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Part 7: Unlearning Religion

This is part 7 of my series ‘There and Back Again: An (A)Theist’s Tale’. This series tells you my story of losing my faith and the slow journey of finding it again but not quite in the same way as before.


Part 7 explores my reflection on the problems caused by thinking about religion as 'belief'. Through this, I came to realise that religion is not only a lot more unconscious than I previously appreciated, but also applies more than I realised to societies marked by irreligion. Discovering this helped me to realise that I wasn't losing my religion so much as finding another.


You can find the rest of this series under the 'There and Back Again: An (A)Theist's Tale' tab at the top of the screen.


Thank you again to Eleanor Vivian for her proofreading and critical feedback.


4,100 Words

Image by Ri_Ya on Pixabay.

 

Following many years living as a devout and sincere Christian, in June 2017 I had an atheistic epiphany leading to a profound, anguished ‘loss of faith’. Yet, though I seriously contemplated atheism for several months, what I instead fell into was an intellectually agnostic but pragmatically Christian Deism. The transcendent Prime Mover I believed in still wore Christian garb, but ‘God’ had become a spiritual reality so deep It was largely meaningless. There was lots of thinking about God but only a very meagre desire to listen and abide with Him. My atheistic epiphany had left my God a husk of His former self. He may still have been present, but it was a hollow presence, lacking in life and animation. If Shakespeare is right that all the world’s a stage, then God had left it some while back. The play had gone on without Him.


Yet, although I didn’t have the words for it at the time, I sensed that there was something unseen going on in all this. Was I merely losing my religion? Or was I simultaneously finding another? Had God left the stage, or had He been pushed out?


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What is a religion? My instinctive response to this question for most of my life has been that it has something to do with belief. After all, religious questions always seem to begin with ‘do you believe in…?’ Much like I’ve already touched on, religious worldviews are framed in our language as belief-based, while non-religious worldviews are instead framed as fact- or scientific- based. The religious and non-religious alike (usually) accept the same facts, and so the main difference between them is the willingness of the religious to make an extra step to frame their life around an Entity that can only be believed and never proved (or disproved). The religious are willing to believe there is some sort of significant Ultimate Spiritual Reality that meaningfully exists and relates with the material world in the absence of hard and fast empirical proof of this Entity; the non-religious are not.


Since religiosity in the West must take this extra step of belief, it is the religious who must persuade the non-religious it is a step worth taking. It takes no great imagination on the part of a religious Westerner to understand where the non-religious are coming from. Even if they might think it an unattractive or meaningless way to live, they can usually see quite easily how the non-religious got there. When the tables are turned though, the non-religious either (if they have no religious background) find it difficult to understand how you come to make that extra step of belief – even when such a step seems attractive – or (if they have a religious background) they find religion a skin that is easily shed. The 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey found that non-religious affiliation in the UK grows primarily because of generational differences. While 94% of non-religious parents successfully transmit their irreligion to their children, Christian parents in the UK are only between 30-55% successful (depending on their denomination) in transmitting their Christianity to their children. This figure drops again in all cases by about half when only one of the parents is Christian.[1] Clearly, it is easier for the religious to stop believing and become non-religious in our society than it is for the non-religious to begin believing.


Do you believe in…?


So how has religion – or more specifically, Christianity[2] – lost so much ground in the West? How has it become so…unnecessary? The answer to this question I think lies in our very understanding of religion in the first place – that it is fundamentally about belief.


If all religious questions generally begin with ‘Do you believe in…?’ then the most common and perhaps most fundamental religious question in my Western English-speaking world is “Do you believe in God?” But this betrays several oddities:


1. Firstly, why do we assume that ‘God’ is the primary religious subject? Though this is the case with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it is not the case in other religions like Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism.


2. Secondly, people who don’t believe in God might still answer ‘yes’ to a question like ‘are you spiritual?’ Given that the religious and non-religious may agree they have a spiritual nature, the next oddity is how and when did spirituality become divorced from religion?


3. Thirdly, it is odd because there is an obvious sense in which the main religious activity is not belief but ‘doing’. A religious person prays, gives alms, attends synagogue, recites Scripture, fasts, offers sacrifices, speaks vows, feeds the hungry, and more besides. So why do our questions assume that religion is underlined more by belief than doing?


4. Finally, and most subtly, if you are anything like me, you’ve probably assumed the question is directed at a single individual. But why should it? After all, can’t the same question be directed as much at a group of people as at a single individual? Religion is mostly a communal activity and most of the religious acts I previously listed are performed in groups. Why does it not occur to us then that people might therefore believe in groups as much as they perform religious rituals in groups?


