This is an edited version of the talk I gave at St Denys Bookshop in Manchester, on 30th September. It describes my new book Why Progressives Need God, and why I wrote it.
My background is in liberal theology. For quite a while I’ve been an active member of Modern Church, a liberal society in the Church of England. My main focus is philosophy and ethics, so I ask questions like: do we need to believe in God? Does it make any difference? I think it does.
Why? We are destroying the environment we depend on. For 40 years the rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer. Western powers including Britain have been dropping so many bombs on other countries, for so long, that it’s no longer news and we take it for granted.
Environmental destruction, poverty and war. In each case the most powerful governments, including Britain, know the situation is getting worse, know we need to change direction, go to conferences making speeches about the need to do something, but actually carry on making them worse.
This is well known. There are mountains of statistics about all three. My thesis is that one of the causes is the secular nature of society. We need to bring back God.
Secularism as a cause
The point of secularism is to separate religious beliefs from public affairs. It began 300 years ago as a way of establishing peace after the religious wars. So we draw a line. Religious beliefs are other-worldly, unverifiable private opinions of individuals, whereas society needs to be run on scientifically verifiable public facts. Separating all religious ideas from public life seemed, 300 years ago, the best way to solve their biggest problems. I’m arguing that today it stops us solving them.
The book is roughly in three parts. The first describes why our ancestors believed in gods in the first place, and the difference it makes whether you believe in one consistent god or different gods in conflict. The second looks at what happens when we take all gods out of the picture. This is my main critique of secular godless society. The third looks more positively at the kind of god we need to believe in if we are to solve our problems.
The position I defend is one strand of traditional Christianity: the one god of supreme power, knowledge and goodness, who creates the world, and us, as an act of generosity to bless us, but also gives us freedom to live well or badly. The first Christians inherited this from their Jewish background, but today there are other versions of Christianity that muddle it up or compete with it.
What secular society has done is to inherit the idea of complete power, knowledge and goodness, and transfer them from God to humanity.
First, power. If the universe has not been designed at all, if it’s the product of unthinking matter obeying automatic laws of nature, then only humans can think. Only humans can design anything.
From this it follows that we’d better take control. Perhaps a meteor is on its way to hit our planet and destroy us. We need lots of scientists. Unthinking nature is too mean to provide everyone with a car, a computer, a fridge and a mobile phone. We need to work hard to produce more and more things. We need an economy that drives people to work harder and harder. People who don’t contribute to this project are a drain on the economy. We’d be better off without them. If you’ve applied for welfare benefits recently or watched I, Daniel Blake, you will know how it works.
So we reach today’s absurdity: a society constantly excited by the latest technology while destroying wildlife incomparably more intricate and essential. Sun and rain, photosynthesis and pollination, are just accidental products of impersonal laws of nature; but the latest mobile phone is a triumph of the latest technology and millions are spent advertising it. So we are driving to extinction the greatest number of species since the age of the dinosaurs.
We also have to take over God’s knowledge. If we are going to control the world we will need to know how it works. We will need to believe two things: that everything is in principle predictable and that the human mind can do all the predicting.
This includes predicting what people do. So secular theory has produced social engineering. We, the enlightened elite, know the laws governing people. We can run society so as to manipulate people’s behaviour for their own good. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were quite sure they knew how to make the world a better place.
This is still popular in some circles but it only works when the social engineers forget that they too are people. If we have no freedom, if all human thoughts are caused by something else, then the thoughts of the social engineers are caused too.
Evolution makes things worse. If the human mind has evolved out of something like chimpanzee mind, it has evolved to be good at a very limited range of activities.
So just as taking over God’s power has made us destroy the things we depend on, taking over God’s knowledge has left us apparently more ignorant than ever.
Third, we take over God’s goodness. If there are no gods, only humans are capable of making moral judgements. Secular society tells us that we create our own values.
We don’t. It’s very misleading. It seems convincing because of the people who think there is a God-given list of rules, in the Bible or the Qu’ran, and we just have to obey them. Those lists never work.
What actually happens is different. In practice we don’t create values out of nothing. Every society develops its values in interaction between individuals and society. There are dominant values, minority groups dispute them, and the dominant values change over time. Each of us more or less inherits and adapts the values of our society. We do this whether we are religious or not.
Invent or discover?
The difference is: are we inventing values out of the blue, or are we discovering values that would have been true even if we hadn’t thought of them?
Just think about the Manchester bomber. Everybody thought what he did was evil. What does that mean?
I didn’t hear anybody say ‘I create my own values and my hormones make me feel it was evil’. Nor did I hear people saying ‘Everybody else calls it evil so it must be’. What I heard people saying was that what he did was really evil, over and above what anybody thinks.
This is normal. Pro-abortionists, anti-abortionists, environmental campaigners, peace campaigners, all the campaigners who are motivated by what they really believe, are doing all that campaigning not because they have decided to create those values but because they think some things are just plain wrong, whether or not society thinks they are wrong.
In other words our society is riddled with appeals to moral standards which we treat as though they are a lot more than something we have created for ourselves. It’s the only way we can make sense of our values.
This becomes all the more important when we ask: if we create our own values, who are ‘we’?
Every society is swayed by the values of its ruling classes, because they have the greatest power to influence public opinion.Today opinion-forming is more technical and centralised than ever. The owners of newspapers, television channels and social media are a very small handful of extremely rich and influential people. Billions are spent on finding ways to tell us not just what to believe but also what to want, what values to have.
Lack of objectivity accentuates problem
If we then add into this the belief that the only values are the values we create, this gives the ruling classes even more power. It means there is nobody above the ruling classes to tell them they are ever wrong. The values they create become right by definition.
Conflict between ruling classes
This obviously suits the ruling classes. Theresa May knows best.
But the ruling classes of the world disagree with each other, so conflict becomes inevitable. Americans believe the American media, the British believe the British media, Russians believe the Russian media, both sides fill up with righteous indignation, and bombs drop.
It all looks very different if you are one of the losers, the defeated, the destitute, the homeless, the outcast. Where I live in Liverpool, every time I go into town I have to walk past an increasing number of homeless beggars. I can’t give money to all of them. I’m sure it’s the same in Manchester.
For those people, it’s important to know that Theresa May and Donald Trump are sometimes just plain wrong. This means there are standards of right and wrong higher than even the most powerful humans. Secular theory has taught us not to ask ourselves what we mean by them. If we did, we’d end up talking about something like God.
So my overall thesis is that secular theory stops modern society solving our biggest problems.
It gives us a picture of humanity-as-a-whole taking over control of the world, making it a better place with all our new knowledge and technology. It tells us to blame non-human nature for everything that is wrong. So we spoil the natural environment without addressing the real problems.
Our condition is like that of a 5-year-old child. When you were 5 you didn’t know much, you knew you didn’t know much, but you trusted your parents. When you were in a really precocious mood you thought you knew it all but you didn’t.
In the same way, we can’t control the world and when we try we mess it up. We can’t know all about it and thinking we do makes us seem more ignorant than ever. We can’t decide for ourselves what moral values to hold, and when we think we can we hand over control to the biggest oppressors.
Most faith traditions have taught that the forces of nature provide for our needs. Progress is about humanity changing its own behaviour, so that we make sure everybody’s needs are met and learn to care for each other better.