John Locke portrait

This is the first of three posts on ‘religion’. What is it, who invented it and what is it for? These days when its social role is changing it is worth asking what we are talking about.

According to the surveys, religion is losing popularity. Most people are happy to call themselves spiritual but not religious. So what is it about religion that puts people off?’

One issue is its dogmas. It has earned a reputation for expecting people to believe things they find improbable. I have written about this elsewhere (there is longer analysis in my book Liberal Faith in a Divided Church; here I focus on the other issue, that religion doesn’t help . It seems to live in a world of its own, disconnected from our ordinary lives.

This species of religion is a modern concept. It has become a distinct social discourse about the private, the inward and the other-worldly. It is disconnected from discourse about the physical world, our jobs, our money, our health, our holidays, our politics, our science. Today, the disconnection is a problem. It makes people prefer a ‘spirituality’ that offers something positive to their own lives.

In this post I tell the story of how the disconnection came about, as a result of seventeenth century politics. In the next I shall describe how nineteenth century science accentuated the separation. The third will be about how the world got divided into different ‘religions’.

Before the 17th century

As far back as history takes us our ancestors believed there must be divine forces, with personalities and intentions, making the world operate the way it does. Gods were integrated into people’s understanding of reality. There was no separation between ‘religion’ and ‘science’. Talking about a god was no more a ‘religious’ thing to do than talking about red apples was a ‘colourist’ thing to do. A few years ago I was at the Liverpool Royal Hospital, with a tube being pushed further and further up my nose. The doctor explained: ‘God has given us sinuses, but he also lets us create technologies to look inside them.’ My immediate response was to assume that this doctor must be a Muslim. Today, most of us have learned not to talk about God like that; but his manner of speaking about God was normal in pre-modern times and remains normal in many societies.

The wars of religion

What caused the change was the European wars of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They were driven by a dilemma. Europeans had inherited a widespread belief that the nation would be blessed if the state was governed the way God wanted. In the disputes between Protestants and Catholics governments interpreted this to mean they had to make everybody attend the kind of church service God approved of. However it was also a common belief that, if you belonged to the wrong church, after you died you would be punished in hell for eternity. For those who believed that, it was better to be burned at the stake than to obey a government with erroneous beliefs about the true church. Worse still, Protestants and Catholics alike denied the role of reason in settling disagreements: all sides (with the honorable exception of the Socinians, forerunners of the Unitarians) claimed loyalty to God’s reason-transcending revelation. The result of this dilemma was war after war.

Locke’s solution

The solution that emerged was to separate the two issues. Governments were to be chosen according to the consent of the people, regardless of religious affiliation. Churches were to be non-political voluntary societies, each one composed of whoever thought it the means to salvation. The main proponent of this proposal was John Locke:

The care of Souls cannnot belong to the Civil Magistrate, because his Power consists only in outward force; but true and saving Religion consists in the inward perswasion of the Mind. [A Letter Concerning Toleration, 6)
A Church… I take to be a voluntary Society of Men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the publick worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the Salvation of their Souls… The hopes of Salvation, as it was the only cause of his entrance into that Communion, so it can be the only reason of his stay there. [ibid. 9-10]

Religion in its box

In other words Locke was responding to the obsession of his day. People were genuinely worried about whether they would spend eternity in hell. It was that worry that drove people to join one church or another. Locke’s solution was to separate it out from all matters of government, so that beliefs about God and the afterlife were matters for individual decision and completely separate from public matters of government, so that they could no longer cause wars. From then on religion was on principle to be private, inward and other-worldly: religion in its box.

A century later, in 1791 the First Amendment of the United States Constitution stated that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’.

In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, the victorious Allied powers prohibited all the state-related Shinto rituals of Japan in order

To separate religion from the state, to prevent the misuse of religion for political ends, and to put all religions, faiths and creeds upon exactly the same legal basis, entitled to precisely the same opportunities and protection. [Woodard, William P., the Allied Occupation of Japan 1945-1952 and Japanese Religions, Leiden: Brill, 1972, p. 297.]

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, established in 1948, states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The European Convention on Human Rights (1950) is similar. Clearly these documents would not have insisted on freedom of religion if they had thought religion sometimes involved opposing capitalism or becoming a suicide bomber. These decrees on religion were meant to be about something which did not affect public life.

Where do we go from here?

Most people, fortunately, no longer worry about whether they will go to hell. Bereft of its original point, this disconnected religion-in-its-box is left with strings of doctrines which true Christians ought to believe but which no longer matter. Why believe them at all? People either decide that religion is an optional extra they can do without, or look for an alternative which relates to their lives – spirituality instead of religion, perhaps.

What should we do instead? I would be content to abandon Locke’s artifice and return to normal practice. Before the wars of religion Europeans did what other societies still do, to the extent that they are not influenced by modern European thought. The wars of religion were not caused by the belief that the state should be governed according to God’s will; this idea is as old as history. They were caused by a combination of two doctrines: eternal hell, and reason-defying certainty claims.

Provided we accept that those were errors, we should be able to recover an integrated understanding of society, so that what we believe about God matters to the way society operates, and our society’s experiences help us to understand about God.