Now that you know Elizabeth and me a little better (see “This, really, is all about Elizabeth I“), I can go on to speak about the things that now concern me. I would not be here at all, however, had it not been for Elizabeth, not only because I loved her and she died in extraordinary circumstances, but because she was herself so clear about her disbelief, because she was so determined to take her dying into her own hands, and because she wanted me to speak about our love and about the right to die. Religion simply was not a factor in this, and she was pleased when I told her that I was no longer able to believe, not even in the very attenuated way in which I had managed, up to that time, to speak of my state of mind as one of belief. Expressing my own non-belief meant that she no longer felt the need to have a religious service just to please me, so she set about designing her own service, so that people should know that she had not been a person of faith.
And she encouraged me, when I returned from Switzerland, to join in the campaign for the right to die. It is one way in which the love that we knew can continue in other ways, and perhaps influence other lives.
So, then, to business. I do not purport to understand fully why it is that Christianity has made assisted dying and abortion the points at which it is determined to make its final stand, but I think it has to do with the dynamics of religious belief and its need for control over social order. I also think that if we defeat it in this, it will have much less power and influence than it has now.
Religion’s determination to hold onto the entrances and exits of life has to do, I believe, with something absolutely central to religious belief, which is also the source of the idea of the sanctity of human life. As I have experienced it, religion is deeply concerned with notions of order: cosmic order, social order, and the order and integration of the individual life in relation to others, and especially, as religions teach, in relation to God, the ordering principle – as it is supposed – of the universe.
[An aside: "Theologists" (as she is often titled) like Karen Armstrong tell us that religion is not about belief, but about practice, and she even pretends that the etymology of the Latin word 'credo' (I believe) is relevant to its English equivalent. 'Credo' in Latin is related to the words 'cor' (or heart) and 'donum' (to give as a gift), so that 'credo' would mean to give one's heart to God, to enter into a relationship with God, and so on, as though, when it is used in the Nicene Creed, for example, it does not come with any cognitive strings attached. This is pure subterfuge. No one should think that there is no relational-emotional component in an act of faith, but to suggest that there is no intellectual content is simply false. When the gospel Jesus asks: "Who do men say that I am?" and "Who do you say that I am?", he is clearly inviting a confession of faith in terms of an explicit belief about his relationship to God.]
Returning to the question of levels of order: cosmic order, social order, and the order of the individual in relation to others, the cosmos, and especially in relation to God, the ordering principle of the cosmos. At each of these levels religions like to impress upon believers that the ordering principle that runs through all things is the power to which religion pays its dues in worship and obedience. In some simpler religions this aspect of religious belief and practice is more obvious and more dramatic – as when sacrifices are made to the ruler of the universe in order to guarantee the preservation of that order in the regularity of the seasons and the orderly procession of the sun across the sky. In such religions the raison d’être of these ceremonies was brutally clear, as in the Aztec offering of still beating human hearts to the sun with the apparent purpose of preserving the sun in its wonted diurnal course above a fruitful earth.
In the case of more “sophisticated” religions, especially the monotheistic religions, this concern for cosmic order may appear to be less central, but it is, I think, still their very heart and soul, and religious practice is, to a remarkable degree, devoted to the task of putting the individual and the community into a state of orderliness which is thought to be, in some sense, an expression of cosmic order itself. Christianity has made much of the idea that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and that our life task, as human beings, is more and more to make that image a closer and closer approximation, insofar as our finite natures will allow, to the divine nature. So, however the religions account for the cognitive content of their beliefs, that religions make claims as to what is the case seems to me to be unquestionable. Those who write professionally about religion do their best not to address the cognitive content of faith too directly, since it does not stand up well in comparison with science, as well as other forms of human knowing, such as history, textual study, etc., but that there is cognitive content in religious faith is, I think, beyond question, though addressing this issue would take us far beyond our present focus on the reasons for religion’s persistence in imposing its structure of values on those who do not belong to their own faith communities.
The purpose of pastoral theology in the Christian tradition was to find ways of ordering the individual life, and so the life of the community to which those individuals belonged, so that they should be fully coordinate with the divine purposes for each individual and community, so that their lives should run with the grain of the universe, to use the title of Stanley Hauerwas’s Gifford Lectures. Besides the sanctification of time, as in liturgical seasons and great feasts and fasts, there were also to be strenuous exercises of self-examination and self-mortification, with a consequently increasingly strict control over the disorder of emotion and feeling, which in early Christian thought is taken to be the unruly animal part of human nature which leads us into sin. In the Greek Church this process is called “theosis”, which literally means “divinisation,” for in aligning oneself with the rational structure and order of the universe one is, it is supposed, reflecting the divine nature.
