River Wissey Lovell Fuller

November 2010 Newsletter

November 2010

Keith enters into a debate heard on radio 4 regarding rleigion and superstition.

I heard it said in a conversation on Radio 4 that religion without reason descends into superstition or fundamentalism. The speaker started to define humanism in a similar way, but was unfortunately interrupted. I think he meant to continue by saying that humanism without love is mere utilitarianism - where the objective is to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. This, of course, ignores the cost to those who are not among the 'greatest number', which can be total (eg death!) - the commonly used example being that of the people in a boat in the middle of the Pacific nowhere near the shipping lanes and with very limited resources, typically water.

The compassionate among us would not want to throw anyone overboard so long as there was any chance of all being picked up. The utilitarian would weigh up the odds and throw overboard as many as made it most likely that one or more left in the boat would survive long enough to be picked up. The religious fundamentalist might well seek to determine who in the boat were among the 'elect' and throw overboard the rest. The superstitious would pick some arbitrary basis (eg the position of constellations (which, of course, do not exist, except as a human construct based on the relative position of the stars as depicted on a flat (ie completely unrealistic) surface) for determining what was likely to ensue and then act accordingly.

The difficulty here is not for the humanist but for the religious. I think we can all define 'love' for whatever context in which it may arise. We would use all sorts of words and phrases in order to do so, but ultimately I suspect that most of us would mean much the same. I think that in general, we can distinguish the humanist who has love, from the mere utilitarian, where reason alone rules.

It is far more difficult to identify the religious person or creed where reason takes its proper and full part. I think that most British Christians would agree that the mediaeval Church in this country had far more than its fair share of superstition. The revolt against that at the time of the Reformation led some to the fundamentalism which gave rise to horrors such as the Salem Witch Trials. We are all well aware of some modern time religious fundamentalism that leads to hatred and destruction.

Humanism is based on reason, but, at its best, is modulated and moderated by compassion. Religion, however, is based on belief and faith, not on reason per se. 'Morals' and 'Ethics' are supposed to be deeply felt constraints and impetuses to social behaviour - in some way instinctive or related to our very species-based genes. The words themselves, however, come from the ancient Greek and essentially refer to custom! These social patterns of behaviour were based on the need to maintain cohesive and successful societies and came from the same roots as early religions. Just as ancient festivals, such as Yuletide, have been borrowed and integrated into religious festivals (Christmas), so ancient established mores have found themselves comfortable within the context of modes of behaviour ('commandments') favoured by the great Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam - listed here in chronological order). Good behaviour predated these recorded commandments, but that does not mean that those commandments were not already there in some unconscious or subliminal way - as those who believe in God would stoutly maintain.

The humanist has no binding text to refer to or to limit him. At every point he must refer to reason and (hopefully) compassion in order to determine his course of action/behaviour. The religious almost always has sacred text to refer to. The fundamentalist does not necessarily feel that reason is available to him, so long as he 'understands' whatA the text says and then feels constrained (powerfully constrained) to apply that understanding. Typically he would not accept that he has an 'understanding' that implies some sort of interpretative action, but would maintain that the text 'means' x y z and that that is all there is to it.

The religious person who stands back from the 'text' (eg the Bible or the Koran) and seeks to interpret it by the exercise of reason is in a dangerous position. (I would maintain that any thinking Jew or Christian or Muslim is bound to put himself into that position, but that is a personal view.) That person is seeking to establish a personal relationship with his God and to try to understand how His 'commandments' are to be applied in given situations. Many Christians have found it very possible to kill in a so-called 'just war' and not to find that inconsistent with the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill'. Many others have not.

In an imperfect world, seeking to do the best you can sometimes involves hurting someone else (utilitarianism?). The humanist can sort this out and justify it, however painful the process may be. The religious has the real problem of apparently breaching absolute rules, which were based on revelation from the God he believes in.

I found the statement in the first sentence of this article so true, but challenging. As someone who has a very strong religious faith I am continually and continuously challenged by the conflict between what is 'right' and what is possible or sensible. However, I find that challenge to be very appropriate and healthy. A God who denies me the right to think and to act on my own initiative is not one I want to believe in. A God who gives me the right (and duty) to think and to act on my own initiative - but to be responsible and answerable to Him for those thoughts and deeds - is the sort of God that I do believe in. I am sure that he created me as a reasonable being - ie requiring that I should apply reason as well as faith.

Keith MacLeod

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