Religion for Atheists

Religion for Atheists” a sermon based on Alain de Botton’s book of the same name.  Rev. Brian J. Kiely                    Unitarian Church of Edmonton, September 9, 2012

There is something in the make-up of human beings that is neither wholly rational nor wholly emotional, some middle ground where left brain and right brain meet. This middle ground is not always an easy sunlit meadow where joy and happiness abound inside of us.  It is often a place of struggle. Something hard happens to us: a job loss, a death of a loved one, a serious illness, a realization that we have to come out about our sexual orientation to people who may not welcome the news.  We think our way through it calmly, weighing pros and cons and strategies for moving forward.  At the same time we feel that a heart is breaking or that fear is hobbling us or anxiety is sending us to bed to hide under the covers until it all just goes away. And somewhere in that vulnerable middle ground we have to make decisions about our lives.

No, this middle ground between head and heart is not always a sunny peaceful place, but it is a part of our essential humanity.  In order to live we must find ways to bring all parts of our being together in some kind of harmony.

For decades now our increasingly secular western culture has been flirting with the word ‘holistic’ as a strategy for finding a working arrangement in the middle place.  This usually defines some kind of treatment for body and inner being, or else some kind of philosophical approach to a social problem that tries to consider all aspects of an issue at once.  The goal is harmony inside and out, sunshine in the middle ground.

That holism has become so widespread in secular society suggests to me that our no-longer religious culture is groping to find ways to address this fertile middle ground conflict using new language and ideas unburdened by the things we have left behind.  I suspect that few of us felt comfortable singing that last hymn asking, “God of grace and God of glory” to, “Grant us wisdom for the facing of this hour”.  Such language has become far too loaded for us, far too deferential.  It echoes of an uncomfortable submission and admission of weakness.  Instead we might opt for something more holistic, like the breathing practices of Yoga, practices that calm the mind and still the emotions.  That we have adapted Yoga from eastern religious practices bothers us less, for it is not the belief system we left behind.

Perhaps we are trying too hard to reinvent something in secular form that already exists.  This middle ground, this shoreline between ocean of heart and grounded beach of rationality is the natural space inhabited by religion.  Indeed, I would argue that we humans discovered or invented religion in order to give us a way to deal with this middle ground.

If you have listened to me much in the past, you will know that I deeply believe that we are all possessed of a religious impulse.  What do I mean by that?  “Religious” derives from a Latin word meaning to bind up or tie together.  We need to make sense of the world ro connect the dots for us.  In childhood we look to parents first, then siblings and friends and later teachers to explain things to us.  We ask why the sky is blue, why there is night and day and why did the dog have to die.  Science simplified explains all these things to a child.

But then the questions get harder.  Why do mommy and daddy live in different houses?  What happened to Ruff when he died?  Why is my best friend being rude to me?  These questions can’t really be fully be answered by science.  Or to phrase it another way, a purely intellectual answer is not entirely satisfying.  We want something more.  The emotional side of us doesn’t really offer answers to these posers either.  It just offers feelings… of joy and sorrow, elation and anguish.  And when the feelings are strong enough we ask a simple hard question, “Why?”

Religion evolved to help us answer the why.  Perhaps I should say we invented religion to help us with these questions, for I am convinced that religion is a purely human creation.  It may even be that God, Allah, Yahweh and Siva are human inventions as well, but that’s another discussion.

We invented religion first to explain these complex things, and then to give us rituals and structures designed to bring comfort in times of crisis and upheaval.  Then religion became a means for passing on the accumulated wisdom of coping from generation to generation.  It became a tool for sharing not just knowledge, but for teaching values and cultural norms.  It became the way people in community discussed shared values and beliefs and defined the boundaries of that community.  And when there was someone who crossed those behavioural boundaries, religion formulated ways to either ostracize that person, punish them or help them find a way back in to right relations. And finally religion became a set of beliefs and traditions that inspired some of the greatest art, architecture and music the world has ever known.

Well, we all know that any and all religion has a spotty track record on carrying out that mandate.  Religious systems are imperfect and have at one time or another failed at every aspect of the mission I have described.  But they have never failed everyone in every way all of the time. Someone, somewhere has always found strength or solace or a reason to go on in the face of adversity or a way of making sense of it all.  And that has been enough.

Because of that, I have never been able to fully turn my back on religion and belief even when I found the failings of my childhood Catholic church too much to ignore.  I am well aware of how grotesque some of the excesses of organized religion have been and in some places continue to be.  Abuse of power in any realm, secular or religious, is abhorrent and must be exposed and stopped.  Redress must be made for the sins of religion.

Even so, for me, the gifts of religion have always outweighed its burdens, and while my humanist inclinations have weakened my belief to a point where I just don’t know about God anymore, I can still respect what religion – any religion – has given to make the world a better place.

As a Unitarian, there is something in Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists that makes immediate and welcome sense to me.  After all, what he proposes reflects the philosophy we try to follow in this church as noted in our Vision Statement:

The Unitarian Church of Edmonton, – a liberal religious, multi-generational congregation.  We celebrate a rich mosaic of free-thinking, spiritually-questing individuals joined in common support and action.  We welcome diversity, pursue the common good, and work for justice.  We believe in the compassion of the individual heart, the warmth of community, and the search for meaning in our lives.

How does that tie into this very readable and delightfully polite book?

