Why we need ‘religion’
Reading this took me back. In the Autumn of 1983 I found myself cycling down the coast of Spain towards Morocco. All that I owned was wrapped in black bin-bags on the back of the bike: a cheap bike that I had bought in a supermarket in France about a month before. I was alone. I slept rough or in campsites when I found them. I had no home to go to, no money in the bank, no job, no plans – I was just drifting. And it was raining. It rained a lot. I had been cycling all day and as the rain poured down I looked for some shelter. All I could see were flat fields of corn. I kept thinking that if I just kept on a bit longer I would find something. But nothing, not even a tree. Before the day faded completely I turned off the main road onto dirt paths across fields and, after some anxious searching, I found a sort of circular concrete drain big enough for me to shelter in. I was cold, I was wet, I was hungry, I was uncomfortable. I sat and watched lightening play over the fields. I listened to the thunder. Then suddenly it hit me. The Camus experience. Waves of joy welling up from inside. It was a feeling, not a theory, not something easy to express, more from the guts and the heart than from the head. A feeling that, despite all appearances, things were good. Not just a little bit good but really good.
I was not brought up in a religion and I did not think of my experience as meeting God. However, I can easily understand why others might have interpreted such an experience that way. The feeling of joy had bundled up with it a kind of emotional warmth, as if I was not alone, as if I was loved and had always already been loved. In return I felt love also for everything in my odd life, even the dark night and the pouring rain. ‘Born again’ Christians tend to use similar words to describe their conversion. They hit rock bottom, then they are ‘surprised by joy’. ‘Surprised by Joy’ is the title C S Lewis gives to his autobiography, words borrowed from a poem by Wordsworth which could also apply to my experience or to that of Camus.
If you do the research you will find that ‘religious experience’ of this kind is common in people of all faiths and none. Camus was mostly counted as an atheist. (Although he did once say, ‘I do not believe in God, but I am not an atheist nonetheless’). Nietzsche went as far as to write a whole book called ‘the Antichrist’ and yet he clearly knew about the kind of experience that Camus describes, writing:
“Beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death—our life, our happiness.... We have discovered happiness, we know the road, we have found the exit out of whole millennia of labyrinth. Who else has found it? Modern man perhaps? 'I know not which way to turn; I am everything that knows not which way to turn,' sighs modern man.... It was from this modernity that we were ill” (in Twilight of the Idols)
I tend to agree with Nietzsche – modernity made me ill. I was good at school but it was not good for me. I left school with qualifications and a feeling of desperate emptiness. The meaning I was offered at school and that I gleaned from the TV growing up in the UK felt like very thin gruel: Insipid, anaemic, bloodless stuff. The secret of my eventual stability and relative usefulness was the discovery that I made on that cold wet sleepless night in Spain. That I am part of something much larger than myself that sustains me and flows through me, that is me, as I am it, even though I do not fully understand how or why. Not a verbal meaning, not a creedal faith but a gut meaning, something we should perhaps investigate through physiology more than through philosophy.
The biggest cause of death of young people in the UK is suicide. But a far greater number suffer from so called ‘mental illnesses’ such as addiction to drugs, self-harm and depression. I say ‘so-called’ mental illnesses because the symptoms look to me suspiciously like what you would expect of anyone who has no deep sense of meaning in their life.
This experience in a field in Spain was the opening of a source of rich nourishment for me. Nourishment that, after that night, I found that I could always regain when I really needed it using simple meditation-like techniques such as listening to my breath. All I have to do is to put myself on hold as it were, wait hopefully, and this other thing, this energy that is not me, comes in and revives me.
Now you might say that this is not religion but ‘spirituality’. Maybe so. Spirit is a good word. I associate it with a kind of dialogue – or perhaps a kind of lightning – a relationship or connection between the ultimate context of our lives and the here and now. When all the everyday ways of framing experience fall away then that which we call ‘spirit’ enters into play.
But for me religion is also not a bad word. Re-ligare – to tie again – to reconnect. Rituals like Muslim prayer or Buddhist meditation are meant to be a remembering of what is most important. With religion the spirituality, which might be thought as purely personal moments, takes on form and becomes cultural and collective. A kind of guidance, an educational technology perhaps.
In my opinion, religious faith is not about, or should not be about, propositional knowledge. It is more fundamentally, a relationship. A relationship of trust. Trust in the world. Trust in life.
