Meaning With or Without Religion?

September 01, 2016

Meaning With or Without Religion?

Hugh Mackay is one of Australia’s best-loved writers and social commentators, with many years of valuable experience.  His writing is skilful, thoughtful, well researched, and accessible.  In his latest book Beyond Belief, Mackay looks into the landscape of modern Australia, and examines the idea of how people find meaning, with or without religion. 

The book has been shaped by the idea that at the core of humanity is a yearning for meaning, and something to believe in beyond the materialism, increasing anxiety, and plain emptiness offered by modern Western society.  The purpose of the book is to explore ‘people’s quest for meaning in a society that has lost its appetite for conventional religion. It is written from a broadly Christian perspective because our culture has been heavily influenced by Christianity … [however] this is not a book for committed Christians … [or] committed atheists—certainly not to anti-theists’ (p2).  Rather, he suggests, it is for people who would consider themselves ‘doubters, sceptics, heretics, agnostics and religious fringe–dwellers’ (p2).  This also applies to people who may attend church but ‘sometimes feel as if they are expected to leave their brains at the church door.’ (p2) 

As an experienced social researcher, Mackay bases his thesis on various statistics and polls, and also uses personal stories from ‘everyday people’ sharing their experiences around church, spirituality, and what it means to seek meaning in places other than traditional churches.  One of the areas Mackay uses this methodology is in his appraisal of the state of church attendance.  He points out that numbers of regular churches attendees on Sundays in the West are down, and indeed on the decline.  Although 61% of Australians call themselves Christian, only 15% attend church once a month or less, and less than 8% attend weekly (p7).

He offers a number of reasons why people attend church—mostly unrelated to faith in God (pp57-65)—and also examines why people reject church (pp69-90).  Yet even though people are turning away from organised religion, Mackay argues there is real value in faith itself, and in seeking meaning and experience in something bigger than ourselves.  We are born to believe, and we seek to fill the gaps in our understanding of our world and ourselves as we work though our underlying existential angst (Chapter 1).  Mackay argues that a lot of good comes out of belief in a ‘god’, and it is beneficial to humans, both on a social level, for we are deeply tribal, and also on the individual scale.  Faith is powerful (p24): faith in ‘something beyond ourselves also has the power to comfort and console, to aid in recovery from illness and to carry us through the most testing periods of our lives.’ (p27)

One of the growing trends in religious belief explored by Mackay is the idea of being SBNR: spiritual but not religious (Chapter 4).  Do we need God—or any god—in order to create meaning and lead a morally good life?  This idea, as well as the reasonableness of agnosticism, are key themes explored in the book.

Faith is about weighing the balance of probabilities, and then deciding to go—or even to lean—in one direction or the other.  Agnosticism doesn’t preclude the possibility of faith, but it precludes the possibility of blind faith.  Agnosticism allows a person to experience reasonable faith—the kind of faith that allows many Christians to keep an open mind about institutionally based belief systems, even those that bear the great weight of tradition. (p 130)

Mackay suggests that the best place for your faith is in something that is reasonable, and has a sensible foundation: Does it make sense?  Does it point to a better world?  And finally, does it matter? (Chapter 5) 

Unlike many of those Mackay interviewed, I find that Christianity satisfies the requirements of his litmus test. Does it make sense?  To me, it does. I regard Christianity as a reasonable faith. It makes sense of the world around us, shining a light into the human condition. Beyond merely making sense, though, it is based in history, and there is a considerable body of historical evidence (textual and otherwise) that support its claims. Does it point to a better world? Yes. And does it matter? Again, yes! I don’t claim to understand every detail of Christianity, but there are many things I don’t understand every detail of that I’m happy to ‘believe’ in (medical science, for example!). While Mackay rejects supernatural elements of religion like miracles as irrational, it seems to me that once you acknowledge God, miracles pose little problem.

As a Christian, not surprisingly I found some of the book’s assumptions and conclusions at odds with my religious convictions. But as I read through the book, I remembered that from the outset, we are told it is not written for committed Christians (or committed atheists), but for agnostics and sceptics.  In this way, Beyond Belief is an engaging read, and offers an accurate diagnosis of our post-Christian society.  It provides sharp insights into some of the problems that people have relating to church and God, why church attendance is dwindling in the West, and common qualms about ‘organised religion’ (pp57-90).  As such it is a valuable book in thinking through ways to engage with those who are open to thinking about spirituality, and examining the possibility of God, or even just ‘something bigger’ out there.           

Mackay tells us:

Faith makes us whole.  Not religious faith, necessarily, and certainly not any one particular variety of religious faith.  But, as we have seen at several points in the book, faith in something larger than ourselves is vital for our mental health, our wholeness.  Yet we also need to learn to live with some mystery—some sense of awe and wonder—to remind us of the impossibility of getting answers to all the questions we’d like to ask, and to equip us for dealing with life’s inherent uncertainties.(p236)

The aim of this faith is, according to Mackay, love: compassion, goodness to others, and forgiveness, all of which are vital to the wellbeing of society generally, and people individually (Chapter 9). With the importance of love and faith, I cannot agree more wholeheartedly. But the claim that ‘faith’ will have this effect on individuals and society regardless of what the faith is in—as long as it is rational and ‘bigger than us’—is somewhat baffling. Surely history is littered with the disastrous consequences of ill-placed faith. (Stolen generation? Eugenics?)

I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, for I am human and flawed, and will always be a work in progress by God’s grace. Yet, as I live out a life transformed each day by faith in Christ, I cannot help but point others to him for answers in awe and wonder, for he is the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14:6).

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