This time of year, these ten days between the winter solstice with its associated add-on festivals, and the new year, has always made me feel uneasy, as though one was held in limbo. Of course in a rational world the New Year, 1st January, would happen on the day after the winter solstice, 22nd December, thus allowing for the logic of the year beginning with the change over from longer nights to longer days. But this 10 day period remains an anomaly, a wrinkle in rationality.
As such it is rather a neat metaphor for one of the biggest problems we continue to grapple with today, the struggle between reason and superstition, science and religion, the West and the Rest: pick your dualism
The Enlightenment, about which we think far too little today, from Rene Descartes though Newton to the Lunar Society and on to Franklin and Jefferson (not forgetting Voltaire and Robespierre) posited a world of three powers, God, religion and reason with reason dispelling the darkness of lives dominated by superstition, received unchanging “law” and rule by divine right. From the enlightenment came democracy, science, human rights, and ironically freedom of worship. The enlightenment spawned both the American and French republics, but took very different forms in those two new countries. In the USA it took a moderate form, one which did not deny religion and saw no problem with it continuing as a force alongside reason, democracy and science. Jefferson wrote it into the first sentence of the declaration of Independence and it’s there on every dollar bill. In France, and is essence across Europe, it took a more radical path. Until the French revolution was hijacked by one of its most successful generals, Napoleon, the church was banned and its buildings systematically destroyed. Across the rest of Europe the Church was, and largely still is, confined to a social welfare and folksy ceremonial role. We still see this split today. It is one of the reasons why Europeans find it so difficult to understand (and to tolerate) the role of religion in American politics. One could imagine an Atheist being president of France, Prime Minister of the UK, but President of the USA?
This dualism of religion and reason play out in the humanitarian world as well. Classically we think of it as the Dunantists, the ICRC’s of this world, in one track driven by humanity and reason, deliberately standing apart from politics and religion, and in the other, the faith driven agencies of the Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Islamic persuasions. Of course the scales are not balanced. Most aid is delivered and funded by organizations which are essentially secular and rationalist, if not to the pedantic and principled level of the ICRC.
And here comes the problem. It comes in two parts. Part one. The vast majority of people who receive humanitarian assistance are in nations where religion is a key part of people’s lives. For most humanitarian beneficiaries, spirituality is a given. It is an important part of their lives. Part two of the problem comes from science. We know, from research carried out with people recovering from alcoholism, or traumatic injuries that those with strong spiritual beliefs recover faster and in a more lasting way. We can prove, at least statistically, that spirituality alleviates suffering.
So if spirituality is a meaningful part of our clients’ lives and if spirituality aids recovery, what then should be the stance of humanitarian agencies, committed as they are to the impartial and rapid alleviation of suffering and to doing so in a way that does not express views on issues of a political racial or religious nature?
Part of the solution I think is to sidestep the mistake our forefathers made. They treated religion in a rather unenlightened way. They refused to study it with the same reason and empiricism as they did anatomy or astronomy, instead they locked in up in Pandora’s box as an object of suspicion to be avoided, much as their forefathers are written “here be sea monsters” on the edges of their maps.
Daniel Dennett in his superb book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon does an excellent job in showing how religion can and should be studied and how it is possible to separate out issues of spirituality for the religious trappings that have been loaded onto them over the ages.
If we pursue this path, then spiritually becomes another intriguing facet of the human mind along with hope, empathy and love, all of which we have no problem supporting in humanitarian work. And if we in the humanitarian world can shown how reason can be used to describe and support spirituality to demonstrably reduce suffering, without recourse to religion, then we may also be contributing to addressing the far greater problem posed by this same challenge I the larger world.
The resurgence of religion as a political power, whether it is the evangelical right wing in the USA, the Islamist jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Hindu nationalists in India or the Orthodox Church with the orthodox state in Russia, represents a clear and demonstrable challenge to the gifts of the enlightenment – democracy, tolerance, science and the necessity of doubt. We see from history that the full frontal attack of the French and Russian revolutions faltered, as has the accommodation strategy of the American revolution. Perhaps the answer lies not in the outright rejection of religion, nor in its unstudied acceptance, but rather in the continued use of reason to explore and enhance life. Why should the study and enhancement of spirituality be the exclusive domain of religion and theology? Perhaps, if we stopped being so frightened of the spiritual side of ourselves and sought to enhance it as we do our physical and intellectual sides, then we would truly have an answer to the threat of religious fundamentalism.