the prefix “Western”. They thought, before the First World War, that there was only one civilisation. How did they define it? How could they have been so wrong? One hint at an answer is that they gave each soldier two books to remind them what they were fighting for. One was the St John’s Gospel, and the other was a selection of Nietzsche’s writings.

Nietzsche is of course considered the greatest poet of Victorian atheism; the Bible is generally supposed to be on the other side of that dispute. Yet they have something in common. They are both part of the same argument, as Nietzsche very clearly saw; and if you take them together, you have something quite close to the heart of Western civilisation, of the insights, the arguments, and the ways of looking at life which gave us both our values and our self- confidence.

And here they were, working together from the heart of a great civilisation in aid of the most disastrous, cruel, and above all murderous war that the world had known up till then; certainly the war which gave European civilisation a wound from which it has not yet recovered and probably never will.

I will return to this.

The thing that we’re asked to talk about in this series is the trouble with religion; and it’s an assignment which looks incredibly easy at first, and almost impossibly difficult when you get into it.

The easy part is finding all the crimes and follies which have been and in fact are associated with religion. I’ll skip the normal rota of crusades, jihad, the burning of widows by Hindus, the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, and so on. I’ll even skip over the civil war in Bosnia, of which I had some small personal experience, and which was clearly understood by the participants and a religious war. Here in Cambridge there’s a small, vile scandal which goes to the heart of elitist Christianity in the form of the John Smyth case, where a perverted evangelical barrister beat boys at Winchester until they bled, and when he was caught, because one of the victims attempted suicide, had his crimes covered up by some of the most respected Christians in that milieu; was sent to Africa and subsidised by them; was responsible for the death of one young man in Zimbabwe and then hurried on to South Africa — and all of the participants in this carnival of horrors, including the victims, were motivated by their religious faith.

Surely the world would be better without such a means of self-deception.

Yes, the world would be better without self-deception, but how would we get there? Would you, personally be better off without self-deception?

Very few people honestly think that they would — I’m inclined to think that it’s part of the definition of a saint really to strive for truth even about themselves.

Douglas Adams and Jonathan Swift each held it was axiomatic that we only keep going because of self-deception. Adams imagined the Total Perspective Vortex, which drives mad anyone who understands their absolute insignificance in the universe. Only Zaphod Beeblebrox, invincibly armoured in self-esteem, can look at it and survive.

Swift wrote that sex and indeed life itself were ridiculous and irrational aims:

in two points of the greatest moment to the being and continuance of the world, God hath intended our passions to prevail over reason. The first it, the propagation of our species, since no wise man ever married from the dictates of reason. The other is, the love of life, which, from the dictates of reason, every man would despise and wish it at an end, or that it never had a beginning”

I think Hume, too, shared the same radical scepticism about the benefits of unillusioned knowledge, no matter how he strove to share it.

Although Swift and Hume were of course ignorant of modern biology, I brought them up to make the point that a world without self-deception would also have to be a world without individual self-deceivers. To get there from here, we must each try to see the world as clearly as possible, and transmit this longing to our neighbours and in due course our families. I rather hope, in an ancient and romantic way, that this is what the university is helping you to do, and to desire. But I may of course be fooling myself here, and it’s all a transactional matter of getting more highly paid jobs after you leave.

Even if that is not what this university is about, it is certainly what others are selling, and they prosper as a result. Self-deception, in other words, leads to worldly success; and worldly success is in Darwinian terms its own reward. In fact it’s the only reward, even for beings that can’t enjoy it. Most of the successful life forms in the world are entirely incapable of anything we would recognise as emotion or even feeling.

Think of cockroaches, or bacteria.

AS you may have gathered from this survey I am a depressive. One of the things about depressed people is that they tend to see the world more accurately — or at least to make some judgements more clearly — than sane people do. The world is normally worse than normal people expect. But the persistence of optimism suggests that hope is a useful strategy even if it does involve self-deception.

Imagine a crowd of lemmings on the edge of a lake, and the most charismatic lemming promises the rest that if only they swim across it there will be a land of unparalleled plenty on the other side – global Lemmingia, perhaps. In this crowd the depressed lemming who predicts that they will almost all drown, or be eaten by giant Siberian trout, is almost certainly right. But the mistaken belief of the majority will propel them into the lake. Some, at least, will survive. They will indeed find a land of plenty. And the depressed, and realistic lemming who decides to wait on the safe bank? He gets eaten by a passing weasel.

No, the real danger and corruption does not come from being wrong about the outside world, but from being wrong about our own interior lives — thinking ourselves better, and more virtuous than we are. This also has an evolutionary use. Lying to ourselves allows us to lie to others more convincingly, and to better tell when they are lying to us. Once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.

But it is also what leads to the greatest atrocities. It allows us to think the best of ourselves when we are behaving at our worst.

