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God Is For Grown-Ups

In the make-believe world of some, the world would be better off without religion. In the real world, however, some questions demand answers in the realm of the spirit.

One can be ignored. Two need to be noted. Three demand a response.

In the last few months there have been several attacks on religion and all its pomp and works. It's not a Christianity or Islam or Rastafarian thing; it's the whole ball of candle wax. The attacks have come from Richard Dawkins, the celebrated scientist-cum-philosopher who recently published The God Delusion, arguing that religious faith is, well, delusional. Then there was Elton John, the celebrated singer-activist, arguing that he would ban all religions, given that they are organized around the central principle of hating homosexuals. And then Christopher Hitchens, the belletrist-cum-iconoclast blew through Toronto and did Sir Elton one better, arguing that religion doesn't have it in for homosexuals per se, but is the principal source of hatred of all kinds. That argument will soon be made at book length in God is Not Great, out next spring.

You can't abolish the things men do without abolishing man altogether.

The argument, to the extent that it is an argument as opposed to an eruption of disdain and distaste, is that we would be better off without religion. Certain bad people do bad things for religious reasons; therefore it would be better if the whole imaginary, delusional world of religion were abolished.

Sir Elton might take it as a compliment—Dr. Dawkins and Mr. Hitchens likely wouldn't—that he is generally singing the same song as did the late John Lennon in his anthem to nihilism, Imagine. You remember: imagine no countries, no religion, no possessions, nothing to die for, etc … . It is very seductive thinking for a certain liberal mindset, one that rather fancies that human nature is a malleable thing, to be reworked according to one's own preferences.

In this imaginary world, human beings have their real lives, to which religion is an optional addition that can be added or subtracted at will, like a hobby or taste or fashion. Get rid of religion? No more difficult than eliminating spelunking, or spittoons or spats.

Yet when Sir Elton and companions return from the land of make-believe, they are confronted with human beings as we actually live, and actually believe. It is no more possible to eliminate the religious dimension from human nature than it is to abolish politics, or economics, or literature or music. You can't abolish the things men do without abolishing man altogether.

There are questions that emerge for any thinking person that demand answers in the realm of the spirit. Why are we here? Why is there something rather than nothing? What happens after we die? Because homo sapiens seek both knowledge and wisdom, religion—authentic or false, pure or corrupt—is an essential part of what it means to be human.

To be sure, Sir Elton and friends have given answers to these questions themselves, and simply don't like that other people give different answers. Sir Elton has a moral belief in the rightness of sexual libertinism, and judges all other beliefs against that. That view leads to a rather hedonistic excess, a lifestyle for which Sir Elton was once the poster boy. Hedonistic excess remains an answer, albeit a shallow one, to the questions that have driven others to the heights of philosophy and theology. It is not clear why Sir Elton's path should be obligatory for all.

Dr. Dawkins is a rather religious man himself, except that his religion is materialist fundamentalism. Like all fundamentalists, he begins with his conclusion—only matter exists—and then rejects all arguments that might question it. So if you ask him what love is, or the idea of liberty, or why people cry at funerals, he would say that it can all be explained by the right combination of electrical impulses and cells in the brain. It is a bleak view of the human person, which may explain why the church of the material fundamentalism has only preachers and no congregation.

As for Mr. Hitchens, when you reject out of hand the possibility of sacrifice motivated by love of God, you are forced to reach the conclusion, as he did, that Mother Teresa was a fraudster who would have been better off not feeding the poor but studying poverty. Mr. Hitchens delights in turning conventional thinking upside down, but to inhabit his world is to truly stand on your head, where up is down and holiness is wicked. It is a fun game to play for undergraduates of all ages, but hardly worthy of grown-up thinkers.

There is a certain frustration for those who are certain that religion is soon to pass away. Outside of the circles in which our three Brits are lavishly celebrated, the world is growing more religious, not less. That means religion in all its many-splendoured purity and corruption. It is nothing to lament, or to celebrate. It is simply who we are.

Rev. Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Rev. de Souza's web site is Rev. de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Originally published in the National Post, November 23, 2006.




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