Ten days between reason and religion

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.

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3 Responses to Ten days between reason and religion

  1. dave hodgkin says:

    Thanks for the insightful and thoughtful posting
    As a humanitarian worker i do try to keep religion off the agenda.
    As a not-so-practicing Quaker, not preaching to others is a fundamental belief for me, but so also is the recognition of the spark within others… recognizing the importance of belief and the humility of accepting that we are just small beings in a vast universe, that we are yet to fully understand, who are we to say we “know” the truth…
    As an aside to my day job as a humanitarian consultant, i run a small NGO, funding disaster recovery projects from private donations. Mosques and places of worship have always been something that I see as a key issue to fund.
    Amusingly for me during my time in the emergency phase of Aceh, I was impressed by how a number of the christian NGO’s were much more open and forthcoming about funding muslim religious needs than non christian NGO’s. Whilst with the Catholic Relief Service, they funded mass disributions of prayer mats and praying outfits as well as mosque renovations. I think mass replacement of destroyed korans was perhaps beyond them.
    I was however surprised by how few agencies recognised early on that the LNGO’s & CBO’s of Aceh, were there and strong, but church based. hence many agencies relied on National NGO’s perhaps perpetuating by default the Acehnese sense of Javanese invason

  2. Jeff Wright says:

    Thank you for this very well-written and well-reasoned post. I feel very strongly the pull of ‘enlightenment thinking’. But this is in sometimes difficult tension with the thinking of more spiritually oriented actors in the aid work drama, whether they are the recipients of aid, or colleagues for whom spirituality is not just something that enriches their free-time, but is, in fact, their raison d’eter in humanitarian work altogether.

  3. Ramon O Broers says:

    Peter, what a great article. It was a pleasure to read. I must say I join the ranks of people basing their actions on rationale and not superstition. Reading your very deliberate arguments, one issue became a major concern to me. I would strongly agree to respect and even use people’s religion for their betterment. Spiritual health is pivotal for 98% of the world’s population, and it would be irrational and unenlightened not to take that into consideration. However, I am not sure exactly how you intend to use spirituality to aid people (do you suggest it be used before psychological treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?). Sure spirituality can be used to help people cope with their situation or recover psychologically, but it should come subsequent to medical attention and professional psychological help, humanitarian groups have never been against that. I cannot point out how strongly I would prefer that proper psychological help should be provided before religious groups step in, as they far too often attempt to convert the victims. Unfortunately there are many many more religious people ready to take care of the spiritual needs of victims than there are psychologist (due to the lack of psychological organizations (which there are very few of working in the humanitarian field) and due to the abundance of heavily funded religious groups.
    I also believe that atheists should not have any more of an agenda than religious groups when providing humanitarian aid. The point at which I have a moral problem with religious groups, in humanitarian situations, regards my belief that humanitarian aid groups should not base their practical reasoning and decisions on superstition, nor should they use religion as a remedy (only as spiritual backup after all medical treatment and procedures are exhausted). An exacerbated humanitarian situation would most certainly be the result of a religious leader who bases his or her decisions on the belief that people will have a better afterlife, that God works in mysterious ways, and that “it is in God’s hands now.” I would feel a lot more secure on behalf of the people in need if the leader had a more pragmatic take on situations, that (s)he would consider life as it is now as the only one; that situations are complex and we have to adapt accordingly; and that it is in our hands, not a fantastical being. As the bottom line of my concern, the spiritual need of people should indeed be attended to, but do not let it come before medical attention or proper psychological help.

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