The reason for all the above to me is quite clear. All talk of ‘religion’ in the West is understood in light of Western Christian Protestantism. While we portray ‘religion’ as a universal, global category, we are in fact fitting the world into a thoroughly Western Christian Protestant approach to religious life.


Re-Learning Religion


We frequently do not appreciate how much our language affects our view of the world. This is plain to me on quite a personal level. I spent nearly all my childhood in China. Every day I was interacting with Chinese people and surrounded by Chinese culture. I enjoy Chinese history, Chinese food and Chinese music. And yet, if you meet me in person, you will not think me the slightest bit Chinese. The main reason for this is simple – I do not speak Mandarin fluently and have never been immersed in Mandarin-speaking culture. When I spoke to my Chinese friends, I almost always spoke to them in English. When I ate Chinese food, I usually called it by its English name. When I read about Chinese history, I read it in English. When I watched TV, I watched Hollywood and BBC productions. When I read books, I read the classics and the not-so-classics of Western literature. When I did watch Chinese TV, it was always with English subtitles. I understood and appreciated Chinese culture and attitudes, but only like a scholar understands and appreciates their subject – at a distance. My everyday life in China was always enmeshed in English-speaking, not Mandarin-speaking, culture. Therefore, my many unconscious ticks, thought processes, and ways of appreciating the world are thoroughly English-speaking and Western, not Chinese.


It was only after my atheist epiphany that I began to recognise and understand this. I returned to the UK for high school and university, and throughout this period I was puzzled by how I had slipped relatively easily back into British society despite a lifetime up to that point largely outside of it. Then when I travelled to the Middle East on a couple occasions in 2018, I realised again just how culturally British I was and how a lifetime living as a foreigner in China didn’t mean I could simply slip comfortably into living as a foreigner in the Middle East. It was at this time that I was put in touch with a close friend of my parents. He was a Westerner who lived in China, but unlike me, he spoke fluent Chinese and had married into a mainland Chinese family. He’s written a great deal about his reflections and observations on mainland Chinese culture[3] and reading these was a revelation to me. Although I had witnessed much of what he said before, it was the first-time that I’d heard it all articulated in English. In particular, his writing articulated what was always in some sense obvious to me but never put into words – that Chinese think about religion (and Christianity) very differently from Westerners.


When Western-influenced English-speakers talk of ‘religion’, they are not speaking about it neutrally. Why do we assume ‘God’ is the primary religious subject, divorce religion from spirituality, think religion is primarily about belief, and assume religion is an individual pursuit? Because the reference point for all talk of ‘religion’ in the English language is the religion with the largest following historically in the English-speaking world – Christian Protestantism. Protestantism is not just the only religion that makes all the assumptions I have outlined, it is also the only form of Christianity that makes all these same assumptions too.[4] Assuming that religion in its totality is about belief is to misunderstand (to varying degrees) pretty much every religious tradition outside of Christian Protestantism.


Now of course all religions have beliefs, but when we make religion about belief, we naturally then start associating religion with the mind – the part of ourselves that thinks. But while belief is natural to all people, the ability to coherently think about it and articulate it is not. This is because we so often fail to appreciate the extent to which we are ‘embodied minds’.[5] Our minds do not exist in a vacuum. They belong to a body and spend most of their time seeing, listening, touching, feeling, moving, breathing and speaking – not thinking. Our minds also belong to this body, in this specific place, within this certain culture, and at this unique point in history. Most of us probably have few conscious memories before the age of around 6, and yet our experiences in these years will greatly shape us for the rest of our lives. We are constantly being shaped by our environments and the culture our embodied minds find themselves in.


What this means is that we believe and act out our beliefs long before we become conscious of why or what we believe (if we ever do). Take this very blog series! Everything I’m writing is an exercise in understanding my experiences after they’ve already happened. Our mind is much like a historian: our conscious thoughts explain the past much more frequently than they shape the future. Our religion then already encompasses us before we have learned to speak about its beliefs. It is shaped by the culture, biology, history, family and experiences our ‘embodied minds’ are born into. I went to church, was baptised, sang hymns and prayed to God long before I knew much about the beliefs that went along with these activities. Being able to consciously articulate our beliefs is then very often secondary (or tertiary or quaternary) to the primary religious focus: relating to that which is holy, sacred and worthy of reverence.[6] And our relationship with the Holy began before we ever knew what to say about it.


