How are religions born?

Andrew Brown

What is religion, part 5: In the systems we know about, either folk beliefs coalesce or a charismatic founder emerges

Since they are historical entities, religions are born and die. I'll think about their death some other time. But how do they emerge, and from what? This isn't a question with a single answer, although there are a couple of popular stories about the process left over from the 19th century.

It's widely believed, for example, either that religions must have a charismatic founder, a prophet figure, or that they are more or less self-conscious frauds perpetrated by a priestly class against the common people. This second version is clearly a secularised version of the Protestant history of the Reformation, and makes very little sense as a general theory. Obviously there have been examples of both types of religion formation. It's possible that Mormonism combines both, since a charismatic founder managed to create a social structure with huge rewards for the priesthood. But there are too many exceptions for these rules to be generally valid.

Robert Bellah's account of the emergence of religion might be said to break off just at the point when it becomes easy to talk about the emergence and existence of particular religions, distinguished clearly from other forms of social activity. The very earliest religions are, in Bellah's telling, indistinguishable from culture. He follows Emile Durkheim and most anthropologists in seeing "religion" as an intensification of ritual first of all. The things that everyone in the tribe does together, and the stories they tell together become their religion – or at least what anthropologists could study and classify as religion.

It's not at all clear that the people studied by anthropologists would understand this distinction. They certainly don't understand it theologically. There is a good attack on these kinds of misunderstandings in Pascal Boyer's book The Naturalness of Religious Ideas, in which he points out that most anthropological accounts of "primitive beliefs" refer to something that does not actually exist: "They [are not] thoughts that occur to actual people; they describe thoughts that people might entertain, in the anthropologist's view, if they wanted to make sense of what they actually do and say."

Bellah, with his stress on ritual and on the embodiment of beliefs in wider systems of meaning, avoids this pitfall. You make sense of what you do and say by acting on it, and embodying it in a larger narrative, not by extracting it into a system.

Yet systems do emerge, and they form a large part of what we now think of as religion. Although some form of healing ritual, and healing specialist, seems to have been among the very earliest precursors of religion, and of priesthood, the emergence of any kind of "religion" organisationally distinct from the rest of culture depends at the very least on agriculture, which provides enough of a surplus in fixed settlements.

It seems certain that religions, like other social forms, evolve: that is to say they arise from modifications of earlier forms. The trouble for historical inquiry is simply that without written records we simply have to guess what happened. With written records, we need no longer guess, but can be authoritatively misled. Two excellent accounts of this process are Tom Holland's book In the Shadow of the Sword, about the invention of Islam, and Jim Macdonald's blogpost on the emergence of the Bible as fan fiction.

In those religious systems we know about, there seem to be two processes under way. The first is a kind of coalescence of folk beliefs and practices into something more or less organised and more or less useful to the state. Shinto looks like that, and Hinduism. You could make a case that American Protestantism, which has increasingly less to do with historic, Orthodox Christianity, is heading in the other direction.

Then there are the religions that can be traced back to a single charismatic founder – most obviously Christianity and Islam, but also Sikhism and Mormonism, to name two modern successes.

In all these cases, there is considerable doubt about the relation of the teacher to the teaching subsequently encoded in their name (as with Marx and Marxism), but it does seem that the idea of the perfect teacher helps to spread teachings. The best illustration of that is Judaism, which seems to have been a coalescence or codification – with considerable distortions – of a folk religion recollected in exile, but which was codified around the almost entirely invented figure of Moses.

It seems intuitively obvious that in the modern world, where people must make a self-conscious choice of religion or belief system, a charismatic founder figure who can say "follow me" is necessary. But like many things intuitively obvious, this is wrong. Even today, the most interesting religious movements are those that coalesce without a single founder or a body of organised doctrine – Rastafarianism is a small example, charismatic Christianity a much more important one. There are still religions being born that will change the world.

How do religions die?

Andrew Brown

Do they waste away, or get conquered by something better? Perhaps it is easier to think in terms of gods dying, rather than religions

If religions are born, they must also be able to die. How does this happen? I think we can discount at once the idea that it happens because people realise that science is better. It's obvious that the more people try to replace religion with science, the more they reproduce the worst features of organised religion.

On the other hand, societies might be reconfigured in such a way that the idea of religion made no sense. Interestingly, the reverse process seems to have happened in Japan in the 19th century, after American gunboats broke the country's isolation. According to a recent book from Chicago University Press, there had been until then no concept of "religion" in Japanese society; afterwards, as part of the modernisation, some social practices and beliefs had to be carved out as "religious" while others were classified as "non-religious". I don't know how this account might apply to the spread of Christianity in the 17th century, and then the murderous suppression over generations; I'll have to wait for the book to arrive. But the process seems a plausible one, and something like it may be under way in the "secularising" parts of the world today.

But what is happening there is less of an abandonment of doctrine as a withdrawal of assent from things formerly considered sacred. This is a process as general and impersonal as language change. Nor is it any more driven by rationality. Considered in themselves, there is nothing more "religious" about a teddy bear left out in the rain by the roadside than there is about a man wearing a white lace-trimmed frock. Yet the teddy bear at the site of a road crash is recognised as a meaningful symbol of our horror at mortality, while the young man in a cotta is no longer a priest linking us to the heart of our civilisation but callow and pretentious.

One hundred years ago, the situation would have been completely absurd, a reversal of the natural order of the universe. It's certainly impossible to describe it as progress. It is simply change – evolution, if you like.

Perhaps it is easier to think in terms of gods dying, rather than religions. And if we were to classify religions as involving different forms of worship, then you could certainly think that the extinction of worship towards a particular deity would count as the extinction of that religion. Certainly we can be sure that the religion of the Aztecs is dead with their gods, along with hundreds of thousands of others we can no longer reconstruct, and all the pre-literate ones whose existence we remain quite unaware of. Robert Bellah has a nice passage on this "Perhaps the end of Mesopotamian Civilization was marked, not by the last cuneiform document to be produced, but by the last prayer to be uttered to Marduk or Assur, but of that we have no record."

A slightly less scholarly approach is found in Terry Pratchett's Small Gods, where there is a desert full of shrivelled starving deities who will vanish altogether if they cannot find someone to believe in them. I once preached a kind of anti-sermon based on that book to a shocked evangelical congregation in an Oxford college. In any case, the Gods here are kept alive entirely by the fervency and numbers of their believers. Pratchett, being a child of English Anglicanism, underestimates the importance of ritual and overestimates belief, but it does seem clear that deities die when no one prays to them. That's something subtly but importantly different to believing in them. There is a sense in which I can believe in Thor without this for a moment meaning what it would to a believer. So blasphemy can kill off deities, and the measure of its success is that it comes not to be blasphemous at all.

But there is another threat to organised and literate religions, which they certainly treat as potentially fatal. That's heresy: wrong belief and a misapplication of the sacred. In this context one of the most interesting texts is CS Lewis's denunciation of female priests. They would, he said, constitute a new religion. Yet, when they came, we can see that they appeared as a simple inevitable, development of the old one. They are still priests. And it is this fact which illustrates better than anything the living and evolutionary nature of religions of all sorts. There could no more be a first Christian than there could be a first homo sapiens. We can see religions have been born, and have died, but the moments of birth and death will always be mysterious and shrouded.

What is religion?, part 1: civil religion and the state

Andrew Brown

The 'God' of American civil religion supplies a way for society to judge itself from a standpoint exterior to power

The recent death of Robert Bellah made me reread his classic essay on American civil religion, which first appeared in 1967 and this, in turn, sparked a series' worth of questions on what religion is. Bellah believed, as I have come to do, that a society without religion is impossible. This claim will strike quite a lot of readers as wholly absurd, as ridiculous as supposing that Earth goes round the sun when any fool can see the sun crossing the heavens several times at least in any English summer. So I think it's worth examining and defending at some length.

The first requirement, if you are going to do this, is to break all notions of religion as being something essentially like Christianity or any of the other monotheisms of today. To talk about "religion" as if the perfect form was modern Christianity is like talking about biology as if the perfect mammal was homo sapiens.

Bellah was a sociologist and to some extent an anthropologist too. He knew very well that there have been innumerable different forms of religion, and that counter-examples can be found for everything that is supposed to be distinctively religious. You don't need priests, holy books, or doctrines. You don't even need myths. All these are things which, once established, are hard to be rid of, because they reflect and help to constitute increasingly complex models of social organisation which will tend to replace more simple ones. But none of them are essential to a religion.

At the same time, it's important not to go too far in the other direction, and to suppose that every social activity, and every movement of the inner life, can be described as in some sense religious.

Bellah himself started off in the 70s with a long and complicated definition and ended up with a very simple and powerful one. This came in part from the early 20th-century philosopher George Santayana, who wrote that having a religion meant having "another world to live in – whether we expect ever to pass wholly over into it or no".

What Bellah added to this was the point that the world of everyday, from which religion promises to deliver us, is not more real, or less constructed than the one we access through religious practices. Everyday life may involve different kinds of cognition, but the world we see through its mechanisms is just as much the product of wish fulfilment as heaven might be. Only the appetites being satisfied in there are different.

And living entirely in the daily life world of those narrow appetites and immediate problems to solve is literally intolerable. No one can manage it all the time. He doesn't mean by this that religion speaks to our higher or more unselfish instincts. It needs to be taken for granted in these arguments that some forms of religion are almost entirely malign and lead to horror. But religion is also, importantly, selfless. Its atrocities derive from a higher cause. They offer the hope that things will be different.

How does this map on to his idea of an American civic religion, distinct from Christianity? Perhaps the most important point of his essay, easily overlooked, is that there has been from the very beginning of the Republic, he says, an American civil irreligion competing with the civil religion as a narrative and a general theory of the state and its people. Again, it is a characteristic of this thought that there are struggles rather than simplicities.

The struggle between civil religion and civil irreligion is also one between republicanism and liberalism as these were understood in the late 18th century. Republicanism, certainly as it was understood in the 18th century, depends utterly on religion, because a republic is built and maintained by its citizens in their interactions with each other. They have to subordinate themselves quite deliberately to a vision of a common good, and they must see this as fulfilling their own natures. That, very simply, is the task of religion. This is the spirit that he sees infuses the Declaration of Independence.

Against this is the competing tradition of liberalism, more fully developed in the constitution. Liberalism (in this sense) has no need of God because it trusts that the self-interest of the citizens will lead them to the best possible outcome: "the state is a purely neutral legal mechanism without purposes or values. Its sole function is to protect the rights of individuals, that is, to protect freedom." Such a state is, he thinks, an absurd impossibility, which could never exist (non-existence does not of course much diminish its power over our imaginations).

States and societies must have a way to judge themselves from some standpoint exterior to power. It is not enough for religion to give us access to another world: we must be able to contemplate our everyday world and judge it by the standards of the one we reach. And this judgment is what the "God" of American civil religion supplies. This God is clearly distinct from the Christian one, and still more the Jewish one. Rather he is the being who rescues, or who might sometimes rescue, America from the evil angels of its nature.

Whatever else you think of his ideas, this task is pressing today.

What is religion?, part 2: why football doesn't measure up

Andrew Brown

The most blinding and obvious deficiency of football as a religion is that it lacks any kind of theology – and excludes many women

 'For a lot of people the fate of their football team does affect them the way that God's good opinion is supposed to do.'

