Does religion answer human needs?

October 13, 2010

Eric MacDonald expresses well to what extent religions are due respect:-

We are happenstance. That’s fairly evident, and that is one reason why theological tales, such as the Westminster Confession’s: “What is the chief end of man?” — “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” as the shorter Westminster catechism has it, really consist in nothing but empty words.

But this doesn’t mean that each of us does not, in some sense, seek to give our lives meaning and purpose, purely human meaning and purpose. And since religion is a human creation, it is not obvious that it doesn’t include insights that may be useful in achieving this personal life project, not in the religious sense of binding ourselves to primitive prescriptions or prohibitions, but in the sense that thousands of years of human effort in understanding what it is to live a good life may not have been entirely wasted, even if the most important thing we can learn from all that effort is how not to do it.

This is at least partly what I take from Hitchens’ point that the criticism of religion is, in some sense, the beginning of criticism, or, as Marx says, the prerequisite of all criticism, but he makes the point in the context of what Marx says in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and in that connection he says:

… this son of a rabbinical line took belief very seriously.

And then he gives the full quotation from which the oft repeated ‘religion is the opium of the people’ is taken, where Marx shows a great sensitivity to the function of religious believing. He sees how religion functions as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, … the spirit of a spiritless situation.” And then he goes on to say how it is necessary to change the condition which requires the illusions of religion, and the purpose of criticism is not simply to destroy the illusions, the halo of this vale of woe. What criticism does is to pluck the imaginary flowers (of religion) from the chains that bind us, not, Marx says, “so that man will wear the chain without any fantasy or consolation,” but so that, seeing the chain (because of criticism), we may throw off the chain, and pluck the living flower.

And Hitchens’ point is very much the same, which is why, perhaps, in the Four Horsemen DVD, he says he would be disappointed if religion were to disappear altogether. The reason is that Hitchens, while thinking of religion rightly as something that poisons everything, also recognises the human function that religion serves. Take his comment on Antigone (in Sophocles’ play of that name), who stood up against the tyrant Creon who had decreed that her brother’s body should remain unburied.

Antigone [says Hitchens] spoke for humanity in her revulsion against desecration.

He is remarking on his disappointment that Orwell did not feel some sensitivity about the burning of churches in Catalonia in 1939, and he remarks:

I leave it to the faithful to burn each other’s churches and mosques and synagogues, which they can always be relied upon to do. When I go to the mosque, I take off my shoes. When I go to the synagogue, I cover my head. (11)

This, it seems to me, is an important acknowledgement that, though we find no truth in what these religions teach, and indeed find much that is ugly, we acknowledge them as human, and as worthy of respect for that reason alone. We do not respect them as systems of thought, for they have no coherence as systems of thought; they are not grounded in reality. But they are grounded in human need, and if we are to provide alternatives to religion which will not bring about the continuing destruction that religion causes, we must both understand what is so wrong with religion, but also what makes religion so powerful as an expression of that need.

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2 Responses to “Does religion answer human needs?”

  1. Jay Thomas said

    Some of this comes very close to some of what I was attempting to articulate earlier albeit more eloquently expressed.

    The question posed in the westminster confession

    “What is the chief end of man”

    Strikes me as a fundamentally obnoxious one even before we get to the ridiculous answer. The question presupposes that a collective universal answer is required.

    Much of the harm that is done in the world seems to be caused by people who are not content with establishing meaning for themselves, but are anxious to subordinate the priorities of others to their own and impose their own meaning upon the lives of others with or without their consent.

  2. ukdonjp said

    Yes, i’m very much with you on this.

    The pluralistic aspect of secularism isn’t often enough emphasised.

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