The Role of Religion in a Secular World
Updated: Jan 10, 2020
How many times have you heard someone say; “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious”.. ? I never quite understood what that means exactly. I often wonder if those that have formed that world-view had done so because of the stigma attached to traditional religions, or whether they’ve actually taken the time to ask the big existential questions and arrived at that conclusion themselves?
In saying that, there are other world-views; ‘Agnosticism’, which suggests that “I don’t really know, but I’m open to both the existence and non-existence of a deity and will go where ever the evidence leads me; or ‘Atheism’, which takes a naturalistic or humanistic world view and firm position on the non-existence of a God of any kind; 'atheism' having seen a recent resurgence with the emergence of the new atheists lead by Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris (among others) and to a lesser extend the likes of Richard Carrier, a very articulate, well read intellectual in his own right.
So what is the role of religion in this increasingly secular world?
Some would suggest there’s no room for religion in the modern day, that religion divides instead of unites, that religion is the cause of all war in the world. I beg to differ and find all those arguments rather trivial.
One must take the time to understand the arguments, look at the evidence, embrace the theology before jumping to such conclusions; I wonder how many people have actually done that? Would it not be fair to suggest that we should draw conclusions based on what we know and have taken the time to understand and not by ignorantly jumping on a hype train? You can’t prove the existence or in fact the non-existence of a God, so the best we can do is look at all the evidence available to us as objectively as possible. That evidence is best considered from several points of view and a good place to start is:
What is the historical record, what does it say, what can we know with relative confidence and what’s clearly an embellishment of some sort? What are historians saying, what is the general discourse when considering the historical claims of different religions?
SCIENCE, PRIMARILY PHYSICS, BIOLOGY AND TO A LESSER EXTENT NEUROSCIENCE.
What does science actually tell us about the emergence and existence of the universe? Did the universe have a beginning or has it always been here? What of evolution; does the notion of evolution discount outright the possibility of a God? Is everything just physical matter, if so, what do we make of consciousness and the mind; are they instinctive developments brought upon by the fight or flight responses in evolutionary processes; or is there a deeper meaning / significance there? Does it leave room for the ‘super-natural’?
Philosophical evidence is often discounted, as it doesn’t produce the tangible answers we may be accustomed to, however it does allow for the clash of ideas and a search for truth and meaning, unlike any other discipline. So if there was a start to the universe, how and why did it start? If there was nothing before the universe existed, then how can we derive something from nothing and more broadly; why is there something rather than nothing (i.e. why are we here?)
Mathematics seems to suggest to us that the universe is built on a set of intelligible laws, that is, there is a predictable order to the universe and it can be expressed to some extent in the language of mathematics. If there are universal truths; then as humans, the closest we get to those truths, is mathematics. That is, whether you believe that the acceleration due to gravity on earth is 9.81 m/s2 or not; physics (and mathematics) will tell us that it is – so whether you believe it or not doesn’t matter in actual terms. Why is this significant? Well it demonstrates that some ‘truth’ exists outside of what we believe or not and those truths are probably best understood in what mathematics demonstrates to us about the universal laws which govern us; which in turn seem to dictate pretty clearly in what order everything ‘works’.
What does each religion actually teach us? What is it proclaiming and does it make sense in relation to what we experience in our daily lives. It’s also important to understand schools of thought within particular religions, for example, in Christianity, you have Protestantism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, all which view and understand the practice of Christianity slightly differently; Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are no different in that sense. At the very least, one should look at the actual scriptures of various religions, how they developed and what they actually proclaim; only then can one begin to form some understanding. This should at least be part of the process otherwise any broad proclamations about the uselessness of religion are based more on ignorance than on thought.
This may seem like an odd one, but understanding how societies are formed and structured, the political and financial systems, how they operate and for what purpose could add considerable impetus to discussions. Why is secularism or liberalism pushed so much? What are the motives for enacting policies that take religion out of the conversation almost completely? Who makes these decisions and why? Why is religion so uncool – what’s the general narrative in contemporary pop culture and does it encourage independent thought or push a particular world-view that ostracises anyone who dares to even considers the possible existence of a God or more accurately subscribe to a particular religion?
So if you’ve made it this far, you may be thinking, why bother even exploring these themes? Well I believe it goes to the heart of how you view and experience the world. Without allowing yourself the time or opportunity to develop your world-view, there will always be that sense of loss, similar to the feeling you have when you leave something undone or unresolved, like something is always lingering, hanging over your head.
Your world-view is the lens in which you see and experience the world. In that sense, I do think there is inherent value in beginning that journey of exploration. It’s almost as if the more you peal away all the layers and understand the opposing views, the closer you will get to a sense of truth.
This practice of perpetual knowledge, growth and contemplation is a life-long process and may not lead you to the tangible answers you may desire for yourself, but the question is; does your understanding (and the evidential arguments); give you enough grounding to be able to take that leap of faith with confidence, regardless of which side of the spectrum you may sit?
These big existential questions will always exist and have always existed, and I sense that only by engaging with them at some level, in a spirit of curiosity, openness and respect can we extend our own world views, hopefully towards something that brings us greater joy, hope and ultimately a peace.