Religion necessary, God optional
By Harold Zwier
Do you believe in God?
Let’s not beat about the burning bush here. Do you believe there is a creator of the universe who responds to each of us personally, runs the universe justly, will ultimately raise the dead, requires all of us to follow a set of immutable rules of behaviour, and requires us to acknowledge our belief in worship, prayer and praise?
If the idea of answering this question with a single two or three letter word makes you uncomfortable in any way, these thoughts may be of interest.
Religions encompass a good deal more than God. Anti-religionists probably agree, pointing to appalling acts of destruction, desecration, intolerance, indoctrination, massacre, misogyny, abuse, xenophobia, hatred and a host of other failures that have occurred in the name of religions over millennia.
In his book, “The Persistence of Faith”, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that “the history of most religious groups at most times when they held political power” was the use of faith “to deny rights to others on the grounds of faith”. That criticism is as valid today as it ever was.
The perceived failures of religions provide ammunition for those who want to argue that we are better off without them, but there is another contrary perspective.
Although some might be tempted to argue that the defining characteristics of religions are represented by God, Revelation and Truth, there is a much more ordinary aspect to religions that is also much more important.
Religions have provided a mechanism for guarding and transmitting collective memories. Not the dry history of our school days, but the living essence of a community that educates and integrates each new generation into the community, connects us to a shared past, provides communal structures with values, rules, responsibilities and a path to nurture the next generation.
Religions are not the only guardians of collective memory. Politics, academia, television and consumerism are also examples of sub-cultures in which shared memory and experience shape individuals and communities. But since we describe Australian society as having been founded on Judeo-Christian principles, we are essentially affirming the success of religions in transmitting collective memory over millennia. That success is intimately bound to the idea of God.
If each generation finds its sense of transcendence in the mysteries it perceives as being beyond explanation, then the shape of God changes as past mysteries are explained and new mysteries are revealed. The biblical image of an all knowing and all powerful guide was very human in shape. With much better understanding of the origin of our universe, our solar system, our planet and the way life has developed, the shape of God has now changed. The mysteries beyond the explanation of our generation are on the other side of the Big Bang, and the shape of those mysteries is not very human.
But regardless of our concept of the transcendent, we stand on the shoulders of past generations. From them we acquire depth through the collective memory of tradition, culture, language, music, myth, ritual, moral and ethical behaviour, dignity, responsibility, wisdom, beauty, good, evil and a host of other elements that help define us individually and communally.
Many of us consciously belong to a religion in which rituals, traditions and rules form part of the communal environment. To reject the divine origin of the laws and rituals, yet remain engaged, is irrational. But if we act rationally and reject the laws and rituals, then we are essentially rejecting the collective memory on which our community is built. And if we attempt to reconcile our dilemma by reshaping God then we are heretics.
Of course, this is only a problem if the question posed at the beginning of this article can’t be comfortably answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. And if religions were the only area of our lives where we abandon rationality, then this problem might be a real dilemma, but everything from love to politics and the deeply held beliefs of sport manifest irrationality. Irrationality is after all a feature of being human.
Pamela Bone, for many years a columnist in The Age newspaper, died in April 2008. She described herself as an atheist, but chose to have her funeral in a church. She wrote this for her funeral program:
“It may seem hypocritical, after I have spent many years of my life in journalism writing columns about the harm done by religion, to want to have a funeral in a church. I go to my death without any sense that God exists or that there is an afterlife. However, I love old hymns, religious poetry, church spires … I am a cultural Christian.”
If religious fundamentalists have an unhealthy fixation on the past, and those who have abandoned religion see the past as having little relevance, we need another path for those who are uncomfortable with the certainties of religious belief but who recognise that religions, through their collective memory, provide valuable structures that span the past, present and future.
With the process of social globalisation having a major effect on our communal landscape, the one constant is our fundamental humanity; the petty, the heroic and everything in-between. Our collective memory provides a prism through which we can judge the value of change and how we can adapt to it, how we can ensure continuity and still retain or advance the core values that transcend generations.
Perhaps it’s time to put aside questions of belief in God, heaven and hell, whether there is an afterlife (or for that matter, a beforelife), whether the origin myths of religions have any basis in fact, why bad things happen to good people, and instead concentrate on the heritage of the collective memory left to us by each of our traditions, strive to understand why the values we have inherited are important to us and recognise that for many people adherence to those values is not motivated by the fear of heaven.
A version of this article was originally published on ABC Unleashed. The present article was published here on the author’s request.
Harold Zwier is on the executive of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society and is a member of a Modern Orthodox synagogue.
*Image source: Arc-Theatre