Cosmic order is central to comprehensive types of religious belief systems, which is one reason why it is thought that religion and science must be consistent with each other. In Christianity the story goes roughly like this. The world was created by God who loved it into being, and saw that it was good. That it fell away from that original goodness due to man’s sin, and so into consequent disorder and depravity, is the very source of the religious task. If you read the story of the Flood in Genesis, it is a process of uncreation and increasing chaos and disorder. Redemption is the process by which, with God’s help, we bring creation back to the original perfection of its order, and so, in a sense, as Christians learned to say, we become co-creators with God, so that, in the end, God’s purposes may be fulfilled in us.
All Christian morality is, in this respect, made up of individual and communal acts of restorative justice, as we attempt to align our minds and our hearts, and the whole texture of our lives, with the perfect purposes of God. The whole of St. Augustine’s magnum opus, The City of God, sets out to show in detail how the disorder of the present age is but the necessary preliminary of the coming city of God where God’s purposes will be fully revealed. The important point is the disorder of the present age, set over against the perfection and order of the revealed purposes of God.
I will not dwell overmuch on this theme, but it is important, I think, that we understand why the churches (and religion in general) are so intrusive in society and in the lives of individuals, for each religion is rooted in some idea of cosmic order contrasted with the disorder of the individual and society, and in the supposed need to restore as much as they can of the original goodness of cosmic order as a demonstration of their faithfulness to the purposes of God. Religions cannot let go of their control over society, because the ordering of society is seen by religions as the necessary condition for the expression of individual faithfulness or lack thereof, and whether lives are running, as they must, with the grain of the universe. As Hauerwas himself says:
The great failure of Christians in modernity is our willingness to make peace with the world. [op. cit., 208, fn 4]
For this reason religions cannot respect boundaries. Religions must intrude into the lives of others, with or without invitation.
It is one thing to explain the religions in scientific terms, as Boyer, Atran, Tremlin and others do, but it is quite another thing, I think, to recognise the parameters which the religions set for themselves and others. And it is this “and others” that Atran, in particular, it seems to me, does not seem to understand. Religion may be, as Anderson Thompson points out in his invaluable little book Why We Believe in God(s), the result of a combination of factors having to do with individual psychology, because, for instance, to mention only a couple of factors, we are intuitive theists, or because of the tendency, seen even in childhood, promiscuously to ascribe teleology to the things that we see (that is, to describe them in terms of purpose), and how this plays into our natural deference to authority, and thus to the ease with which we ascribe truth to the minimally counterintuitive stories that we are told, stories that permeate the culture, and become ordering principles in terms of which we understand ourselves and our relations with others. But it is the deep structure of those stories that imposes itself upon religious people’s way of seeing the world as a whole, and makes it difficult for them to describe the world in ways that can acknowledge the independence and the right of others to describe the world differently and to act on that description.
Suicide is a test case, and there is not one great religion (with the exception, perhaps, of Buddhism, which is, in many respects, a humanism) for which suicide is an acceptable or a normatively good act, and there is a simple reason for this. For suicide is seen as a deliberate rejection of, and a refusal to accept, the goodness of creation. It is an individual statement that the world is not, as the religions imagine it to be, a lovingly ordered cosmos tending towards a final good, and thus suicide is exemplary of the disorder which religion sees it as its primary task to resolve.
I believe this is why religious critics of assisted dying continue to claim, despite convincing evidence to the contrary, that the legalisation of assisted dying would immediately result in the in-breaking of chaos into the social world, leading to a breakdown of the moral order in a disordered frenzy of radical individualism.
In Proverbs 14.12, we read that
There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the ends thereof are the ways of death.
This sentiment is at the root, I believe, of the religious prohibition of assisted dying. An example that I often cite is from Cardinal Cahal B. Daly’s little book, Morals, Law and Life, but the same belief underlies every slippery slope argument used by the religious to warn about the dangers of legalised assisted dying. Daly’s argument, significantly, begins, not with assisted dying, but with contraception, thus covering both the entrances and the exits:
The works of the scientific humanists [he writes] are there to prove that man’s attitude to contraception determines whether he will think it wrong or right for a mother to kill her defective child, or for a doctor “gently and humanely to extinguish his patient’s life.” 
This is obviously a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, for though humanists may support assisted dying and abortion, it is not because they support contraception. But, for Daly, anything which interferes with what is thought to be the God-ordained order of the human world contains the seeds of chaos which will eventually put everyone at risk. In terms of this type of reasoning, the suffering of individuals is not really significant. If we must sacrifice the dying or suffering individual to pain and existential despair on the altar of our supposed duty towards God, to preserve the established order in which every pregnancy is a gift, and every death a cosmically ordered event, this is a small price to pay to prevent chaos and condemnation.
