I have been thinking for some time about what is left when religion is simply holus-bolus denied, and the place where religion used to be is left empty. For some people, of course, this is no problem, whether because their religious indoctrination as children was not particularly deep or lasting, or because they have enough richness in their lives already, so that they don’t miss what is missing when religion simply disappears. Yet the premise underlying this, that religion is simply empty and without function is, on the face of it, very unlikely. After all, religions have, in one way or another, dominated peoples lives since the year dot; it would seem passing strange if the result of its demise did not leave some emptiness behind. Not, as is so often supposed, a “god-shaped hole,” for that is a religious apologist’s way of accounting for what is missing, but certainly a cultural void which was once filled with religious myth, belief and ritual. One of the most important things to notice is that, if religion is, as we must suppose, in some sense, an organic development of human society — and there are very few societies that have no tinge of religion at all — then it was, inevitably, performing a social and personal function for those immersed in it.
I say this, not because I have some insistent nostalgia leading me back again and again to those years (which, in truth comprise most of my life) when I was a “believer” of some sorts, and practiced religion as a priest in the church. First of all, looking back, it is hard to say when I was a person of faith, and exactly what it means that I might have been. When I ask myself what I believed for all those years I am hard put to it to state clearly what those beliefs might have been. Towards the end, of course, as I was in the process of “talking myself out of a job” — as some regarded what I was doing — I do not think I could have put my “faith”, such as it was, in clear verbal terms. And that is true, I suspect, of most so-called “believers”. Atheists sometimes say, with a certain amount of Schadenfreude, that atheists tend to know more about the Bible and about Christian belief than many Christians do, and that, of course, is not much of a surprise. After all, Christians are living their faith, which has much more to do, as is often pointed out, with living within the interstices of a myth, than it is expressing belief in propositions.
The fact that the story, for Christians, as well as Muslims, Hindus, and so forth, is more important than specific, stateable beliefs, probably tells us much more about religious faith than nonbelievers are ready to acknowledge, since atheists have a vested interest in characterising religious faith as a matter of believing things that are not true. Certainly, in the orthodox services of the church, and, in particular, the Eucharist (Mass), statements of belief are included, much like the national anthem used to be sung before the showing of films in movie theatres, but one only begins to notice the beliefs expressed by the words when one is in the process of questioning the value of faith itself. Until then it is simply a matter of expressing one’s commitment to a way of life defined in terms of myth and story, and to the community in which that myth contributes the skeletal form of one’s own life’s narrative. Those who keep emphasising, as I often do, the propositional content of religious belief, tend to steer clear of the less determinate role that such expressions of faith play in shaping a life.