Here’s a dilemma for religious atheism. If you are an atheist (or even an agnostic – if that is taken in the sense of being open to the possibility of God but not convinced) but hanker after a bit of religion, ritual or the support of a religious community, do you lose your integrity if you take part in religious worship?
Let’s start unpacking this by looking at it from the other side. It is clear that there are a good number of people within the Christian religion who – without necessarily proclaiming themselves to be atheist or agnostic – take the whole thing with a pinch of intellectual salt. They massage the factual claims of religion to accommodate commonsense and thereby remain within the religious fold and enjoy its aesthetic, moral and social benefits. Many will argue, convincingly in my opinion, that the heart of religion remains a mystery and that creedal definitions – the cause of so many divisions and conflicts – are no more than a sad necessity in a world where people like to be defined and certain about their tribal loyalties. In practical terms, for example when it comes to understanding the causes of illness, their views will not differ from their atheist or agnostic neighbours. They accept the findings of science, believe in evolution and regard mental disturbance as a natural phenomenon needing therapy rather than signs of demonic possession. So far, so secular. But to their understanding of all this, they add the narratives about life and its meaning that religion provides, and use them as a tool for exploring meaning and value in their own lives. In other words, they use the framework of religion to give depth to their engagement in the secular world.
But is that hypocrisy? If you stand up and recite a creed, do you lose your integrity if you do not believe the words in their way they were originally intended, namely to provide a literal test for true belief?
For years I recited the creeds with fingers metaphorically crossed. Then I found that I could no longer continue to do so, fearing a total loss of integrity. But my regret now, looking back from a distance of three decades of secular-Buddhist-flavoured-atheism, is that I did not affirm the integrity of my position. After all, if you believe that the attempt to express the heart of life through literal statements is a dangerous and divisive impossibility, your refusal to be intimidated by them is a sign of strength.
But assuming that you play intellectually safe and avoid formal religion in order to retain your integrity, where do you go to find secular forms of those things that religion offers? The library? The museum? The gym? The community centre? The political party? There’s plenty of secular therapy around, or meditation classes. Philosophy groups might support the intellectual quest and community action the sense of committed engagement. But does it all hang together?
Another possibility (already suggested to me) is joining the Universal Unitarian Church, which accepts atheists; but Unitarian communities are few and far between. Buddhist groups equally offer the possibility of spirituality without belief in God, but however valid spiritually and intellectually, it is not easy for everyone to go through the shift in culture required – and even Buddhist groups are not free from the tendency to define and categorise people in terms of belief, practice and ethics. If I align myself to any religious tradition, it is to Buddhism, but – unless you live in a traditionally Buddhist country – that does not necessarily answer the longing for a sense of local community that a religion with centres in every locality can offer.
I am convinced that there are aspects of religion, the loss of which greatly impoverish society. But is the apparent loss of intellectual integrity a price worth paying? How do you deal with that one?
Please feel free to respond; I’d genuinely like to know what you think.
[PS. As I was typing out this blog entry, my wife handed me an envelope saying ‘I really can’t believe I’m married to ‘The Reverend’. It was a letter from the Church of England Pensions Board, from whom I receive a modest pension from my seven years as a clergyman back in the 1970s. Am I a hypocrite taking my pension? Am I the only atheist in receipt of money from the C of E? I doubt it. When I originally received notification that I was due a pension (and – in case you think this is at a former-banker level – my wife’s comment was that the annual figure might take us on a holiday) I asked a friend, who was a senior churchman, whether I was right to accept it. His reply was succinct and suitably secular ‘Don’t be so bloody stupid; you earned it!’ We live in a strange world.]