Goodies and Baddies: Faith or a Vacuum? (Rodney Eivers)

  (10 July 17)

Goodies and Baddies: Faith or a Vacuum? 



Rodney Eivers argues the case for the kind of shared values that religion can create.



Several years ago I received a jolt to my view of the world and of human relationships. I had accepted a commonly stated position about Christianity that the world may have been fouled up by what has been done in the name of Christ over the centuries but if people really lived the Jesus way, all would be rosy. The problem was just that Christians did not practise what they preached. A Jewish Rabbi, Daniel Cohn-Sherbock, delivering an address to the Sea of Faith in Britain, set me back on my heels. Cohn-Sherbock argued that the unconditional love that Jesus preached is not the appropriate ethic for human society. His preference was for reciprocity.

I respected Cohn-Sherbock and his views and had no reason to challenge his intellectual capacity and sincerity. So I pondered his well-reasoned argument for a couple of years. In the end I wrote down my thoughts in an article, published in the SoFiA Bulletin in September 2002. “The Ethic of Jesus – Is it all it’s cracked up to be?” [The article may still be accessed from the website – Ed.]. I concluded that for me the Jesus way was the way to go, not because of some divine command but for highly practical reasons.

A comparable experience has arisen for me in recent months through my membership of the Sofiatalk Internet chat line. The most popular topic for that group, for some time now, has been not so much the exploration of religion and faith as about the more fundamental question of whether religious faith has any place at all in modern society. There are a growing number of journalists and members of the public who support a notion that, on balance, religious faith does more harm than good. They have received strong backing in literary circles from writers including Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris whose books are currently on the lists of best sellers. A good case is being put for having a society without ideology. I must respect the views of these people. Nevertheless, they make me uneasy.

So, as with the issue of love as a guiding ethic, I am attempting to stand outside my own biases and picture objectively a world without faith. Readers would need to know that in playing Devil’s advocate here I come from the background of being an economist and scientist (in the biological area) by profession and a committed Christian by choice.

One has to be careful in a discussion such as this to take care with definitions. I think it would be fair to say that people who propose a society without religion also mean a society without ideology. This is to counter the charge made that if you do away with religion it will only be replaced with fascism, communism, new ageism and so on. My dictionary gives a definition of ideology as “the body of doctrine, myth and symbols of a social movement, institution, class or large group”. That sounds pretty much like ‘religion’ to me so I think we can agree on that.

Another critical term is ‘faith’. My own definition of faith is: ‘those assumptions upon which we act even when we can’t be sure of the outcome’. Fortunately, this is very close to the definition of faith give by Barbara Smoker, a strong anti-religionist: “Faith means firm belief in the absence of evidence”. We can both agree that action, taken on grounds of which we do not have firm knowledge, is faith.

The questions arises then: does faith have a place in our society? I think we would all agree that at the individual level we all have faith to some degree. Without it life would become unliveable. An extreme example is that we base our lives around the assumption or belief that the sun will come up in the morning each day. We don’t know that for sure, but based on previous experience and evidence-based knowledge it is a pretty good bet. We thus manage our lives on the basis that the sun will rise every day.

But this individual faith is not what people are talking about with religious faith. Religious faith has implications of group belief. Although some hermits may be said to be religious (Was it A.N. Whitehead who defined religion as “What one does in one’s solitariness?”) for all practical purposes religion has a group dynamic. I would assume this is what the critics are talking about. If religion were just an individual affair it need not bother anyone. It is when it claims to speak for a community of people that the trouble starts, or the benefits begin, depending on your point of view. Religion is defined in my Macquarie Dictionary as coming from the Latin term “religio”, fear of the Gods. When I followed this up in my Latin dictionary I found it has a root meaning going back beyond that to “religo”, to tie or fasten behind as when mooring a ship. The implication here, I suppose, is so that it won’t drift away.

There can be a negative implication in this; that religion controls people’s freedom. But anthropologists and others studying the function of religion in society see it in the positive sense of bringing people together in community. It gives them a common purpose that has value in the survival of the group. It was interesting in this context to watch the ABC television show Compass recently where it was claimed that Christianity was used to bring together in peace the warring Anglo-Saxon tribes in Britain towards the end of the 1st millennium.

But perhaps this binding effect is more harmful than beneficial today. Maybe, when individual freedom is so prized, we would be better off not having any group values. In the Sofiatalk discussions the issue has come up as to what we teach children. Some are not having a bar of any ‘indoctrination’. “It is for every person to make up her or his own mind as to what is ethical. Let the parents pass on their values to the children. Let nobody else tell us what is right and what is wrong.”

I am one of those who feel some anxiety about this. There is some safeguard in that we live in a democratic society (rule by a majority of one) but that can leave some disadvantaged at the expense of others. Hitler was voted into power. Has George Bush’s reign been that much more benevolent for his having a “majority of one.”

Who makes the rules? Who decides what is good or bad? We may all, through the ballot box and evidence-based knowledge, decide what is right and wrong. This is just another form of group ideology – the religion of Democracy. Who comprises that group? It is highly likely that in times to come with degeneration of the human gene pool (e.g. through increasingly allowing defective individuals to survive and breed) a vote may need to be taken that all defective people be killed off or sterilised. This may be good for the survivors but bad for the people who get killed off.

I am an economic rationalist and can see a good case for such a policy if the species is to survive but this issue of where we draw the line at the value of human life is a very difficult one for me. So, although politically I would favour the pro-choice and pro-euthanasia parties when it came to a vote, it remains a fundamental issue. Although I do not share the religious conviction of the “anti-“ parties (Tony Abbott and Co.) I can understand where they are coming from and sympathise with it. Where do you draw the line? Cloning of human beings is now technically feasible and there are already, I understand, organisms (chimaeras) comprising a combination of human and animal cells.

Unless we have an ideology shared by a group, that is religious faith, placing value on human life, or life in general for that matter, there is little counter to those who would devalue life. If our community does not have shared values that are agreed upon and can to be passed on in some way, through churches, schools, the communication media or whatever, then it is going to be very difficult to counter the forces of anarchy and cheapening of human life.

Will human beings left to themselves learn to live in harmony or descend into savagery? There are two distinct theories on this, I understand. One is typified by the fictional allegory, Lord of the Flies by William Golding. There, an initially civilised group of boys descend bit by bit into lawlessness and violence. In this scenario, human beings are painted as being basically evil.

Most anthropologists observing pre-literate communities would probably promote the counter to this. They note that when people assemble in groups, far from living in a state of barbarism they learn to cooperate and get on with one another very well. It must be significant that wherever human beings do gather in groups they develop the set of guidelines that we call religion. This is universal. The rules may to some degree and for some individuals be enforced. For most of the populace, however, they are accepted as being the means of keeping the community cohesive. They come to be taken as the way the world is. The principles and practices behind that cohesion come to be regarded as the natural order of things until new knowledge and experience (in our case we call it education and the scientific method) lead bit by bit to modification of this function that we call religious faith.

Assuming that we are the goodies, it seems to me the way to counter the baddies is not to leave a values vacuum but to create a group faith. By being open to change, incorporating ongoing research and observation as far as possible, this can provide a powerful counter to the forces for degradation potentially present in all of us. It has to be a very practical outcome of adopting religious faith.

Let’s create a good one.


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