Faith in Secular Societies

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.


19 thoughts on “Faith in Secular Societies

  1. In addition to Climate change, Evolution also qualifies as a religion with Richard Dawkins as the high priest. Although if he had been born in a certain part of the U.S.A. I am sure he would have become one of those T.V. evangelists, with the actress wife… Oh!

    Pointing out how closely the self-identified non-religious among us are to traditional religions in their thoughts and practices, does not always win friends. But the reactions amusingly remind me of the characters in the “Life of Brian”.

  2. Good post.

    On religion, I often think of a line in a play where a nun was talking about praying. She said: “God always hears your prayers. The answer is almost always no.”

    Given then the accepted vanishingly small percentage of success in praying for something (miracles are incredibly rare unless you accept that Werburgh chasing geese from a field qualifies as a miracle and warranted her sainthood) you might think we might have got wise to avoid asking for the unlikely. But as our leaders tell us, numerous victims of an atrocity caused by an outburst of religious fervour and something they might have helped prevent (but didn’t) “are in our thoughts and prayers.”

    Well, fat lot of good that will do.

    As for the left and its fervent ‘religion’ yes, it is exactly that. For all their worship of ‘one God’ religions inevitably to try to eat each other. The left always tries to eat itself too.

  3. On religion, I often think of a line in a play where a nun was talking about praying. She said: “God always hears your prayers. The answer is almost always no.”

    Indeed, which suggests it is the act of praying that matters, not the response.

  4. “to me it sounds like a truck loaded with saucepans having a bad accident outside a pet shop which is on fire ”

    I’m stealing that LMAO

  5. One of the advantages I see in religion is that you don’t freak out about stuff if you think you’re in God’s hands, and because you’re aproaching the problem calmly and with confidence it’s more likely to work out, so the belief becomes self fulfilling. FWIW.

  6. Mortality has no doubt been a big factor, although it was fear of hell rather than dreams of paradise that used to be the driver. But I think religion provides an external reference point. I used to get a bit fed up with smug humanists saying they didn’t need an imaginary god to frighten them or reward them to live good lives. But if you grew up on a remote island say where cannibalism was revered, you have nothing to say it’s wrong.

  7. Jazz: get a grip, man.

    I just rescued that comment from the spam bin. I’m wondering if I should have left it there…

    I’ll look at the videos. At some point.

  8. Nice.

    Reminds me of The Evolution of Political Thought by C Northcote Parkinson (yes, that Parkinson). Not surprisingly, perhaps, there’s a chapter on the Theocracy of Communism. Worth a read, even if it was written in 1958.

    On these secular religion thingies; strikes me they’ve got a “render unto Caesar” problem; the model seems similar to the power of the Popes and the Catholic Church over the European Monarchs in the late middle ages. God only knows (ha!) what happens if you stick a priesthood on top of a democracy.

    Also, articles of faith tend to become “lies to children” – a lot of the political/economic left – particularly on social media – seem to desire a revolution based on a view of reality that isn’t actually true (possibly related : Chesterton’s Fence and Blair destroying the Lord Chancellor’s post and creating a Supreme Court, and the Ministry of Justice. His administrations seem to have been particularly prone to this).

    Almost related : It seems there’s the possibility that Henry VIII laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution, by creating the Great Bible, in English, not Latin, and ordering it to be made available in churches for the peasantry to read whenever they fancied a laugh. Seems to have kicked off mass literacy in England.

  9. Jazz : We once went to a Jazz night, part of a cultural festival thing in the village, room above one of the local pubs. Walked in to discover we were about half the age of the rest of the audience, which was actually a good sign, as we (and they) were expecting 1920s-30s stuff.


    Lots of rather polite applause, that evening.

  10. You make a couple of points here which I’ve been pondering recently.

    Firstly, without a common belief in the supernatural (religion), morals are whatever the fuck you say they are. I’ve realised I like the morality of Judeo-Christianity, regardless of whether I sign up to the dogma. See also the USA Constitution, which covers this off quite neatly, in my opinion. Humans need a belief system, if you kill God (hello Nietzsche) you will need to replace him/her/zher with somthing else as compelling.

    Which brings us to Climate Change….

    I had an exquisite night in Auckland last year on a work trip where I offered my skills in the “arts, history and popular culture pre-1990” topics in the Lumsden Arms’ pub quiz to a few science undergrads one Tuesday night. We won and while we were consuming the prizes, I innocently inquired about The Scientific Method. Satisfyingly, they could all explain how it is to be used to weed out bad ideas using hypothesis, observable data, repeatable experiments, control groups, etc. Objective, provable facts, in other words.

    And then we all fell out when I asked the terrible question, “and how does The Scientific Method apply to global warming?”.

  11. Without wishing to upset the faithful, I repeat the oft-used mantra:

    Jazz is bollocks.


  12. Climate change in particular reminds me of those fruitcake cults that are always predicting the end of the world. “Repent, sinners, for the end times are upon us!” I think the word is “millennarianism”.

  13. We now live in a “no excuses” society. So if God doesn’t answer your prayers, He’s to blame.

  14. A musician at Woodford said:
    “Blues is three chords played to a public of millions and Jazz is a million chords played to a public of three”

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