This post is about God. Not about whether God exists, or what God is like, but why it matters – if at all.
Most church leaders these days agonise over the declining numbers who attend church services, so it might be worth asking: why should anyone attend them? What’s the point? What difference does it make?
More and more people are describing themselves as ‘no religion’ – neither atheists nor committed to a religious tradition. A summary is here , and my post on it here . It is as though whether we believe or not no longer matters.
So why does it matter? In the past people have had different reasons. Here is my attempt to summarise the main ones.
1. Gods run the world
Beginning as far back in history as we can go, our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew that their lives were being maintained by forces beyond their understanding. They thought these forces were not only more powerful than humans, but cleverer. They thought in terms of relating to them. To make the most of life, we need to know who made us and for what purpose.
With the rise of agriculture we got cities and hierarchies. People conceived of the gods as a bit like human society. There were hierarchies of big important gods constantly plotting against each other, just like modern politicians, and then there were minor demons causing illnesses and local crop failures.
In the ancient world there was no presumption that nature operates according to regularities. Everything depended on the gods. So you would try to establish good relations with the gods relevant to you. If you were a woman trying to get pregnant you would plead with the goddess of fertility. If you were a sailor you would pay attention to the god of storms.
2. One divine creator, one design
Monotheism made a big difference. As long as you have got different gods quarrelling with each other it is possible to believe they are all a bit funny and you have to tread carefully and find out how to please each one.
But a single supreme god ought to be in control, ought not to be threatened, ought not to need anything from us, and ought to know how we can live at our best. Follow the maker’s instructions.
3. Life after death
For most of the Middle Ages Europeans believed that Christianity was the oldest religion. Most of the world was Christian. There were still some people refusing to accept Christ – Jews in their ghettoes and some Turks around the edge of the world. They are going to spend eternity being tortured in Hell, but who cares? They have brought it on themselves by rejecting Christ.
Then came the Black Death and a succession of plagues. You may be a perfectly healthy 18-year-old but when the plagues are around, by this time next week you may be dead. What next? If Jews and Turks are going to suffer for eternity, how strong is your faith?
And then throw in the Reformation. Christian society itself divided. Half of them were destined for Hell because they were not part of the true church. But which half? People were genuinely terrified.
So in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, what mattered about God was that if you believed the wrong things you would suffer in Hell for eternity.
4. God is irrelevant
The religious wars provoked a process we now call secularisation. In the sixteenth century everybody agreed that governments should govern the way God wanted and laws should be the laws God wanted. By the end of the seventeenth century, what God wants had caused so many wars that people looked for ways to govern without referring to God. Gradually the idea spread from government and law to other features of society. Once people believed that science can explain the universe, believing in God became an unnecessary extra - unless you think it makes a difference to life after death.
5. There is no God
Along with secularisation was the rise of atheism. Atheism first became attractive because of the threat of Hell. Suppose you are an unmarried girl brought up to believe that unmarried mothers are going to spend eternity being tortured, and you get pregnant. Your best hope is that this horrible punitive god doesn’t exist at all.
In the nineteenth century atheism began to look intellectually credible. Christianity was increasingly unpopular because of its negative features, especially Hell and the strict codes of sexual ethics. It became credible to believe that the universe is the product of impersonal forces of nature.
6. God gives our lives purpose and value
Atheism had a serious downside, which was clearer in the 19th century when the universe seemed so much simpler than it seems now.
The downside was that life has no meaning or purpose. There is no point in being alive. All our moral judgements, all our ideas of value and purpose, are errors of the human mind. Today atheists have ways of handling this problem, but in the 19th century the matter seemed clearer: that if there is no God, all our ideas of life having a purpose or value or meaning are errors generated by the human mind. (My own view is that they were right about this, but that’s another matter.)
So atheism became something to fear. The nineteenth century stands out as a high point for church attendances. Churches reassured people that life does have meaning and purpose. Science doesn’t know everything. There are spiritual truths beyond the reach of science.
7. Believing in God means we belong
How did they know those spiritual truths beyond science? In an extraordinary journey, the word ‘dogma’ began as a Greek word meaning ‘it seems’ and by the end of the nineteenth century meant a divinely revealed truth, proclaimed as such by church teaching, and hence binding for ever on the faithful.
This gives religious beliefs another set of meanings. George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine (1984) argued that Christians believe doctrines for three kinds of reason. One is that they actually think the doctrines are true. The second is that the beliefs express their own experience of life. The third is that the doctrines are nothing but rules for members of a denomination. In order to join a particular church you just have to assent to its teachings. Whether the teachings were true or not was another matter. Lindbeck argued that we should just settle for this third account and forget about the others.
So here’s yet another answer to the question. What makes God matter is that if you accept a church’s teachings about God, you’ve got a spiritual home. You belong.
That’s my list. No doubt others could be added, but these seem to me to have been the most influential in the history of western Christianity.
If this is a reasonably fair summary, it seems to me that the growing popularity of ‘no religion’ indicates a major change.
That history, we might say, pivots around 3 and 4. The threat of Hell was so terrifying that all the this-worldly relevance of God came to seem trivial. Conversely this-worldly life didn’t stop, so it became essential to go about daily business without the constant fear of divine judgement.
Once this pivot had emptied out the relevance of God to this physical earthly life, subsequent religious revivals depended on other-worldly philosophies: angels, the efficacy of prayer and of course Heaven and Hell.
This kind of religion has, inevitably, grown thinner and thinner. The way it is conceived makes it dispensable.
Perhaps the popularity of ‘no religion’ shows that that unfortunate episode is drawing to a close. Now that very few believe in punishment in Hell, let alone that Hell is for people who believe the wrong things about God, it becomes possible to open oneself up, in a genuine, unthreatened manner, to a spirituality that relates to life as we actually know it.