Though it is no easy thing to define the ‘Holy’, I think I can locate it. At its simplest, the Holy seems to me to be where our metaphysics and our ethics meet, where what is most fundamental about reality meets with how we ought to live. The two are inseparable. What is most fundamental about the world must be defined by what has the greatest bearing on how we should live, and how we should live cannot be answered without knowing what is most fundamental. For instance, in Taoism, Tao is fundamental to the cosmos, and Taoist ethics are all about achieving harmony with Tao in daily life. However, remove the belief in Tao as fundamental, and certain of the ethics – like not intervening in life’s events even when you have the ability to make a difference – will no longer make sense (at least to Western readers). Meanwhile those ethics that continue to make sense will only do so because they work within whatever new sense of the fundamental you now possess. Though ethics often overlap across religious traditions, it is a mistake to think this makes all religions ultimately the same. Ethics depend on the Fundamental, and the Fundamental frequently differs.


A Religious, Not Irreligious, West


If religion goes much deeper that what we consciously believe, and if religion centres on how we relate to the Holy, then what does this mean for religion in the West? I have watched several debates between Christians and Atheists where at some point the Christian tries to get the Atheist to admit that atheism is a belief. The Atheist almost always vehemently denies this, quite rightly emphasising that all their atheism indicates is the absence of belief in a God. In one such mini debate between Ricky Gervais (atheist) and Stephen Colbert (Catholic Christian), Stephen tries to do this, and Ricky replies, “Atheism is only rejecting the claim that there is a God. Atheism isn’t a belief system…This is atheism in a nutshell. You say, ‘There’s a God.’ I say, ‘Can you prove that?’ You say, ‘No.’ I say, ‘I don’t believe you then.’”


And Ricky is absolutely right – technically speaking. To pit Christianity and Atheism against each other is to pit two different categories. Christianity is a religion that tells us both what the Holy is and how we can relate to the Holy. Atheism merely rules out any God or gods as being the Holy, and nothing more.


But there is a sense in which Stephen is also right. Later in the debate, Ricky says:


“If we take something like any fiction and any holy book…and destroyed it, in 1,000 years’ time that wouldn’t come back just as it was. Whereas if we took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in 1000 years they’d all be back, because all the same tests would yield the same result…I don’t need faith in science.”


Its beautifully put. But unfortunately, though science – and the naturalistic universe it perhaps suggests – might be the bedrock of Ricky’s atheism, it tells us nothing about what gives Ricky meaning. And it is clear that the ‘irreligious’ West attaches meaning to a great deal many things beyond science’s reach – racial equality; individual, bodily and sexual autonomy; human rights; the abolition of suffering; and the progress of humanity to name a few. And just like any ‘fiction or holy book’, if you were to wipe Western civilisation off the face of the Earth, in 1,000 years’ time there is little chance future humans would have these same values.


Atheism then might be value-neutral, but atheists in the West are not. In Becoming Atheist, an oral history of modern unbelief, author Callum Brown interviews eighty-five adult atheists across eighteen countries. Across all interviewees he uncovers a common ethical code. First is the Golden Rule to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. Secondly, he finds a set of principles about the fundamental importance of human equality and bodily and sexual autonomy. He categorises these beliefs as ‘Humanism’ and though few of the interviewees initially described their ethical code that way, they happily embraced the term when offered it.


The point, as Brown observes, is that:


“Without exception…they were ‘humanists’ before they discovered the term. Humanism was neither a philosophy nor an ideology that they had learned or read about and then adopted. There was no act of conversion, no training or induction... A humanist condition precedes being a self-conscious humanist.”[7]


Prof Alec Ryrie, commenting on Brown’s eighty-five humanists, notes:


“Those of them who had grown up in religious settings had embraced this ethic before they’d broken with their religion. And when the breaking point did come it was often either because of a conflict between their religious and humanist ethics, or because their humanist ethics made their religion seem redundant. The implication is that, in the West since the mid-twentieth century, growing numbers of once-religious people have adopted an ethic which was independent of their religion, and which was in some tension with it: so they either drifted away from or consciously rejected their religion.”[8]


This cuts to the heart of the matter. If, as Christianity has declined in the West, Brown’s ‘humanism’ has been the broad uniting ethic and belief system that has taken its place, then it has done so without anyone ever choosing it. Embodied minds born in the West found a culture and an environment that meant they believed in this ethic long before they ever became conscious that they did. Beliefs that are common and never chosen easily disguise themselves as self-evident facts of life. Perhaps this is why Brown suggests further research may show that “reason alone may construct humanism” as if the creation of humanist values were like Ricky’s scientific experiment whose results could be repeated in a lab. Instead, as Prof. Alec Ryrie observes, “the fact that those ethical values appear intuitively obvious to Callum Brown, as indeed they do to me, is not an answer. It is in fact the problem.”[9]


