I WAS raised heathen - without church, and without a Bible in
There was part of a Bible: the first eight books of the Old
Testament, which Jehovah's Witnesses had pressed on my mother. The
missionaries' New World Translation was in process at the
time, and this was as far as it had got at that point.
I used to sneak out at night to read it, looking for the good
bits - for metaphysics, fantasy, and spookiness. There wasn't any
of that. JEHOVAH (always all upper-case) figured prominently, but
wasn't in the least bit spooky, and the whole story was mundane -
full of wandering, warfare, and endless begetting.
So the Bible was a disappointment. Still, I saw what I wanted in
the Church: ceremony, mysticism, and metaphysics. But, by the time
I joined, the Church was ridding itself of everything I came for.
Clergy, intent on courting "Modern Secular Man", had repudiated
metaphysics and were stripping out everything exotic, intense, and
numinous from the liturgy.
Their programme played to dissatisfied insiders, who worried
about their lack of religious conviction, and needed to be assured
that doubt was OK. As an outsider, I needed to be told that
religious belief was OK - not, as I'd been taught, superstitious,
neurotic, or "escapist". Insiders found churchiness boring. I
didn't see any point in church if it wasn't churchy. And the
sanitised version of youth culture, fabricated by middle-aged
priests in an effort to win over young heathen like me, was
NOWADAYS, heathen are the largest and most rapidly growing
"religious group" in the United States. Most don't worry about
their lack of faith, or have the nagging feeling that they ought to
attend some edifying ceremony on Sunday mornings. Unitarian
churches, Ethical Culture societies, and - the most recent entry
into the market for secular faux-religion - Sunday Assemblies
appeal to a few dissatisfied insiders, who carry the baggage of a
religious upbringing, or live in enclaves where religious
affiliation is still de rigueur. These secular
pseudo-churches have little appeal for most heathen, who have no
interest in Sunday-morning edification.
Religion is the only thing that the Church has to offer
outsiders. The secular world now supplies all secular goods cheaper
and better. There are innumerable venues, online and on the ground,
where we can find "community", and endless opportunities for doing
good. There are therapies and self-help books for those who worry
about how to live well. As for ethics, we can figure that out for
The only good that the natural world does not provide is the
supernatural. There are hints of it in our experience of art and
nature, but it is the Church that is the window, always open, to
another world of glory and bliss beyond nature.
If theology is just a metaphor for moral insights and secular
sentimentalities, it is of no interest. And, if the Church is no
more than a "community" devoted to political action, social
service, and psychological care, it has nothing for the world.
If the salt loses its savour, it is good for nothing.
Dr Harriet Baber is a Professor of Philosophy at the
University of San Diego.