Aperfectly reasonable question to ask of people like me, who define "religion" in a way that plays down theology, is why something like football should not be a religion. After all, it involves collective emotion, quasi-mystical experiences of loss of selfhood in a higher purpose, even if that is only to crush those bastards from the visiting team. If Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch is to be believed, it is also a way of coming to terms with the disappointments and tragedies of life. Going to a match with your estranged father has something of the effect that taking communion together is meant to have for Christians.

If you do a Google news search, in the months of an English winter, for terms like "miracle", or "messiah" many results will turn out to be about football matches. For a lot of people the fate of their football team does affect them the way that God's good opinion is supposed to do. All kinds of mental illness and unhappiness diminish when their team does well, and increase when it does badly. And then there is the Bill Shankly quote, that football isn't a matter of life or death, it's much more important than that: this, in itself, is a wonderful definition of the ambitions of religious truth – that it should be more important than life or death.

And yet football very clearly isn't a proper religion. And the reasons why cast some light on what religions are, or must be.

I should perhaps add here that I am completely unsympathetic to the game. I have only been to one serious football match (a north London derby) in my life, when I was accompanying a police patrol. We sat on the touchline, and came away with our shoulders coated with spittle because the people behind us were howling out their feelings without any inhibitions. I will watch football sometimes on screens because the movement is so completely meaningless. I suppose this is a vague equivalent to the homoerotic pleasures of liturgical traditionalists.

But I absolutely lack something which is obviously a deep part of the engagement of real football fans – the ability to suspend disbelief so that I feel I am in some way present on the pitch myself. The sale of replica shirts that is such an important part of the economics of modern football clearly depends on the idea that you take on some of the virtue of the player whose number you wear. That's clearly one of the mechanisms that makes up religions. But it's not enough on its own.

And this is important. Religions aren't made from specially "religious" behaviour or thoughts, but from ordinary patterns of thought and behaviour which are assembled in particular ways.

The most blinding and obvious deficiency of football as a religion is that it lacks any kind of theology. There is in fact an absurd public rhetoric embraced by Fifa about brotherhood but no one takes it seriously. Although theology is the least important part of any religious system, and the one which alters most in response to changes either in public ritual or in private emotion, it is needed as a way to make sense – to the participants – of what is going on.

I'm inclined to think that it is a further disadvantage that football matches have results. It really doesn't matter what football managers say in public compared to what their players do. Compare this to American civil religion, which could be identified, and analysed by Robert Bellah because he had texts to work with. He was able to point out, and to analyse, the implicit theologies of American public rhetoric, and the kinds of things that presidents said when they wanted to unite their country around a common purpose. If you were to do that to the speeches made by football managers, the results would be less rewarding. The Gettysburg Address was rather more than a half-time pep talk in the American civil war.

But all this is really rather theoretical. The real reason why football could never function as a religion is blindingly obvious – which is why we are blind to it. Many women find it boring and incomprehensible.

For the most part "serious" men's football is an escape from all the problems entailed by the existence of another sex. This has its charms, but it won't do at all for a religion, which has to offer sense and meaning and hope to the whole of life. If religions were only expressions of willed stupidity, willed escapism, and orgies of communal feeling, then, yes, football might be a religion. But since it isn't, there must be more to religions than that.

What is religion?, part 3: the role of the ritual

Andrew Brown

Robert Bellah argues that religion is underpinned and preceded by ritual – but that does not make all ritual religious

 'Acts such as staring at the sunset might be a root of some of our perceptions of the world as ineffable and infinitely valuable.'

If you treat religion as a natural phenomenon, as Robert Bellah did, two things follow. The first is that what we observe will not have clear or logical boundaries. This means that what constitutes a religion is really quite hard to specify even if it is fairly easy to recognise. The second point is that any of the social phenomena or psychological phenomena we are interested in will have a history. In some aspects this will be an evolutionary history. What we have will have developed from earlier forms, and the capacities we use will have evolved from earlier ones.

This is most obvious in the case of language. It's reasonable to say that there could be no religion without a language – reasonable, but hardly inarguable. A great many of the experiences we think of as quintessentially religious come without language, mystical ones in particular. (I know it is perfectly possible for an atheist to have mystical experiences and to shape their life around them while denying them any theological explanation. So it would clearly be wrong to say that mystical experiences enforce any particular religious position. That's not the point.)

Nonetheless, even wordless religious experiences are embedded in language. Animals without language might have proto-religious experiences, but these are clearly not the same as those which a linguistically competent human has. The primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh once described to me a line of chimpanzees staring in apparent bliss at a sunset – something which might be a root of some of our perceptions of the world as ineffable and infinitely valuable. But the chimpanzees will never tell stories about it, and never try to embed the experience in a web of explicit meanings. Both of those things must form part of any religious experience.

So the emergence of language must have preceded the emergence of religion. Bellah, however, moved towards the view that ritual preceded both, and made both possible. This is a very large claim for ritual. It is made in compressed form in the big book Religion in Human Evolution, and in an earlier, more spacious way in the paper Durkheim and Ritual, reprinted in the Robert Bellah reader.

Essentially, he argues that shared attention directed through repetitive and stereotyped actions is the essence of ritual, and that it is also at the root of all human learning, including the transactions between a mother and her baby. This makes a lot of sense when you consider the extraordinarily ritualised proto-language that we use when communicating with babies. When practised between two people, ritual and play give rise to love, whether sexual, parental, or simply between friends. When practised in larger groups, ritual and play give us religion and language.

This is a very compressed version of the argument. I have for instance entirely left out his speculations on the importance of music in the process, although they are also relevant to language acquisition, as anyone who talks to toddlers will tell you. But it carries the minimum we need to understand his approach to the question of what religion is.

Talking about the importance of ritual in this way is frequently attacked as a way to defend the relevance of religion in a world where it is (or merely ought to be) irrelevant. It looks like special pleading. Passages such as this: "Since ritual, for Durkheim, is primarily about the sacred in a sense in which the religious and the social are almost interchangeable, subsequent work … might be seen as disclosing an element of the sacred, and thus of the religious, at the very basis of social action of any kind," lend strength to the suspicion that this is just a way to make sociologists look as if they had the key to all mythologies, something no other scientists, of course, would ever do.

But the suspicion is importantly misplaced. To show that the earliest religions arise from the same processes as the ritual capabilities which make us distinctively human, is not an argument that everything which subsequently evolved using those capabilities must be religious.

The sense in which Bellah's claim seems to me really important, as well as quite right, is that it undercuts the idea that there is a special "religious" mode of irrationality – a mind virus, if you will – that could be eradicated and leave the rest of our humanity intact and purified. On the contrary, if you could remove the roots of religion, you remove the roots of humanity, too. Ritual and narrative are the basic ways by which we learn what it is to be human, and I don't think it's grotesque imperialism to regard arguments about which rituals and narratives are truly religious ones – whether or not their conclusions are atheistic.

What is religion?, part 4: divinity, God and 'real' religion

Andrew Brown

Can you have a religion not based around the Abrahamic idea of a God who could, if he wished, behave like a mafia boss?

One of the most unnerving passages in Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution is the section where he examines the central Jewish and Christian idea of a covenant with God. He traces it back to the treaties imposed by the remarkably brutal Assyrian empire on the nations it subjugated.

Some of the treaties have been preserved, so that it is possible to compare the language with that of the Bible. It turns out that the language in which God addresses Israel is almost identical to the language with which the Assyrians address the rulers they have suffered to remain in the states they would otherwise devastate. The nearest modern analogy would perhaps be for some tiny Baltic state like Estonia to model its understanding of God on Stalin. In both cases, there is a fundamental asymmetry of power: the weaker party is bound and compelled to obedience and even to love. The stronger party is entirely untrammelled.

"In both Assyrian and Israelite versions of the vassal covenant the subordinate must keep the stipulations of the treaty or face the most disastrous consequences: in Israel God, in Assyria the gods, will inflict leprosy, blindness, violent death, rape, and invasion by 'a nation you have not known' if the subordinate is disloyal."

Two questions arise from this. The first is whether this isn't just a really powerful argument for atheism – it looks as if the central idea of God's chosen people has nothing to do with revelation and is more a kind of wish-fulfilment arising from an abusive relationship. There is a counter-argument sketched out in Bellah's book, which I don't want to go into here because to enter into it would move away from the central question of what a religion is.

That demands that we ask the second question – whether there could be religions that were not based around the Abrahamic idea of a God who could, if he wished, behave like a mafia boss: the being Blake called "Old Nobodaddy".

I am writing this at a meeting of the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion, which has been discussing atheisms. The plural is important, because one of the arguments here is that both religion and atheism are socially constituted. If you complicate the definition of religion, you also constitute the definitions of atheism, yet both complications are forced on us by the variety and inventiveness of human societies.

It is almost universally true that what counts as religion in one society at one time will be atheistic in another, and vice versa. Both Socrates and the early Christians were persecuted as atheists, yet its obvious that both lived in a world filled with spirits. Equally, most people are atheists with regard to most gods.

Even strict naturalists will claim to have transcendent experiences. Some will claim this with peculiar fervour, as if they wanted to show that atheists lost nothing by abandoning God. So it's perfectly possible, even if uncommon, to be a strict naturalist and Buddhist (I think Susan Blackmore would qualify as an example) and, clearly, Buddhism is generally classed as a religion.

So let's sharpen the question to whether it is possible to have a conception of the divine that does not involve any kind of personal God, or God having any kind of personal relationship with the believer.

Such a set of beliefs would be largely inarticulate. There might be a kind of intellectual superstructure – as there is in Buddhism – but a worked-out theology would be unnecessary especially if the main structure of religious participation was built around rituals and practices rather than creeds. In some forms of eastern religion, the only words required of a believer are mantras that are quite deliberately meaningless, or rapidly become so with repetition.

This does seem to me to be an almost entirely depersonalised picture of something otherworldly, whether we call it the divine, the transcendent, or the ultimately real. Whatever it is called it triumphantly fulfils Bellah's criterion that religion should show us another world and allow us to criticise and better understand this one from the other's perspective.

Of course, much of Buddhism isn't like this. You might argue that the deracinated Buddhism of western intellectuals isn't a real religion just as some antitheists argue that the beliefs of philosophically sophisticated Christian theologians aren't "real" Christianity. But I don't think this argument holds for a religion like Buddhism, which has no founding covenant. It can't be wrong to defy the intentions of a non-existent God. But it can be a very religious act.

What was God's role in Auschwitz? A question often prohibited, but always asked

Andrew Brown

Otto Dov Kulka's writing considers how religious belief can exist in a world with no future. His answer comes in the form of a dream

 'Implicit in Otto Dov Kulka's writing is the very disturbing question of whether he could have felt the safety he did in this sky without the yearning to escape from the horror that surrounded him below.

 from the Jewish experience of Auschwitz is the role of God there. Of course many atheists and many Christians died there, along with people who had believed in humanity and in the future. But there is a peculiar quality of claustrophobic horror in Jewish reflections on the matter, for they are the chosen people whose whole history is of wrangling with God; yet an omnipotent God singled them out for this dreadful fate. If we disregard the frankly disgusting suggestion that they deserved it, there is no explanation possible and certainly not one that does not sound glib. Yet that does not stop the conversation.

Otto Dov Kulka approaches this in two ways. The first is so indirect as to leave almost no traces. He talks about beauty: the most beautiful and innocent experience of his childhood, he says, was watching the skies of southern Poland where "silver-coloured toy aeroplanes carrying greetings from distant worlds pass slowly across the azure skies while around them explode what look like white bubbles. The aeroplanes pass by and the skies remain blue and lovely, and far off, far off on that clear summer day, distant blue hills as though not of this world make their presence felt."

