Forty years ago, God was dead (according to newsmagazine covers) and religion was an inert force in public affairs. Now it won’t go away.

It’s an annoying part of each day’s news. Tony Blair’s final trip as British leader was to the Pope, so he could telegraph his plan to convert. His successor, Gordon Brown, is described as a different kind of believer — “sober … social Christian” — in order to explain his response to this week’s terror scare. George W. Bush is an “end-timer” who “encodes” millenarian references in speeches (“Freedom is not America’s gift to the world. It is the Almighty God’s gift to every man and woman in this world.”) As for Stephen Harper, the news, said Lawrence Martin this week, is that he doesn’t include his religiosity in his overt presentation. And that’s just on “our” side.

This week in The Guardian, Madeleine Bunting suggested that, with the demise of “secular religions” such as communism, “there is no effective alternative ethical language” to the Bible with which to encourage basic moral values that are “essential to democracy and social well-being.”

This is an idea that’s out there, blowing in the zeitgeist. It’s not so different from Islamic fundamentalists who claim that only God-given sharia can redeem Muslim societies from Western moral depravity. It’s also oddly close to the Straussian views of neo-cons in the Bush entourage (Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle etc.). Philosopher Leo Strauss argued that the uncouth majority will act “morally” only if scared or coerced by the primitive arguments of religion and Scripture.

I don’t really see it. Religion can be used equally to justify violence (against abortion providers or the World Trade Center) and pacifism. Religion can be anything; it’s like a synonym for society, culture or human nature. The problem with religion isn’t that it’s good, necessary or bad (as anti-God authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens argue). It’s that religion can be all of that or anything else. There’s nothing clear or pointed you can say about it to which you can’t find a counterexample.

I certainly don’t think it has anything to do with “grounding” moral behaviour. Take the great reggae morality anthem, Johnny Too Bad. Johnny walks down the road with a pistol in his waist, “just robbin’ and stabbin’/ And lootin’ and shooting.” Then “one day,” when he hears a voice say “come,” he’s “gonna run to the rock for rescue,” but “there’ll be no rock.” Why will there be no rock (to hide in, as in O Sinner Man)?

It’s because — in my interpretation — Johnny has betrayed and negated his own nature, his self, by treating others, who are essentially like him, with hate and destruction. You look for help or rescue, but your core is no longer there. You’ve eradicated it. That’s a far stronger source of moral suasion than some priest threatening you with hellfire. It’s what people sense about themselves, and always have. Any claim that morality requires religion founders on the fact that humans in all eras have managed to act decently toward each other.

Religions have often tried to conscript and endorse the basic impulses of morality. But they don’t create it (as religious traditions themselves acknowledge) and can’t enforce it effectively. When they try, the results are often contradictory: wars and hatred rather than peace and harmony. Go figure.

I do think there is a specific religious arena. It was sometimes called the numinous or uncanny; today, it’s referred to as spirituality. But the more earthly realms, such as morality, politics and the like, are common human possessions, sown in our natures, and when religions or their proponents claim special authority for them, it usually leads to grief.

For most of what matters in mundane realms such as politics and morality, we’re on our own, and we’ll do better if we acknowledge that. If this be secular humanism, make the most of it.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.