Sunday, 17 February 2013

On Humility

Lately, the forces attacking religion – the Hitchens-Dawkins new atheists – have been gathering force and making themselves known even on my Facebook page, by people who delight in mocking various forms of belief while at the same time promoting their own form of belief, Science.  They f***ing love science, and all that.

I’m fond of science myself, and am no great believer in orthodox religion, but the onslaught on religion bothers me precisely because I am no great believer, and this veneration of Science, often by people who are not scientists themselves, strikes me as just a rival religion trying to oust its competitors.

I suppose I could shrug and say, well, let the various religions (including Science, Marxism, neo-Marxism, or whatever) compete, but something still bothers me.  I like Science as Religion less than orthodox religion, and I was reminded why by a review in the latest London Review of Books of a new book by Francis Spufford, who it seems defends religion, in particular Christianity, by acknowledging its flaws but then saying it has an emotional truth to it.

This truth seems to amount to being able forgive oneself for one’s failings by going back to the doctrine of Original Sin. 

Now, my heritage doesn’t include belief in Original Sin, but I could empathize with the thought behind this.  You don’t have to believe in a Patriarch in the Sky or a Son on a Cross to feel that there are forces in the universe beyond the understanding of human beings, and more powerful than human beings.  You don’t have to believe in any orthodox religion to feel that people are flawed and fallible – but perhaps it helps.

Stripping away all the fairy tales, what remains of the orthodox Western religions (the religions of the East may be different) is a notion that we human beings should be humble.  There are forces out there that we cannot control, that in fact may control us, or at least affect us.

I saw the movie 56-Up yesterday; it’s part of a wonderful series tracing the lives of a wide variety of people, and I took away a couple of things from it.  One is that most of them have succeeded in doing certain things that I have not succeeded at.  I felt bad about that, and still do.  But the article in the London Review encouraged me not to be too hard on myself, to accept that, well, I am a fallible human being.

The other thing that I took away from the movie was that human theories are paltry, ineffective things.  The series that 56-Up is part of began with a television show meant to illustrate the rigidity of the class system in Britain, following the old Jesuit principle that if you can control a child for their first seven years, their life after that will be set.  But the set of films that followed exploded that theory.  Here we see someone from a non-academic background who never went to university ending up with a high-up administrative position at a university.  We see poor people becoming well off and someone from a well-off background stumbling through life, homeless for a while, though righting himself to a certain extent later. 

The people in the 56-Up series have gone in a variety of directions, illustrating not some theory but the vagaries and variety of life.  Which brings me back to the limitations of mankind.  We can propose theories – some people come up with the most elaborate theories, purporting to explain everything.  Some people speak, or used to speak, of the perfectibility of man; those sorts of theories led to the Gulag.

But an approach to life that says we are fallible, we are limited, we cannot explain everything or control everything – that seems truer to me, and less dangerous.  We need more humility and less hubris, and that is why I am more sympathetic to traditional religious belief, even though I am a non-believer myself, than I am to an attitude that says through Science or some human ideology we can change the course of the world.

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