Yet these were seen from inside the camp. "I took in nothing but that beauty and those colours, and so they have remained imprinted in my memory. This contrast is an integral element of the black columns that are swallowed up in the crematoria, the barbed-wire fences that are stretched tight all around by the concrete pillars. But in that experience all this seemingly did not exist, only in the background and not consciously."

Implicit in this is the very disturbing question of whether he could have felt the safety he did in this sky without the yearning to escape from the horror that surrounded him below.

This sense of almost entering something just out of reach seems a central religious experience. It is connected with George Santayana's claim that "another world to live in – whether we expect ever to pass wholly over into it or no – is what we mean by having a religion."

Against that, Kulka stresses over and over again the inescapable, totalitarian quality of Auschwitz. It was a world in which the future was completely absent, where any other world became impossible. That is one of the things that he means by "the immutable law of the Great Death".

So religious belief, or even religious experience, becomes impossible in a way that is more profound than even the obvious and overwhelming fact of the suffering of innocents in the extermination camps. Where was God there? Because the question is unanswerable, some religious authorities pronounce it is forbidden to ask it: Kulka quotes two people saying that, one of them who was actually in the camp as a Sonderkommando, whose reply was: "It is forbidden to ask that question, those questions, there, and unto eternity." It will be seen that this isn't an answer.

The answer Kulka offers is a dream he had more than 50 years after the event, when Israel was braced for a chemical attack in the Gulf war. He dreamed then he was inside crematorium number 2, and there was God, also: "At first I felt Him (only) as a kind of mysterious radiation of pain, flowing at me from the dark void in the unlit part of the cremation ovens. A radiation of insupportably intense pain, sharp and dull alike. Afterwards He began to take the shape of a kind of huge embryo, shrunk with pain … He was alive, shrunken, hunched forward with searing pain … a figure on the scale of His creatures, in the form of a human being who came and was there … as a response to 'the question they were forbidden to ask there', but was asked and floated in that dark air."

Even more than most dreams, this cannot have its meaning pinned down. It works like the Gate of the Law in the Kafka story: it is open for everyone but individual to each of us. The atheist might see in it that God is no more than the quintessence of humanity. It is not one answer but many, none of them sufficient. All it unarguably shows is that the question of God keeps being asked, no matter how often it is prohibited.

Four Quartets: TS Eliot's struggle to make the real world right in a spiritual realm

Roz Kaveney

These poems are about old age and regret, but also poetic structure and art. After them, there was nothing much left to say

 'There’s a sort of ecclesiastical tourism going on – he is shoring up fragments again but with a view to curing his soul this time.'

The greatness of the Four Quartets lies partly in their abstract considerations, but also in the way that they are so particular in their imagery. They are poems of long walks in the English countryside, and boating off the north-eastern US and of London in gloomy threatened peace and the dust and smoke of war; they are poems of middle age and a sense of fading powers. They are at once an attempt at making a final general statement about the spiritual life and an intense last flowering of the poetry of a very specific person.

Eliot almost entirely abandoned poetry after Little Gidding and turned, for good and ill, to the theatre; I don't propose to consider his plays in this series. There is a paradox here – Eliot talks of faring forward, or not ceasing from exploration, but these four great poems are a total statement after which there was nothing much left for him to say.

This is partly because of their essentially musical structure – in which themes are constantly recapitulated in major and minor ways. The ghost children who never were get their major moment in Burnt Norton but are reprised in a few lines of Little Gidding; other poems of Eliot engage in metonymy of other texts, and so do these, but here echoes of other poems in the sequence are even more important. Not only is Eliot telling us that "all time is eternally present", that "in my end is my beginning", he is constantly showing us this as a matter of technique. Further, by implication, he is saying that the destiny of our souls is constantly constructed and reconstructed by meditations that are an echo chamber both of what is real and what might have been.

In these poems, then, we get echoes of Julian of Norwich and that other Thomas Elyot who wrote The Book of the Governor; we get "I sometimes wonder if this is what Krishna meant" teetering near pretentious self-parody but clearly needed; we get passages that modernise the piety of the metaphysicals, whose advocate Eliot had been "the wounded surgeon plies the steel" and the almost Celtic twilight "the boarhound and the boar/pursue their pattern as before/but reconciled among the stars". There's a sort of ecclesiastical tourism going on – he is shoring up fragments again but with a view to curing his soul this time.

These are poems of self-examination and regret and a sense of the need for penance: "The rending pain of re-enactment/of all that you have done, and been; the shame/of motives late revealed/of things ill done, and done to other's harm." It may be impossible to be any harder on Eliot than he was, some of the time and that the best of him, on himself.

But for all their obsession with Anglicanism as a living tradition, the Four Quartets are only occasionally a way of talking about the spiritual, specifically Christian.

As you would expect from the descendant of New England Puritans, there is a deep consciousness here both of personal sin and original sin but salvation is seen in terms of personal annihilation as much as purgation "consumed by either fire or fire". Christ is "the wounded surgeon" but not otherwise here; Eliot feels the deep guilt of the redemptive sacrifice of incarnate flesh but not the joy of birth or resurrection. Christians have been so glad of having such a great poet as a recruit that they have sometimes not noticed his less-than-entire orthodoxy.

These are poems, or rather one long great poem in many segments, about old age and about regret and about hope for some sort of mystical annihilation of a redeemed self; they are also poems about art and poetry and structure. This is not a sneer at the expense of the belief with which Eliot struggled and his attempt to make right in a spiritual realm what could not be fixed in this world – a poet cannot but conceive of the building and correction of a soul save through poetic structure.

Eliot created the symphonic self-recapitulating structure of the Four Quartets as a way of modelling what he hoped was possible in a religious sense; without sharing his belief, we can see these poems as magnificent in the purely aesthetic sense that he hoped he had moved beyond. If we believe that the making of art is one of the highest justifications of human life, it is possible to be consoled and moved and perhaps ennobled by these poems. Eliot might have hoped for more, but that's something.

TS Eliot and the politics of culture

Roz Kaveney

The poet's meditative writings in the late 1920s and early 30s mask a certain chill

TS Eliot was one of the most intellectually adroit of poets, a fine mind with a breadth of cultural and other knowledge that few writers since can equal or even attempt to emulate. He often felt humbled by the weight of all that had come before him; much of what he says in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent is attractively modest in the limited programme it proposes for poetry – not to explore ever finer and newer and more original emotion, but to find, through technique, a coldly rational way of honing language for its own sake "not the expression of personality but an escape from personality … Only those who have personality and emotions can know what it means to want to escape from those things".

Like Stravinsky setting aside the rhythmic invention and freedom of Le Sacre du Printemps for the chill neo-classical beauty of Orpheus or Apollon Musagete, Eliot wanted in the later 1920s and early 30s a poetry of concentration and meditation rather than the brilliant insightful dangerous randomness of The Waste Land. His conversion to high Anglican Christianity, and the growing dominance of his work by devotional and religious themes, made this programme inevitable – he could not allow himself to stray again into the dangerous irrational territory of Sweeney Agonistes. Indeed, in his 1933 lectures After Strange Gods, he specifically calls the irrationalist neo-primitivist strain in modernism diabolical, especially in the case of DH Lawrence, whom he admires but sees as a source of spiritual danger to anyone less versed in the true meaning of orthodoxy than Eliot himself.

When we look at Eliot's writings on culture, we see a fine critical intelligence allied to a fear of possible consequences that is deeply terrifying in the way that in it elitist arrogance masquerades as humility and passionate concern to keep things as they are as a broadly accepting humanism. After Strange Gods is a work that Eliot never reprinted, with good reason, but he did not disavow it so much as replace its clear statements with vaguer ones. Notoriously – although in 1933 the persecution of Jews by the new Nazi regime was only just beginning – he stated that in the sort of cohesive intellectual culture and organic society he thought desirable: "The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate … and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable."

In Eliot's ideal society, tolerance is not seen as an especially good thing; he says almost virtuous sounding things about the necessity of caring for the environment, but he ties this closely to a desire that people not travel very much, that most people stay where they were born. It's worth remembering that he gave these lectures in Virginia, in the Old South in a time of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation; he talked of the American civil war as a disaster and of the US's industrial north as wrecked by immigration. Eliot was far too clever a conservative to ally himself directly with Italian or German fascism – they were far too modern and flashy for him.

Later in his life, he expresses similar views in a way that is more tactful rather than essentially different. He talks endlessly of a Christian society, as one in which traditional values are transmitted in a traditional way, arguing that for a Western European or North American sensibility to cast itself adrift from those traditions is to head off into the night without any clear landfall in sight. "If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again and you cannot put on a new culture readymade. You must wait for the grass to grow …"

There is, of course, a double dishonesty in all of this. There is the assumption that it is not possible to retain, in a secular society, those values which we have learned as matters of good sense from a Christianity in which they were supported by revelation; it is a standard trope, unsupported by reason of modern conservatism that if we discard part we stand to lose all of our historical culture – and Eliot was too clever a man not to know that this was, and remains, mere assertion. The other dishonesty is that Eliot's Christianity, like that of many rightwing intellectuals, is an underpinning of the status quo rather than a force for social justice or the ecstatic joy of Easter Day for believers. Agnostics and believers ought to find this cold-hearted promotion of religion as being useful rather than true considerably more repulsive than we do; luckily, these ideas are not all of the story about Eliot and belief. However chill Eliot was as a thinker, in prose, the best of his religious poetry is rather different.

We don't read the Bible to learn more, but to be fed

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes

If you remember one thing about this series, remember the image of a baby at the breast. George Herbert felt the truth could never be fully reached, yet one could still be enriched by stories

 'The first thing Herbert says is not that the Bible contains facts, but essential food.'

George Herbert described in his vicar's manual, The Country Parson, how a parson should use the Bible, but his methods apply to all Christians. They also, I hope, demonstrate that Christians do not have to be (and should not be) Biblical fundamentalists or literalists.

First, Herbert emphasises that all knowledge, from any source, is good. "There is no knowledge, but, in a skilful hand, serves either positively as it is, or else to illustrate some other knowledge". We have already seen, for example in the second of this series, that Herbert deployed imagery from every field of knowledge known in his day – science, rhetoric, philosophy, economics and so on – in his poetry. There is no hint in his work that there might be any kind of conflict between religious truth and other kinds of truth.

This is very important in my own understanding of my faith, and in how I read the Bible and everything else. God is truth. So any kind of truth cannot be something for Christians to be afraid of, whether it is the discovery of evolutionary processes, the detection of the Higgs boson, or archaeological investigations that show that a particular Old Testament story is an inaccurate portrayal of historical events. If these things are true, then God is in them, and we should be unafraid of correcting older perceptions of the truth.

Having said that parsons should esteem all knowledge, Herbert goes on to say that the Bible will, of course, be their most important source of wisdom. But the first thing he says is not that the Bible contains facts, but essential food: "There [the parson] sucks and lives." There is an echo of his earlier poem here, with its reference to sucking honey, but the force of the image here is of breastfeeding. Herbert is imagining, as the medieval mystics did before him, that he and we are like children at the breast when it comes to reading the Bible.

