Sunday, 20 April 2014

Why Religion has to evolve

Happy Easter to all the readers of the Barnet Eye, whatever faith or none you may have. As is our tradition, on such Holy occasions I like to share a few of my personal thoughts on the subjects of faith and religion with my readers. Just so you know where I'm coming from, I am a rather bad Roman Catholic. I go to church and I subscribe to the philosophy of caring for my neighbours, forgiveness and trying not to be judgemental. There are issues which my views are not aligned to the church, such as contraception (the absence of families with ten children in the pews indicates I may not be alone in this). I have a strong dislike of people who try and "convert" people to any faith, especially my own, by means other than being good, caring citizens who a decent person may want to emulate. I don't use this blog to preach because I think faith is a personal journey and it seems to me that there are many paths. I get a lot out of my faith. An hour a week for quiet contemplation is something which has helped keep me sane in this troubled world. I probably shouldn't say this but many of my best blogs have been formulated during my weekly trip to mass.  Anyway that is the preamble, here is the blog.

Marie Stopes or Alexander Fleming? Which one of those two has given religion its greatest challenge in the last 100 years. A few years ago I was having a chat with a friend who is a staunch feminist. She said that Stopes had "thrown the shackles off women by inventing the contraceptive pill, allowing them to indulge in risk free sex". As any friend of mine will attest, I can be a bit of a wind up merchant and I shot back at her "Nope, actually that accolade falls to Alexander Fleming, inventor of penicillin, he removed the fear of VD, which was actually the most sensible reason for not sleeping around". My friend, who is never short of a word or two was gobsmacked. She said "I've never really thought about it, but you may in some ways be at least half right". For her, this was actually a life changing moment (well this may be me exagerrating!). She went off and thought about it, studied the subject and came to the conclusion that equality starts with access to education and medical care. Contraception will only be adopted in less developed societies when women are healthy and educated. She came back to me recently and asked a question "Do you think that the mainstream religions are 'fit for purpose'?"

This is for me a very interesting question. The reason all major religions have become successful and widely adopted is because they bring stability to society. The rules which we associate with religions were in general very sensible measures for a society in a world without antibiotics, sanitation, disinfectant and good hygiene. Without antibiotics, extra marital sex could infect the participants with life threatening contagious diseases. Without contraception it could result in the most inconvenient of sprogs. Kosher and Halal food hygiene laws ensured that the populace were far less likely to get food poisoning. And observance of the Sabbath gave everyone a much needed day off. Following these rules, would mean your particular group would have a significant advantage over other cultures. So putting all of the moral stuff to one side, if we say that in a pre 20th century society all of these religious rules were pretty sensible, how should faiths react to the developments that make these laws nothing more than sometimes inconvenient traditions?

I was raised in the Catholic tradition, so we have a tradition of "Fish on Friday" and Lentern fasting. For many of us, this means knocking boozing on the head for 40 days. I would imagine that neither of these two traditions do us any harm and some may do us some good. If the Pope said "Being Catholic means eating seven portions of vegetables a day and only eating Red meat on Sundays, Saints Days  and Thursdays, it would doubtless improve public health (assuming people listened). As for sex, if the Pope was to say "All of the rules we came out with were designed for a pre antibiotic, pre contraceptive world and things have changed, we have a new set of rules now" what would they be? I thought long and hard about this and I realised that for the Pope it isn't that easy. What would the new rules be? Only sleep with people you are in a committed relationship with, don't cheat on your spouse, use precautions if you are sleeping with someone who you don't know their sexual history and ensure that you use contraception if you don't intend having a baby are the rules most members of the secular world would generally say are sensible. Or are they? Well I think that in the UK, that is pretty much the rules that most people try and follow and society hasn't fallen apart yet. But then the UK is a special place. You may say "in what way?" Well you see we have the NHS. If you want the Pill, you go to the NHS, if you get the clap and you need some penicillin, you go to the NHS.

The problem for Poor Old Pope Francis is that most of the people he represents don't live in the UK. They don't live in countries with any health service to speak of. Contraceptives, anti biotics etc are luxuries. Would it be right for the Pope to say "Well you lot in the decandent West, who have all the food and all the money, can shag away, but the other 90% of Catholics had better follow a far more draconian set of rules, because if they embrace decadence it will kill them. Is that really fair?

Which brings us back to the conundrum at the beginning. As my friend decided, for the world to be truly equal between the genders, we have to have universal equality. Horrors such as FGM happen because in backward societies, people do not receive an education that makes them realise the wrong of the practise.

I have come to the conclusion, and you may not agree, that religion has a role to play to sort this problem out. Someone like Pope Francis has a network which is unrivalled in any other organisation. That organisation has wealth and influence. It can't address all of the worlds ills, but it can get a message to the dispossessed around the globe in a way that no other organisation can. We have a new Pope who seems to be  setting an agenda on global fairness. He seems to be keen to dump much of the baggage that has discredited the Church in the eyes of many of us. The Church, which originally rejected the theories of Charles Darwin and evolution, now has to evolve to survive. I for one hope it evolves to be a force for good in the world and find a place of relevance. Of course there are a whole multitude of faiths. These two need to evolve and adapt. Finally there is Atheism and Humanism. Both of these reject the role of faith in the world. Given the problems many Atheists and Humanists associate with faiths, this is not an unreasonable stance, but I personally think that this too has to evolve. I think that Atheism and Humanism should have a standpoint which says "We don't believe, we recognise the rights of others to believe and we will work with people who believe for the common good, where it is appropriate". For me the great challenge is global poverty. I believe all decent people of faith or no faith should find this repugnant and we should get much better at talking across boundaries and demarkations to address it. As far as I am concerned, you judge someone by their actions, not by their label. I think a Christian who tolerates unfairness is a disgrace as a human being, but no more or less so than a Jew, an Atheist or a follower of the Bug Eyed Spaghetti Monster who also tolerates unfairness. Likewise if someone is working to combat unfairness and inequality, they are a good person regardless of label.

So the first part of this evolution should be to stop judging each other by the label we wear, forget our tribal demarkations and get on with the job in hand which is making a better world. If we all signed up to that, maybe it could start to happen.

End of todays Easter Sunday Surmon !

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