Increasingly often, it is semantics alone, which separates atheists and humanists from those within the progressive streams of the world faiths. Many atheists would consider the word ‘God’ to be so tarnished with supernatural theism that it should no longer be used at all, especially not in public speech or liturgy of any kind. They have good reason for concern, when one considers that millions of people worldwide still believe in a supreme supernatural being, cast predictably in the image of their religious and political authorities; male, impatient, self-righteous, bigoted, vengeful and cruel. This supernatural being is an all-powerful, all-knowing, creator of the universe, who dwells in ‘heaven’ and interferes on earth at a whim, when he feels like saving those he deems righteous or punishing those who go against his will. With more of the world steeped in this superstition than not, why on earth would we want to use religious words whose weight in history is against them? The traditional ‘Gods’ have hardly epitomised kindness, open-mindedness and fairness in the past, so we have no reason to suppose they will do so in the future.
Meanwhile, progressives of many faiths would say that for them, the word ‘God’ still has usefulness in its literary sense, as a personification or metaphor of all that is good in the world and in us humans, just as a word like ‘salvation’ might be understood to mean liberation or healing. They may say that ‘God’ is love, truth, goodness, beauty and hope. Progressive religious groups tend to stress divine immanence over divine transcendence, which means they largely (or completely) reject supernatural theism and focus instead on seeing the ‘God’ or ‘good’ in people and nature. They might argue that an immanent conception of ‘divinity’, helps us to be more attentive to our inner conscience, to the good that is within ourselves, and within others. Some progressives go as far as asserting that ‘all is God’ (pantheism), while most simply view ‘God’ as in some way manifest in and through nature. What happens, though, when nature is destructive and full of cruelty, as it so often is, and when human nature, in particular, is rotten to the core?
One could argue then that a transcendent notion of ‘divinity’, as the good that is beyond or better than us, can help us to be more attentive to higher moral standards, standards which we should aspire to, even though we will never fully attain them, standards which can therefore help to guard against human pride and self-righteousness. In the history of theology and philosophy, people have swung back and forth between the two emphases on divine transcendence and immanence (or on the ‘good’ within and beyond us) depending upon the socio-political context. While in peaceful times, they have often focused on the ‘good’, or ‘god’, or ‘light’ within (immanence), during conflict and times of cruelty and tragedy, the focus moves to the transcendent ‘God’, ‘good’, or unattainable ‘light’, ‘holiness’ or ‘perfection’, because people view humanity as fatally flawed and see that the only way to have hope is to believe in something much greater, infinitely better, and set apart from us – something that can save us from ourselves.
We see this swing in emphasis from immanence to transcendence in post-war theology and in the works of those writing in the wake of the Nazi atrocities. Human nature has repeatedly shown itself to be deeply vulnerable to cognitive biases, manifest often in self-righteousness, and sometimes in narcissism and megalomania. It has shown itself to be cowardly, easily deceived, and apt not only to follow dictators and despots but to deify and worship them. One might ask how ‘God’ can be seen as a light within humanity, when that light has proved so easy to extinguish? Theologians have thus presented their transcendent ‘God’ as an infinitely better choice of ‘leader’ than the immanent ‘God’ or the archetypal human despot but since this transcendent ‘God’ is in reality, nothing more than a work of the human imagination, its character too is entirely dependent on the goodness (or not) of its human inventors and advocates.
Some progressives might say that the word ‘God’ is a convenient and more profound way to refer to that which is mysterious, awe-inspiring and beyond the comprehension of finite minds. However, this is of course the ‘god of the gaps’, who grows smaller and smaller the more we learn about the universe, and who is consequently, for most of us, surplus to requirements. Some progressives view ‘God’ as greater than the universe, and consider the universe as contained within God (panentheism), in order to maintain both the immanent and transcendent perspectives, but of course, there is no evidence for anything supernatural and beyond nature. While some people have made their peace with an entirely naturalistic world view, others still cling to the idea or hope that there is something or someone ‘out there’. However, belief is a strange and often transient thing, and many of these people, while they claim such belief when questioned, behave for all intents and purposes as if they do not believe it at all.
