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Atheism's farewell to God

HOWARD GREGORY

Sunday, August 25, 2013    

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IT has long been known that a selling point for newspapers is to be found in the eye-catching and sensational headlines and stories which they carry. It is also true to say that the stories which make headlines, though framed by them, are not the creation of the publishers of the newspapers, but the nature of the events and the persons who make these happen.

Such is the case with a recent lead story carried by The Gleaner with the headline, 'Goodbye, God? Irish scientist predicts atheism will overtake religion in Jamaica'.

In that story, Dr Nigel Barber, a native of Ireland and biopsychologist, is reported to be asserting that, by the year 2041, the majority of Jamaicans will not believe in the existence of God, consistent with a global trend of a move towards atheism.

The premise of his argument is that there is a correlation between development and atheism which is significant enough to erode the deeply religious values that underpin the Jamaican society, citing his country of birth as an example of this.

This assertion by the learned scientist sounds most profound, but at the same time raises serious questions regarding the validity of his declarations. In the first place, the term "correlation", when used in research methods, refers to a particular measure of accuracy, and one is left to wonder the extent to which this contextual use of "correlation" has scientific and universal validity.

Atheism is present in every society where theism is present. In fact, one would need to question whether there can be healthy theism without the presence and challenge of atheism. Perhaps one may think of atheism and theism as polarities on the religious continuum.

What Dr Barber is suggesting is that there is going to be a movement along that continuum from theism to atheism without providing any scientific evidence of where we are today and where we will be in 2041. One is only left to guess what he means by "majority" in his judgement regarding the status of atheism in Jamaica in that fateful year.

Additionally, Dr Barber's stated qualifications seem not to suggest competence in terms of his ability to offer and define measures of development. So we are left to wonder to what measures of development he is pointing and to which we as Jamaicans can hold out a measure of hope.

We who are in doubt about the ability of our nation to achieve the national goals outlined in the 2030 national development plan would be heartened by whatever shred of evidence the learned biopsychologist has that would help us understand the nature and stage of this positive development which we can anticipate in 2041.

Of course, on the basis of his assumption, an increasing number of us -- having dismissed God as reality along the way -- would then have had a commensurate rise in confidence in ourselves, human goodness, and our commitment to the corporate good, something with which we struggle at the moment as a nation.

Because we are locked into an agreement with the International Monetary Fund -- the outcome of which we will not be able to determine until the end of the current decade, and about which we are only cautiously optimistic -- the goodly doctor must have some measure of forecast to which neither our leaders of Government nor the general citizenry have access, which allows him to predict where we will be in 2041.

As supporting evidence of the achievement of development and the growth of atheism, the case of Ireland, the native land of Dr Barber, is cited. In this connection he is quoted as saying: "Ireland -- where I spent my childhood -- was equally religious but is now the 10th least religious country in the world, according to (pollsters) Gallup Organisation. This rapid change may be attributed to very rapid economic growth."

Having spent a part of last September in the Republic of Ireland and listened to the economic and developmental challenges which that country was facing, I find it difficult to share his optimism regarding the development curve for his nation, and that ours will be on the upward developmental path in a relationship of direct correlation with atheism. All this supposedly happening, while on the downward slide will be religious belief among the peoples of these nations.

In the case of Ireland, I would venture to postulate the notion that, far more damaging to the cause of religion than the rise of the philosophy of atheism in more recent years among the Irish, has been the abuse perpetrated by religious functionaries charged with leadership in the life of the institutional church.

This abuse by a few functionaries within the Roman Catholic tradition, in what has been a predominantly Roman Catholic country, has caused the church to be painted with one broad brush, and the undermining of the faith of many committed and marginal religious adherents.

Religious belief as a crutch and a fabrication, and expressive of psychological immaturity and pathology, are the real foundation on which Dr Barber is seeking to establish his postulation. So, he deposits the rather dubious notion of affluence as a determinant and indicator of emotional well-being, while those lacking in this endowment look to religion for comfort in the face of life's vulnerabilities.

To quote Dr Barber, "Affluence helps people feel more confident about the future so that there is less need for religion to cope with uncertainty and distress. In less developed countries, people have more to worry about in terms of early death, accidents, violence, and so forth. One way of expressing this is to say that religion provides emotional comfort in the face of a dangerous, uncertain world."

Embedded within the teaching of the great religions of the world are cautious statements and warnings regarding the place of affluence within the life of persons and the threat which it poses to faithful religious adherence.

To that extent, there is nothing profoundly new in what the learned biopsychologist is saying. And yet the treatment of the issue in the scriptures of the major religions is not that affluence promotes atheism, but that it leads to self-absorption and a disruption in relationships -- human and divine.

In Christian scripture it is represented in the story of the self-absorbed Rich Man (Dives) and Lazarus, in which the Rich Man dressed himself in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously, while Lazarus lay at his gate, hungry, covered in sores, and with only the dogs as his companions.