So where does this humanist ethic come from? Well, God or gods may not be holy to most Westerners, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing Holy in an atheist culture. Though I need to give this further thought, if the Holy is located where metaphysics meets ethics, then my gut sense is that in the West it is Individuality which is Holy. In a world without God or gods; where nothing beyond the material interacts meaningfully with the world; where death is the end of being; and where our very lives are the result of miniscule, incredible chance; in such a world where there is no purpose beyond or outside ourselves, then what is most Fundamental is the purpose that we ourselves make. But how do we know what purpose to make?


This is where Individuality comes in. Individuality is Fundamental, the essence of who we are at our deepest level. And who we are determines what we want. So naturally our passions and desires flow from this source. To find our Individuality then, we must discover our passions and desires. But we can only discover these if we are at liberty to do so. Our passions and desires require a river to flow through, and this ‘river’ is carved out by our freely made choices. Only when we make free choices are we reliably acting from Individuality, this place of who we truly are. When we are not free to make our own choices, we become cut off from our true self. Our spiritual quest then is to keep our river flowing, to maintain our freedom of choice and prevent anything outside of ourselves restricting us. Like when you mix corn starch with water, our Individuality has its greatest substance when it is in motion through our free expression. When it becomes static and its river becomes dammed, our Individuality dribbles into nothingness. Only by unashamedly living out our passions and desires do we fulfil who we truly are.


Individuality’s spiritual drive was quite simply expressed in a fitness podcast I recently overheard my wife listening to. The podcast host was sharing about how a near-fatal car accident had led her to make fitness – and helping others become fit – the purpose of her life. Towards the end, she said:


Because I loved fitness so much and I was following my passion that passion ended up saving my life… You have to go out and live. It’s not about being afraid. You shouldn’t be afraid about getting into a car accident…You should be afraid about not following your passions and not finding out what your purpose is on this planet because there’s nothing to be gained by that…You’re going to end up being in the best possible position for your life if you chase what you’re passionate about and if you live your life to the fullest and you’re out there doing it, and you’re doing it the best that you can.”[10]


If you live in the West, I’m sure you will have heard someone say something similar before now. And when you look, the reverence of Individuality is all around us. In the past, the politics of Medieval Christendom affirmed God as the basis of all political authority through rituals like church coronation ceremonies. So today, political authority is also legitimised through rituals, though now it is done through regular elections which act as real but mostly symbolic expressions of Individuality.


In our economies, advertisements daily preach Individuality’s fulfilment through our consumerist choice. The marketplace always ensures we have a range of option on offer, and online shopping and door-to-door deliveries means our choices bear minimal sacrifice. Commercial services which do not come with ‘free trials’ or allow you to ‘cancel at any time’ require too much of us and do not last long.


In romantic culture, our movies and songs celebrate and mythologise the beginning ‘sparks’ where passionate fulfilment of desire reaches its peak. Meanwhile, marriage-rates continue to decline as people become wary of formally and ritually limiting their Individuality.


Demographically, the young and fertile increasingly put off or don’t want to have children for fear it will constrict their lives at their point of greatest freedom. Meanwhile, the elderly live in fear of becoming a ‘burden’ on the freedom of the young. Increasingly, their care shifts from the responsibility of family, whose sacrifice is considered a ‘burden’ as it comes from obligation, to the responsibility of paid workers, whose sacrifice is at least compensated by the earning of money which expands their consumerist choice.


We talk of ‘technological progress’, but progressing where? If anywhere, it seems mostly to be towards the fulfilment of ever more and newer desires and the removal of what restrictions and inconveniences remain for the Individual in daily life.


Finally, in the area of ethics, Individuality does not have to mean we become self-absorbed and selfish. It can (and has) become a powerful, altruistic moral force. Whether we fight for gay marriage, stand up against racial injustice, promote trans rights, lobby for pro-choice legislation, argue for drug legalisation, make the case for euthanasia, campaign to welcome refugees, proclaim open borders, or tear down barriers women face in the workplace, we are on a spiritual mission to expand everyone’s capacity to freely choose. Mission complete, we will have ‘liberated’ the Individuality of all those who remain oppressed by forces outside themselves. Salvation requires we must all be free to attain the Holy and realise our true selves.


