Friday, September 02, 2005

Left-leaning writers shouldn’t be scared or embarrassed to write about religion

IMPORTANT NOTE: I am absolutely not making any comment on the existence or non-existence of God, on the validity of any specific religious beliefs, on the authenticity of religious texts, or indeed on the relative merits of any specific religion. Except when specified, the term “religion” is used to denote the concept of a set of beliefs of beliefs and values centred around God, not a religious organisation. The term “God” is used to mean the various concepts of a divine being, pantheon thereof or essence that exist in various forms in different religions, monotheistic as well as polytheistic. This piece is about the effect of religion on individuals and their behaviour, not about the validity of belief systems.

There is a very important topic that Left-leaning writers (and I use the word in its broadest possible sense) in particular are very reluctant engage with: religion. We don’t really like to discuss it for a variety of reasons. For many, it seems to be a somewhat embarrassing relic of earlier times. It doesn’t fit with the secular, humanist view of the world. Others simply dismiss it as a load of superstitious claptrap, indeed hostility towards religion – especially organised religion – is widespread. It’s not only viewed as irrelevant, it’s also considered nefarious, it impedes Humanity’s progress, it’s an obscurantist force. Finally, and I suspect that this is a more important reason for avoidance of the topic than is generally acknowledged, it’s difficult to write about. Theology is not something that all that many people are very familiar with, it’s not a way of thinking, of viewing the world, that they’re used to. And so discussion of religion among Leftie writers tends to be limited to the following three topics:

perfectly justified vitriolic attacks against religious zealots trying to mix religion and politics;
habitual and visceral attacks on organised religion (more or less justified);
militant atheism, which is often indistinguishable from religious zealotry.

Otherwise, writing about religion in the mainstream press or online remains the preserve of those further on the right of the political spectrum, with some
particularly hilarious material coming from the super-conservative Protestants in the US, reactionary Roman Catholics in Europe, and of course everyone’s current favourite extreme Islamist clerics.

This does not strike me as a good thing. It’s painfully obvious that religion is a very powerful force in the world, far more so than was the case a decade ago, certainly far more than during the Cold War. Therefore ignoring it, dismissing it as irrelevant, backward, the favoured material of reactionaries, is simplistic, counterproductive and misguided. So I’m going to stick my mustelid neck out and throw into the Leftwing Ideas Ring the supposition that religion can be a good thing, a force for good, a friend of progressive politics.

Karl Marx’s famous claim that “religion is the opium of the Masses” sums up the general attitude to religion on the Left quite well. And there is of course truth in this statement. Unthinking, blind faith not in God (and I don’t limit this to the Christian God, but to the idea of God, found in one form or other in all religions) but in the interpretation of God made by people with a more or less openly stated and earthly agenda of their own, does nothing at all for the advancement of Humanity. Indeed, it holds Humanity back by discouraging individual thought, theological inquiry, by seeking to impose a subjective view of the divine and repress dissent, often through violent methods. The ravages of this form of religion are all too plain to see in the world at the moment. The inclusion of so-called “Intelligent Design” in American school curricula, the pernicious stranglehold of Protestant fundamentalists on the current US administration, the resurgent influence of the Council of Guardians in Iran, and to a lesser extent the accession of Joseph Ratzinger to the Papacy are all examples of this.

But all of these admittedly extreme cases have in common the fact that all of them are perversions of religions to achieve earthly goals. The Council of Guardians wants to make sure that it has complete control of everyone and everything in Iran, the Christian Zionists want the US to re-establish the Biblical Israel (and thereby bring about the Second Coming – I’m not certain of where this strange little doctrine came from), Al-Qaeda wants to cause as much havoc as possible and make everyone live in the Middle-Ages.

Manipulation of large numbers of people is made possible quite simply by illiteracy, ignorance, lack of personal exploration of theology. Traditionally, Roman Catholics did not study the Bible much. Until Vatican II, Mass was conducted in Latin, which being the language of an ecclesiastical establishment didn’t really allow for anyone to form their own opinions much. Islam suffers from the same problem: the Quran is usually printed in Arabic, and most Muslims don’t speak Arabic, let alone read it. So Roman Catholics have relied on catechism classes, which follow the Roman Catholic Church’s agenda, whilst many Muslims rely on the self-justifying Hadith for their interpretation of the Quran.

Religion doesn’t have to be like that, and beyond fulfilling basic emotional needs such as providing people with a sense of the purpose of life, and reassuring them that death is not simply oblivion, it has a valuable purpose. Many scientists for example seek in science and reason a coherent worldview, and reason is certainly a better tool for that than superstition and mysticism. But science is not very good at all at telling people what is right and what is wrong. Nature has no concept of compassion or of mercy. Evolution doesn’t really allow that life has a purpose other than replicating itself. That’s what differentiates humans from the rest of the Earth’s biomass: we’re self-aware, we want a purpose in life, and yet through concepts such as mercy and compassion, we think twice about gaining an advantage over others or indeed other species if it’s going to cause them harm. It can instil in people a respect for others and for the rest of Creation (I use that term because it’s quite elegant, not to indicate a religious belief, and absolutely not because I’m a creationist).

But that sort of beneficial effect doesn’t come from blind faith alone or from top-down, dogmatic organised religion. It comes from individual familiarity with the various religions’ fundamental texts, from honest discussion, probing, healthy scepticism and above all, forcing one’s self to approach all of these matters with an open mind. Too often, the Bible and Quran for example are used to find justifications for preconceived ideas. I am always amazed by the sorts of things that Christian zealots manage to justify using the Bible. You have to wonder how much clearer the statement “Thou shalt not kill” could possibly be. And the entire Gospels are about love, compassion, non-violence, mercy and importantly, not mixing up religion and politics. After all, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" just means "Sorry, I don't do politics".

It is often said that if people don’t believe in God, they’ll believe in anything. This is quite clearly true. Banish God, and you can find yourself believing in Stalin or National Socialism instead. If you ignore God, sideline him, make him irrelevant, you risk losing your sense of direction, purpose, balance. This leaves the door wide open for dishonest, manipulative religious zealots, or indeed any other belief system that fills the human need for a sense of purpose. Some fill the gap with frenetic consumerism, others muck around with statements such as “well I don’t believe in God, but I believe that there’s some sort of undefined vague greater power that doesn’t really require me to do anything or not do things and is about as intellectually useful as a liquorice spade”. But one way or another, people will believe in something, and intelligent, informed religion is as good as any positive philosophy. Because people who believe in positive things are more likely to make the world better, to vote for good politicians, to spread open-minded, tolerant, generous ideas, to not kill people or oppress them, to stand up to those who would do such things or tell them what to think and feel. And barring the extremists, those are the sorts of things that Lefties – and indeed decent rightwing people – believe in. So Leftie writers, don’t abandon the topic of religion to rightwing bigots and self-serving, cynical zealots. It’s nothing to be scared or ashamed of.

1 comment:

One of Our Golf Pros said...

It's too bad that quality articles like this one is not the norm instead of the usual Christian dogma. Dogma that's needlessly murdered over a million people, 4,000 of them young Americans, in just the last eight years.

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