He opines –
The most boring question to ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true”. It’s a measure of the banality of recent discussions on theological matters that it is precisely this matter which has hogged the limelight, pitting a hardcore group of fanatical believers against an equally small band of fanatical atheists.
With which I am in total agreement. Both sides see it as “essential” (for some unknown and never expressed reason) that they are proven to be “right” and that this god either does, or does not, exist. As an aside, you will see irrefutable and direct evidence in the comments to Botton’s column – from people who can not distinguish a reasoned moot from a politico-religious opportunity.
Botton continues –
The tragedy of modern atheism is to have ignored just how many aspects of religion continue to be interesting even when the central tenets of the great faiths are discovered to be entirely implausible. Indeed, it’s precisely when we stop believing in the idea that gods made religions that things become interesting, for it is then that we can focus on the human imagination which dreamt these creeds up.
It was our 18th-century forebears who, wiser than us in this regard, early on in the period which led to “the death of God” began to consider what human beings would miss out on once religion faded away. They recognised that religion was not just a matter of belief, but that it sat upon a welter of concerns that touched on architecture, art, nature, marriage, death, ritual, time — and that by getting rid of God, one would also be dispensing with a whole raft of very useful, if often peculiar and sometimes retrograde, notions that had held societies together since the beginning of time.
Now readers of my thoughts might see that and think “The ol probligo is going to agree with that!”, and they would be right! Why else, how else, would I be able to sit and listen to the magic of a Bach cantata like “Ich habe genug”, or the plainsong beauty of El Misteri d’Elx”, or the soaring beauty of the hymns written by Hildegard von Bingen. Not to emphasise the Christian success too much, there are similar (if not more challenging) examples ranging from the rhythms of Bhuddist chants to the vocal gymnastics of the muezzin’s Friday call to prayer, right through to the karakia of a kuia on the marae as she calls the dead to witness and to be acknowledged, or invites the visitors from the noa onto the safety and security of the marae.
But, back to Botton -
What would such a peculiar idea [of a secular church] involve? … We are the only society in history to have nothing transcendent at our centre, nothing which is greater than ourselves. In so far as we feel awe, we do so in relation to supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators.
And that, dear readers, is irrefutable.
The pre-scientific age, whatever its deficiencies, had at least offered its denizens the peace of mind that follows from knowing all man-made achievements to be inconsequent next to the spectacle of the universe. We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of our veneration than our brilliant and morally troubling fellow human beings.
Botton follows with his expansion of the idea of “a secular religion”; in the title of his article “A Religion for Atheists”.
That last sentence I have quoted though is the real nub of his whole premise, at least so far as I am concerned.
This is how I see it -
The first of these – the question – is the beginning of scientific enquiry; it is the need to find an explanation for an “unnatural” event.
The second, the fear of that unknown and unexplained event (and such a fear can be quite rational as we all should know) is the beginning of superstition.
The common ground between these two factors is where I believe theistic religion is formed. It develops in both forms; as the explanation of the event, and as the personal protection from the event and its consequences. One can choose either mono- or pan-theistic systems, or any combination in between.
As an example, compare three different stories of the rainbow. In the Judeo/Christian version it is God’s symbol of His regret for the great flood, and his promise that he would not take such action again. To the Greeks the rainbow is Iris, a messenger of the gods. She travels on the wind, with the storm ahead of her and the sun behind. It is little surprise that she is the daughter of Thaumus (Wonder). As a total contrast is the Maori legend of Uenuku and Hinepukoherangi the mist maiden of the dawn. Uenuku was a warrior who met Hinepukoherangi one morning and they fell deeply in love. After courting and marrying her, Uenuku tried to force her to stay during the day by trickery and as a result killed her. Ranginui (the sky) took pity on the mourning Uenuku and put him in the sky during the day. When mist and rainbow meet at dawn Uenuku and Hine are together again, if only for just that brief moment.
It can be seen that even an event as everyday as a rainbow can give rise to explanations that are at the same time beautiful and profound.
Now Botton claims that there is “nothing transcendent at our centre”. I would point to the rainbow and say “It is simple to say ‘we know how…’, but there is a magic there which has to be respected. We can illustrate in an experiment, but we can not recreate on the scale of the natural event.” A religious person can claim “…created by God”.
I recall a brief conversation I had with (I think) TF on a quotation he had vaguely recalled. I gave him in response –
“What is this world if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare”
I don’t believe, I never have believed, that I need a “religion”.
My “religion” is all around me. Every day. Without fail.
I take the time to stand and stare, in wonderment.