There is consequently much debate within progressive communities about conceptions of divinity but most do agree on the importance of experiencing or encountering ‘God’ or ‘divinity’ in nature, in other people, and in themselves. Some also argue that there are character-building and other psychological and well-being benefits to be gained from speaking, or ‘praying’ to God, as if God were a ‘person’ who embodies our most treasured values. After all, prayer may have real positive effects on our own psychology, and perhaps as a consequence, on the way we treat others. One could argue that prayer is a healthy and productive use of the human imagination, in which we create a transient reality of our own in order to cope with, release and relieve moments of intense emotion. Those with backgrounds in the mystical traditions may find it easy to indulge in their imaginings, dreams and altered states of consciousness, without losing track of their rational selves, while others will consider this a dangerous activity and an irresponsible example to set for others. The latter may find it impossible to ‘pray’, without feeling foolish, or as if they have been disloyal to their rational selves.
Of course, I have my own personal preferences when it comes to the use of words like ‘God’. I tend not to use them unless I am in the company of progressives, or nonreligious friends and relatives, who know I mean it in the literary sense. Indeed, I tend to think that we humans, because we are emotional beings, turn to words like ‘divine’ and ‘God’ as superlatives, when our ordinary words just don’t do justice to the things we find awe-inspiring. We use our imaginations and our language to crown such things with greater importance and meaning when we communicate them, to show that they are of great value (to us), even though they are entirely natural things. However, I am sympathetic to people from both atheistic and progressive backgrounds and perspectives, since there are large numbers on both sides who have far more in common than not. There is much overlap, for example, with many progressives having a humanist outlook and many humanists having a Christian/Jewish etc. cultural flavour or cultural identity. Most importantly, the vast majority of both humanists and progressives would also support the secular ethics of the SLN/F, expressed in its ‘Nine Themes’:
- Critical Thinking – truth, evidence, research, excellent science, responsibility
- Good Life – character, empathy, wisdom, courage, virtue, kindness, compassion
- Good Society – social justice, human rights, individual freedom, equality, democracy
- Sustainability – our place in nature, green lifestyles, religious naturalism
- Health and Well-being – reflection, meditation, mindfulness
- Big Culture – cultural exchange, diversity, comparative philosophy/religion
- Community – companionship, relationships, humour, fun, friendship
- Life-Cycles – birth and coming of age celebrations, weddings, funerals
- Seasons – annual and seasonal events following a secular calendar
As it stands, atheists and religious progressives do often have very different personal experiences or associations with certain words, and the appropriateness of use of these words, will therefore depend very much on the context of a particular event. At an inter-faith or multi-faith event, for example, use of words from a faith tradition, reimagined and stripped of superstition, may still have meaning and positive impact for those present. Indeed, the creation (or rediscovery) of positive meanings for well used words and phrases can be a source of healing and joy for those emerging from traditions where the terms were used in a negative sense, either because that was the original meaning or (as has often been the case) because the original meanings had been obscured and the words misused ever since.
The word ‘worship’, for example, for most people, means bowing down in reverence and submission to a divine authority. However, some progressives have reinstated its original Anglo-Saxon meaning, which simply means giving something great worth, or ‘honouring’, and may be applied to natural rather than supernatural things. Thus, in certain circumstances, where, for example, a liturgical event is held in a progressive faith/inter-faith setting, it may be possible to speak of ‘worship’ in the sense of honouring our shared values, and of ‘divinity’ or ‘God’, as a metaphor for certain things we experience, such as love, kindness, beauty and hope. In contrast, such words will have quite the opposite effect at an event for atheists and humanists, where people will be immediately alienated. There is a great deal of debate even among progressives about which ‘faith’ words (if any) can be resurrected, and which are beyond salvaging.
The Secular Liturgies Network and Forum welcomes people with a wide range of views who support our aims and objectives. Some use terms like ‘God’ in the literary sense, just as many nonreligious people speak of the ‘soul’ in the literary sense (as a metaphor for natural things, such as our core sense of identity or self), while others are uncomfortable with the use of that language altogether. Therefore, I advise my fellow writers of liturgy to consider the context of words that have religious connotations very carefully, making sure such words are qualified and explained as far as possible within the liturgy (or within the broader liturgical framework), to avoid unnecessary ambiguity and misunderstanding. People can then decide for themselves what kind of language they are comfortable with using when planning a particular event and can modify the text where necessary.