It is important to note that much religious language speaks either directly or indirectly to the issue of cosmic order. Christians and others speak regularly about God’s will, and about God’s plans and purposes for us. Christianity (as does Islam) speaks of the glory that awaits us, and about the obligation to direct one’s life by the will of God. Christians speak about the two books of God, the book of nature and the book of scripture. This is normative Christian language; even liberal theologians are not immune to it. God’s love expressed in creation is on the one side; our duty in fealty and service on the other. It is inescapable. In any event, the emphasis that is placed on the shaping of society, and the denunciation of individualism and choice, speak for themselves. Of course, real beliefs are often masked by pretending to argue on secular, consequentialist grounds. But in whatever language they use, scarcely a thought is given to the pains and struggles of the dying, or to individuals whose diseases rob them of their individuality, their life projects, their hopes, their sense of dignity, of everything which made them the truly alive persons they had been, until they stare blankly at yet more sufferings, yet more pains and indignities, yet to come. You can see this human blindness in the religions every day, in their inability to accept women as fully human and able to make their own life decisions, in their rejection of gay and lesbian people, in their hopeless attempts to stay the tides of history.
I tried, as a priest, to help people see these things, and then, finally, I had to say, Enough! The church is like Dickens’ Circumlocution Office. It talks things to death in weary meetings, trying to find scriptural or theological precedents, and then the process starts all over again at the beginning. I call it the hermeneutical auction. Change sometimes happens, but the conservative interpretation is built in to the process, so it is slow and uncertain. This inability to override centuries of interpretation of a book with unknown origins deeply impacted someone whose life was more important to me than my own, whose radiance, though still bright, was dimmed by sufferings and indignities and disabilities that blighted her young life until, though she never wanted to die, she wished that she were dead before worse should come. But Christians will continue to say how difficult and complex a question it is, and how we need more time to discuss it and come to terms with it. And so Elizabeth was forced, by laws upheld and ratified by the religious who live amongst us, who set up roadblocks at every turning, to take matters into her own hands, and to bring her life to an end before she otherwise would have done, because she did not know how long she had before she would be unable to take away the life that was becoming such a burden.
And if I am angry at religion and at the church in which I spent so much of my life in service – and I am – it is because the churches simply refuse to see the harm done by beliefs for which there is not one shred of evidence. If those ill-founded beliefs were only a comfort to those facing the storms of life, and if, by resorting to them, individuals could find a place of refuge, without doing harm to others, then there is no reason they should not continue without restraint. They might even do some good, as I believe they sometimes do.
But religions are not only a comfort. Religions cnnot respect boundaries. Religions insist on shaping society itself in ways imagined to correspond to an order laid down by God. If individual lives are to run with the grain of the universe, social order must also run with the grain of the universe. Therefore, religions insist on extending their beliefs and practices far beyond the limits of their own members, to society as a whole. From the religious perspective social ordering is part of the project of the ordering of individual lives, and there is simply no basis upon which to ground their claims. They should have no say over the ordering of society, and their irrelevance should be made clear.
I used to believe that there was room for a more liberal interpretation of Christian beliefs, but in the end it seemed that I had managed to support an organisation which cannot help imposing its will on the unwilling. There is no safe place for individualism in religion. In the end it will be spewed out as lacking religious zeal. And no wonder, for the meaning of the Greek word ‘hairesis,’ from which we get our word ‘heresy’, is simply choice or choosing (amongst other things). Heretics are those who choose, but choose differently, as it seems best to them. And whether this is now spoken of as “unbridled individualism,” as Margaret Somerville does, or else as “relativism,” as the pope insists, or simply as “secularism,” the religious point of this language is that religion needs whole societies within which to carry out its task, and cannot easily accept dissent or real doubt.
It is important, therefore, to understand the dynamics of belief, and the part played by doubt in the religious project itself, lest this be used as evidence that, after all, religion is capable of accommodating serious doubts and questions. It can’t. In order to entertain religious belief at all, doubt itself must be seen to be an element within religious faith. It’s not possible to hold religious beliefs without occasionally coming to the point of doubt, and spiritual exercises can in fact accommodate and even naturalise doubt as an element of faith. The Dark Night of the Soul, the Cloud of Unknowing, the so-called “dry spells,” when spiritual consolation is sought without response, the elusiveness of God: all these things are well-known way stations on the spiritual journey, and spiritual directors take them intheir stride. Indeed, they are familiar talking points about prayer and meditation, even demons to be wrestled with in the privacy of one’s own soul.
