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a few thoughts on well-being, religion, doubt and science

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Well, the atheist wars continue to provide an amusing spectacle, as the rise of the nones proceeds apace. I recently took a look at 3 Quarks Daily, and this piece was heading the bill. Atheist David Johnson has launched into the soi-disant new atheists, dubbing them ‘undergraduate atheists’, and wondering whether we might not be better off with religion. The 3 quarks essay, written by Stefany Ann Golberg and Morgan Meis, is an interesting consideration of just this question, but I’ll look at it from a different perspective, before returning to their essay, which deals largely with existential doubt.

The question of whether are not we’re better off with religion appears to be answering itself, in the modern world, and my reading of history – and surely any reasonable reading of history – would support the view that our slow, patchy emergence from religion has been a positive thing. So I’m going to look, or glance, at it from both a diachronic and a synchronic perspective, as the post-modernists used to say.

Starting with the diachronic, Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature (which I’ve not read) chronicles human violence and brutality from our hunter-gatherer ancestors through to the early civilisations and their religio-cultural practices, then the long years of Christendom, the enlightenment, modern warfare and more or less secular modern western society. I don’t have to read it to know that his case for our society having become less violent is a convincing one. I’ve read enough history myself to independently verify this. To cite just a few texts – Robert Hughes’ The fatal shore, Martyn Whittock’s Brief history of life in the middle ages, Geoffrey Robertson’s The tyrannicide brief, Simon Schama’s Rough crossings and Ben Kiernan’s Blood and soil: a world history of genocide and extermination from Sparta to Darfur – these readings have overwhelmingly confirmed to me how lucky I am to be alive in the here and now, in the country I happen to live in, Australia.

So what does that have to do with religion, specifically? Well, the fact that life was nastier, more brutish and shorter in the past than it is today, and the more so the further back you go, suggests some kind of positive evolution. It hasn’t been smoothly linear, it’s bumped along in fits and starts, but being poor (which I am) in the 21st century, in a fairly wealthy country, has been far less of a pain than it was in most of the 20th century. The 19th century would’ve been far worse, and the 9th century – well, then I would’ve been subject to the vagaries of the politico-religious forces way above my head. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to read or write, I’d never have moved beyond my local district, my thoughts would’ve dwelt far more on basic survival, and knowing what I do today, I surely would’ve considered it a miserable and frustratingly circumscribed life (but at least I wasn’t a woman). And religion would’ve played its part in this. It’s been said recently, by an ultra-conservative government appointee looking into ‘reforming’ our schools, that Australia’s a Christian country.  But the very backlash created by such a statement, which would’ve been completely uncontroversial in the 1950s, indicates that in the interim things have changed, and quite dramatically. What it means to be a Christian country has changed over the past few decades, but you get an even better perspective if you look back over centuries, as I roughly did here. And it would be hard to deny that, as religion has loosened its grip, both politically and economically, life has improved. For example, the general view that held sway centuries ago, that probing into and questioning God’s creation was idle and pointless if not downright devilish (with sometimes devastating consequences for those who didn’t toe the line), held us back from a multitude of discoveries that would’ve improved the lot of humanity. The prevailing attitude seemed to be, don’t expect too much from this world, cause that’s just how God made it, but if you get through it and obey God, you won’t believe what’s waiting for you on the other side.

So let’s move now to the synchronic. Even if you agree that generally life’s better now than in the past, you might want to point to Somalia, or Syria, or Sudan, etc, so it matters which country or region you’re looking at. I’ve mentioned before the extraordinary fact that the Paris-based OECD has assessed Australia as ‘the happiest country in the world’ for the last three consecutive years, based on 11 separate social and economic indices. There are a few such regular surveys floating around, and Australia obviously doesn’t win them all, but it’s up there with the same handful of countries every time. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and a few western European countries, particularly the Scandinavian ones – these are always at the top of the lists of best countries to live in, and they also happen to be the least religious countries on the planet. They share other features too, of course, such as affluence combined with social safety nets, long-term political stability, low crime rates, and high levels of social mobility and social participation, all of which prompts reflection on whether this is more influencing or influenced by the nones. In any case, it’s very clear that a large and growing percentage of the populations of the world’s happiest and most successful countries are deciding they’re better off without religion. And that’s not an opinion, it’s a fact.

So there’s an answer, on broad political and economic grounds. Now to look at the more existential, personal issues around belief and doubt, as explored in the essay that prompted this post. David Johnson argues that maybe we’re better off with religion, even though it’s not true. This poses immediate problems in that Johnson’s an atheist. I would find his argument more convincing if he himself embraced religion (but which one?) and denied its falsehood. Otherwise he’s muddying the term ‘we’ and taking on a position of Napoleonic condescension. ‘Religion keeps the people happy so I’ll make a pact with the pope and even build a few churches, but for me it’s all BS’. It’s a kind of bad faith argument, for once we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge, we can’t return to a state of innocence.

Golberg and Meis look at the issue by re-examining the thoughts of Miguel de Unamuno, an early 20th century Spanish writer and philosopher not much read nowadays. Unamuno was raised Catholic, lost his faith, embraced ‘scientific rationalism’, found it unsatisfactory, and explored in his writing a kind of tortured existence between faith and doubt. What his work brings back to our mind, as we’re sometimes forgetful of it, is that doubt, not of the scientifically skeptical kind, but of the soul-gripping and sometimes soul-destroying kind, is a major factor in our lives, whether or not we’re religious. Not believing in the supernatural is easy, for me at least, but it doesn’t solve any of the major problems of life, such as what we owe to ourselves, what we owe to others, whether we should stay or go, whether we should submit or fight back, whether we should take a situation seriously or lightly, whether we should forgive or take umbrage, or even, in some instances, whether life is worth the candle. And of course most people who strongly believe in an afterlife, or profess to, still cling to this life tenaciously at the end. Doubt is everywhere.

Having said this, I must say that I personally take great solace in science, for many reasons, but perhaps mostly because it takes me out of myself into a much larger world. And I don’t think of it in rational terms. In fact, describing it as science doesn’t quite do it for me, it’s more a world of exploration and adventure, which, like the world of fractals, never ends, but just just keeps on giving. And if we’re talking of mysteries, as Unamuno does, there’s an ever-replenishing supply in such explorations.

Stefany Anne Golberg and Morgan Meis
Stefany Anne Golberg and Morgan Meis
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Written by stewart henderson

January 19, 2014 at 1:01 pm

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