For someone who is secular, agnostic if pushed, I don’t go in for the wholesale bashing of religion. I don’t much like religions’ political manifestations, as we see with Islam these days, and I also don’t like many religious organisations and the compulsions they impose. But the overall concept I don’t have a problem with, especially if practiced at the personal level.
For whatever reason, every society in existence has worshipped something or other, and this has been the case for millennia. There is something about the human condition which makes belief in higher beings very attractive, and it’s probably better just to accept this rather than argue logic with a few billion people who disagree. In my opinion, challenging somebody on their religious beliefs is like challenging them on their music tastes: it is purely subjective, and people differ. I have no idea why people like jazz – to me it sounds like a truck loaded with saucepans having a bad accident outside a pet shop which is on fire – but it’s extremely popular and it would be stupid to ignore that. Likewise, religion is undoubtedly popular even if I don’t really get it.
My guess is religions’ primary appeal is in dealing with mortality and providing an explanation for things beyond human control, particularly those they didn’t understand (or still don’t). At various points religions evolved into a method of organising society and controlling people, but that appealed more to the would-be leaders than the followers. On that basis, I understand why people are religious. I wrote here about the spirituality of farmers, which is perfectly understandable when your entire livelihood is in the hands of the Gods, so to speak.
Although there are plenty of individuals who don’t believe, I’m not sure there are any genuinely secular societies. One of the things I have observed over the years is that some of the most fundamentalist believers claim to be atheist, and societies that call themselves secular sign up to faith-based worship with as much enthusiasm as anyone. It is true that they might not adhere to the tenants of an organised religion as we know it, but it is nonetheless faith-based worship.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the rise of liberal politics, particularly those related to climate change, happened at the same time traditional religions were in decline in the countries concerned and the Soviet Union was no longer around. The Soviets used to claim they were secular, but their entire system was as much a religion as any, complete with sacred texts, sermons, symbols of worship, saints, martyrs, high priests, apostates, indoctrination, compulsion, punishment of non-believers, and ideas of morality, with the whole lot held together by the blind faith and belief of the masses that this was how they should live. For many people who turned their backs on traditional religion, Socialism provided a ready alternative. And then it all came to a crashing halt.
Only people need to believe. If tomorrow somebody demonstrated that the entire basis of Christianity or Islam was false, we wouldn’t suddenly find ourselves inundated with atheists: they’d simply find something else to worship, a task that would be complete by this time next week. Religion is astonishingly resilient and ubiquitous precisely because so many people want and need it.
So with Soviet-style socialism discredited, non-religious people had to find something else to believe in, and that was liberal politics. Have you noticed how the religious right tend to see politics as part of life, and not life in its entirety? Whereas much of the left see politics as the start, middle, and end of absolutely everything. Most of the right wingers I know can rub along well enough with those who think differently, because ultimately it doesn’t matter that much to them: family, friends, and work comes first. But even supposedly moderate lefties tend to impose political purity tests on anyone they come into contact with, restricting friends, colleagues, and even family members to those who agree with them, and shunning those who don’t. Take a look at the Corbynistas, or the anti-Trump brigades in the US: no dissent or disagreement of any kind is tolerated, and results in excommunication and abuse. It might not be religion as such, but it is a very good approximation of one.
I mentioned climate change because this seems to be the aspect of modern politics in supposedly secular countries which most closely resembles a religion. Once again, we have the sacred texts, the high priests, the apostates, punishment of unbelievers, calls for sacrifices, and indoctrination all wrapped up in a great moral crusade stretching beyond our lifetimes that secures the blind faith of the followers. It makes me laugh when I hear atheists refer to “Science!” when talking about climate change: these people are no more able to challenge the pronouncements of the scientists, whose words have been filtered through the media and politicians, than a medieval peasant was able to challenge the high priests’ interpretations of sacred texts. They are as much wedded to faith as their devout ancestors, but they don’t realise it.
I find modern politics, particularly in the west where Christianity is in decline, is a lot easier to understand if you consider it simply as an alternative to traditional religion. All the elements are there, and the behaviours are wholly expected. None of this ought to be surprising, and I am sure I’m not the first to notice it.