This is meant as a comment on comments to my last post. I bring it forward here, and offer it as a post, because I keep having the feeling that I am being misunderstood. Perhaps this will clarify, and if it does not, perhaps someone will be able to suggest another way of approaching the issues I address here.
I’m obviously not making myself clear, or I am being consistently misunderstood. Let’s start with “substitution.” I do not suggest that we need a substitute for religion. Indeed, humanism is not a “substitute” for religion, but a better way of dealing with some of the things that religion has dealt with. But humanism is not simply a matter of knowing facts. It is, as Grayling says so eloquently, something which includes, not only factual knowledge about the world, but also ”an outlook of great beauty and depth, premised on kindness and common sense, drawing its principles from a conversation about the good whose roots lie in the philosophical debates of classical antiquity, continually enriched by the insights and experience of thinkers, poets, historians and scientists ever since.” We certainly do not want to return to the blindnesses of religion which are uncommonly persistent, but that does not mean that we cannot, or that we should not, learn what we can from it. In doing so, however, we do not need to take religion au pied de la lettre. Take guilt, for instance. I said nothing at all about original sin, nor did I mean to allude to it. When I say that some guilt clings to us like a shroud, I mean that some of the things that we do seem to us simply unforgivable, and have a tendency to blight the remainder of our lives. I have seen examples of this not in any way associated with religious notions of primary guilt. That religions have sought and found ways to defuse such guilt is not a shabby lesson to learn from them. We do not at the same time need to take on board the unsatisfactory guilt-mongering upon which so much religion is based.
I have the sense that whenever I speak about religion at all, I am suspected of wanting to return things to the status quo ante, before the criticism of religion has done its work, and of course I do not want to do any such thing. So, a lot of the criticism above completely misses its mark. So when Gordon Willis says: “Religion is just a human story — that is, just a story. We need more than stories to help us grow.” Well, yes, of course we do, but that does not mean that we do not need stories, nor that stories have much to contribute to the shaping of a life. It is not necessarily all or nothing. Whatever we can mine that can contribute to human good, we should do so. That will mean taking things out of context, of course, for we do not want to retain religion. We are well rid of that. It cannot provide the transcendence that it promises — yes, this is indeed true. But that does not mean that it can provide no sense of transcendence at all, and that we cannot, as secular people, make use of such things to our own purpose. But to suppose that these things will simply happen, as some think, is probably a bit of wishful thinking. If we want to destroy religion, we will not do so without something which performs some of the functions of religion. Anderson Thompson shows so clearly how contemporary science of religion is close to understanding the sources of religion’s power over the mind, and the mechanisms by which it exercises this power. If we want to neutralise this, we will have to engage these aspects of the human. We have, for instance, in modern cosmology, a new “creation story,” as it were, and we should not be slow to adopt it as part of our narrative. We can also tell the story of our evolutionary development, along with the development of other life, and the respects in which humans differ from other forms of life on this planet. To suppose that these stories do not have the kinds of power that religious narratives do is simply to abandon our forward positions without a fight.