Summary of a talk given at a Forum held by the South Place Ethical Society at Conway Hall on November 30th 1986. SPES is an organisation of humanists, having for its aim “the study and dissemination of ethical principles based on humanism, and the cultivation of a rational way of life.” Its members range from religious humanists to hard-core atheists. – GW
What I have to say applies to religions generally, but I shall be talking mainly about Christianity since that’s the one that is most active here in Britain. Let me say right at the start that religion is not logical in the same sense as humanism. Humanism tries to be completely rational while religion accepts a great deal that is not rational or logical at all. But religion does have its own logic, and if we are to understand it properly we need to be clear about this.
Over the past century or thereabouts, the influence of official Christianity in Britain has been very much reduced, but the gap has been mostly filled by other religions. Even in Russia, after seventy years of efforts by the state to impose atheism, religion still survives. It has shown great powers of endurance and there must be some reason for its continuing strength. The problem is to find out what this can be, and the answer I have to put forward is that religion is the form in which logical thinking first appears.
With regard to religion there are three groups. First, those who don’t care about it either way. This is the biggest group and I shall call them the worldly people. Second comes the group of religious people, third and smallest the humanists. Each of these groups has its own way of thinking, its own attitude to logic.
The worldly people disregard logic and rationality. Taken up with their personal and family affairs, they tend to do whatever seems most convenient. They usually accept the official religion because that is usually the easiest thing to do, but they are not firmly attached to religion at all, and they never have been. In Europe in the Middle Ages, and for a long time afterwards, pretty well everybody went to church, but it wasn’t enthusiasm for religion that got most of them there, it was social pressures, and sometimes the fear of penalties.
The worldly people are sane and sensible, and that is one meaning of “rational.” But a rationalist in the humanist sense of the word is not just sane and sensible. He or she is a person who thinks clearly and logically about the great questions. Or at least, one who tries to do so. How did the world begin? Is there an afterlife? Is there a god? Should we live by faith or by reason? When the word is used in that sense we have to say that the worldly people are not rational. They have no serious interest in the things humanists find important and they are not concerned to think logically. If you want evidence for this you have only to look at the activities that win a mass audience. Sport is quite non-rational in the humanist sense of the word, and the really popular television programmes don’t have much to do with serious thinking either, not even those that test knowledge; you can be what television calls a mastermind and still be, in the humanist sense, quite unrational.
The second group is the religious people. Religions differ so widely that it is not easy to see how one can speak of them all together. We can’t even say that every religion has a god. Christianity manages to have one god and three gods at the same time, and not long ago Ellis Hillman showed us it also had many minor trinities. Judaism has one god, Hinduism a great many, and Buddhism no god at all. But there is one thing that all religions do have in common. Emile Durkheim, in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life has shown that every religion sets up a distinction between the sacred and the profane.
This is what all religions have in common, this is, in fact, what makes them religions. And this is nothing less than the beginning of logic. When you separate the sacred from the profane you are classifying, and classification is the beginning of logic. Religious people seldom realise it themselves, but what the great religions are doing is to introduce the first big step forward in logical thinking. Not just sensible or reasonable thinking, for the worldly people already have that, but thinking that is logical in the strict sense.
Formal logic has become a highly specialised subject. It takes a professional to deal with it properly, and I am not going to try. But its beginnings were simple. It started in Ancient Greece, about 350 BC, with Aristotle’s three Laws of Thought. First, the Law of Identity, that everything is identical with itself or X is X. Second, the Law of Contradiction or, nothing can be both X and non-X. Third, the Law of the Excluded Middle or, everything is either X or non-X.
Those three laws are accepted as the beginnings of formal logic. They rest upon the division of everything that exists into two classes, X and non-X, and this was one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect. It was the beginning of logic, the beginning of systematic thinking, the beginning of science.
Aristotle was the first to recognise this division as a logical one and to formulate it as a principle. But he was not the first to carry out the universal division. Religion had done that long before him, when it set up the distinction between sacred and profane. I am not suggesting that the early religious people knew what they were doing; there is no sign that they did. But they had got hold of the basic principle of all logical thinking even if they didn’t know it, and they were the first to do so.
