Monday, 2 January 2012


A new year, if not a new age, dawns.

In modern polemical debate, 'belief' is spoken of as referring almost exclusively to religion. Those arguing that the persistence of real or token religious observance in present-day western society is illogical and pernicious can refer to 'believers' confident, in a mirror image of the use of 'infidels' by some modern Muslims, that their readers will be thinking of a duality between Christians, mostly, and atheists.

It is almost as though a deity were the only significant object of belief, and if religious observance were to disappear, as many hope for and consider inevitable, so too would the phenomenon of belief, as a perversion of knowledge and experience uniquely, and deplorably, manifested in religion. Yet belief, like love, fear, hope, hate, trust, delight, is just one in the range of modes of human experience, although those are intellectual abstractions of states that seldom, if ever, exist in individual isolation. We all believe in many things, from the mundane to the profound, and religious belief occurs in many forms, colours and admixtures.

It will probably be objected that this is defensive sophistry: there remains a hard distinction between those who do and those who do not believe in a god. Yet what that constitutes, what, exactly, a god is understood to be, has varied greatly through history and societies. Even now it is a question of legal debate as to what can claim the state's indulgence as a 'religion'. Current argument tends to focus on the idea of god as a 'supreme being', a term not wholly unambiguous but certainly inconsistent with many past and present forms of religious belief. The concept of course was the distinctive development of Judaism that has been passed on to Christianity (sometimes a little insecurely) and Islam, and it is both something of a religious peculiarity and a notion sympathetic in overall form to modern scientific understanding of the world. As such, it is perhaps seen as distastefully competitive.

The strangely active atheistic argument in our society directs little of its fire against the non-Judaic religions: Hinduism, despite the violence sometimes conducted in its name, appears to get off relatively lightly, and Buddhism, as the 'religion without a god' gains a little of the dispensation allowed to an emasculated appreciation of the B Minor Mass or the Sistine Chapel ceiling, although its priest-ridden structure and deference to a supreme earthly authority makes it vulnerable to disapproval.

Religion is chiefly scorned for its irrationality, but the charge sheet seems to be headed with utilitarian objections. One wonders what the modern disputants would think of the gentlemen in Addison and Steele's coffee house, with their over-riding concern that religion should be free of 'unseasonable passions' and that gentlemen (and ladies - though it would be impolite to doubt their destination or manner of arrival) should 'go to heaven with a very good mien' - or of Edward Gibbon's lament at the destruction of civilisation wrought by 'barbarism and religion'.