Breastfeeding is an unusual image for reading the Bible nowadays, but let's consider it. Feeding from a mother's breast is not just about the milk, though that is essential for its life, health and growth. It is also about comfort, security and most of all a relationship of love. Through feeding, all being well, a newborn recognises its mother's smell and sound, synchronises its breathing to hers, and grows to know that it is loved and secure. All of this is deliberately intended in this image of "sucking" the Bible. Even though this chapter of Herbert's manual is about knowledge, it is not simply about facts. We don't read it to learn more, but to be fed.

For Herbert, there were four things that were needed to understand the Bible. First, interestingly, a holy life. Herbert suggested that only within the context of living well could the Bible be fully understood. Second, prayer, and third, the careful study of the full text, including the context in which it was written, the whole thrust of the argument, and what other parts of the Bible say about the matter in hand. Of course there are inconsistencies, Herbert acknowledges, and these are worth careful study. If one part contradicts another, "the spirit of both is to be considered and weighed". Herbert would not be a fan of quoting a Bible verse out of context, and certainly wouldn't think that doing so won any arguments.

Fourth, Herbert commends the study of commentaries and expert theologians, carefully balanced with one's own insight. We must not "so study others as to neglect the grace of God in [ourselves], and what the Holy Spirit teacheth us; but neither must we assume that the wisdom of the past is passe, or that we have nothing to learn from the very different opinions or insights of other people."

Herbert felt strongly that the truth can never be fully reached by any one person, or any one age. This, he suggests, is because that way God helps us to learn our interdependence: "As one country doth not bear [produce] all things, that there might be commerce, so neither hath God opened or will open all to one, that there may be a traffic in knowledge … for the planting both of love and humility."

We cannot and should not expect any one person, age or institution to hold the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Disagreement is to be expected, and is nothing to be afraid of. But if you remember one thing about this series, remember the image of a baby at the breast. My aim of reading the Bible is this, to be formed and fed by the stories I drink in, and to find my life and work enriched by them.

Why do we pray? It's all in this George Herbert poem (sorry, there's no mention of parking spaces)

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes

As I discovered at the moment of my conversion, prayer is not just a way to reach a distant God, but something God does too. It is 'something understood', in both directions

 'God is a conversation partner, someone to be argued with, even shouted at, and listened to.'

What prayer is, and what it might achieve, is something that people of all faiths wrestle with. Contrary to the popular image of Christians asking God to provide them with a parking space, most believers do not expect miracles to happen whenever we pray. So why do we do it, and what do we think we are doing?

Most faiths commend prayer and similar meditative practices to their followers, and most believers find solace, peace and even joy in the practice of regular prayer. So too, of course, do practitioners of yoga, or transcendental meditation, or any number of mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Prayer is certainly effective at this level, but is it simply one such technique among many?

Our theories don't always match up with our practice. People in trouble want prayer, and don't stop to analyse why. As a vicar, I find I am constantly asked by non-churchgoers, and "I'm not really religious" types, to "say one for me". I rarely find that a polite offer of prayer is refused: it is often gratefully seized upon. I sometimes find that prayer cards that I have left with someone are still in regular use when I call again months later. And many more people than are fully signed up to the doctrines of Christianity find themselves wandering into a quiet cathedral and lighting a candle.

One of the first George Herbert poems that I read was Prayer (1). It is one that I still frequently quote to myself. In this lovely sonnet, image is piled upon image as Herbert tries to convey what prayer is like, and what he believes prayer achieves. The poem is effectively a list of different metaphors for prayer, and in typical metaphysical style the images draw on a startlingly wide range of sources.

The first four lines use typically religious imagery. Prayer is described as "the Church's banquet", and the "heart in pilgrimage". But the last line of this section introduces an unusual engineering metaphor, picturing prayer as "The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth". This idea of a weighted line measuring – and linking – the furthest reaches of heaven and earth is key to Herbert's conception of prayer. From here on throughout the poem, we begin to notice a theme of prayer stretching across and bridging two very different spheres.

Mirroring this theme, the engineering metaphor of a plummet deftly bridges the movement into the next four-line stanza just as Herbert visualises prayer bridging the gap between God and humanity.

The next image takes the metaphor of prayer as technical equipment much further, describing it as a [siege] "engine against th' Almighty". This is a very dramatic visualisation of the conventional spiritual idea of persistence in prayer, imagining a God who has retreated into heaven like a walled city, and humans using prayer to break down those walls and reach God.

This stanza goes on to hold together two dramatically different sets of imagery: war and music. Lines full of aggressive and violent images – culminating in the picture of prayer as a spear with which we, like the soldier at the crucifixion, pierce Christ's side – are followed by ideas of music, transposition and melody. The effect is itself musical, as if a crashing series of discords have finally resolved themselves into tunefulness at the end of a piece. The next line flows liltingly: "softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss".

The idea of prayer linking heaven and earth, bridging the gap between God and us, is perhaps best summed up in my favourite line: "Heaven in ordinary, man well drest". Here there is a tantalising glimpse not just of prayer being something we do to reach a distant God, but something that God does too, meeting us halfway.

This is a thread that runs throughout Herbert's poetry. Whether or not he is writing specifically about prayer, many of his poems are themselves effectively prayers. God is a conversation partner, someone to be argued with, even shouted at, and listened to.

The final line of Prayer (1) sets out why this is worth doing. Prayer can be dramatic, angry, beautiful, peaceful, exotic or drab: but in the end it is simply about "something understood".

In the first of this series I mentioned my own conversion to Christianity. The moment of encounter with God that changed the course of my life came about when I was praying the classic atheist's prayer: "Oh God, if you existed, please sort this out". (Even as I prayed that, I was embarrassed at its incoherence). The next moment, I was overwhelmed with a sense of the presence of God. There were no words, no fireworks: just a quiet sense of being regarded lovingly and with total acceptance. Something understood, in both directions.

How can we measure the immeasurable?

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes: George Herbert – part 2Put simply, we can't. Herbert is at his most profoundly theological through his poetry's use of arresting images and scenes

In typical 17th-century metaphysical style, Herbert's poem The Agony begins with a sweeping and grand survey of the state of human knowledge:

Philosophers have measur'd mountains 
Fathom'd the depths of seas, of states, and kings 
Walk'd with a staff to heav'n, and traced fountains.

The effect is to paint an impressive still life, full of globes and maps and sextants, crowns and armies, books and telescopes. Geography, mathematics, astronomy, political science: the educated elite of the 17th century were justly proud of their state of knowledge, and of the speed at which it was growing. This was a time when the known world was rapidly expanding into the New World, great advances were being made in navigation and associated sciences, and the study of political theory was in ferment. The sense of pride and awe and intellectual excitement of all this is palpable.

It is still remarkably fresh today, as science strains towards a Grand Unifying Theory of Everything. A modern poet might similarly summarise the state of contemporary science and humanities: we have measured virtually everything there is to be measured. The contemporary stand off between science and religion rests on the assumption that religion was used in the past to fill the gaps that science couldn't explain, and is therefore nearly, if not quite, redundant.

But the question of what can't be measured remains. How are we to value things for which science is yet to devise a metric? How are we to assess things that it is theoretically impossible to measure?

Recently, I was trying to define the value of chaplaincy to a university. Much of education policy comes down to this: how do we value the things we can't measure? Are things like art, music, spirituality or sport only of value because they are believed to contribute to the bottom line, by raising educational attainment, attracting a wider customer base, or enabling us to command higher fees?

More broadly, the question at the heart of policy debates on subjects from economic policy to euthanasia is: what is quality of life? Is it only quantifiable in metrics such as income, health, longevity and satisfaction surveys?

Herbert suggests two "vast spacious things" which few experts attempt to "sound" (get to the bottom of, as with measuring the depths of the sea): sin, and love.

At this point, for a moment, the modern reader might want to pause. This sounds like the usual religious jargon. But we aren't given a chance to pause. The poem has an almost cinematic quality, and here the action cuts from a carefully arranged academic still life, to an equally familiar but graphically contrasting crucifixion scene. It is a grisly one. From standing in a museum, we are suddenly confronted with:

A man so wrung with pains that all his hair 
His skin, his garments bloody be.

Just as we are staring in shock at the abrupt change of focus, the poem drags us back to the academic question. How can one plumb the depths of sin? The question could easily be one of angels dancing on the head of a pin, but Herbert answers it not with theology, but with another arresting image:

Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain 
To hunt his cruel food through ev'ry vein.

Then the scene shifts again – as in a dream, or nightmare, we are no longer looking at the scene from the outside, but are suddenly a participant in it. To measure love, we are told, to "assay" (again, a carefully chosen scientific term) the blood that flows from the dead man's side. As we are recoiling in horror from this thought, it becomes even more graphic – we are asked how it tastes. In the final couplet, Herbert draws us back into the present by making the link with the wine at communion explicit:

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine 
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

How can we measure the immeasurable? We can't. The stock in trade questions of academic theology - what is sin, what is love, what did Jesus' death accomplish – are not answered. We are simply presented with the image of Christ on the cross. And in doing so, Herbert is of course at his most profoundly theological. The poem's construction itself communicates the fundamental Christian doctrine that God's answer to all our questions is not words or theories, but to become incarnate as a human being and simply say: I am. Taste and see.

George Herbert: the man who converted me from atheism

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes: George Herbert – part 1The early 17th century clergyman wrote the most fiercely intelligent poetry, grappling with Christian doctrines and our relationship with God

I blame George Herbert for me becoming a Christian.

I first encountered Herbert's poems at the very beginning of the lower sixth, when they were a set text for my A-level English class. Being the rather keen and serious teenager that I was, I read them that first weekend. And by the end of the weekend, I realised that this poetry was the most dangerous challenge to my atheism that I had yet come across.

My teenage self was rather proud of being a "cultured despiser of religion". I had dismissed religion as being for the weak of mind, a crutch, something that intelligence and reason made unnecessary and undesirable. But here was some of the most fiercely intelligent poetry I had ever read, grappling with Christian doctrines and with a relationship with God. If this brilliant mind believed all this, and devoted a life to it, then clearly I needed to look at it again.

I didn't become a Christian there and then. But I can date the story of my conversion back to that classroom, where I first grasped something of the beauty, the mystery, the attraction and the struggle of faith.

George Herbert was born in 1593 and died in 1633. His life was in many ways typical of the educated gentry of the Stuart period: Westminster School, Cambridge University, with a promising career at court beckoning. But then he took an unusual turn and became a country vicar, an abrupt change of direction that was a cause for speculation and gossip in Cambridge for decades afterwards. It was only after his tragically early death that his poetry was published and became known beyond his inner circle.

The poems are, in effect, a spiritual autobiography. Although they are not individually dated and so cannot be directly related to different phases of Herbert's life, many of them clearly describe his intensely personal struggles with faith and calling. Even those that are more formal explorations of particular religious doctrines or concepts have a similar air of spiritual authenticity. There are no mere statements of dogma. The poems record the poet's own doubts and faith in a way that still rings true with many readers, even those with no explicit faith of their own.

The contemporary spiritual resonance of Herbert's poetry stands in marked contrast to his other work, The Country Parson. This vicar manual has not stood the test of time. While some clergy still refer nostalgically to Herbert's patriarchal vision of the vicar in his parish, rather more agree with the tongue-in-cheek title of a recent book: If You Meet George Herbert On The Road, Kill Him. Herbert's guide is a symbol of an outdated "father knows best" view of the church. He expects the vicar to know medicine as well as religion, and advises him to find out what everyone is doing, specifically so that he can rebuke them where necessary.