This achievement has to be constantly repeated. We come into the world as ignorant as the first people and if we are to become rational in the full, humanist sense, each of us has to recapitulate, in outline, the mental development of humanity. What religion did once for the race it still has to do for each one of us individually. It starts people thinking in an ordered way, and when they do that they also start thinking about the big issues, about god, and life, and death, and how humanity and the world came to be what they are. The sort of thing that humanists think about. Religion raises the big questions, and it does so in a way which attracts attention, with stories and pictures of gods and devils and angels and saviours, of blood and sex and murder. A super-colossal cosmic drama. Even so, most of the worldly people still ignore it. But as a way of getting people to start looking at the big questions, it is more successful than the humanist approach. If you doubt that, think of the size of humanist meetings and remember that some of the hell-fire fundamentalists can fill Wembley Stadium.
Religion starts people thinking systematically about serious things, and by doing that it enables some of them to go beyond religion. Because once people start serious thinking they won’t always stop when you want them to. Most of the people who reach the religious stage don’t go any farther, but some do. There is a third stage beyond religion and it is, of course, humanism. Humanism rejects the illogical trappings with which religion (which takes them quite seriously) seeks to catch the attention of the worldly people, it seeks to be completely rational.
To sum up. Rational thinking develops through three main stages: First, worldly or pre-religious thinking; this is mostly sane and sensible, but not rational in the humanist sense. Second, religious thinking; this has a basis of logic hidden under a great heap of gaudy, irrational stuff. Third, humanist thinking, which tries to be completely rational.
This raises the question: Can we cut out the middle stage? I don’t see that we can. The pre-religious people are not empty boxes, waiting for either religion or humanism, whichever gets there first, to put ideas into them. They are intelligent human beings and they are thinking all the time. Their minds are fully occupied, so much so that they have no attention to spare for rationality in the humanist sense. If they are to take up serious thinking they need a shock to get them started, and religion can supply this better than humanism.
Human beings are born potentially rational, but developing that ability is hard work. Most of us don’t get very far with it and all of us need all the help we can get. Religion helps with the first step. It offers a small pill of logic hidden in a great big spoonful of dramatic, emotive, irrational jam. Only after people have swallowed this pill do they begin to appreciate the importance of what humanists are saying. Most religious people don’t accept humanism, but they realise that it matters. They are closer to it than the worldly people, who are thinking about quite different things. In spite of itself, and without realising what it is doing, religion prepares people to become humanists.
This doesn’t mean that humanists ought to stop criticising religion. Religion is only the middle stage; people who have got that far have another step still in front of them and criticism is one of the things that drive some of them into taking it. What it does mean, I think, is that any humanists who are not only criticising and opposing religion but trying to abolish it, are trying to cut away the ground on which they stand. Religion is important to humanism, so important that if religion did not exist, humanists would have to invent it.
The discussion following the talk was vigorous and outspoken, as usual with SPES. Several participants emphasised the harm that religion has done, and what they said was fully justified. Religion is powerful and all powerful things are dangerous, likely to do harm as well as good. Science is another example.
Two participants questioned the assertion that when born we are only potentially rational, giving examples of very young children who had asked penetrating questions of teachers or priests. For example: “Where did god come from?” Since the children in question came of humanist (perhaps atheist) parents the enquiry is not to be taken unquestioningly as a product of their own unaided reasoning. And in any case, rationality (in the humanist sense of the term) requires more than a question; it requires a refusal to accept answers that do not comply with the canons of logic. The suggestion that young children are capable of applying this criterion does not seem plausible.
The proposition that religion performs a function which will continue to be needed provoked vigorous assertions of the belief that it would be a good thing for humanism if religion were to disappear. This belief comes from a conception of the two as simply opposed; if it be accepted that they are, respectively, the second and third terms in what may be called (using the term in a broad sense) an evolutionary process then it follows that humanism could no more flourish – or even survive – without religion than the animal world without the vegetable.
(Editor’s Note: This issue of IC is being sent to those taking part in discussion whom
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FEUDALISM: It’s your count that votes.
DON CUPITT, a theologian who declared himself ‘an objective atheist’ wrote a book entitled Taking Leave of God. Adrian Hastings comments that such theology ‘might take leave of God, but not of well-endowed canonries and deaneries.’ (TLS 28 Nov 86)
O’KELLY’S commentary on Murphy’s Law: Murphy was an optimist.
from Ideological Commentary 26, March 1987.