Ideas that add up #75

I would describe myself as an atheist. But I’m friendly to religion on the grounds that it seems to be distinctively human, and it has produced many good things. To be a humanist and to hate this distinctively human feature is very odd.

John Gray interviewed in New Humanist, March/April 2013

Well put. The veneration of mythical beings who meddle in the affairs of and decide the destinies of individual members of the species that most resembles them, is a distinctively human activity. Other animals don’t do religion, for sure, and it does seem to be ubiquitous — in its myriad manifestations — among all peoples of the world. And yes, it has produced good things, including perhaps the concept of “goodness” itself, at the core of the moral framework rooted in religion.

So, in some respects I’m with Gray on this: feeling “friendly to religion”, to its good people, to their spiritualism, to their acts of kindness, to their places of contemplation and worship.

However, religion is a drug. Like sugar or sex or anything that answers a craving, it feels good at the time and we like it — but if it takes over our lives then we sacrifice other precious parts of human experience. In that sense, religion is nothing special. Not great. Probably harmless in moderation.

The problem lies with the less-than-spiritual institutions of religion which have grown, symbiotically with the state, during the past five or six thousand years of human social development. It is thanks to the track-record of those institutions that “religion”, for many of us, equates to priestly self-interest and the wolfish exploitation of a trusting flock. And also acts of unambiguous “evil” committed against fellow humans in the name of someone or other’s fictional gods.

The past fortnight has seen the “enthronement” of Christianity’s two gaudiest institutional heads, one Pope and one Archbishop of Canterbury. Amid absurd ritual and pomp, gems and robes, two glorified witch doctors have been promoted, in the minds of their followers, to semi-divine status. But if you look on the doings of their churches with a cold, clear eye, you see them as figureheads for vanity, crassness and corruption. Distinctively human, indeed.

So, getting back to John Gray — I think he’s mis-characterized a humanist-type perspective on religion. It is the hypocrisy and twisted deeds of institutional religion that we loathe — if we bother to think of them at all. We object to the opportunity religion provides for ruthless and unscrupulous people to take power over the lives of others. But as to people using religion as the vehicle for sacredness in their lives, for poetry and virtue and mystery — I’m all for it.

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