“A great swindle of our time is the assumption that science has made religion obsolete. All science has damaged is the story of Adam and Eve and the story of Jonah and the Whale. Everything else holds up pretty well, particularly lessons about fairness and gentleness. People who find those lessons irrelevant in the twentieth century are simply using science as an excuse for greed and harshness”.
“An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.”
My last post addressed politics and unaccountable hierarchy as a major factor of the decline of religion often ignored by Atheist thought. This post addresses inability to comprehend the importance of community.
The decline in religious worship has occurred parallel to decades-long decline in community. In his famous essay ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, Robert D. Putnam highlights decline in active membership organisations such as the Boy Scouts, Red Cross, Lions, political parties, and trade unions. Putnam also notes a decline in interactions with neighbours, attendance at public meetings, electoral turnout, and feeling of social trust. British political commentator and author Owen Jones writes in Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class from 1997 to 2010 the number of sports and social clubs fell by 55 percent, post offices by 39 percent, swimming pools by 21 percent, libraries by 6 percent; while enterprises like betting shops and casinos increased 39 percent and 27 percent respectively (p 212).
Despite valid criticism, religion has been at the heart of every community. Historically neighbourhoods, towns, and villages were centred on houses of worship. They were main source of charity before the welfare state. Local parishes were central to social life: recreational groups, singles evenings, camps, Sunday school, kindergarten, business networks, and spiritual counseling. Religious-affiliated social organisations still provide needed community support such as housing and homeless shelters, schools, food banks, counseling, and international aid worldwide. The decline of religion reflects increased social isolation. In a more market driven society, there are less generous government services, job security, and trust; with profit, competition, and consumer choice as ultimate freedoms. Without community, social and spiritual needs cannot be met.
Spirituality – the existential reflection on purpose and meaning greater than ourselves – is necessary to connect us to our passions, sense of self, and to others. This has traditionally been rooted in but not exclusive to religion. An excellent example is Sister Wendy – the hermit nun, art critic, and star of cult BBC documentaries who visits famous galleries and gives intelligent, accessible interpretations of selected art from “naughty Gainsborough” to the nude men of a Hockney painting. Art, she says, connects her to God and informs without judgement – notable when she discredits the immorality of the famous ‘Piss Christ’. Her spirituality gives her an insight better than any art critic I’ve encountered. Spirituality is arguably the basis behind creativity: art, culture, philosophy, and even science. Spirituality can be secular, but Atheism doesn’t address the importance of spirituality.
Prominent Atheists wrongly claim a monopoly on reason and science. Yet Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and others contain thousands of years of scriptures, interpretations, and theological debate. These religions and followers have generally embraced science. The real motivation of the repression of science – whether religious or secular – is political. The Catholic Church’s motivation for the house arrest of Galileo as denial of his discover that the earth revolves around the sun is no different to climate change denial by corporates and the politicians and scientists they fund – political convenience. Nor are science and religious belief incompatible. Albert Einstein was an agnostic, Carl Sagan – often posterboy for Atheism –stated that he could not completely rule out the existence of God, the Dalai Lama is an ardent supporter of science who engaged in ongoing dialogue with Sagan during the 1990s, and there are a multitude of doctors, engineers, scientists, astronomers, physicists, and biologists of all faiths.
Atheism ignores the importance of community, which itself is incapable of providing. Atheism has no physical community, mass membership, overarching values or ethical framework, no thought on economics, politics or culture, or provision of charitable services. In March 2012, American Atheists held the Reason Rally in Washington DC – including speakers Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher – that attracted about 20,000 people. This is significantly less than other Washington rallies: conservative Glen Beck’s ‘Restoring Honour Rally’ in 2010 with estimated 300,000, Jon Stewart/ Stephen Colbert’s counter ‘Rally to Restore Sanity And/ Or Fear with over 200,000, and the African-American Million Man March in 1995 with about 400,000. Atheism rallies fewer people than than other issues. Nor can it build a solid base. The rise of the Atheist Sunday Services seemingly attempt to replicate a church-like community but seem more like ironic joke with little survivability. Individual based spirituality is also not enough. Sales of poetry and philosophy books or enrollment in English and philosophy courses haven’t exploded nor would that be adequate. The rise of spiritual self help gurus such as Oprah favourite Eckhart Tolle provides simplistic annotations cribbed from religious scriptures and is the equivalent of an instruction manual with no support hotline.
Whether or not religion or Atheism survive, both community and the individual must be reassessed. Community based on mutual responsibility without subservience to hierarchy. The individual as independent thinking and creative but part of the collective. The inclusion of the individual within public debates and accountability of economic, political and cultural institutions is a true society. Atheism is not an institution, therefore has little to contribute besides secularism.
I am reminded whenever I walk past a former church turned restaurant, bar, or gentrified country cottage of the decline of the church as the decline in the means and the spirit of community. What has replaced them is consumerism, which is no substitute. Phillip Larkin spoke in his poem Church Going of this as the loss of something within ourselves.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?