This is why it is so important to puncture the intellectual confidence of the religions. The effort to shore up the crumbling walls of systematic religious thought, pretending that it stands on equal ground with disciplines that use real evidence to establish their claims, is a good sign that all is not well with the religions. Strong religions could simply ignore science, and some attempt, absurdly, to do so. After all, in the face of conflict with other religions, each religion imagines itself to be sui generis, and, as such, where they are culturally isolated, they are sources of great confidence and power.
This is becoming more difficult due to the progress of science, and the inter-penetration of cultures. So religions need to remind us, by fair means or foul, that they are still confident and powerful. It is not for nothing that the great symbols of faith are those of authoritative and overawing figures or demonstrations of transcendent power, such as the Christos Pantokrator (the All Powerful Christ) which dominates so many Orthodox churches,
for religions are past masters at the art of public representations of power. Great monuments to religious belief, such as churches, cathedrals, mosques, and temples, as well as demonstrations of the power of religions to marshal great masses of people to an ordered purpose: all of these express the awesome power and transcendent authority from which religious beliefs are claimed to come, and are meant to reduce the individual to babbling incoherence. In the Western tradition, massively comprehensive theological systems attempt to perform the same function, but, when measured against the achievements of science, they are incoherent – which is why the relation between religion and science is becoming such a hotly contested issue.
This is one thing, by the way, that impressed both Elizabeth and me on our honeymoon trip to Britain. Our five week journey around Britain was based principally on the great cathedrals and churches that had special architectural or other significance. It was hard not to miss the fact that the sheer mass of some of the churches and cathedrals must have simply overawed those who lived in their shadow, and so have been impressed, not only with the power of the church – which had, in those days, as much or more secular power than the state – but with the awesome power and authority of God over their lives and deaths.
The fact that churches and other religious institutions and persons tend to exhibit themselves in this way, as though they possessed a share of the power of God or the gods themselves, causes severe problems for liberal polities, for religions were, in fact, in their original form, comprehensive cultures, which controlled every aspect of life from birth until death. And just saying that provides a clue as to the reasons for the Roman Catholic and fundamentalist Christian and Muslim emphasis on controlling the entrances and, especially, the exits of life. Religion claims that these prohibitions are rationally justified, but this is just a mask, I believe, to conceal religion’s drive for political and social control.
Liberal religion has been, in the long run, largely a failure, because it could not keep its hands on the levers of political power and cultural invigilation. It allowed itself to be culturally marginalised, and that has been accompanied by a growingly insistent question about the truth of the beliefs that were apparently central to the community’s existence, which simply could not be deferred forever. It is one thing to say, with some of Christianity’s liberal defenders, that the truth, whatever it may turn out to be, is expressed in the form of myth, but it is an entirely different thing to ignore the fact that, without any claim to truth, or way of demonstrating truth, religion itself had to be content to be thought of as a marginal cultural pursuit, which could not keep pace with the changes taking place within the culture itself.
This was brought home to me quite forcefully when I heard Tariq Ramadan say that Christianity had lost control of “its” culture, something that Islam, he said, would never be prepared to do – which is one of the reasons why I think Islam will be a greater problem for the West than many people seem prepared to acknowledge.
The problem of a liberal polity is that it must marginalise and relativise comprehensive world views like religions. In his book Political Liberalism, Rawls asks whether such a polity can be stable. The answer to this question, as Rawls understood, is of course that, so long as great cultural institutions like religions continue to vie for public representation in the law, and in the symbols of sovereignty, it cannot be. Religions, however, know that if they are not successful in being so represented, their influence will wane. That is why it is so important that they be defeated, and placed on notice that the public expression of religious power is no longer acceptable in societies in which the norm for what it means to know is science, and only those disciplines which are consistent with science. This does not mean, I hasten to add, that human knowledge is restricted to the propositions of science – what I am saying at the moment is not scientifically verifiable, for example, but I have tried to give reasons for supposing it true – but it does mean that any discipline claiming to be in possession of knowledge must be consistent with the affirmation of such propositions. Religion is not amongst them.
These are some of the reasons why I oppose religion, because I now see it as having been, all along, something offensive and sometimes malignant, and this is something I was slow to see. It holds us hostage to unsubstantiated claims. And while I cannot regret the years I spent in religion’s service, because so bound up with the love that Elizabeth and I enjoyed and shared, I regret that nothing that I said in all those years would ever have been able to make of religion itself something kinder or more humane, as I wished it to be. This will never happen, and that is why I have set my heart against it, though it played so prominent a role in my life, and set its seal upon the one great love in which it was my privilege to share.