Now we come to the difficult bit. I’m supposed to talk about religion and I don’t think it exists as a distinct thing. I can’t define it. I don’t think there is any specifically religious mode of thought or feeling, or even of social organisation. But even if I can’t find the boundaries of the concept I can make a stab at the heart of it. Here goes.

Religion, in its broadest sense is the construction of communities through the manipulation of symbols that refer to or point towards something more powerful and infinitely more valuable than the individual. These symbols can be musical, verbal, olfactory, anything, in fact that we can experience and saturate with meaning.

[Gestures round the chapel] It’s obvious to anyone in this chapel what I mean; still more obvious when we have heard this wonderful choir.

Religions give us the ability to transform our own actions into rituals that point to something greater. This complex and various world of the embodied imagination is the only one in which large numbers of people can be mobilised in order to accomplish the things that only large numbers of people can do.

So, yes, I do consider that any ritually strengthened ideology is a religion, whatever view it takes on theological questions like the nature or even the existence of God.

When communities come into existence in this religious way, they will be distinct from each other, with different aims, sometimes overlapping and sometimes conflicting. Other things being equal, the more successfully religious ones will triumph in conflict. Other things seldom are equal. If you look at the clash between Spanish Catholicism and Aztec or Inca beliefs, there may have been nothing to choose between them in terms of religious fervour, but the Spaniards had guns, germs, and steel and these — the germs especially — made them masters of a continent,

Both sides in that struggle, just as both sides in the First World War, were profoundly religious. But it doesn’t follow that you can blame religion for their crimes, for the cruelty of the native Americans and the larger, more successful cruelties of the Europeans. You can certainly say that religion shaped their understanding of what was, and was not, a crime. In the case of Christianity you must point out that was a force for moderation in both conflicts, as well as force for greater violence and self-sacrifice. Christians of course commit atrocities, but they also have ways of seeing these atrocities for what they are, if they really want to.

If they really want to. The difficulty here is of course that we don’t much want to look our own behaviour in the face. Religions are instruments of collective self-deception amongst other things just as the individual imagination is – among other things – an instrument of individual self-deception. But they are that way because this is what we wanted them to be and because that is how they have been most useful to us.

Yet they are also something more. The sociologist may say that the religious ecstasy is simply an identification with the group and its aims — that between a choral evensong and a terrace full of football supporters singing vile songs about their opponents there is only a difference of degree and not of kind.

This isn’t a view that can simply be dismissed. Many of the psalms are fantasies of hideous bloody vengeance on the opposing teams, set sometimes to wonderful music, and always expressed with poetic force.

For instance, we have Psalm 18 from this evening’s readings.

I pursued my enemies and overtook them;
I did not turn back till they were destroyed.
I crushed them so that they could not rise;
they fell beneath my feet.
I beat them as fine as windblown dust;
I trampled them like mud in the streets.
People I did not know now serve me,
foreigners cower before me;
as soon as they hear of me, they obey me.
They all lose heart;
they come trembling from their strongholds.

If you were to set that to drill music today the Daily Mail would demand it was banned.

Yet there is always something more. The football-supporterish aspects of religious practice don’t capture everything of what keeps religions alive, and what in turn nourishes believers. There is also a sense, a glimpse, of something beyond time and struggle, even if it can only be reached through immense suffering. There is a sense, sometimes, of a profoundly inhuman or perhaps unnatural, some would say supernatural, perspective in which life is good in itself, and the futility and oblivion to which it is all in the long run doomed simply doesn’t matter; a sense of peace and reconciliation which stands above the struggling existence of everything in time.

This seems to me the good that religion can offer, and it’s not available in any other way. In particular, it’s not available without relationships and society, because we are social beings, who can exist only in a web of relationships. Ursula K. Le Guin, one of those people who use “religion” as a word to comprehend all the obstacles that are in the way to reaching that which the religious impulse seems to seek, wrote beautifully about this in the preface to her last poems.

We humans appear as particularly lively, intense, aware nodes of relation to an infinite network of connections, simple or complicated, direct or hidden, strong or delicate, temporary or very long-lasting. A web of connections, infinite but locally fragile, with and among everything – all beings – including what we generally class as things, objects … science describes accurately from the outside, poetry describes accurately from the inside. Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe. “

These relationships inside us as well as outside, must necessarily entail conflict as well as reconciliation. Religion of course does the same. It is the largest, if not the most powerful instrument we have to think ourselves outside of history and all its crimes and wastes and follies. But it is still made out of our dreams. It serves our selfish purposes even as it suggests the service of a purpose not our own. Without religion we would have no adequate language, no way to say the words of inexpressible sorrow on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier – “Known to God” – even if it also true that without it there would have been no war quite so bitter and so terrible for him to die in.

So, in the end, the trouble with religion is the trouble with us. If you want to purify the one, you’ll have to purify the other. Starting with ourselves.

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