First, he reminds us that we ought not to toss the religious baby out with the bath water. Many in this congregation, including myself have turned our backs on more dogmatic and structured religions.  We grew up with them and at some point found them unsatisfying, found their blind spots or their creeds were too much to overcome.

Others among us have never seen the sense of religious belief, or have only seen their glaring faults (and yes, our UU tradition has its failings as well.)  But I also feel that the religious impulse I mentioned earlier, the thing that leads people to religion, is something deeply ingrained in the human being, though expressed in a variety of ways sacred and secular.  We may choose to celebrate a secular way of life in Canada, a legal and governmental system unburdened by religious dogma.  I certainly do, but de Botton suggests that we must also take the time to look at the gifts of religion in order to mine them for things still of use – to dine at the buffet as he suggested in the interview.

I don’t wish to delve deeply into his arguments today.  I cannot do them justice in the time available, but I will cite a few.

COMMUNITY: First, de Botton suggests that we would be wise to look at the ways religion has experimented with community.  For Jews to have a service they need 13 men (people in more liberal forms of Judaism).  It’s a simple rule to remind them they can’t do this alone.  Each fall the Jews celebrate the day of Atonement, a time when they examine their lives in the past year and then make redress to those they have wronged.  It reestablishes the needed balance of community.  Similarily Islam requires all to fast in Ramadan and share hunger, and they are called to be charitable as one of the Five Pillars.  At the heart of Christian ritual is the sacred meal.  All of these are ways to establish and support continued community – ideas the secular world has not mastered as fully.

MORALITY:  All religion is concerned with morals and ethics.  Secular law is not.  The courts do not discuss what is right or wrong per se, but only what is legal and what is not legal.  Many of us find that absence of moral judgment frustrating in the extreme when we consider the failings of the legal system…  The entire “Occupy” movement is a protest calling for moral decisions to take precedence over legal ones.

But de Botton argues that religion has largely spent its time wrestling with moral questions.  Jesus challenged the law many times on moral grounds.  The Buddha turned his back on wealth and privilege in order to pursue a simple and ethical life.  Sure, human churchmen have twisted these teachings in order to enhance power and build institution, but that does not negate the power of the original and continuing teaching or morality.

EDUCATION:  In a delightful chapter, de Botton challenges the academy as an institution too involved with the ideas being espoused and too little with the people there to learn.  He suggests that the academy tends to hold that one idea, properly expressed, needs to be taught only once.

Religion has a different model.  Repeat simple moral ideas about living, restated in a variety of ways in order to bring the simple message to the listeners.  The sermon is a model of this continuing reminder format of education.

He fancilluy wonders what it would be like if instead of discrete intellectual island disciplines like literature, math, philosophy and engineering, what would it be like if universities had a Department of Relationships? A School of Healing? A faculty of Morality?

Yet I don’t think he necessarily recommends such a change in real time, but rather suggests we would be wise to look again at how religion has simply taught living.

When we at UCE claim in our vision, “We believe in diversity, pursue the common good, and work for justice,” I think it means we must make room for the positive things religion has offered over the ages and still offers today.  Our Sources honour, “Wisdom from world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life,” a nice phrase that calls us to note what is good while not being enslaved by what is weak or that does us no good service.

Second, de Botton asks us to consider what is of value without getting too stressed out about the source, “God may be dead, but the urgent issues which impelled us to make him up still demand resolution.”  He gently chides his fellow atheists for turning their backs on some great things and useful approaches simply because they are tied to a faithful worldview.

Just because we don’t believe in something doesn’t strip it of value.  When I chose “God of Grace and God of Glory” I bet myself that at least a couple of you would choke on the words.  I thought long and hard about including it and then thought, “Why not?  Let it be a challenge to us all to mine the good parts.”  As I sang, the first part of each verse jarred me a little, but the last part, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour.” Well that makes a lot of sense to me.  No matter where we direct that plea, we all need help sometimes, don’t we?  We all find ourselves wandering that middle field of the religious impulse, that shoreline between mind and heart needing some help now and again and not always knowing how to ask for it or from where to get it.

I find it uncomfortable to ask the God of grace or glory for that help anymore…but sometimes I still need to ask.  After many years pretending to be above it, I find I now need to pray again sometimes.  The only difference is that now that prayer is addressed, “To whom it may concern.”

Religion has inspired so much great art, so much great architecture, so much fine writing, so much wonderful music.  Certainly there are wonderful non-religious examples of all those art forms, but imagine a world without Michaelangelo’s David.  Imagine a world without Handel’s Messiah.  Imagine a world without the great cathedrals, temples, mosques and wats.  Art and buildings designed to draw the mind, heart and the eye out of and away from the mundane, designed to teach us something about living, art that calls us to contemplate our existence and align ourselves with ideals and aspirations than are greater than ourselves.  Imagine a world without all of that.

I would rather not.  And so when Chorealis offers a service with the Taize religious chanting this year, or when we sing of the birth of baby Jesus at Christmas, or we sing African songs of praise, I will not still my mouth or turn my back just because I do not believe.  I will open my heart to whatever inspiration is on offer trusting that my own moral compass will embrace the beauty without necessarily accepting whatever dogma might be attached.

We are grown-ups.  We can make those choices and need not fear them.  So let us visit the buffet of religion, take those delicacies that appeal to us and leave the rest.  We may come away better fed than we ever expected.