Development of the society, as advanced by Dr Barber, can only become a reality where human beings are committed to the common good, and which, for the religiously committed member of the Judeo-Christian tradition of faith, comes where one's life is in alignment with God, and as a consequence, with human community.

The historical experience of the people of Jamaica is certainly not one in which those possessing affluence have been virtuous and in the forefront of any effort to alleviate the condition of the poor and vulnerable. Affluence may abound, and development may be measured in terms of economic indices, but the resultant demise of religion and growth of atheism which it should bring on is certainly not something which has significance only for those who know God as some supposed crutch.

It is just as relevant by way of challenge for those who see God as reality and through whom the created order has come into being, in whom all persons, affluent and poor, stand accountable for the implementation of his reign of justice and righteousness, so that the common good is served, and none live in poverty and on the margins, but all share in the benefits of the development of their nation.

The God of the Judeo-Christian faith tradition is, therefore, not only the God of the imagination of the poor, bringing comfort to them in the face of life's vulnerabilities, but the God who confronts those of affluence, power, and positions of leadership to bring about a truly just society.

While the projected developed society of 2041 in which God has been marginalised, and which, if it is not a lopsided society in which the affluent rule, must have some semblance of corporate well-being in which those who have found it necessary to look to God in the past, now find that their affluent and power brothers and sisters have so developed a sense of benevolence that accommodation has been made for all in this developed society.

There are in fact no indices which can verify such a movement at a global level or in the 137 countries surveyed by the Gallup Poll which Dr Barber quotes. In fact, the global trend is one in which the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in every society, including those already deemed developed.

If anything, one could argue that current trends in the globalised marketplace suggest that poverty is on the rise and the prospect for many nations and peoples would point in the opposite direction to that being asserted by Dr Barber.

One cannot help thinking that here is another of those attempts by someone from the global North, referred to ironically as western society, who is seeking to justify the direction in which their societies are moving and who is seeking to suggest that when we have progressed and moved from poverty and un-enlightenment, we will come to adopt their positions in due course. This is just another assumption of so-called western superiority in thought and the development of human society.

For the past decade, the label of homophobia has been used to label societies like our own, with its pejorative connotation and intent, and now our religious commitment is being defined in pathological terms. Secularism is overrunning Europe, and Europe is searching for a moral foundation which will guide its way forward.

The United Kingdom has taken legislative steps which limit the place of religion in schools, limit what persons can publicly affirm regarding their religious views on human sexuality, and are increasingly relegating religion to private space. The rise of atheism or agnosticism within such a context is not an indicator of affluence or the removal of the vulnerabilities of life which confront the poor, neither is it a comment on the validity and worth of religion.

In some ways, the position and conclusion arrived at by Dr Barber is as old as the existence of religion. The assertion of religion as wishful thinking is nothing new. While it is true that religion can and has been used as a prop by many, it cannot be said that that is all that religion is by its very nature. And while Dr Barber would, in the course of the practice of his discipline, have had to deal with religion in its pathological manifestation, to claim to be able to speak in a way representative of his discipline as a whole, and pass judgement on the nature of religion is another matter.

Among the ranks of psychologists of every area of specialisation are persons of religious faith, and unless Dr Barber is prepared to argue that his colleagues are among the unenlightened who will abandon faith when development comes, then he can only be expressing a personal perspective based on the outcome of one piece of research.

The demise of religion and the reign of atheism leave us with a world governed by the philosophy of humanism as the goal of human existence. Humanism is an optimistic view of human nature which emphasises the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and is generally dismissive of established doctrine or faith.

In the context of this postulation by Dr Barber, this perspective suggests that life itself and the human condition would be better without religion. This optimism has found expression in different ways through the ages. World War I, perhaps the bloodiest war in history, was fought on the basis that it was to be "the war to end all wars". We now know that human nature understood that outside of a relationship with God it cannot deliver what it promises, as the bloodletting since then has demonstrated.

Indeed, religious leaders became caught up in a similar kind of expression of optimism in human nature, characterised as modernity, following the War, by seeing in the development of science and technology the emergence of a kind of utopian society in which issues of poverty and underdevelopment would be solved.

There were those who advanced what was known as the Social Gospel, and which was supposed to mobilise the religious community to be involved in programmes that would lead to the transformation of the human condition, even as there were voices like the theologian Karl Barth who was calling on religion to seriously critique culture, its assumption about the human condition and its ability to be transformative of human society without a religious perspective. These voices prevailed for just a while until despair set in with the rise of post-modernity.

Today, we are in what has been described as the post-Christian era. It is quite easy to confuse this with the demise of religion and the rise of atheism. What is characteristic of the era is the loss of appeal of traditional expressions of religion, decreasing participation in formal assembly of religiously committed persons, but contrary to the assertion of Dr Barber there is a continuing increase in interest in spirituality of a personal nature, and for this there is ample research evidence.

In the meanwhile, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the reality, power, or presence of the divine) remains beyond the competence of Dr Barber to dismiss.

-- Howard Gregory is the Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands

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