Religion in a Secular Society posted 2013 04 30
Science explains things – that means that it’s a way of finding out how things work. By it we are able to make things work for us, and we can invent new things. We have been enormously successful through our science. The methodology which observes, theorises, tests theories by experiment, and constantly repeats that cycle, revising and discarding, constantly working to improve the fit to the way things are, is the pride of modern thinking. And rightly so.
One of the consequences is a tendency to despise other ways of thinking – the story-telling of the past – mythology, poetry, art – and the rituals which enact the ways we humans respond to life in the world. And one of the tragedies of modernity is to be found in the reactions of the religions – the monotheist ones in particular.
You might say that Christianity – the worst offender – scared of having its power reduced by this new way of studying the world, tried to claim that its view of things – through story and ritual – was concerned with the same sort of reality that science was studying. But – worse – our religion left out the experimental, falsifying approach of science (one of its greatest strengths), claiming instead divine, unchanging truth for its dogmas. Religion was not prepared to say ’if it works, we’ll provisionally treat it as correct, but if it doesn’t, we must revise or discard it’. So we got the clash between – not religion and science, I think – but between dogma and common sense.
Religions are no good at taking reality to bits in order to understand it better. That’s what science is good at: objectivity, which is contingent, always partial, constantly evolving. Science is not very good at telling stories about how it feels to be human, the joy and the grief: subjectivity, which is insight and commitment, and full of risk. And science is not good at dealing with one of humanity’s worst tragedies – that whenever we understand something new, and find new ways to use it – saving and lengthening lives, improving health and enriching our experiences – our cleverness and power goes to our collective head, and we also use our new knowledge and inventions to spoil our planet, make money out of each other, kill each other, and destroy the beauty around us. The religions of the world could be good at helping people to be kinder and happier, if they weren’t so power-seeking themselves, and if they would stop falsely claiming scientific truth for their dogmas.
A truly secular society would be one which did not allow any one religious system to have power over the citizens who may or may not belong to it. Muslim governments are not a good idea. I think most Western democrats would agree with that. A Hindu government or a Buddhist government is no better. But for some reason we seem not to be able to grasp that a Christian government is no better either. In my opinion the leaders of the religions in our own country should be right up in the forefront of a campaign for the United Kingdom to be a genuinely secular society in which no one faith, nor the faiths acting together, have privilege or power over those who do not belong to their own faith, or indeed to any religion. Secularism and democracy – it seems to me – must go together.
But the religions of the world continue to have a vital function, and could perform it if they did not each claim to represent ‘the Truth’. Thousands of years of story and ritual have shaped human development – and have indeed contributed – along with the Arts and philosophy –to the foundation on which scientific curiosity, inventiveness and skill are based.
No religion is tenable if it is anti-scientific. All power corrupts. When religious organisations have power (as they used to, and still in many ways do) that corruption applies at least as much to them as to any other human activity. But in the humility of wisdom and kindness they have a vital róle to play.David Paterson –based on a talk given to a Christian men’s group.