Yet the same man wrote some of the best loved English religious poetry, still popular today. In this series I'll be exploring some of Herbert's themes that have particular resonance for me, but behind them all runs the timeless thread of emotional intelligence.

Certainly the poems are unashamedly intelligent. They are an example of the metaphysical school of poetry, which deliberately piled metaphor upon metaphor, and drew those metaphors from the cutting edge of contemporary science and philosophy. They flatter the reader by assuming a breadth and depth of political, theological and scientific knowledge.

They are also full of genuine emotion. This makes them feel much more modern than their date would suggest. For Herbert, religion is never simply a set of dogmatic assertions, or a collection of cultural practices, as historical religion is sometimes caricatured. Nobody reading these poems can be left in any doubt as to Herbert's emotional engagement with his subject matter. The question Herbert's poetry raises is eternally contemporary. The poems don't ask us "Is this true?" but "How do I feel about this?"

It is this question that slipped under my guard as a teenager. It was easy to dismiss the truth of the 20 impossible things that religion seemed to expect me to believe before breakfast. It was much harder to dismiss my own emotional reaction to these poems: the beauty, the yearning, the enticing danger. They left me with the sense that I was standing on a cliff, staring out to sea, hearing marvellous tales of lands beyond the horizon and wondering if they were, after all, just fairy tales or whether the intensity with which the tales were told was evidence that the teller had indeed seen a barely imagined kingdom.

Why Christianity was the wrong civil religion for Rousseau

Theo Hobson

Jean-Jacques Rousseau – part 4The state needs common values, argues Rousseau, but Christianity will not do because there are so many non-believers and its doctrines divide opinion

 'Jean-Jacques Rousseau is perhaps the thinker who best illustrates the transition from a religious to a secular thought-world.'

Having irritated atheists last time, I now want to turn to Christians. The vast majority of them, including the most highly regarded theologians, still resist Rousseau's basic insight concerning religion and the state. It is this: the state needs common values that its citizens can agree on (what in The Social Contract he calls a "civil religion"). Christianity, in its traditional forms, cannot be this civil religion, as opinion is so divided over its doctrines, and because there are many who do not believe in it at all. The modern state rightly moves away from traditional religion as its source of ideological unity, in favour of post-religious humanism (equality, rights). Christians should accept, indeed affirm, this shift, seeing secular humanism as an indirect expression of Christian values. Instead, conservative theologians (including postmodern "radical orthodox" ones) think it brave to oppose secular humanism, to paint it as a threat. This only makes communication of the gospel harder.

But, of course, Christians cannot simply affirm secular humanism (they wouldn't still be Christians if they did). They should also warn that it has a deficient understanding of human life; part of this is its implied belief in natural human goodness. Rousseau is rightly seen as a key exponent of this belief. He adapts the Christian idea that humanity is made in the image of God and is therefore good, detaching it from the wider narrative of human fallibility and dependence on God's grace.

Of course, he does not entirely deny human fallibility, error and capacity for evil. But he treats it as inessential: something that can be understood and moved away from – through trust in the wisdom of the human heart.

And he offers his own life as a model of this therapeutic process – supremely in his Confessions. It's the first really modern autobiography: Rousseau's fascinated focus on his own psychological development is unprecedented. (By the way, it's a book of two halves: the first half is an enchanting depiction of the adventure of youth; the second half is full of tedious score-settling.)

It's eyebrow-raisingly frank. A few pages in, he tells us that when his aunt beat him as a boy it turned him on, and he has always yearned for such treatment in the bedroom. TMI, you might think (too much information, as we say in New York). But it is so engagingly written that you also want to say TMM (tell me more). Isn't frankness about sex ordinary nowadays – and doesn't today's writer go much further? Yes, but such frankness tends to be rather conformist – and compartmentalised. Rousseau still stands out for his determination to relate his love life (which is mostly romantic yearning) to his moral and psychological development, for his attempt at a holistic frankness.

What makes this book compelling is not just its frankness, but the spirit of defiance in which it is presented. Do you condemn me for these moral errors I have committed?, the reader is asked – sometimes explicitly. Do you claim to be my moral superior? If you condemn me, are you not condemning the honesty with which I present myself? "Let [readers] groan at my depravities and blush for my misdeeds," he says at the outset. "But let each one of them reveal his heart … with equal sincerity, and may any man, who dares, say: 'I was a better man than he'."

This remains a key motivation in autobiography: look at my faults, my embarrassing past errors, my lost years as a junkie or whatever, and agree that I am not defined by them, but rather by my good-heartedness, my striving to be myself. Agree, in fact, that my past faults are just proof of the fullness of my humanity. Judge me, says every memoirist – and affirm my humanity.

Nothing wrong with affirming each other's humanity, surely? Well, maybe secular confessionalism is subtly dishonest, in its habit of locating moral mistakes in the past and claiming to have learned from them. This deflects attention from the ongoing, ineradicable aspect of one's fallibility. Perhaps only a full-blooded, religious worldview can bear to keep that firmly in sight.

Having explored various issues in relation to Rousseau, no neat conclusion is possible. Except to say that he is perhaps the thinker who best illustrates the transition from a religious to a secular thought-world. He shows that this transition is a very incomplete one, for so much of secular humanism is constructed from religious material.

Atheism is an offshoot of deism

Theo Hobson

Jean-Jacques Rousseau – part 3Atheism, like Rousseau's deism, sees rationalism as a benign force that can liberate our natural goodness

 Rousseau said people need structures, traditions, ritual practices, through which to relate to divine morality.

In the previous article, I considered Rousseau's political radicalism, at some speed. I want to offer a summarizing reflection on that theme, before moving on to his religious thought.

Political justice, said Rousseau, depends on an understanding that state power belongs to the people, exists to serve the common good. What is this vision? Where does it come from? It is motivated by a moral idealism rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition (social justice, concern for the poor, hostility to luxury, the equal worth of all human lives). But its practical side is derived mainly from Plato's Republic. It's a potent conjoining. Rousseau is perhaps the principal pioneer of the idea that a more moral politics must be established and sustained through force – as all political order is.

His political radicalism annoyed the authorities, but what really provoked them was his religious radicalism. In his novel Emile he put his thoughts into the mouth of an ultra-liberal priest, the original trendy vicar (in his youth Rousseau was deeply influenced by a real-life version of this figure). He explains that God is the creator of the orderly universe, that his rules are written in our hearts, in the form of conscience, that virtuous action brings true happiness. We are made for virtue – though we are free to misunderstand this and do evil. Because "the greatest ideas of the divinity come to us from reason alone", revealed religion is dubious, a source of conflict and error. It is a slur on God to associate him with anger and vengeance, and narrow intolerant doctrines. "If one had listened only to what God says to the heart of man, there would never have been more than one religion on earth."

But traditional religion cannot be simply rejected, says this fictional priest – otherwise he would have left his job. The truth of rational religion must be propagated through traditional religious forms – this is its necessary packaging (an idea later developed by Kant and Hegel). People need structures, traditions, ritual practices, through which to relate to divine morality.

On one level this is a conventional restatement of deism. But Rousseau's emphasis on the emotional appeal of this creed breathed new life into it. He rescued it from narrow rationalism, and associated it with a deepening of humanity. (By putting it in the mouth of a priest he presents it as primarily a spiritual phenomenon.) He thus prepared the way for the poetic deism of Wordsworth, for example.

Not many people nowadays identify with deism. In fact it is almost universally scorned: as a timid compromise, for those who can no longer believe in religion but are not quite ready to take leave of God. Atheists of course see themselves as going a daring step further. To Christians, it is a diluted form of Christianity emptied of crucial concepts such as revelation, grace and sin.

I suggest that both the atheist and the Christian should be a bit less scornful, and see how deeply they are indebted to this huge intellectual movement.

Atheism is less distinct from deism than it thinks. It inherits the semi-Christian assumptions of this creed.

Atheism derives from religion? Surely it just says that no gods exist, that rationalism, or 'scientific naturalism', is to be preferred to any form of supernaturalism. Actually, no: in reality what we call atheism is a form of secular humanism; it presupposes a moral vision, of progressive humanitarianism, of trust that universal moral values will triumph. (Of course there is also the atheism of Nietzsche, which rejects humanism, but this is not what is normally meant by 'atheism').

So what we know as atheism should really be understood as an offshoot of deism. For it sees rationalism as a benign force that can liberate our natural goodness. It has a vision of rationalism saving us, uniting us. For example, AC Grayling, in his recent book The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, argues that, with the withering of religion, 'an ethical outlook which can serve everyone everywhere, and can bring the world together into a single moral community, will at last be possible'. This is really Rousseau's idea, that if we all listened to our hearts, there would be 'one religion on earth'.

On one hand atheism is more coherent than deism – it neatly eliminates the supernatural. But on the other hand it has less self-knowledge: it does not understand that it remains fuelled by a religious-based vision of human flourishing.

Next time I will suggest that Rousseau's deism also has something to teach Christians who are over-confident in their brave distinctness from secular humanism.

For Rousseau, it's humanity that's divine, not reason

Theo Hobson

Jean-Jacques Rousseau – part 2Rousseau believed in a divinely ordered universe, but that social transformation would come from the restoration of true humanity

 'The state needs a high level of ideological unity, so the ideal religion for Rousseau is one that serves this political end.'

Voltaire, the most famous intellectual of Rousseau's day, rejected traditional religion, but he believed in a divinely ordered universe, and in rational morality as a divinely plotted cause that could transform human life for the better. This rational, reformist religion is known as deism.

Rousseau, too, was a deist – but he wanted to turn this outlook upside down. Conventional rationalism was conservative; it sucked up to the rich, flattering their (self-interested) interest in reform. Voltaire, so very at home in posh drawing-rooms, embodied this. Rousseau saw the need for a bigger, bolder story about social transformation, about the restoration of true humanity.

So, in the 1750s, he put forward his big story. In his Discourse on Inequality he floated the idea of "the state of nature", an original form of human life in which "natural compassion" held sway, ensuring fundamental equality. With civilisation, this primal equality disappeared, chiefly because property was invented. But the fall from grace is not complete – our essential nature remains good.

The state of nature was a thought-experiment. As he put it, it is "a state that no longer exists, perhaps never has existed, and probably never will, of which one must nevertheless have an accurate idea in order to judge our present state properly".

If we want to reform our world, pragmatic rationalism is not enough: we need this bold vision, of full humanity regained. We can try to rethink society in the knowledge that this basic purity exists; we can try to maximise it.

But what is "full humanity"? How does Rousseau know that this potential exists? Ultimately it's a religious conviction: he insists that we are made in God's image. We know it by looking in our hearts, he says – but, of course, such looking is determined by religious thinking. Other deists talked of reason as a divine force in humanity. For Rousseau, it's humanity that's divine, not reason.

His next work, Discourse on Political Economy (1755), was a more detailed attack on economic injustice. Wealth gravitates upwards; the rich ensure that the law entrenches their massive advantage, inventing lucrative public-sector jobs, and tax-breaks, for themselves. (I hesitate to anoint Simon Jenkins the new Rousseau, but his column this week was about exactly this.) And of course: "When a man of high standing robs his creditors or cheats in other ways, is he not always certain of impunity?"

Rousseau's solution was to instil the ideal of the common good in everyone, from birth: drum, drum, drum it in.