There are many other observations that could be made about all this. The point for me that the West is not losing religion, it has found another. This religion has a metaphysics. It has an ethic. And as such, it has a sense of the Holy. Whether Individuality as I have put it best describes what is Holy in the West is by all means up for debate. What though is beyond doubt to me is that the Holy lives on in the secular, irreligious West. Western society might be divided between those who live as though there is a God and those who do not, but both God-fearers and Individuality-seekers are inspired by a sense of the Holy, a sense which consciously or not fills them with purpose.


Concluding Remarks


Using terms like ‘reverence’ and ‘holy’ to describe Western Humanism may perhaps seem unfair. After all, these are not necessarily words that a Humanist, with their often-anti-religious convictions, would like to associate with their worldview. But I hope that rather than pigeon-holing atheistic humanism into ‘religion’, I have instead helped us unlearn and so re-imagine religion in a way that Christians as well as Humanists in the West can sympathise and agree. And of course, the picture in the West is much more complicated than a world easily divided into God-fearers and Individuality-seekers.


Like all other Westerners, the Humanistic ethic and reverence for Individuality is embedded deep within me. Growing up, I was always a God-fearer and an Individuality-Seeker. Much like Prof. Ryrie describes, part of my loss of faith was the conflict between both these parts of my being. A sense that obedience and allegiance to God – of Whom I could no longer be certain – was keeping me from living my life to its truest and most fulfilling potential. Yet, I couldn’t escape the feeling that deciding to live my life to its fullest wasn’t quite natural. A childhood in China might not have made me Chinese, but it made me enough of a foreigner in my own culture to arouse my suspicions. The path I was being led down was not value-neutral, and if I was to keep walking towards Individuality, I wanted to do so with my eyes open.


--The End--


Notes & References

[1] Curtice, John et al., British Social Attitudes 36, The National Centre for Social Research, pg. 21-22 (Available at: https://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/media/39363/bsa_36.pdf)

[2] Non-Christian faiths in the UK do not see the same trends. 93% of those brought up as a Muslim still identify as a Muslim – only 1 percentage point less than the non-religious. Indeed, only 1 in 10 of those brought up in a non-Christian faith in the UK will no longer identify with that faith into adulthood. Given that Christianity is the only large indigenous faith and main historical religion, this suggests the trends affecting Christians may be primarily historic-cultural in nature as religions that have primarily come in due to immigration over the last 100 years aren’t affected in the same way.

[3] Boyd, Will, China Mirror: Seeing the Chinese as They See Themselves, © August 2019, William Joseph Boyd, II. (Available at: https://www.lulu.com/en/gb/shop/william-boyd/china-mirror/paperback/product-156g6e2v.html?page=1&pageSize=4)

[4] 1. All Abrahamic religions, Christianity included, base their religious thought around the subject of God; Buddhists, Hindus, and Taoists (and atheists) do not. 2. Christian Protestants traditionally place greater importance on adhering to established dogma or articles of faith than they do on religious experience and spirituality. Thus spirituality (or an experience of the divine), though a part of Protestant practice, is not necessary for salvation. 3. Christian Protestants also believe that salvation is primarily attained through faith, and in practice this is expressed through believing in the articles of Protestant faith in the absence of certain proof. What you do matters far less then than what you believe (differentiating it from other Christianities and most other religions). 4. Finally, Christian Protestants make the individual the primary subject of salvation. Salvation is not mediated through any communal body like the Church. Only an individual can determine their own salvation. On top of this, an individual can only be saved when they exercise their free choice to become saved. It is not enough to be born in the faith. Each Protestant must enter the ‘veil of ignorance’ and then choose to believe and be saved.

[5] Dik, Oleg, 2020, Church, Immigration and Pluralism, pg. 11, (unpublished manuscript)

[6] Britannica, ‘Religion’, Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/religion

[7] Brown, Callum, Becoming Atheist, as quoted in Prof Alec Ryrie’s lecture, ‘Jesus, Hitler and the Abolition of God’ a Lecture series by Gresham College. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBrrsqhAXQI&ab_channel=GreshamCollege

[8] Prof Alec Ryrie’s lecture, ‘Jesus, Hitler and the Abolition of God’ a Lecture series by Gresham College. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBrrsqhAXQI&ab_channel=GreshamCollege

[9] Brown, Callum, Becoming Atheist,

[10] Street Parking Podcast, ‘My Fitness Saved my Life | More Than Nothing’, 19-22min, Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/nz/podcast/my-fitness-saved-my-life-more-than-nothing/id1464479946?i=1000527387403

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