I am an atheist. There are places in the world where saying that openly comes with severe consequences; because it is a departure from an idea that has been one of the pillars of human cultures from the beginning of time – that a being beyond the scope of our understanding is the ultimate explanation to everything that we cannot rationally explain. In saying that I am an atheist I also expose willingly a bias which you would no doubt have noticed on your own throughout the text below.
Rowan Williams is a cleric, decidedly not an atheist. He is the former Archbishop of Canterbury. While not an equivalent of the Catholic Pope (the Monarch is the head of the Anglican Church), his former position was that of an archbishop foremost among equals, he spoke in the name of the Anglican Communion.
To put this into a little bit of context, the Anglican Church was formally created when Henry the Eighth became “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England” through a law called the Act of Suppremacy in 1534, thirteen years after the Lutheran split. It is however argued that the Church in England had a local identity long before this date due to it’s remote distance from Rome as well as the cauldron of culture which was England in the Dark and Early Middle Ages. That said, one can infer that there is a revolutionary identity to this otherwise traditional Church.
It is with these facts in mind that I recently read about something Rowan Williams said not two days ago, speaking not from his official position of Archbishop of Canterbury from which he stepped down in 2011, which may have been a little too revolutionary, but from that of a cleric nonetheless and that is: “Britain is now a post Christian country”. It made me dwell. It is a remarkably profound statement, and knee jerk reactions by the likes of David Cameron who replied “au contraire” only serve to underscore this.
He meant that even though people are nominally Christian, the vast majority do not actively practice and even though it is a part of the national psyche to be Anglican, people are really only ever in church for rites of passage, baptism, marriage and funerals.
I live in a large city. There is hustle and bustle, everyone is in a hurry to get where they’re going because they have to be someplace else after they get there. There is little time for soul searching even though, judging by the number of churches in the capital we are a staunchly Orthodox country. Our priests dress in increasingly more elaborate garb the higher the rank, and we take pride in the beautifully painted monasteries in the Romanian half of Moldova. People still do go to church and flock in their tens of thousands to kiss relics on special occasions of the Orthodox calendar, but there is a real distinction between the rural and urban populations in this sense.
It is in this context that I was recently invited to a wedding. A friend, whom I have known my entire life is getting married. There was a formal invitation, and the service will be held in a church and will be performed by a priest, just like my brother’s and my father’s and my cousin’s et cetera. These are people who, I think, do not really believe in an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly perfect God who created the Earth seven thousand years ago and suddenly decided three thousand years in that he got it wrong and had to drown everyone to start with a clean slate. No, for the most part they are rational people who can tell myth from falsifiable hypothesis.
And yet, they all made a conscious decision that, yes, “I want to be the protagonist in this religious ceremony even though I don’t really believe God physically took one bone from Adam and made a whole Eve out of it”. What’s more is that I too wouldn’t have it any other way. If I am to marry, I would like some kind of ceremony, the mayor/ship’s captain is not enough. Why is that? It’s completely irrational, why is it important at all to me?
I asked myself this same question when my father died. There was an Orthodox funeral, people came, there was chanting, flowers, superstitious wine spilling, everything you can come up with. Why? He’s dead, it won’t change that fact. Why would making a certain sequence of pressure waves pass through the air of this concrete building make a difference in whether or not he goes to heaven, if indeed heaven exists. Will God punish the individual that was my father if I do not describe the shape of a cross with my hands three times? What if I only do it twice? Not at all? Why do I have to do it with my tongue? Why are these things relevant? I thought of believers as either gullible or stupid, and of priests as either stupid or charlatans. I still think that this is true to some extent but I am no longer as militant about it.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the ritual itself that is important. The more elaborate the better. It not only binds us to our community as social creatures but provides a sort of ‘loading screen’ if you will, allowing us to progress from one perceived stage of our lives to the next. Before the ritual I had a father, I didn’t afterward, it helped come to terms with that fact and I contend it’s something that we all experience when we go through a religious right of passage.
Neuroscience has shown that this is not just a cultural phenomenon, something that we have consciously construed. There is such a thing as a religious center in our brains, an area that lights up in the lab when we are having a religious experience, when we have feelings of intense spirituality. I can’t say that I understand the detail of the science involved but the jist is, it is as much a part of who we are as love and fear, without it we would be less human. It is something our evolution came up with to avoid us asking too many questions about the world and concentrate on dinner, because dinner means we live to procreate while a starry eyed kid looking up at the night sky in the savanna with lions around would not.
All of that said it is however important to realize that much of the way we are built as humans does limit our potential to achieve our goals of a better life for everyone and solving the world’s problems. We are warm blooded animals which means we consume a lot of energy and therefore require a lot of food compared to say a juvenile Komodo dragon who weighs about as much. This means feeding seven billion of us requires some ingenuity. The fact is you can’t really make it rain fish. Prayer will not stop an asteroid impact and you can’t repent your way out of a pandemic. We need to ask questions, it IS now a matter of survival and so we must recognize our limitations in order to overcome them and I think that is exactly what Rowan Williams did.