Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 2011

The popular philosopher Alain de Botton gave a lecture at a recent TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Edinburgh on what atheists need to learn from religion.  In the Blog of the science journal Nature, Philip Campbell reports on what was said. “Of course there is no God!”, announced de Botton, “But let’s move on – that’s only the beginning. We need atheism 2.0, and for that we need to draw from religion.”

Campbell summarizes de Botton’s talk thus:

“Universities turf you out into the world, as if you need no help. In contrast, all major religions see us humans as only just holding it together. The greatest preacher of all was John Wesley, who emphasised above all, in that spirit, the duty of parenthood. And we need those sermons too – not just lectures full of information, but talks that aim to change our lives. What is more, religions say you need to hear a lesson not once but ten times a day – theirs is a culture of repetition. All religions have calendars in which, for example on a Saints Day, you encounter a particular Good Life or Worthy Thought on an annual basis… And in the modern secular world, people interested in the spirit tend to be isolated, whereas religions provide institutions of spiritual togetherness.

Somehow, said de Botton, those who don’t believe in a deity nevertheless need to find ways of incorporating activities that promote spiritual well-being – however we may choose to define ‘spiritual’ – into the structures of our professional or social lives. The religions, he argued, are the foremost example of institutions fighting for our minds. You may not believe in religions, he said, but they’re so subtle and clever that they’re not fit to be abandoned to the religious alone. They’re for all of us.”

De Botton is an engaging writer, whose several books bringing philosophy to bear on topics of everyday life (love, anxiety, travel, happiness) serve as a challenge to those Christian theologians whose work is nothing more than commentary on other theologians. But the latter could well pose a counter-challenge to de Botton. How does a philosopher (of all people) simply assert, without argument, that atheism is true; and then  assert, without evidence, that all religions are essentially the same and, further, that it is religious rituals rather than beliefs that matter to peoples’ well-being?

What is equally puzzling is that de Botton must surely be aware of his own nation’s history.  Immediately after the French Revolution, the painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) inaugurated what he termed “A Religion of Mankind.” This was a secularized religion dedicated to the glory of the new French Republic with the full panoply of neo-pagan shrines, temples, feast days, new calendars, wedding ceremonies, the veneration of saints (such as Voltaire, Rousseau and other heroes of the revolution) and their relics, and propaganda techniques learned from their religious foes.

David’s Religion of Mankind was short-lived. However, it was taken up by another Frenchman, August Comte, the founder of positivist sociology, and later by the circle of naturalists who gathered around T.H. Huxley. Comte sought to establish a “scientific-humanist” Church and, ironically, it was not in Paris but in Calcutta that he found his most ardent followers, among the Bengali intelligentsia. Calcutta witnessed the first community of Comte’s Religion of Humanity with its paraphernalia of rituals oriented around humans rather than gods. The group around Huxley in Britain, which included Herbert Spencer and Francis Galton, organized themselves into a Church Scientific, with the avowed intent of attacking and undermining the credibility of the Church of England.

The Church Scientific organized lay “sermons” on scientific subjects, dressed in gowns imitative of the clergy, set up Sunday Lecture Societies to compete with the Church of England Sunday schools, sang hymns to Nature at mass meetings, and distributed pamphlets and tracts which proclaimed scientific naturalism and denounced Christianity as the chief obstacle to scientific progress. Even buildings set up as monuments to science, such as the Natural History Museum in London, were designed as secular cathedrals. A whole new “history” of science was written, regarded today as utterly worthless, to show that science and religion had always been bitter enemies, with Mother Nature replacing God, and Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin assuming a heroic status as the knight-saints of the modern world. Thus a new mythology was created.

Furthermore, religious atheism was vigorously promoted in all the totalitarian states of the twentieth century. It is still the state religion of China and North Korea. The repetitious propaganda/sermonizing and “spiritual togetherness” that de Botton encourages British atheists to cultivate flourished in the Nuremberg rallies of the Hitler Youth, the incessant revolutionary parades of East Germany and Soviet Russia, and Chairman Mao’s cultural revolutionaries who fervently memorized and disseminated his Little Red Book.

