By Julian Ellison.
2017 will see the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 ‘theses’ to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, an event usually taken to mark the start of the Reformation, although Luther, an Augustinian monk, could never have predicted where this act of rebellion would lead. At the core of what came to be known as Protestantism was the belief that an individual had a personal relationship with God, and that the Church, notably the Roman Catholic Church, did not have the right to mediate or constrain that relationship.
No revolution ever emerges out of nowhere. Humanism, which had developed in Italy during the 13th century, looked to Classical texts to inspire a secular view of law and natural sciences, but also to reconsider key tenets of Catholic theology. And it is hard to imagine the Reformation without the emergence of humanist thinking beforehand. Yet, there were very, very few humanists of the era who questioned the very existence of God, the progenitor of Creation and a Universe with a physical and moral order.
Fast forward to the 18th century and we have the Enlightenment, founded on an emerging scientific approach to comprehending the world, and the revolution in religious ideas goes much further. The authority of the Church is further questioned, and for the first time there are real philosophical debates about atheism. Much of our contemporary world view, our appreciation for science and technology, our questioning of the received understanding of God, flows from the Enlightenment.
And yet, while Christianity is palpably in decline in the Western World, the idea of God does not appear to be giving up easily. Many churches, particularly Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches, have no trouble in finding members, and even the Roman and Orthodox Churches still see millions of weekly attendees.
But if we step out of the West, and consider, say, India, the place of religion is utterly different. I have a friend in Mumbai who is a very well educated and urbane businessman who simply will not consider entering into business deals on certain dates if they are not expected to be favourable to his Hindu deities. A short time spent in India and you realise that religion is front and centre to everyone’s life. The same is true of almost everywhere else in the world, with the exception perhaps of China, maybe Japan and Korea. And we don’t need to dwell on the zealotry of the Islamic State, other than to say that this perhaps denotes a religion in crisis rather than in the ascendancy.
So while the grip of religion on the Western mind has become complex and fluid, the same is not necessarily true elsewhere. And while scientific theories such as quantum mechanics and Darwinism have led many to appreciate that randomness infuses the universe, the patterns and predictability of random processes continue to beg questions of the underlying order, and indeed purpose, of the natural world.
And then there is the question of whether we are alone in the Universe or not. It seems highly improbable that our planet is the only home of intelligent life, or indeed life at all. But why haven’t we made contact with other intelligent life forms? Are they leaving us alone? Have they died out? Do they live in an alternative universe? If there is an intelligent life form out there, does it too believe in God? Even as our understanding of the universe and its origins deepen, new questions and fewer answers seem to emerge.
Faced with ever greater complexity, some branches of religions become more fundamentalist, more absolute in their beliefs and tenets, less open to reason, and this happens because some clearly yearn for certainty and order in the midst of what appears to be confusion, decline and chaos. Yet, many millions continue to adhere to their religion for more positive reasons, because it delivers community, a pattern to the year, a poetry to existence, and a moral driver for behaviour and decisions. Many millions do not profess deep theological insights, but put simple faith and trust in God and their religion to see them through good times and bad, to provide continuity to family culture and a promise of a better future.
For these reasons the death of religion and God is unlikely. In the West, those Christian churches which are on the up find ways to connect with young families and people with busy lives to give them a sense of purpose to a material life, to achieve satisfaction in helping others, to be a part of something bigger than oneself. Beyond what was once called Christendom, the rhythms of family life, of birth, marriage and death are enmeshed in religious practices and beliefs. For a purely secular, radically humanist alternative to replace these, even if it were desirable,it would need to match a religion for tradition, poetry and hope. A cold, blind, random Universe without a God, does not inspire hope. For this reason, above all else, we have evolved to believe in God, because without hope for the future, we make our lives today much harder to bear, and we are much less likely to survive. Religion will be part of our Future, even if the tradition of Humanism, the Reformation and Enlightenment have given us the license to think for ourselves.