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A Sensible Attitude toward Religion for Secular Humanists?

It’s not uncommon to find among secular humanists an attitude of harsh negativity towards religion, a negativity that often involves intellectual contempt and sometimes veers off into moral intolerance. The following quote from JR’S Free Thought Pages is a perfect illustration of this sort of attitude: ‘In my opinion the most important reason why religion exists and continues to thrive is that it rests on the natural ignorance, stupidity, superstition, credulity and intellectual sloth of mankind.’ I would like to argue that both reason and mental equanimity are better served by an attitude that ranges from benign tolerance to sympathetic interest. Before making my case, however, I want to emphasize that it does not address the question of whether religion corresponds to any objective reality.

We know that from earliest historical times that Man has been an animal with spiritual aspirations. Recent history and contemporary trends strongly suggest that he has no intention of abandoning those otherworldly ambitions. But private spiritual interests are not enough to satisfy him, nor can they withstand the pressure of worldly concerns and pursuits. Therefore, his spiritual experiences and impulses must inevitably express themselves in the organized, corporate form we call religion. The people who, for good reasons and bad, denounce organized religion, are, for good reasons and bad, simply denouncing human nature. Religion can be irrational, like human nature: it can be intolerant, like human nature: it can be hypocritical, like human nature. Anything reprehensible in human nature will find its way into religion just as it finds its way into marriage, or politics, or social life. But religion is a fundamental activity of mankind, like procreation or art or war, and to go through life regretting or resenting that fact is an emotional burden that can, without intellectual dishonour, be laid down.

It is often thought that there are three kinds of people where religion is concerned: those who are attracted to religion and think it important, those who feel indifference tinged with dislike, and those who despise religion and regard it as the enemy of reason and happiness. The actual state of affairs, I believe, is much less simple. Very few people are completely indifferent to religion, and most, in fact, find it rather interesting, sometimes in spite of themselves. At the same time most people feel some instinctive dislike for religion—I know I do—although practising believers may not acknowledge this feeling. As proof for my assertion that most people find religion interesting, I would draw your attention to the fact that, though they may not want to hear about religion, they can’t resist talking about it. And surely part of the reason is because religious ideas, such as an intellectual design or an everlasting happiness or the possibility of perfection, are inherently interesting. The practice of religion is quite another matter. Religion is common (in the sense of widespread, familiar, unavoidable) and when something is common it tends to be vulgar and lacking in taste. Anyone who’s fastidious by temperament or refined by education or upbringing will usually find something in the average church service to displease them, either intellectually or aesthetically. In general, one might say that religion is fascinating in theory and tedious in practice. Indeed, the prospect of being bored or offended is not sufficiently recognized as a factor in causing many people to reject religion.

Religion is something which most people tend to feel ambivalent about, and reasons are not hard to find. For instance, most people feel the plausibility of religion’s fundamental premise, though this may occur at a subconscious level. That premise can be stated as follows: there exists an unseen order of being that transcends the material order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves to it. In the second part of that premise one finds the cause of the widespread distaste for the Abrahamic religions. To bring the natural man into harmony with an ideal that opposes giving the passions—particularly greed and lust—free rein entails a long, painful and often discouraging attempt to reform one’s character. The unappealing nature of this challenge is succinctly conveyed by the words of Catholic convert Arnold Lunn: ‘the Christian God, I felt, left far too little scope in the universe for the activities of Arnold Lunn.’ For this reason alone one might expect religion to be deeply unpopular. However, since it is a matter of universal human experience that following the advice of D. H. Lawrence and being ‘a good animal, true to your animal instincts’ does not, in general, make for happy, well-adjusted, socially responsible human beings, the religious ideal of subordinating passion and animal impulse to some higher spiritual principle never loses its credibility. In fact, after every failed attempt on the part of the individual or of an entire society to live a fulfilled life on the purely natural plane, religion steps forward once again to offer its answers to life’s problems and enjoys a revival.

Thus, while religion is continually on the defensive against human nature, which it is always trying to reform with very limited success, sooner or later sad experience comes to the rescue and prevents it from being overwhelmed by the anti-religious bias of the natural man. Speaking of his contemporaries Plato wrote, ‘Not one of them who took up in his youth with this opinion that there are no gods ever continued until old age faithful to his conviction.’

Here then are some of the advantages of cultivating a sympathetic attitude towards the religious activity of mankind, as opposed to one of hostility, indignation, or contempt.

1)  The combination of sympathetic interest and emotional detachment is the frame of mind best suited to seeing religion—or anything else—in an objective light. To give a negative example, when cases of sexual abuse by the clergy were much in the news, it is doubtful that many of those who feel hostile to religion asked themselves questions like: How does the incidence of sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy compare with that of the general population? And if studies show that it is substantially lower, what does that tell us about the influence of religion in this area of human behaviour?

2)  One avoids the disappointment—not to mention potentially disastrous errors in judgment—almost certain to befall anyone who imagines that religion will eventually disappear from human affairs. In fact it reconciles us to the high probability that, barring some mysterious change in human nature or the human condition, religion is here to stay.

3)  A sympathetic attitude fosters genuine tolerance for believers by making it far easier to imagine being a believer oneself. It is rare for a person to accept a world view on purely intellectual grounds. For the most part, people become susceptible to ideas not by discussion and argument, but by seeing them personified and by admiring the person who embodies them. If only one had been born into different circumstances, particularly when reinforced by the circumstance of temperament, one might easily have ended up in the other camp. Indeed, the array of factors that can influence human behaviour where religion is concerned is endlessly varied. A lukewarm believer may continue to practice religion out of social convenience, or sheer inertia, or an inclination to play it safe. Similarly, a lukewarm unbeliever may never darken the door of a church also out of social convenience, or sheer inertia, or fear of confirming a sneaking suspicion that there’s something to be said for religion after all. All in all, I think it’s safe to say that many believers and unbelievers could easily trade places had they been born into one another’s families, or countries, or eras.

4)  Since the great majority of people are religious in some sense of that word, the militantly anti-religious are fated to go through life surrounded by fellow beings who, from their point of view, are ignorant, foolish and weak, people for whom it will be difficult not to feel contempt, and towards whom, some sense of superiority. While such attitudes are not without their emotional rewards, the long term effects are likely to be irritation, indignation, and even a measure of bitterness. A sympathetic attitude, partly intellectual and partly imaginative, can lift the friendly sceptic above such dreary emotions.

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