We have been there, Alain, done that- and the results have been disastrous. A “spirituality” without truth can be as oppressive as unity without justice. When religions are emptied of gods, other gods take over. And the god of the state is prominent among them.

It is difficult to decide which was the most depressing piece of news last week: the huge trade deals signed by Britain and Germany with  the Chinese government, the grand reception accorded Omar al- Bashir in Beijing, or the helpless rage of the Greek populace before a corrupt global financial order.

Of course, no decision is necessary; and, in any case, they are all inter-related. Truth and justice have been banished from the global public square. The gods of “ limitless growth” and “consumption” brook no rivals. For all the posturing of Western governments on human rights and human dignity, we know how deeply they have become indebted to repressive political regimes such as the Chinese and how deeply enmeshed they are in exploitative financial systems from which they cannot extricate themselves, even if they wished to. Like the client-kings of Rome, depicted in the Book of Revelation, Western governments have capitulated to the Beast and do his bidding (while pretending to be politically sovereign).

Still, I had hoped that significant numbers of the British and German population, especially Christians who care about freedom of thought and religious worship, would have protested outside their parliaments. For those of us who live under dictatorships and military states, the visible support of the so-called international community is vital. The British government promotes the interests of its business corporations, even its arms industry, over the lives of human beings. India is one of the biggest purchaser of British weapons, which the Indian government uses against its own citizens. And until the recent NATO strikes and the condemnation of Gaddafi as a tyrant and war-criminal, British firms were doing business in Libya with the tyrant’s blessing.

As for the latest Greek tragedy, it simply illustrates what I have been writing about on my Blog ever since the so-called “financial crisis” of 2008. If Greek coffers are empty, it is not because of social benefits given to the sick and the poor; but, rather, the irresponsibility of Greek business corporations who hid their profits in off-shore tax havens. Rich Greeks, with the blessing of their politicians, enjoyed public services while not paying for them. (And the Greek Orthodox Church, owner of vast assets, has also been exempt from taxation). But it is the middle-and working classes who are now being forced to practice “austerity” to rescue Greece from bankruptcy. Moreover,  Greece is being charged interest  higher than the eurozone rate. Like global warming and subprime mortgages, it is the poor who forced to pay for the sins of the rich.

Reforms in the financial sector, whether in the US or Europe, are purely cosmetic. None of the institutions and individuals who were responsible for the foreclosures of peoples’ homes have been brought before courts of law. Banks seem to be exempt from the bankruptcy procedures that apply to ordinary people and small businesses.

All this speaks of political failure. The racists, the corrupt, and the mediocre have taken over parliamentary assemblies. Even highly intelligent and moral leaders like Barack Obama have their wings clipped by financial elites. Politics in Canada and Italy is no different from India or Thailand. Given these failures of governments all over the world, isn’t it time for more of us to be get out on the streets like the courageous  men and women in Athens, Damascus and Bahrain? Direct democracy is when the people themselves directly claim the right to decide the laws and policies that will shape their collective life. Their chosen representatives have betrayed them in favour of unelected business and banking tycoons.

Oh for a summer of public discontent all over the Western world! And for more Church leaders like the Hindu guru who fasted publicly in protest against political corruption in India.  Civil society needs to be renewed and activated all over the world.

I recently came across an account by Richard Hughes, an American college professor, which many of those educated in conservative Christian circles will identify with.  Hughes was an undergraduate student at a church-related institution in the American South between 1961 and 1965. During those years he was living and studying no more than 250 miles from most of the great events of the Freedom Movement/ Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, midway through his undergraduate experience, Martin Luther King led hundreds of children through the streets of Birmingham, protesting racial segregation. The city responded with fire hoses and police dogs.  In 1965, the year Hughes graduated from college, blacks sought to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, but Alabama storm troopers stopped them in their tracks with shockingly brutal force.

Hughes writes:

“Unbelievably, in spite of the fact that one of the greatest moral dramas in the history of the United States was unfolding under my nose, I missed it. I missed it almost entirely. I didn’t fully discover what I had missed until I enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Iowa in 1967. I blame myself, but I also blame that church-related college and its professors, for not one of my teachers said to me, ‘What is going on today is important. Take note.’ Or, better still, ‘Get involved.’”  [Richard T. Hughes, The Vocation of a Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind, 2005]


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