There is no greater social evil than religion. It is the cancer in the body of humanity. Human credulity and superstition, and the need for comforting fables, will never be extirpated, so religion will always exist, at least among the uneducated. — A. C. Grayling, The Reason of Things
These words, from one of England’s foremost philosophers and social critics, are not unusual in these days of the revival of public atheism from the likes of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. Grayling, author of over twenty books, is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and writes a regular column for the Times. A frequent and prominent theme in his essays and newspaper articles is the imminent demise of organized religion. In an article from 2006 he countered a claim that religion was experiencing a resurgence by asserting that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and American evangelicalism pointed to religion in its death throes. In a transcript of a broadcast for the Australian Broadcast Corporation in 2010 (http://www.acgrayling.com/) he continued the theme by commenting that religious adherents are feeling anxious and on the defensive and are responding by turning up the volume. He pointed to a recent Pew Forum “Landscape Survey” of American religion (http://religions.pewforum.org/) which finds that mainstream Protestant adherents are aging and that the religiously unaffiliated young have doubled their percentage to 16 percent. One finding from the Pew Report is that Americans are restless, constantly on the move from one religion or religious body to the next. This mobility—and the number of choices available—makes for a fiercely competitive marketplace for American religions. Grayling’s belief is that religion will lose its influence but not its life. There are always enough credulous morons around to keep the body just this side of clinically dead.
It’s an interesting argument that Grayling and others make: the sheer volume of shouted messages in the public square means that the institution is on the way out. If that were true we could look for an early death for the Tea Party, Wall Street money manipulators, all celebrities and politicians who have affairs, the effects of globalization, those who oppose global warming, and Lady Gaga. Grayling and the Terrible Triumvirate have some legitimate complaints about religion, foremost among them the violence religions have perpetrated on the world for centuries. Behind their outrage and scorn one can hear longing for the believers to live up to their claims to have the truth that will set us free. John Lennon called us to “Imagine there’s no heaven,” and “no religion too.” He envisioned a world free of religion as one in which people lived in peace, unencumbered by the fear of hell or the lure of heaven. I hear all this and I have to agree. . . . and I am almost persuaded. Almost.
There’s a lot to be said for Religion (with a capital R). It brings out not only the worst in humans but the best. It has sustained people through the worst kinds of torture, often at the hands of those who claim to be fighting under the banner of Christ, and it has provided care and compassion to those who would have done away with it if they’d had the strength. It has given millions a deeper purpose in life, taught them to respect others, and has provided meaning in the face of chaos.
In conversations and class discussions these days people are sometimes careful to distinguish between “religion” and “spirituality,” with the advantage always given to the latter. While there are way too many definitions of religion, “spirituality” is a term that seems as vaporous as the mists of dawn. We know it’s there but it has a habit of disappearing when the light hits it. The distinction between the two seems to be in the form, if not the function. Religion is public, institutional, structured, powerful—and therefore corrupted—inhibiting, corrosive, and ultimately disillusioning. Spirituality, on the other hand, is private, personal, unstructured, informal, intuitive, and pure. The fact that American hard-core individualists sometimes fill up that cup with a heady brew of astrology, self-help remedies, a dash of yoga, a dollop of self-congratulation, and topped off with a vow above all to be good to themselves, does not invalidate spirituality. Some of this is verbal ping-pong but a lot of the uncertainty might also point to a gradual evolution toward a kind of secular spirituality.
Consider William James’ definition of religion, offered up in his celebrated Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion and published in 1902 as The Varieties of Religious Experience:
Religion, therefore, as I now ask you arbitrarily to take it, shall mean for us the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.
The “divine,” James makes clear, is broadly interpreted. “The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by a curse nor a jest.” James is not interested in debating the ontological existence of God at this point; he is much more interested in calling up the vast array of human experiences of the divine and the effect such experiences have on a person. He views religion, generously speaking, as something that ought to make a difference in a person’s life, enough that the encounter with the divine will be something that cannot be mistaken for a momentary spike in giddiness or a desire to rule the universe. Among the many variations on the theme that James plays in the lectures, he keeps coming back to a single note of ‘solemn joy,’ the kind that rides out the storm, looks the Devil in the eye, and isn’t swayed by success or failure.
James thought this primal experience of the divine, personal and holy though it was, was the seed from which sprang the secondary plants of institutional religion and their structures in society. The personal preceded the public and the public embodied the personal.
Perhaps spirituality is that desire to stand joyously before God, immersing oneself in the experience of grace, eyes wide open, heart aflame, honest for once and not ashamed to admit one’s need. This is necessarily a solitary moment, but it can lead to community. Erasmus wryly noted that, “True piety, which flourishes only when the spirit spontaneously strives to grow in charity, withers when the spirit sluggishly reposes in external ceremonies chosen for it by others.”
There’s no reason to baptize Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Grayling as anonymous Christians. They deserve more respect than that. Such fierce striving for understanding, clarity, and honesty is rarely seen today and is often lamentably absent from those of us who call ourselves Christians. While a fanatic of any stripe can rarely admit to being wrong, a genuine seeker for truth can readily do so because what matters most is being honest with oneself. The Countess, in Christopher Fry’s play, The Dark is Light Enough says:
Let us say
We are all confused, incomprehensible,
Dangerous, contemptible, corrupt
And in that condition pass the evening
Thankfully and well. In our plain defects
We already know the brotherhood of man.
So this is the thing I wish to imagine, no matter how horrific, contemptible, graceless or cowardly all forms of religion may at times appear, and no matter how resolutely any human may spurn the representations of the divine, what matters most is that any one of us, standing alone before the cosmos, waiting for the light to change on a feverishly hot August afternoon, might say simply and clearly, ‘Yes!’ to the Truth within.