To help me work through some of my inner debates about faith, I’ve decided to present them in the form of a dialogue – between two aspects of my self. The ‘secular’ aspect I’m calling ‘Bartholomew’ and the ‘spiritual’ one ‘Alban’, after the two parts of my pseudonym (a reminder: the 17th century saint and martyr Alban Roe was called Bartholomew before his conversion). Although this is outward embodiment of an interior dialogue, anyone join in – and I hope you will, in the comments.
The ‘secular’ Bartholomew gets the first slot:
Here’s my basic problem with religion. As I look around the world today, and reflect on my study of history, it seems to me undeniable that life has improved immeasurably, for most people in the world, in the past two hundred years or so – and that very little of this is thanks to religion. On the contrary, much of the social progress that we take for granted has been achieved in spite of religion, and often in the teeth of religious opposition and resistance.
Thanks to scientific and medical advances, most people born today live longer, healthier lives than their ancestors. A combination of technological advancement, industrial development and political progress means that, certainly in the industrialised world, we now enjoy a standard of living that would have been unimaginable even a hundred years ago.
And if you object that the good life is about more than mere material wellbeing, well it’s also undeniable that the majority of people, certainly in the western world, enjoy much greater personal and political freedom and opportunity than their predecessors. At the same time, social attitudes have continued to progress, meaning that the discrimination and intolerance experienced by many people in the past, whether on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or physical or mental impairments, are gradually being eliminated.
Most of these material, intellectual and moral improvements have their roots in the Enlightenment, that great burst of intellectual and moral ferment that erupted in the 18th century – and which was, at heart, a reaction against religion, irrationalism and superstition. It is almost wholly thanks to this and associated secular intellectual movements that the scientific, political and moral transformations took place that are responsible for the greater health, happiness and opportunity enjoyed by a majority of people in the world today.
Of course, most world religions now accept these social changes as a ‘good thing’. But my argument is that they were extremely late to the party – the Catholic church only belatedly accepted freedom of conscience, for example, while women have had to wait a long time (and in some cases are still waiting) for the major religions to concede that they are equal to men. And if it had been left to the religious, many of these changes just would not have happened. Put it this way: would we now have freedom of religion, democratic rights for workers, or equal pay for women, if the Church had been been in society’s driving seat, rather than secular movements? And to anticipate another objection – that all of this social progress was actually based, at its root, on religious –that’s to say, Judaeo-Christian – values. Well then, why didn’t these changes happen in societies where the institutional Church still dictated social mores, and only occurred in societies that, whatever their origins, had left their religious roots far behind and were more motivated by secular visions of the human good?
To conclude: for all its faults and shortcomings (and they are many), modern, secular society is a huge improvement on any social system in which the Church has had the upper hand.
(Alban’s reply will follow shortly)
Update: 17th May 2013
The observant among you will have noticed that Alban’s reply did not, in fact, follow. This is probably because, having got all of the above off my chest, I didn’t have the energy to reply. Or it could be because I’ve moved on, and don’t find these criticisms as powerful as once I did. Or maybe it’s just that I have a short attention span, and get bored quickly. Anyway, apologies.