In The Social Contract (1762), he argues that the only truly legitimate state presupposes the liberty and equality of its citizens. This, he sees, runs into a problem: we have lost our "natural liberty". We cannot recover it. We must instead seek "civil liberty". Enlightened, participatory politics becomes the only possible arena in which we can realise our nature.

So "liberty" cannot mean freedom to do as one wants; it must mean blending in with the "general will", which has an absolute right to command us.

This rhetoric of the general will is widely seen as deeply sinister, the seed of totalitarianism. This is unfair: his aim is to formulate a new conception of politics, one that enshrines liberty and equality – and this surely needs a bold account of the state's authority (social democracy takes such authority for granted).

What's the place of religion in the ideal state? His answer is surprisingly nuanced. Because the state needs a high level of ideological unity, the ideal religion would seem to be one that fully served this political end, as most ancient religion did. Of course, Christianity is not suited to this; it disparages secular political goals, and its teaching extends sympathy to outsiders.

Should we revert to a religion of state-power-worship? No, it would be false and oppressive, and would also lead to an aggressive foreign policy. He proposes a sort of two-tiered approach: there should be a minimal form of religion, or quasi-religion, concerned with loyalty to the state – "civil religion". The articles of this faith should be seen "not precisely as religious dogmas, but as sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible to be a good citizen or a faithful subject".

Beyond this, people should be allowed to believe what they want, which will probably be some form of universal morality. This is no blueprint for totalitarian state religion. It's a pretty accurate prediction of the secular liberal state, which promotes certain common values and leaves other forms of belief to our discretion.

Who would listen to Bertrand Russell's appeal for moral growth today?

Clare Carlisle

Clare Carlisle: Bertrand Russell – part 8: In 1959, Russell said knowledge and technology were advancing our lives, but that our survival depended on ethical improvement

Wisdom is the ideal that animates Russell's thought more than any other: perhaps this is only to be expected – Russell was, after all, a philosopher, and "philosophy" is derived from Greek words meaning "love of wisdom". But wisdom has an inescapably practical, ethical aspect that is missing from much philosophical work. Knowledge can be specialised or abstract, instrumental or purely for its own sake; what matters is that it is correct. Genuine wisdom, on the other hand, is not just a matter of correctness: it must be in some way life-enhancing. When we are presented with so-called wisdom that lacks this quality, we recognise it as hollow, vacuous, inauthentic.

Russell reflects on wisdom in his essay The Expanding Mental Universe, which first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, an American weekly, in 1959. The essay is quintessential Russell: imaginative and stirring, but also wittily commonsensical. Russell begins by posing the question of "the effects of modern knowledge upon our mental life", and by emphasising that "mental life" encompasses willing and feeling as well as intellectual thought.

Inspired by the scientific theory of the expanding universe, Russell envisages an expansion of mental life. In modern times we have become used to dizzying statistics about the weight of the sun, the size of our galaxy, the number of other galaxies, the distance of the stars from earth, and – given the millions of years that light from some of these takes to reach us – the length of time for which there has been something rather than nothing. But, Russell cautions, "there is no reason to worship mere size". It may be true to say that scientific knowledge expands as we understand more about the size and complexity of the universe. However, when Russell talks about "the growth of man" he means the development of wisdom, which is "a harmony of knowledge, will and feeling".

"Will and feeling should keep pace with thought if man is to grow as his knowledge grows," writes Russell. "If this cannot be achieved – if, while knowledge becomes cosmic, will and feeling remain parochial – there will be a lack of harmony producing a kind of madness, with disastrous effects."

Considering the growth of what he calls "will", Russell reflects on how technology has increased our capacity for both creation and destruction. Of course, human beings have always exhibited a range (and usually a mixture) of good and bad tendencies. In the past, remarks Russell, "man has survived by virtue of ignorance and inefficiency" – but now our technical knowledge enables us to go more drastically wrong than hitherto.

This means that we should prioritise moral improvement alongside intellectual and scientific advances: "If, with our increased cleverness, we continue to pursue aims no more lofty than those pursued by tyrants in the past, we shall doom ourselves to destruction and shall vanish as the dinosaurs vanished … I foresee rival projectiles landing simultaneously on the moon, each equipped with H-bombs and each successfully exterminating the other. But until we have set our own house in order, I think that we had better leave the moon in peace. As yet, our follies have only been terrestrial; it would seem a doubtful victory to make them cosmic."

In past centuries, economic prosperity may have been won by imperialistic aggression. But in a technologically developed world, argues Russell, the Earth becomes like a single organism whose parts need to co-operate if the whole is to survive and flourish. "Religion has long taught that it is our duty to love our neighbour and to desire the happiness of others," he writes, "but in the new world, this kindly feeling towards others will be not only a moral duty but an indispensable condition of survival."

Indeed, the "unification and expansion of self-interest" that Russell envisages here is naturalistic and pragmatic rather than moral: "When you eat, the nourishment profits every part of your body, but you do not think how kind and unselfish your mouth is to take all this trouble for something else … This enlargement in the sphere of feeling is being rendered necessary by the new interdependence of different parts of the world."

Perhaps Russell's vision of global co-operation looks, to us, more like fantasy than prophesy. Reading his essay on The Expanding Mental Universe today, one is struck by how much has changed since the era of the cold war and the space race.

Russell might have been surprised by the new forms of violence that technology has brought us: drones and chemical warfare, fracking and internet pornography. But I think he would be even more shocked to find his appeal to wisdom and human "growth" being met with apathy and cynicism. Fifty years ago, a philosopher's reflections on these ideals were taken seriously not only by a small group of professional academics, but by the wider public. Would this happen if Russell was writing in 2014? And would Russell still be able to express his faith in ethical progress?

It is true that Russell's wonderful prose sometimes disguises patchy, vague, or shallow thinking. But when we consider whether his writing remains relevant today, we should be thinking as critically about the state of our society – and in particular its stunted spirituality – as about the quality of his philosophy. If Russell's words of genuine wisdom fall on the stony ground of our hardened hearts, that means we have work to do before new growth is possible.

How mainstream education stifles 'something sacred'

Clare Carlisle

Clare Carlisle: Bertrand Russell – part 6The philosopher's anti-authoritarianism was seen in the ethos of the school he established, at which lessons were optional

Ever since Plato set out a school curriculum in The Republic, philosophers have come up with more or less idiosyncratic plans for educational reform. Bertrand Russell continued this tradition – not only in his writings, but in sending his own children to a school he founded with his wife. Like much of his popular philosophy, Russell's reflections on education are flawed but interesting, and often remain pertinent in our own time.

Last week, we considered Russell's commitment to individual freedom and his critique of oppressive social structures – views which led him to argue that "the cramping of love by institutions is one of the major evils of the world". This idealistic position meets with practical challenges in the case of education, for this is a collective enterprise that requires organisation and administrative order – and yet its aims, Russell always insisted, should focus on the individuality of children.

One of Russell's earliest essays on education is in his 1916 book, Principles of Social Reconstruction. Here, the philosopher argues that teachers should have an attitude of "reverence" for something deep within each child: "something sacred, indefinable, unlimited, something individual and strangely precious, the growing principle of life, an embodied fragment of the dumb striving of the world". Teachers who possess this attitude do not try to mould their pupils in a particular way, but rather have "a longing to help the child in its own battle". Of course, neither "reverence" nor its accompanying "longing" can be easily quantified and standardised in the institutional contexts that large-scale education requires. Russell saw clearly how classroom conditions prevented the kind of pedagogical culture he envisaged: "In education, with its codes of rules emanating from a government office, its large classes and fixed curriculum and overworked teachers, its determination to produce a dead level of glib mediocrity, the lack of reverence for the child is all but universal."

At the heart of Russell's more positive theory of education – set out in On Education (1926) – are four virtues which, he believed, teachers should foster in their students. These are vitality, courage, sensitivity (which in this context means appropriate emotional responsiveness) and intelligence. For Russell, successful education develops the whole character of a child in its physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual aspects.

When he wrote On Education, Russell was planning to put these ideals into practice. By this time, he had two children with his second wife, Dora, who was a young feminist intellectual. Interest in alternatives to mainstream education flourished in Britain during these years between the wars, and in 1927 the Russells set up the small, progressive Beacon Hill school in Sussex. Lessons were optional, and children were encouraged to choose their own activities.

The experimental ethos of Beacon Hill was controversial in its day. But many of Russell's recommendations in his essays on education seem sensible enough. He writes of the energy needed to teach, pointing out that clergymen are not expected to preach for several hours each day and wondering why this is demanded of schoolteachers.

"Those who have no experience of teaching are incapable of imagining the expense of spirit entailed by any really living instruction," he writes, adding that "intense fatigue and irritable nerves" are the inevitable result of long days in the classroom. Russell argues that large class sizes and overworked teachers are a "false economy", and that "a teacher ought to have only as much teaching as can be done, on most days, with actual pleasure in the work, and with an awareness of the pupil's mental needs."

The outcome of the mainstream education system, suggests Russell, stifles the "something sacred" within every human being. When teachers are overworked, they have to save energy by performing their daily tasks "mechanically", and in order to do this they impose a strict order and demand pupils' obedience to it. For Russell, "obedience is the counterpart of authority" – and as we have seen in recent weeks, he opposed authoritarianism in all contexts since this undermines the individual's freedom. In a 1940 essay on teaching he writes that "the teacher, like the artist, the philosopher, and the man of letters, can only perform his work adequately if he feels himself to be an individual directed by an inner creative impulse, not dominated and fettered by an outside authority."

Of course, education requires organisation, but Russell is suggesting that policymakers should focus on creating conditions that can support the flourishing individuality of both teachers and pupils. "If the world is not to lose the benefit to be derived from its best minds," he writes, "it will have to find some method of allowing them scope and liberty in spite of organisation."

Ironically – but perhaps not surprisingly – Russell's commitment to the flourishing of his own individuality did not help the fortunes of Beacon Hill school. His marriage to Dora was an open relationship, and the ideal of free love eventually led the couple to an acrimonious divorce. When their marriage disintegrated in the early 1930s, Russell withdrew as headmaster and sent his children to a more financially stable progressive school, while Dora continued to run Beacon Hill until its closure in 1943.

Looking back on their educational experiment in his autobiography, Russell reflects that their approach was somewhat misguided and concludes that "children cannot be happy without a certain amount of order and routine".

Bertrand Russell the agnostic

Clare Carlisle

Bertrand Russell – part 4: The same intellectual integrity that made the philosopher unable to accept religious beliefs also prevented him from embracing atheism 

 ‘From a practical point of view, Bertrand Russell admits that agnosticism can come very close to atheism.’

Bertrand Russell's dissent from what was still, in his time, conventional Christian belief can be explained in part by his background and early influences. His grandmother brought him up as a Unitarian, which meant that "eternal punishment and the literal truth of the Bible were not inculcated", as he puts it in his autobiography. Like his free-thinking parents, Russell was impressed by John Stuart Mill's utilitarian philosophy, which he first encountered as a teenager. But his critique of Christianity was also due to the fierce intellectual integrity with which he confronted every issue he found worthy of reflection. At the age of 14 Russell began to question the tenets of Christian faith – including free will, personal immortality, and the existence of God – and by the age of 18 he had rejected them all.