While our focus is on liturgy and liturgical events, which are free from religious dogma and superstition, we nonetheless want to preserve the sense of awe that attracts people to religious services. While awe is often the driving force behind belief in the supernatural, especially in the divine, or ‘God’, there is actually no need to describe the experience of wonder and self-transcendence in a way that implies there is a supernatural deity. We may speak about (and experience) these emotions and psychological states as entirely natural. Some people, such as religious naturalists, even go as far as speaking of ‘religion’ in naturalistic terms, demonstrating that even the word ‘religion’ may be redeemed from its popular meaning.
I should mention here that there are a few members of the SLN/F who are very sympathetic to our work, while still believing in something divine (in the supernatural sense) but who believe that this divinity is essentially mysterious and indefinable, and therefore, that it cannot be reduced to a traditional concept of God, which inspires legalism, dogmatism, tribalism and bigotry. I have no desire to ‘make windows into other people’s souls’, or to pressure people to conform to some kind of secular dogma. We are in the business of discussion (hence the Forum) and greater cooperation among those who have similar aims and objectives (hence the Network). Indeed, the SLN/F has a profoundly positive outlook and agenda in which we are focussing on the things we have in common, such as the ‘Nine Themes’, rather than our differences.
I should also make clear that while we do recognise and acknowledge the errors of the traditional faiths, and while we do acknowledge the pain that some people may be suffering after enduring religious abuse, we look to expend our energies bringing about a better future, rather than in being reactionary or hostile towards any religious individuals or groups. We seek an approach which is both big-hearted and intellectually rigorous. We aim to be respectful towards individuals who do not share our views, while nonetheless being courageous in ‘speaking truth to power’.
Unlike an organisation for humanists such as Humanists UK, or a liberal institution for those with a shared faith history like the Unitarian Church or British Quakers, or a progressive organisation for those emerging from a particular faith/cultural tradition like PCN Britain, the SLN is a catch-all, pioneer movement. As it says on the tin, it is a creative Network and Forum, a Think-tank of sorts, with online discussions, Forum meetings, publications, and innovative and experimental liturgy and liturgical events. Our work complements the work of the existing humanist, secularist and progressive organisations. Indeed, we often work in collaboration with these and other organisations on various projects and events.
Millions of people, including me, who grew up or are growing up in nonreligious homes, have little or no connection or shared background, however, with the existing progressive institutions and organisations. We do not, and realistically will never, fully identify with their history, practices and philosophy. One must also bear in mind that 50% of the UK population is now no longer religiously affiliated, that the stats are similar elsewhere in Europe, and that the nonreligious are fast becoming the majority. The small and declining numbers attending churches, including the liberal and progressive churches, reflects this societal change. The liberal and progressive organisations also tend to be dominated by retired people and their offerings do not appeal to the younger generations. It is time for someone like me with a fresh (and younger) perspective, to start a new initiative, which allows more people to have their voices heard.
While many of us may still appreciate the useful insights and practices of faiths and philosophies, we are looking for something that isn’t ‘churchy’, and which isn’t narrowly associated with just one particular faith or cultural tradition. We are looking for something much more inclusive, diverse, experimental and collaborative. This is why I felt it essential that the SLN/F was born and continues to grow. This website and blog itself is here to facilitate knowledge exchange across the whole spectrum of the humanist philosophical and progressive faith streams.
The foundations I have established for the SLN/F are highly original. We are focused on developing the concept and practice of rational spirituality. My current working definition for rational spirituality, is the creative expression and development of secular ethics in writing, ritual, community, reflective practice, ‘big culture’ (see the ‘about’ section), and the choreographing of innovative secular liturgical events along the SLN/F’s ‘Nine Themes’. This work draws inspiration from multiple philosophical and religious streams of thought and practice.
Therefore, just like a business, the SLN/F has its USPs but it still has much in common with other organisations. A significant number of its members are of course members of the other humanist and progressive organisations! However, unlike a new business, I do not seek to compete with our ‘sister’ organisations but to complement them in their work.
I do hope you will join us, whether you are from a humanist, progressive or other non-traditionally religious background (or a mixture of these!), and I look forward to meeting some of you at our event in June!