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The view is clearer from the outside

09 January 2015

Religion is all the Church has to offer to outsiders, writes Harriet Baber

I WAS raised heathen - without church, and without a Bible in the house.

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 embarrassing.

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 ourselves.

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.

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