This House Believes We Are All Religious

I debated last night at the Oxford Union against the motion that ‘We Are All Religious’. Here is what I said:

Mr President,

Today’s debate could easily become a semantic one. The word religion can be stretched and given newer and broader meanings and it frequently is. Football is my religion, Star Trek is my religion, Minecraft is my religion, my religion is to do good or be happy. Through usages like these, the word religion can be made to mean anything.

This is a favoured pursuit, especially of sociologists of religion, who might say that religion is whatever gives you meaning or whatever is your source of value, and no doubt these academic re-definitions are very rewarding and illuminating in their own way but they would make for a poor debate. Every human being simply by being conscious, makes meaning, and values some things above others in terms of importance, there really could be no question at all about that and we could all log off and adjourn. So it can’t be useful to debate that.

Alternatively, today’s debate could easily become a trading of facts and statistics.

That would make for a very easy debate for our side at least.

We could point out how:

  • religious identities have declined: the British Social Attitudes Survey showed an increase from 30% forty years ago to 52% today in the proportion of people saying that they had no religion
  • religious beliefs are very low: under a third of people according to YouGov share Christian beliefs like believing that Jesus was the son of god
  • religious practice is extremely low: 60% never go at all to a place of worship and in a normal week, over 90% of people don’t attend.
  • These same trends (though not these same figures, Britain is very non-religious in global terms) are evident anywhere in the world where freedom of conscience and expression exists, where it is possible by law to not be religious.

But again, that would be an arid debate on an arid motion, even if – for this side of the house – it would be easy to win.

The premise of this evening’s motion, as I understand it, is something else. As the publicity for our debate says, the question is, ‘have we outgrown religion, or are we all still guided by these foundational beliefs, even if we don’t realise it?’

This evening’s motion means to state that we are all religious in some sense like that. That in some sense religion continues to provide the basis for our values and the way we live.

That’s what I intend to deny and in fact, I argue the opposite. I say that the impact of humanist as opposed to religious ideas on our society has been so enormous in the last century or so that far from being all religious, even the religious of us are so influenced by humanist ideas, that they themselves would be unrecognisable as religious to their predecessor generations.

If there is no point becoming embroiled in a purely semantic argument, about whether we are all “religious”. What in the context of our debate can ‘being religious’ mean if we want it to mean something?

This is a difficult question, as religions are very different from each other: Christianity. Hinduism, religious Buddhism, Islam. What can we say about such disparate traditions of belief and practice that could unite them into a single category of ‘religion’?

I would like to offer a two-pronged initial definition. Firstly, religions all promote, as the philosopher Hector Hawton called it, some kind of a two-world theory. They all hold that, beyond this material sphere, that we now inhabit, there is another place. They differ as to what is to be found in that space, but they hold that what is there is important, whether heaven or hell, gods or Nirvana, secret wisdom or celestial spirits. Secondly, all religions locate or underpin or justify at least some of their values or their claims about the meaning of human life in entities and explanations outside of humanity.

Here is something we can work with. If we want to be able to call someone religious we can say that they locate at least some matters of importance outside of human beings or of this world and life.

This was George Orwell’s preferred contrast and he said that really hardly any ordinary person on these terms was religious. In his words:

Often there is a seeming truce between the humanist and the religious believer, but in fact their attitudes cannot be reconciled: one must choose between this world and the next. And the enormous majority of human beings, if they understood the issue, would choose this world. They do make that choice when they continue working, breeding and dying instead of crippling their faculties in the hope of obtaining a new lease of existence elsewhere.

I agree and I think that in the last few decades in particular, the humanist as opposed to the religious worldview has become the dominant paradigm more or less, at least in the western world and in other places too as modernity and freedom have advanced.

What Julian Huxley called ‘the humanist revolution’ of the last dozen or so decades. of the nineteenth century in beliefs, and in the twentieth century in values has transformed our worldview and we are the heirs of that great shift in human understanding, in beliefs, in values.

In the field of human knowledge we have acquired for the first time in our history an account of our origins for which there is evidence and that is just one of the fruits of science. The others, in the technology all around us that allows us to live in ways a king or emperor of past ages would envy, are apparent to all. This has not been accomplished because we have thought that knowledge could be acquired by revelation, or by meditation, or by communing with the stars and planets. We have achieved this as a result of patient exploration, through the application of our reason and of organised inquiry to the material evidence.

In morals, both socially and in our law, we live in a post-religious regime. In the lifetime of my parents’ generation alone. Abortion, homosexuality, suicide decriminalised; divorce – liberalised; marriage opened up to same sex couples; censorship based on blasphemy abolished; personal freedom enhanced and expanded. And why? Why were these things done? Not because some new religion came along and told us that we ought to reform these things and abolish these things and live in new ways. It was because the religious mindset that underpins these taboos was overthrown, not completely – and to be sure some people with religious identities accommodated themselves to this great shift – but in great measure. Our law came to be informed by human freedom and wellbeing instead.

As in knowledge and in morals, so too in the meaning we give our lives. A recent study of millennials found that they overwhelmingly located the sources of meaning not in any metaphysical projects but in their day to day interactions with friends, through human relationships, and personally fulfilling experiences. And they are just the most significant generation to do so. Most of us in fact now believe that the meaning of life is something we create for ourselves, not something written into reality by a cosmic designer that we can discover.

In perhaps the most radical shift from just a few years ago, even in the institutions of our rites of passage, in which religion was so dominant for so long – for much longer than it dominated our minds, religion has now ceded its place to a more humanist and person-centred approach. Most funerals are now not religious and nor, for nearly twenty years now have most weddings been. They’re not conducted by priests but by celebrants, officiants, and registrars.

The motion before us this evening is that the House Believes We Are All Religious. We are not. Many of us, far from locating the source of our values in some external context, root them completely within humanity and within this world. Far from seeking answers in a two-world theory, we say that man is the measure of all things and that we can understand this universe through our senses and our science. We are not religious, in fact we are the opposite, and in that sense at least, our views – as Orwell said – are irreconcilable.

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