However, the same intellectual integrity that made Russell unable to accept religious beliefs also prevented him from embracing atheism. Rather like the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, Russell maintained a sceptical attitude to metaphysical questions. He explains this position very clearly in a 1953 essay on his agnosticism, where he states that, "it is impossible, or at least impossible at the present time, to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned." Theoretically, agnosticism is very different from atheism, for atheists and theists share the conviction that knowledge about such matters is attainable – and, indeed, that they have attained it while their opponents have failed to do so. However, from a practical point of view Russell admits that agnosticism can come very close to atheism, for many agnostics claim that the existence of God is so improbable that it is not worth serious consideration.

In his 1927 lecture Why I Am Not A Christian Russell describes God's existence as "a large and serious question", and he rejects some of the classical theistic arguments – the first cause argument, the design argument and the moral argument. (He does not here consider the ontological argument, but in his famous 1948 radio debate with the Jesuit philosopher Frederick Copleston he argues that the concept of a necessarily existent being, which is central to the ontological argument, is nonsensical.)

The lecture also criticises the character of Jesus presented in the gospel narratives. In particular, Russell rejects the idea of hell: "It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take him as his chroniclers represent him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that." On the other hand, he admires certain principles of Jesus's teaching, such as refusing to judge others and being generous to those in need, although he finds them "difficult to live up to". The idea of hell is certainly challenging for both believers and non-believers, but it is difficult to engage with Russell's critique when he does not himself engage with centuries of theological reflection and debate on this issue. For example, he does not consider the Catholic teaching that hell is a separation from God that is not inflicted as a punishment, but freely chosen by human beings.

Although Russell often seems in his writings to be drawn towards a quasi-atheist position, his own agnosticism is reinforced by his recognition that the word "religion" does not have a very definite meaning. "If it means a system of dogma regarded as unquestionably true," he writes, "it is incompatible with the scientific spirit, which refuses to accept matters of fact without evidence, and also holds that complete certainty is hardly ever attainable." The agnosticism article was published at a time when critics of religion were often assumed to be communists; Russell counters this suggestion by pointing out that the kind of communism advocated by the Soviet government fits his definition of dogmatic religion, and that therefore "every genuine agnostic must be opposed to it". It is clear that a passionate aversion to dogmatism runs through both his critique of religious oppression and moralism, and his more positive doctrine of philosophical agnosticism. Russell sometimes seems to be moving towards the view that how ones believes, and not just what one believes, is ethically significant – a view that will be embraced by any reflective religious person.

More than this, though, Russell's agnosticism itself has a spiritual dimension. Suspending judgment about metaphysical questions is a sceptical intellectual practice, but a more radical suspension of judgment belongs to what Russell describes as "contemplative worship" in his 1912 essay The Essence of Religion. Here he attempts to sketch a kind of spirituality that is based not on belief in God, but on "the contemplative vision, which finds mystery and joy in all that exists, and brings with it love to all that has life". Russell finds three elements within Christianity that he wants to preserve: "worship, acquiescence, and love". The "impartial" worship he envisages "has been thought, wrongly, to require belief in God, since it has been thought to involve the judgment that whatever exists is good. In fact, however, it involves no judgment whatever; hence it cannot be intellectually mistaken, and cannot be in any way dependent on dogma." In other words, genuine contemplation is by nature non-dogmatic, since it departs from our ordinary mode of judgmental thinking. The ethical counterpart of this contemplative attitude, of course, is the refusal to judge others that Russell so admired in Christian teaching.

Is religion based on fear?

Clare Carlisle

Clare Carlisle: Bertrand Russell – part 3: Christian thought is itself aware of the dangers of fear – something Bertrand Russell overlooks in his critique of religion

 Bertrand Russell wrote that 'religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear'.

The most powerful aspect of Bertrand Russell's critique of religious belief is his claim that religion is based on fear, and that fear breeds cruelty. His philosophical arguments against the existence of God may not touch the lives of many ordinary people, but his more psychological point about fear has to be taken seriously by all of us. In his 1927 lecture "Why I am not a Christian" – delivered to the south London branch of the National Secular Society – Russell expressed his point with characteristic clarity: "Religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things." No doubt he was preaching to the converted on this occasion.

There are actually two elements to Russell's diagnosis of religion here. The first is that religious belief is a symptom of fear: aware that our lives are precarious and vulnerable, we seek the protection of a powerful deity, to comfort ourselves with an illusion of safety. The second is that fear is a symptom of religion: in particular, doctrines of punishment in both this life and the next cause ignorant believers to live in fear unnecessarily. There is little doubt that this analysis has some truth on both points; perhaps it explains quite accurately the causes and effects of religious belief in a significant number of cases. But do such cases represent religion itself, or are they a distortion of it?

We will focus here on Christianity, since this is the tradition that Russell was mainly concerned with. While Russell argues as if his rejection of fearful belief and fear-inducing dogma comes from an atheistic perspective, the Christian tradition itself contains a vigorous critique of fear. The First Letter of John, for example, puts forth the basic tenet that "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love", and suggests that fear and love are incompatible with one another: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love." In fact, Russell echoes this sentiment in a 1912 essay on "The Essence of Religion, where he writes that "fear tends more and more to be banished by love, and in all the best worship fear is wholly absent." But he did not need to appeal to any biblical text in arguing that "fear is the parent of cruelty", because it is a basic psychological fact that love is inhibited and distorted by fear.

In the 17th century, Spinoza – whom Russell described as "the noblest and the most lovable of the great philosophers" – invoked the First Letter of John to attack the persecution of non-conformists by the Dutch Reformed church. The violent dogmatism witnessed by Spinoza is exactly the sort of thing emphasised by modern atheists who claim, like Russell, that religion is a harmful force in the world. But Spinoza attacked "superstitious" forms of religious belief, which are characterised by fear, as a dangerous perversion of a purer Christian teaching found in the New Testament. Prefacing his Theological-Political Treatise with a verse from the First Letter of John, Spinoza implied that the church was failing by precisely those Christian ethical standards which it claimed as its own.

Another example of a Christian critique of fear can be found in Kierkegaard's analysis of the theological concept of sin. Traditionally, pride has been identified as the fundamental form of sinfulness, but Kierkegaard argued that human psychology is darkened by an inseparable combination of pride and fear, which both get in the way of love. This means that the Christian ideal of love requires us to battle against both pride and fear, to combine humility with courage. According to Kierkegaardian theology, fearful religion is sinful religion.

These two brief examples suggest that the Christian tradition has the resources not only to recognise the dangerous consequences of fear, but to scrutinise them closely and provide a spiritual response to them. However, this is not the sort of perspective that Russell was prepared to explore in his philosophical work. He was certainly unwilling to invoke the Christian doctrine of original sin – presumably because it was closely associated with the Victorian moralism that, to Russell's disgust, lingered long into the 20th century.

But his atheist disciples may be surprised to discover that privately Russell found some meaning in the concept of sin. In his autobiography he describes a visit in 1952 to a small Greek church, where he became aware within himself of "a sense of sin" which, to his astonishment, "powerfully affected" him in his feelings, though not in his beliefs. If Russell had followed Kierkegaard in paying more heed to such "feelings", he might have come closer to understanding that fear is a religious problem, and not just a problem with religion.

Bertrand Russell on the science v religion debate

Clare Carlisle

Bertrand Russell – part 2: The philosopher's staunch criticism of religion echoes modern atheists, but he was also profoundly moved by a 'mystic insight'

 'Bertrand Russell thought that religious questions did not really belong to the discipline of philosophy.'

Bertrand Russell did not consider himself an expert on ethics and religion, and it is true that his writing on these subjects lacks the originality and sophistication of his philosophical work on mathematics. His criticisms of religion are often similar – in essence if not in tone – to opinions voiced by contemporary atheists: he argued that religious beliefs cause wars and persecution, are moralistic and oppressive, and foster fear. However, it is precisely for this reason that it is worth looking again at Russell's rejection of Christianity. Anyone concerned with defending religion against its typical modern detractors must recognise Russell as a worthy opponent, for he was an intelligent, principled and humane man of the world who undoubtedly led a meaningful life.

Next week we will begin to look closely at Russell's arguments against Christianity. First, though, let's consider how his general attitude and approach to religion shaped his critique of religious beliefs. It is telling, for example, that Russell thought that religious questions did not really belong to the discipline of philosophy. This rather narrow view of philosophy predisposed him to scepticism about subjects that involve ambiguity, interpretation, and perhaps a personal, experiential kind of insight. Ethics, of course, is one such subject, and religion even more so. Like earlier rationalist thinkers such as Descartes and Spinoza, Russell had an exacting standard for what qualified as "knowledge", and argued that if philosophy is the search for truth then it should concern itself only with the kind of certainty associated with basic mathematical intuitions such as "2 + 2 = 4".

It is also interesting to compare Russell's dismissive attitude to religion with his great faith in science. When Nietzsche wrote of the death of God, he suggested that belief in scientific progress was the last remaining article of faith. Nietzsche was pointing out that although science makes claims to knowledge, these claims are as deluded as those of religious dogmatists. The view that he was criticising is too crude to attribute to Russell, who acknowledged what we customarily call "knowledge" occupies a broad spectrum of degrees of uncertainty, and that very little – if anything – is absolutely certain. Nevertheless, it is worth bearing in mind Nietzsche's remarks about the "piety" underlying modern science when we consider Russell's almost utopian vision of scientific progress.

Russell's support for eugenics in his eccentric and provocative book Marriage and Morals (1929) is one of the more controversial examples of his view that scientific developments could, and should, contribute to social reform. But this view itself has become a tenet of secular orthodoxy. It is articulated with characteristic eloquence in Russell's essay How I Came By My Creed, which was published in the same year as Marriage and Morals. Here Russell celebrates our increasing mastery of nature, and argues that modern science both overcomes religion and replaces it as a method for humanity's self-improvement: "In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion … Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it."

This passage is typical of Russell's popular writing on religion, and it is not surprising that contemporary atheists have adopted him as their champion. But his autobiography occasionally reveals a more complex and ambivalent relationship to religion. In particular, he relates an episode in 1901 when he witnessed the wife of his Cambridge colleague Alfred Whitehead suffer intense pain due to heart problems, causing Russell to have what can only be described as a spiritual insight. "The ground seemed to give way beneath me and I found myself in quite another region," he writes. "Within five minutes I went through such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that."

Such was the power of this experience that it made him "a completely different person". Even though Russell's "mystic insight" later faded in the face of an older "habit of analysis", its effects, he wrote, "remained always with me, causing my attitude during the first war, my interest in children, my indifference to minor misfortunes, and a certain emotional tone in all my human relations".

What caused the disparity between Russell's "official" view of religion and his personal experience? Why was he unwilling to bring this experience to bear on his critique of religion? The answer seems to lie in his deep methodological commitment to both rationalism and scientific empiricism: Russell tended to treat "religion" as either a body of doctrines to be intellectually analysed, or as a phenomenon to be observed objectively from the outside. In the first case, Russell found flawed arguments; in the second, flawed institutions perpetrating violence and oppression. His own spiritual insights belonged to a different order – and although they changed his life deeply, they were not allowed to change his philosophical position. This helps to explain why, while history proves that both religion and science can be forces for good and for ill, Russell was inclined to focus on the benefits of science and on the dark side of religion.

Can values come from within?

