Philosophy and Ethics

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Thursday, 4 April 2013

What do people need?

'What does religion provide?' is the title of a recent article by Greta Christina.  She suggests that religion provides many things that attract people to it - social support, opportunities to celebrate, a sense of community, charitable work and so on - but that the only distinctive thing offered by religion is supernatural belief.
For now, let's set aside the issue of whether religious belief need be supernatural - those of you who've been reading my blog will know well enough where I stand on that one - and look at what she suggests for the atheist community.  Rather than asking what religion provides and then trying to produce an alternative, secular version of it, she switches the question and asks 'What do people need?'  That provides her with an opportunity to explore what is needed for a particular community, with very positive results.
And I think her switch of question is of the utmost importance.
Some secular attempts to offer alternatives to religion tend themselves to be religious in format - meetings, with speakers, readings and so on, even hymns of a secular sort. My guess is that most people will never to attracted to that format, if they are not already attracted to its religious version.
The question 'What do people need?' - and particularly 'What do people here, in this place at this time need?' - is wholly positive. I invites a serious examination of life, its values and its goals, and then asks how we can band together to assist one another to take a positive and creative look at how we can overcome suffering and frustration and achieve our human potential.
But that is exactly the question that religions should also be asking.  Not 'What have I got to hand out to people here?' but 'What do they need?' - that question is, I believe, at the very heart of what is best in religion, as well as secular society.  Within Buddhism it is expressed through the teaching of 'skilful means' - namely that religious teachings should be used and adapted to meet the needs of people and not the other way round.
It is also good 'incarnational' theology.  The sort that - to use traditional language - does not ask 'How do we bring God here?' (which is, after all, a bit of a nonsense for those who believe in a God who is present everywhere - but it's a nonsense that distorts much religious thinking), but 'What is God doing here? How may I get alongside him?'
I think the atheist critique of religion is extremely healthy - particularly because, in my view it challenges the religious to focus on what is real for them in their experience of religion. My own experience - from many years ago when I was working as an ordained clergyman - is that the reality of 'God' (or Being Itself, or whatever else you want to call the heart of things) is found exactly in the social activities, the helping, the support, the charity work etc etc.  The supernatural beliefs, which Greta Christina thinks are the distinctive thing about religion, are actually a less-than-helpful (for me at least) re-symbolisation of the reality of life which is explored within one's community.  Getting real is all about asking 'What do people need?'; I hope that plenty of religious people will examine the function of their spiritual communities by asking exactly that question.

So do take a look at what she has to say - whether you approach things from a secular or a religious point of view.  Click here to link to her article.

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