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March 25, 2013 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The God Allusion

If you believe census data, religion is on the way out of New Zealand. more and more of us are forgetting our Jedi roots and ticking “no religion”, leaving centuries of precedent behind. But does “no religion” really mean “no belief”? Have we already replaced religion with pop culture? Will atheists finally shut up?

As a non-believer who has never taken a Religious Studies paper, I generally see pre-modern religion as fulfilling three basic functions. The first, and most obvious, being the provision of a moral code; the second, an answer to life’s more perplexing questions; and the third, a means of forming and maintaining a community.

All three of these functions still seem to appear in modern New zealand culture, yet a predicted 40 per cent of the population will have ticked “no religion” on the recent census. However much Michael Laws whines, we still live in a pretty ‘moral’ society—violent crime is declining, and we donate to charity like there is no tomorrow—and most of us seem to navigate life’s big questions without too much stress. In grander words: nothing is true; plenty isn’t permitted.

Religion’s social function has obviously been replaced. Churches were once the centre of village life, the only regular social gathering many had. With most of us now living in cities, we don’t need as much of an excuse to visit each other, and modern labour laws ensure that Sunday isn’t our only day off. Sports culture and cafe culture do an excellent job of keeping people both together and apart. Modern pop culture provides us with the near-universal narratives religious texts once gave us, even if these narratives are in some ways informed by religion. We might not all watch Shortland Street every night, but most of us have seen The Lion king and thrashed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

So the ‘social-glue’ function of religion has been replaced, but that’s only part of the story. Where do we now go for spiritual guidance, a moral code, and answers to life’s big questions?

Well, not everyone is so confident that we have departed from religion. Victoria University’s Dr. Geoff Troughton, who teaches several Religious Studies papers—including the 200 level ‘Religion and disenchantment’—doesn’t think that religion is departing our shores. Rather, it’s evolving. “It’s not as simple as saying we’ve moved past religion, but our ways of engaging with religion have changed.” While Troughton can definitely see that organised religion is not as prominent, he sees a more personal kind of religion everywhere. “We’re secular in the sense that saying you’re religious has become less common, [but] there’s all sorts of spiritual and religious beliefs that shape the way we live, even in a context where the space for religion is much more constrained.”

Writing about post-modernity in a student magazine is a terrible habit to fall into, but it is kind of necessary here. In case you can’t pretend to know what post-modernism is yet, it essentially describes a range of cultural shifts from the 60’s onwards, including a major swing away from grand narratives— the American dream, the supremacy of liberal democracy, and, of course, Christianity. Troughton agrees that post-modernity has changed how we view religion. “There’s no doubt that we are much dubious of religious institutions, hierarchies and communities that seem to assert strong and exclusive grand narratives,” he explains, but this doesn’t take religion out of the picture, it simply results in a more “fragmented, pluralistic variety of belief.”

Troughton sees religion in a huge variety of Western cultural practices, from everyday spirituality (“touch wood!”, “don’t jinx it!”) to the incorporation of other religion’s vocabulary (karma!), resulting in a kind of pluralistic pastiche of religious practices that is different for every person. “[These practices] provide meaning-making; they help people to negotiate the mysteries and risks of their own lives, and make sense of a world that isn’t all measurable.” He claims that many “secular” people pray, in their own different ways. “Only ten per cent of us are hardcore atheists,” he explains, citing a 2009 survey of New Zealander’s values, “90 percent of us believe in god or a life force or an impersonal being that is somehow involved in the way the universe operates.”

But how respectful is this ‘pick and choose’ process? We appear to treat personal religion like a tumblr blog, grabbing the desirable and recontextualising it without permission. Take the concept of karma, for example. Karma is lifted from Buddhism, and at its most basic level tells us bad things will happen to bad people. Action’s can give us “good karma” or “bad karma”, and while traditionally bad karma would result in one’s resurrection as a less desirable being, we now just use it to explain the misfortune of those we dislike. Karma is much more believable than a heaven/hell, since it doesn’t require some kind of divine personality or concrete location—it’s just there, and barely feels religious. Plus, who doesn’t love people “getting what’s coming to them”—we want this to be true. We’ve conveniently ignored other tenets of  Buddhism/Eastern cultures that are less tasteful to western eyes —like Dharma— the “natural order of things”, a concept which supports the caste system. Troughton sees this as sometimes problematic, but often harmless; an example of the hybridity that religion always displays. “Religion is seldom as pure as the refined forms that you see in the official dogmas.”

All this personal spirituality seems pretty believable, but it doesn’t quite explain our enduring sense of right and wrong. You’ve got to have some kind of moral compass before you can assign karmic value to an action. Moral values are is instilled in us throughout our youth, from parental guidance to Harry Potter, but are these morals religiously tinged? Troughton sees this sense of morality as intrinsically linked with religion, despite existing within secular frameworks.”Traditional religion still has an influence, but it’s often not through traditional sources, and it’s often not understood.” Yeah, a whole lot of children read the Narnia series without immediately linking it to Christianity, but this Christian influence isn’t always so obvious. Troughton sees these “echoes of a Christian past” everywhere, claiming that we live in a culture “where we are shaped by assumptions about what it means to be human.” being human is often conflated with being moral – we have human rights, not moral rights. Troughton doesn’t believe traditional religion tells the whole story any more, adding that “there has been a definite turn towards holistic spirituality, [values gained from] an interest in health and wellbeing, psychological literature, counselling, and self-help culture.”

Religion has hitched a ride through every cultural revolution humanity has ever endured. In fact, it’s caused quite a few. Part of me wants to reject the influence religion has had on our culture, to call it fairytales for adults and then post this article on Reddit, but religion defies that kind of easy categorisation; it’s too large of a force to even consider whether we would be better off without it. Certainly, organised religion has centuries of intolerance and bloodshed to answer for, but so do most aspects of human society. Blaming past bigotry on religion is easy, a scapegoat we use since we’re uncomfortable with the hate our whole culture once engaged in. New Zealand seems to be leaving organised religion behind—and we should be okay with that—but this isn’t going to suddenly solve all our problems. We have the internet for that.


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