Michael McGhee

Is Buddhism a religion, part 6Secular humanism, Christianity and Buddhism have differing views about the source of human goodness

What is a good life? A Buddhist humanism would have to answer the question in terms of a trajectory of consciousness towards awakening and compassion. It would offer a diagnosis of injustice as a product of bondage to a grasping consciousness and provide a therapy of emancipation which reflected an understanding of the human condition which gives content and direction to the idea of compassion.

This picture of the progressive self-knowledge of the species admits an idea of transcendence that is simply the possibility of action that "goes beyond" the limited perspective of self-enclosure. We are rarely wholly engulfed by or absorbed in this self-enclosure, but rather suffer it as a reduction of sensibility and loss of perspective.

Now the picture of secular humanism offered by the philosopher Richard Norman is not simply a matter of the rejection of religious belief but is also "the affirmation that human beings can find from within themselves the resources to live a good life without religion".

A Buddhist humanism would qualify this: we do not know in advance what these resources are. Only through trying to live well and confronting the obstacles to this venture do we discover the inner resources we need. Their emergence may, however, lead to a misapprehension or perspectival illusion, even within Buddhism. Thus, in the Japanese traditions a distinction is made between jiriki or self-power and tariki or other-power. This distinction is partly a matter of how the struggle to overcome the destructive passions and achieve perspective is experienced when it is conceived as the struggle of the will, one which ends in exhaustion. By contrast, release may appear to be granted by a benign force outside of oneself.

But what is discovered is the limited scope of the will in the transformation of consciousness. Understanding dawns: it is not something that is under the control of the will but something that drives its direction.

Christian thinkers have been reluctant to go along with the humanist idea that "human beings can find from within themselves the resources to live a good life without religion" and I wonder whether this reluctance has to do with a false assumption about the role of the will in humanist accounts of morality.

When he was asked in a New Statesman interview whether we "can make sense of morality without a religious notion of a transcendent or supernatural being", Rowan Williams said that it seemed to him that "it is not finally feasible to try to ground unconditional rights or the intrinsic dignity of human beings independently of the idea of a transcendent ground of value". He went on to say: "People do, of course, make such claims, and do so in good faith, but I don't see how you can define a universally shared … conception of human flourishing without something more than a pragmatic or immanent basis. In other words, I think morality ultimately needs a notion of the sacred – and for the Christian that means understanding all human beings without exception as the objects of an equal, unswerving, unconditional love."

Williams is right to say that the idea of unconditional human rights cannot be grounded in pragmatism since the idea of unconditionality belongs to a moral vision which sees in its own light the limits of pragmatism and its shifting needs.

But this understanding of all human beings as the objects of an unconditional love seems to be an achieved understanding, one whose possibility we may be awakened to by inhabiting, however briefly and imperfectly, the all-embracing attitude or perspective from which that understanding derives. This understanding is given expression, for instance, in the figure of the Bodhisattva who sheds tears of compassion as they contemplate the causes and conditions of human wretchedness.

Theologians like Williams appear to use the term "immanentism" to mean the denial of the possibility or need for a transcendental grounding for morality. The denial is then taken to imply, by contrast, that morality is grounded in the very changeable human will. Humanism is frequently represented in these terms and refuting the charge is a necessary task for humanist thinkers, a task which would take the form of insisting that what is primary is not the will but the understanding.

Buddhism offers a version of this primacy of the understanding: our conception of humanity is not inert but drives the will and motivates action. Williams says that morality needs a notion of the sacred. Whether we should talk of the "sacred" depends on what it is taken to commit us to, but the understanding of human beings as objects of unconditional love, as objects of compassion, derives from a perspective we sometimes gain and often lose, but which remains revered as a haunting measure of our conduct in our poetry and literature.

People who say they have 'no religion' are now in a majority in Britain, according to the highly-respected British Social Attitudes survey. This is a useful opportunity to say, once again, that Britain's institutions and public life are out of touch with the views of most of its people.

But the argument for secularism does not lie in the figures. Even if everyone in a country shared the same religious views, the fundamentalists would have no right to impose their views on the moderates. The separation between religion and power is an essential aspect of any free society, and it is a principle we should stand for on its own merits. This week, we've been making that case across national and local media.

Global events, such as the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims, also remind us of the need to defend freedom of religion. This is why we've spoken out against China's crackdown on religious freedom. Very often the religious lobby plays the victim to try to gain undue concessions. But events such as these illustrate that genuine persecution does exist, and those with the voice to do so have a duty to highlight it.

More than half of Brits now non-religious, study finds

Posted: Mon, 04 Sep 2017 17:00

The National Secular Society has called for "a serious debate about religion's place in our society" after a study found the proportion of non-religious Britons had reached record levels.

New data from the latest British Social Attitudes survey, carried out last year by the National Centre of Social Research (NatCen), suggested 53% of British people now have 'no religion'. The figure, which confirmed an initial NSS analysis of the BSA's report, has risen from 48% since 2015 and 31% since 1983.

In a random, representative sample, almost 3,000 people were asked: 'Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?' If respondents said yes, they were asked which one, without being given a list of religions.

Their answers were fairly consistent with other surveys which have asked questions in a similar fashion. And the recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey found that an even higher proportion of Scots (58%) had no religion.

The BSA survey suggests affiliation to the Church of England is in particular decline. Just 15% of respondents called themselves Anglican – half the proportion who said the same thing in 2000.

The proportion of people who call themselves Catholic has remained relatively stable, at around one in 10, over the last 30 years. Around 6% of people say they belong to non-Christian religions.

Religiosity declined in every age group between 2015 and 2016, but particularly among the young: 71% of people aged 18-24 said they had no religion. That figure had risen 9% in one year. NSS president Terry Sanderson said this was not surprising: "The report says young people are 'losing their religion', but it is more likely that they never had any religion to lose."

Roger Harding, head of public attitudes at NatCen, said the differences by age were "stark". "With so many younger people not having a religion, it's hard to see this change abating any time soon," he added.

Just 3% of those aged 18-24 described themselves as Anglican, compared to 40% of those aged 75 and over. Stephen Evans, the NSS's campaigns director, said this provided a significant boost to the campaign against faith schools.

"One common – albeit flawed – argument from the pro-faith school lobby is that they meet parental demand. But these figures make clear that Anglican schools will not be an attractive proposition for the majority of tomorrow's parents."

In July the BSA report also suggested that non-religious people were more socially liberal than believers on a wide range of issues. Almost nine in ten people with no religion in 2016 said pre-marital sex, for example, was "not wrong at all". This was compared to 73% of Anglicans, 76% of Catholics, 62% of other Christians and 33% of non-Christian religious people.

And although religious people remain more conservative than the non-religious, their attitudes towards premarital sex, same-sex relationships and abortion are becoming more liberal. In some instances, the change is rapid. This suggests the influence of religious ideas on social attitudes is waning.

The findings add weight to the arguments made in the NSS's recent report, Rethinking religion and belief in public life: a manifesto for change. Mr Evans said they should prompt an "urgent rethink about religion's public role and the relationship between church and state".

"Again we have evidence that Britain is becoming increasingly irreligious and religiously diverse. The time has come to call time on the many vestiges of religious privilege – not least the seats given as of right to 26 Anglican clergy in the legislature, and religious groups' considerable influence over our publicly funded schools.

"Rather than cleaving to its mediaeval past, Britain's future surely lies in becoming a modern secular state where every citizen can be treated fairly and valued equally, irrespective of their religious outlook."

Britain should embrace secularism as it loses its religion

Posted: Fri, 08 Sep 2017 15:35 by Chris Sloggett

As new data suggests non-belief is at a record high, Chris Sloggett says secularists should be more assertive in making the case for freedom of and from religion. This article was originally published by the International Business Times; reprinted here with kind permission.

The case for secularism does not lie in the figures. Even if everyone in a country said they shared the same religion, fundamentalists would not have the right to impose their views on moderates. But the news that non-religious people are apparently in the majority in Britain is a reminder that our major institutions – and public life more broadly – is out of step with the British public.

In some ways the excessive deference we give to religion is blatant. The Church of England is established and 26 bishops still have a constitutional right to a place in the House of Lords. The government asks religious groups to run our publicly-funded schools. Christian prayers are said as part of official parliamentary business.

In other ways it is more subtle. Last week Drayton Manor Park in Staffordshire changed their entry policy to allow Sikhs to carry knives. On Monday the Church of Scotland's moderator gave an official blessing to the new Queensferry crossing. This week it emerged that thousands of state primary schools are incorporating the hijab into school uniform codes for pre-pubescent girls. These are just the latest instalments in an ongoing series of concessions to the religious lobby.

In response to the new figures several commentators have stressed the good that people do in the name of religion and expressed concern about what may come next. Secularisation, the argument goes, leaves a vacuum which could be filled by something particularly intolerant: extreme nationalism, perhaps, or radical Islam.

In the current climate, fear of these forces is understandable. But one of the striking elements of the politics of our times is its anti-secular character. Religion is far from being a private affair: it is a major political dividing line.

Nearly six in ten Christians voted to leave the EU last year; seven in ten Muslims voted to remain. Last year all five Tory leadership contenders were outspoken Christians, and during London's mayoral election both detractors and supporters seemed endlessly focused on the fact that Sadiq Khan was a Muslim. No wonder the magazine Christian Today said a 're-awakening' was taking place, where politicians increasingly felt the need to share their religious views with the rest of us.

Religion is also behind rising intolerance abroad. More than four in five white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump to become president last year. Trump got a higher proportion of their votes than Mitt Romney, John McCain or George W. Bush before him. And evangelical advisers continue to prop up the Trump administration even as others, for example from the world of business, desert him. India is experiencing a rise in Hindu nationalism under Narendra Modi. The orthodox church is one of Vladimir Putin's most important backers. Islamic fundamentalism continues to claim and ruin lives around the world.

And where the left has erred, it has been because it has embraced moral relativism and rejected secularism. Free speech is viewed as an expendable luxury. Campaigners for Islamic reform, or the rights of women or gay people in the Muslim world, are smeared. The current Labour party leader's history of allying with Islamists is explained away.

Over the centuries the religious lobby has not accepted the position of women, gay people or science – among many other things – easily. And in a multi-faith era, they hold the door open for each other's intolerance. In 2008 Rowan Williams, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, agreed with a questioner who asked him if the application of sharia was an "unavoidable" concession needed for social integration. After the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices, the Pope bought into the narrative that the cartoonists had brought it on themselves, saying: "Curse my mother, expect a punch".

Too often we accept this, while convincing ourselves we are being moderate or 'respectful'. We have a religious conservatism of our own, the argument goes, so we must allow others their equivalent. When New Labour decided it was too hard to take on the Church over Christian faith schools, Charles Clarke created schools for other faith groups.

But this approach has entrenched segregation even further and allowed religious groups to claim special rights that the rest of us do not have. Schools are allowed to choose their intake based on the faith of parents. The blasphemy law may have been officially repealed in 2008, but an Olympic gymnast can be banned for two months and forced into a grovelling apology for having a laugh about Islam at a wedding. Religious groups are granted tax breaks with precious few questions asked about the public good they are doing.

Now the evidence suggests we are not even deferring to a majority. But even if we were, it would not be the point. Societies can only cohere when they have a set of principles and laws to unite around. Secularism, when defended consistently, provides a framework of rights and responsibilities for all; a commitment to reason, open-mindedness and free enquiry; and an appreciation that our freedoms end when others' freedoms begin.

There is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement about where the margins of these principles lie. But only fanatics oppose them outright. It is up to the rest of us to stand up to them and call their stance out for what it is.