Secular Christianity?

26 December, 2006

Another Christmas has just gone by. As usual the TV news included a quick mention of an increased number of people attending church on that day. (Well, it would be strange if attendance went down, wouldn’t it?) I wonder if any of these one-a-year Christians feel some moral qualm about their hypocrisy? That’s a rhetorical question.

I should clarify by saying that I don’t believe in God. I think the whole supernatural thing is nonsense, and belief in such things is a sign of moral weakness.

Of course, people have a natural propensity to belief. As John Le Carre said. some people believe in God, some people join the Communist party, and some people keep canaries. I, being human, am not above this – I still regret my near brush with the vegetable juice and vitamin supplements cult a few years ago.

Beside something to believe in, religion also gives a framework that gives our lives a sense of purpose and meaning. Religion also gives rituals for important parts of life. Even non-believers want a white wedding and a reverent funeral. For this they turn to the Church.

What about the non-believers of conscience? Can they forgive themselves for using the G-word? Can they find comfort in something they don’t believe in? What are the alternatives?

Well, if you’re an atheist, I suppose you could hang out with the kooks at the local sceptics club, where non-belief has become as much a cult as any church or mosque. But even they feel the emptiness of their astringent attitude.

I would suggest that one truly useful thing these sceptics could do is compile a secular bible. It would include passages from sceptics such as Socrates and Nietzsche, and stories of noble sceptics and truth-seekers such as Galileo and Socrates (again). It would also include passages relevant to the great events of life – birth, marriage, death, etc. – and suggestions for appropriate rituals.

But what about the great cultural legacy of religion? The biblical stories engrained in the psyche of the West, the beatitudes of Jesus, the old rituals and songs – must these be swept away as the Communist regimes have attempted to do, leaving a sterile, functional, cultureless wasteland?

At this moment I recall the phrase “secular Jew”, which we use to indicate a person who, although not a believer in the bible and the rituals of Judaism, identifies culturally as a Jew, with the history, attitudes and behaviours this implies.

Why not be a “secular Christian”? The traditions, values, sentiments and stories, all have value even if one does not believe in a literal God that set it all in motion. The figure of Jesus can be inspirational even to one who doesn’t believe in his godhead or even his existence. We can see this working in pantheistic Japan, where belief in spirits of material things can be taken philosophically or literally, without recrimination. Each viewpoint is valid and complements the other.

I think much of the angst of the “culture wars” could be resolved if this “secular Christian” attitude was widely adopted. We might even see an increase in church attendance!

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