Recently, I’ve been making a somewhat half-hearted attempt to tidy over a decade’s worth of archived files scattered throughout dozens of long forgotten folders on my computer and on CDs and DVDs littering storage space in my home office, and the basement/garage. Yes I confess. I’m a hoarder when it comes to digital data. One of the CDs I came across had a label in my handwriting saying Non-realism in religion. The CD must be pre 2008 as the files had been created by Windows applications. (I’ve been a Linux user since 2008).
The CD was damaged, and most of the files couldn’t be opened, but there was one good pdf file titled Non-realistic Christianity. Inside was this list:
- Religion is about internal spiritual experiences, and that is all.
- There is no world other than the material world around us.
- There are no beings other than the living organisms on this planet or elsewhere in the universe.
- There is no objective being or thing called God that exists separately from the person believing in him.
- There is no ultimate reality outside human minds either.
- We give our own lives meaning and purpose; there is nothing outside us that does it for us.
- God is a projection of the human mind.
- God is the way human beings put ‘spiritual’ ideals into a poetic form that they are able to use and work with.
- God is simply a word that stands for our highest ideals.
- God-talk is a language tool that enables us to talk about our highest ideals and create meaning in our lives.
- Religious stories and texts are ways in which human beings set down and work out spiritual, ethical, and fundamental meanings in life.
- Our religious talk is really about us and our inner selves, and the community and culture we live in.
- Religious talk uses the familiar language of things that exist outside ourselves to make it easier for us to handle complex and subtle ideas.
- Faith therefore isn’t belief in a God that exists outside minds.
- Faith is what human beings do when they pursue ‘spiritual’ ideals.
- Saying that someone follows a particular faith is a way of talking about their attitudes to life and to other people.
Somehow over the years I had completely forgotten about the use of the terms realism and non-realism in relation to religion, but a quick Google search provided a refresher and the probable source of the pdf file. It seems I’ve done a little editing (bold text) and one bullet point is missing, but otherwise they are the same. And the list does reflect what I perceive religion to be.
While atheism is where my head is, it’s not where my heart is. I don’t live in a purely logical and rational world – I don’t think anyone does, and for me, the reality of what I experience is either denied, described as delusional, or otherwise devalued by much of the atheist community – especially the online one. Delusional or not, I’m required to deny so much of who I am just to be accepted by society (that’s autism for you), that I’m not willing to deny that ‘spiritual’ part of me.
The essentials of non-realistic Christianity have been the cornerstone of my understanding of religion and God for all my adult life, although not as clearly defined as in the list above. In my search for a ‘spiritual’ home, I looked at various Christian denominations and at a variety of other religious and spiritual beliefs. Back in the 1970s and 80s I found small pockets of believers who held similar views to my own in all the mainline denominations, especially within Anglicanism and Methodism, but they were tolerated, sometimes grudgingly, rather accepted or welcomed. That lack of acceptance was a turn off, as was the liturgy and worship practice. Universal Unitarianism and secular Buddhism had some attraction, but, worship, in the case of Unitarianism, and meditation, in the case of Buddhism, were outside my comfort zone.
If I was conducting the search today, I dare say I would have stumbled upon one of the many mainline and independent congregations that welcome or embrace the essentials of non-realistic Christianity. I might well find one that I felt comfortable in, although their forms of worship probably would always be an issue for me. However I don’t doubt that I could find a religious community where I would be welcomed and feel at home in.
Today there are also a large number of secular/non-real/humanist organisations that are non-denominational/pan-denominational/pan-religious such as Sea of Faith New Zealand and St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society where I’d be very welcome and in many ways I’d be more comfortable than within a church community. A major reason for this is that while congregations within the churches embrace the essentials of non-realism, the various churches as a whole haven’t, (although some are getting close). Those darned creeds that they all retain are a complete turn off for me, and there is no way I could honour them. Unfortunately, groups such as SoF and SATRS didn’t exist, or were very thin on the ground when I began my search. Remember, this was well before the arrival of the Internet.
As it turned out, I did stumble upon a religious group that did meet my needs, was non-creedal, and had, over a period of some 350 years, developed an understanding of God that was not in conflict with the essentials of non-realism. That group was the first I had come across that did not have some expectation of how I should understand God, nor did they expect me to hold specific theological beliefs.