Reinventing ‘Religious education’
I was disappointed by the practice of Religious Education that I experienced in the UK. There was no actual teaching of religion. In place of the real stuff there was mostly teaching about religion. I had to get children to list facts like what Jews put on the table at the Passover or what Sikh’s wear and why. Vaguely interesting in a pop quiz kind of way perhaps, but not something that will open a channel of nourishment for young people.
Given this experience I am not surprised that the National Secular Society write that: ‘It is time to move on from RE and ensure that the established curriculum requirements, especially citizenship education, are enhanced to provide children with a secular schooling which prepares them to consider and understand their future rights and obligations as citizens’.
The report offers arguments as to why RE has become unnecessary. The main one is that, in a diverse society, RE has no longer any raison d’etre:
‘RE in the 1940s essentially said to children "you must accept the Christian worldview because it is the only truth", but in the 2020s RE says almost the exact opposite, telling children "you must respect each person's different worldview because it is true for them"’.
They do have a point here of course but from my experience and that of many, we still need religion. The ‘secular’ worldview of rational autonomous individuals interacting in regulated markets with rights and obligations, pretends to be free of religion but it is, in fact, I suspect, just another world view or way of life and probably not the last one or the only one that we need. Maintaining the kind of individual identities required for secular rationalism, selves separate from each other, separate from the tribe and separate from the cosmos, does not come easy for many of us and seems to make a lot of young people anxious and sometimes very ill.
In re-inventing RE for the Internet Age I think that it is possible that we have something to learn from indigenous oral societies. If I may generalize from many cases, the induction of young people into the shared way of life in indigenous cultures often involves rituals that help them step aside from their individual physical selves and acquire a more collective spiritual sense of self. In a visit to Waikato, to give one example, I learnt from a Maori woman, a religious educator, about how the elders guided her through rituals to the point when she could hear for herself the voice of the main ancestor of the iwi or tribe speaking to her, walking with her and guiding her. Her presentation of this story was more than just verbal, the emotion and security that she felt now that she was not alone but always guided by an ancestor was evident in her glowing eyes. There was love in her eyes as she spoke about her experience of religious education.
Successful induction into a single cultural tradition is increasingly difficult to achieve. Children are exposed to many voices on the Internet. It seems as if there is no shared worldview or way of life to induct people into such that they could have a rich experience of belonging of the kind the Maori religious educator described. On the one hand that is a problem that we all face, the unsettling challenge of the death of God, precisely as Nietzsche described it, but on the other hand, maybe this is an opportunity for us to create something new together, something that has not been seen before, a genuinely nourishing religion that has no cultural boundaries.
Instead of a single curriculum document we could have a living dialogue. A carefully designed and moderated platform for all those in the world who have something to share about what gives life meaning for them. Of course, this must include the secularists, the rationalists, the humanists, the communists as well as the more obviously ‘religious’ voices. It should include ordinary people, living ordinary lives who are willing to share with others what they have found that gives their life meaning and enables them to get up in the morning, carry on and maybe even feel joy in the midst of anxieties and tears. As well as a willingness to share, the other condition of participation would be a willingness to listen to others and to be open to the possibility of learning from them. Benevolence would be expected and ruthlessly enforced!
In RE classes young people could be invited to participate in facilitated dialogues with others from the locality as well as from around the world asking and answering the question ‘what gives life meaning for you?’. The aim of the course would not be propositional knowledge, it would not end with an exam, it would seek to facilitate each child in the personal development of their own meaning of life, their own inner guiding voice. If that proves too ambitious for some then at the very least having a better understanding of the different ways that people seek to make sense of their lives will be valuable for anyone and everyone. Imagine how useful such awareness might be for the head of sales in any multi-national for example.
My simple proposal then is that we reinvent RE as a social media platform supporting a guided global dialogue about what gives life meaning. This would not only be a journey of discovery for individual students carefully supported into joining the dialogue. It could also potentially be a useful journey of discovery for all involved, perhaps all of us. Is there a shared basis for values? Is a shared ‘religion’ possible with a real sense of community and perhaps even shared rituals and initiation ceremonies? The best way to find out is to start a global dialogue inquiry into what gives life meaning. And maybe that shared experience of going on a journey together, of seeking to understand each other without abandoning cultural differences, will prove to be, in itself, all the answer that is needed.