Saturday, 1 September 2012

A Comment on the Meaning of Faith, Belief and Religion.

When discussing the impact of religion, it is not only those who argue the case for atheism that make unquestioned assumptions by assuming that "religion" stands necessarily for something fundamentally opposed to certain values that can remain "meaningful". But the method of argumentation between atheists and those who are religious often is.

Canon Giles Fraser falls into the trap of that the so-called "New Atheists" and the religious often do, by bandying around abstract nouns and extrapolating vast claims and posing various arguments from them so as to win an argument. In The Guardian today Mr Fraser writes,

'As Max Weber explained, traditional societies regard the world as "a great enchanted garden". This is the world-view of The Tempest. In contrast, modern societies, through science and secularisation, have purged the world of magic and laid it out as a blind play of impersonal forces'

It has to be said that "societies" are not monolithic entities that can "regard" or "believe" in a certain world-view or reject it. They are made up of various mortal individuals who have had , and continue to have, the freedom to accept the claims made by authority or reject them. ( and so it should be ).

However, if 'impersonal forces' are at work in society here and now in 2012,  the given truths are no longer those of the clergy. That is a good thing. And yet the impulse towards blindly accepting a belief system or a system of accepted truths has not gone away. As Philip Larkin once wrote 'what remains when the disbelief has gone?'.

Indeed new forms of manipulation not even practised by supposed Christians are going to fill the void. Getting rid or repudiating the old forms of religion has seldom removed the need nor the impulse to believe in something. And something of that can be seen in the person and product that was Tony Blair.

As was clear from the debate on religion between Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair on whether 'religion was a force for good', the actual question there was whether Progress was a force for good and to what extent religion is a form of progress. And between the two there was a consensus that this was how it should be so regarded.

Blair defined religion as "faith" or belief as if  all were interchangeable and saw that as a positive good when the correct form of motivation was present. Ironically, Hitchens held to that too on the grounds that the good things faith can achieve are only those consonant with the values of secular humanism. 

In which case "faith" is either obsolete or else dangerous as opposed to a force for belief that has always been hijacked by those wishing to shore up power over other humans  ( and nothing could be more human than that ). And belief in something is that which is liable these days to be manipulated.

The New Clergy are advertisers, spin doctors, PR merchants, media mongering demagogues and spin doctors. In some sense, this new class of the anointed are there to direct and channel the wants, needs and desires of the "flock" towards believing in the necessary myths that enrich and benefit those elites.

It could be argued that Money is both an impersonal God and consumerism, through identification with brands a new form of enchantment, that works like religion to cast a spell over "the masses". Yet that is based on a supposedly "secular" way of looking at human existence.

A more interesting perspective might be to regard Western Society as existing under a new form of irrational magic. And to see this as a continuity with the obscurantist aspects of religion in the past. In that sense organised religion, ideology and the admass society have something in common.

1 comment:

  1. Very good article as always Karl - this covers an area which is of great interest to me. I was once a militant atheist but was forced to reconsider my position when I looked deeper into the highly religious nature of secular society. Perhaps one of the best examples is how national flags or corporate logos have attained an almost sacred status in the modern world - think of the Apple Mac logos in the back of laptops.

    There is also a considerable amount of invoking the dead in modern secular society - such as on bank notes and coins, or in national ceremonies (Freddie Mercury was played on huge screens in the Olympic Closing Ceremony).

    You may well be interested in the following book by anthropologist Michael Taussig: "The Magic of the State" - it looks at sacred, magical symbols of the state in Venezuela although it is written as a surrealist semi-fictional book.

    Cheers for now!