That group was the Quakers – the Religious Society of Friends in Aotearoa New Zealand, (Gifted the name Te Hahi Tuhauwiri – “The faith community that stands shaking in the wind of the Spirit” – by the Maori Language Commission). Now before anyone jumps on me and says that non-realism is unchristian, and Quakers most definitely are Christian, I’m going to say hold up a minute, is it important or even relevant? Let’s consider the second part of the statement (Quakers most definitely are Christian)
Are Quakers Christian? There’s about 350,000 Quakers worldwide, and the majority are Christian and it would be very difficult to distinguish them from many other evangelical, fundamentalist Christian denominations. Evangelical Friends can be found in Africa (there’s more than 130,000 in Kenya alone) and the Americas. They have churches, clergy, creeds, articles of faith and believe the Bible is the Word of God. They are hierarchical and (especially in Africa) patriarchal. They are the youngest and most successful (in terms of numerical strength) of the various strands of Quakerism.
There is another strand of Quakerism which is somewhat more difficult to pin down. Often referred to as liberal Quakerism, it can be found in the UK and Ireland, Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Canada and parts of the USA. Liberal Friends have no clergy, creed or articles of faith, lack hierarchical structure and have had a belief in the equality of the sexes since the foundation of Quakerism in the 1600s. They value their Christian roots, but as to whether or not this strand of Quakerism is Christian, depends on one’s concept of what Christianity is. Their numbers are small – possibly 50,000 worldwide, with around 1,400 in NZ.
Personally it makes no difference to me whether or not Quakerism is Christian, but in the context of New Zealand, it fits comfortably in the liberal/post modern wing of Christianity, even if it’s considered somewhat “peculiar”.
Now I come to the reason why I was motivated to write this article. I hear and read far too often, a section of atheists who claim that all religion is harmful. If this is true, then the religion practised by Friends, even liberal Friends, is harmful. Try as I might, I can find nothing in the beliefs and practices of NZ Friends and Christians at the liberal end of the spectrum that is harmful. Of course, it’s possible that being religious myself, I’m blind to seeing the harm I’m causing, and if is the case, is it possible for me to recognise it? I suppose it’s possible…
On the other hand, it could be an atheist plot to discredit religion and bring disorder and immorality to the world. That’s definitely the claim of some Christian extremists. But I can see no evidence of that. There is no organised atheist movement. In fact, non-theists within religious groups are far better organised than atheists. Perhaps atheists are opposed to particular forms of religion. That, I could understand, but when I have put the proposition forward, I have been knocked back: All religion is harmful.
As I understand it, their argument is that religion and critical thinking are always incompatible. Perhaps, because I’m religious, and take my religion seriously, I’m incapable of critical thinking. It would also mean that I am incapable of seeing what harm my beliefs are doing to me, others, and society as a whole. So, if my religious beliefs and practices, and those of my fellow believers are harmful, can someone please point out to me where they are harmful, or at least point me in the right direction. If on the other hand, my religious beliefs and practices, and those of my fellow believers aren’t harming myself, others or society, the argument that all religion is harmful must be false.
I have no argument with atheists. After all atheism is part of my beliefs. My argument is with those who believe all religion is harmful. I’ve heard argument that religion has evolved along with the development of human thought, possibly as a result of seeking patterns and explanations for what we experience. Perhaps religion also helped in the development of cohesive groups. Whatever the reason, a great many of us still seek some form of religion or spirituality. I’ve heard that it could be as high as 9 out of 10 people. That seems rather high, but what seems apparent to me is that a significant number do desire and seek some form of religion or spirituality.
Census figures show a continuing decline in religious affiliation. What they don’t show is is that the number who hold religious or spiritual beliefs remain fairly constant. While those who believe in a deity have declined in number, other forms of spirituality have increased. Worldwide, the number of religious adherents continue to grow, although not as fast as the total population. It doesn’t appear that religion is going to disappear any time soon. This being so, rather than seeking the disappearance of religion, perhaps a more productive course would be to seek a change in what religion is. Don’t let up on religious privilege where is exists. It has no place in in modern society.
I’m not targeting any one with this ramble. I’ve found it helpful for me to share what I’m thinking with others, as feedback helps in clarifying and modifying my beliefs. Sometimes it’s with family or friends. Sometimes it’s within my religious community, or another community. This time it’s I’ve put it out to the blogosphere.