I. There is a need to state what properly belongs to religion in order to distinguish it from the cultural baggage it is often attached to — and hence a need to distinguish religion in the narrowest sense from conventional morality and from world views. This is also necessary because not every religion will understand itself as being a religion, or being one of a kind: not all religions are equal. These definitional matters become pressing when there is political or legal talk of religious tolerance; and when confronting the visceral intolerance and hidden agendas which are endemic to much of what calls itself religion.

One essential preoccupation of a religion is first and last things. Any religion will provide a ceremony to be performed when an adherent dies. It will also have a set of ceremonies to pave the way for procreation, i.e. marriage, and another set in order to accept a newborn into the human world and so recognise them as a full person. There will be further ceremonies for the onset of adulthood. Even those who claim to be non-religious will concede the need to take leave of those who have died in some formal way. Hence contemporary humanism itself takes on — if only minimally — the aspect of a religion.

A further key feature of any religion is to separate the sacred from the profane. Specific times and places are set aside from the ordinary world, which – in an extended sense — is the world of work. On occasion, this world of productive activity is interrupted forcefully as when there is a death, or a birth, and otherwise it is violence that puts in abeyance the world of work.

Similarly, the time taken for procreation takes on a sacred aspect. This explains why there is outrage at the idea of prostitution, which involves the commingling of the sphere of work and that of procreation. A novel phenomenon is disquiet at the idea of paid surrogacy.

The general point may also be made by talk of a change in focus. Consideration of birth and death is to take the long view and regard the individual life in the context of the life of the community. Despite what is repeated mantra-like by those with a public voice, it is not individual life that is sacrosanct, but the continuity of human life. This does not mean there can be no protections for individuals.

In most of waking life the focus is on the short-term, not the place of a person in the grand scheme of things. Short-term (or medium-term) means the work of making reasonable material provision, i.e. production. Not reproduction.

It will be asserted that the two above features (ceremonies for first & last things, the separateness of what is sacred) are not all there is to religion. There is usually a belief in a deity, or deities. Such belief does not amount to anything much unless it is associated with prayer and worship, for which a religion will have forms of words and gestures. Alternatively, there may be meditation.

Great art occupies an intermediate position between the world of work and that of meditation (wonder).

The tolerance exercised by civil society extends rightly to a neutral or even protective stance with regard to these core features of any religion. But that is no reason why the same should apply to cultural baggage of the sort that extends well beyond the separation of sacred & profane; ceremonies; communal worship; subjective belief in things metaphysical such as in a deity or deities.

One red line is the principle of giving unto God that which is God’s and unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, which is the principle of secularism.

Another is that adherents must be free to leave a religious faith.

Where there is contention is with respect to the legal enforcement or liberty at the beginning of life. This is usually presented as a moral issue, but it is better understood as religious. It includes the question of when a human life begins and as such is deserving of legal protection; the use of artificial insemination; and gene editing. In parallel, there are disputes about terminating human life with medication in order to pre-empt the indignities of inevitable decline.

II. To repeat: it is not individual human life that is sacrosanct, but the continuity of the species. The concealed question here is, in religious language, the nature of the soul, and in secular language, our understanding of what it is to be a person.

A newborn is a member of the human species. But a newborn without an adult (or an older child behaving like an adult) has no viable existence. It dies. The newborn only exists as part of a relationship. It is not even enough for the baby to be provided for materially: if its carers change constantly so that they cannot be recognised and become its focus of attention, the baby dies.

A baby becomes a person by being treated as such, and responding. It is a gradual process in which attention, or devotion, creates the person. A person, as a spiritual entity, can only be created by an existing person, or, better, a handful of persons.

On this reasoning, a foetus cannot be a person since even a newborn is not a person. As such, it has no legal claim for protection. A potential person is not a person, except in the trivial sense that a potential person is a potential murderer.

At most it might be granted the status of livestock or of a pet. In law and by custom, only the livestock or pet owner is permitted to decide its fate, and even here there are rules about avoiding cruelty and minimising distress. In the case of the newborn or nearly born, only the mother, of whom it is still an appendage, has a right to reject. The mother may kill, by neglect or intent, but others not.

There may be a ceremony where the baby is granted formally the status of a person. In Christianity this is christening, when a name is bestowed. Historically, aborted foetuses (i.e. from miscarriages) have not been afforded burial. This is evidence that self-designated pro-life campaigners are out of step in their claim that a foetus is a person.

The decision of whether or not to accept a newborn and make of it a person will depend on many motivations and considerations, some of which may be of a moral kind, but there is, on the above reasoning, no overriding moral injunction to accept or reject. Such a decision must be taken freely. There is no obligation to love, or bestow love. Those who claim otherwise are seeking to deprive others of freedom and imposing their own religious — not moral — values. They are seeking to exercise illegitimate (unarticulated) power. This is also what they do in their opposition to assisted dying, and on other fronts. Universally, the sanctimonious are in love with power. And themselves.

III. Not all religions and cultures are worthy of respect or of preservation — for example, those that practise human sacrifice. Anthropologists can report on many vile cultures that fall far short of that extreme.

As soon as the narrow confines of basic religion, as defined above, are exceeded the talk must be of culture. It cannot be accepted for very questionable cultural quirks to be protected by being misdescribed as religious and therefore shielded by human or civil rights. There are limits to the compatibility of cultures. The features involved will generally have to do with gender in one shape or another. For example, not only segregation of men and women, but also that of girls and boys; taboos on intermarriage; structures of dominance and obedience within marriage; rules on inheritance; and on clothing. Classifying these matters as religious, rather than cultural, amounts to an abuse of language. If none the less they are to be described as religious, for example on the grounds that culture should refer only to forms of cooking, art or language, then the claim of religion, as a category, for special protection may be challenged. It must be possible to acknowledge and spell out cultural incompatibilities. Anything else amounts to censorship by the back door. By being brought out into the open, such incompatibilities can be addressed and accommodations sought. What happens otherwise is violence, whether in the form of honour killing and crimes of passion, or on the mass scale of internecine strife.

Such strife may come about when there is a change in the equilibrium between separate communities, often defined “religiously”, either because the population balance changes or there is a change in the economy. When Erdogan calls on his fellow Turks to have not three children, but five, then, in a manifestly overpopulated world, this is incitement to outbreed other peoples. It alone is evidence that Renaud Camus’ talk of a Grand Remplacement is anything but a myth, as the liberal establishment would have it. In a world of competitive breeding the space for individual human rights becomes minimal.

Human rights, in contrast to civic rights, are themselves a fiction in theory and often in practice too. Rights only exist where there are those willing to accept responsibilities, and the capacity to assume responsibilities — or indeed feel empathy — is necessarily limited. Everyone is responsible for something, but no-one is responsible for everything. Safe spaces can only be created and defended when fenced in with restrictions. Those restrictions include the principle that there is no individual right to reproduction, let alone unlimited reproduction. From this it follows that there are circumstances when coerced — if measured and moderate — sterilisation is not only justified, but imperative.
March 2020

Earlier formulations

26 DEC 2013, 135 words

Is there any general understanding of religion that is useful, non-partisan and plausible?

Much of any religion is ritual, and much of the rest, serving to justify the ritual, is metaphysics, to be taken on trust. These elements conceal an underlying aspect, one that adherents of any religion, and none, can likely agree on: Some times and places are considered sacred. That is, they are to be put aside, kept special, treated as separate.

Some have to do with first and last things. Normally, even strict non-believers will treat a corpse differently to other bio-degradable waste, and certainly so if it is of a loved one. This is not superstitution.

At the other extreme there are ceremonies available for the new-born. Ceremonies, too, for the inception of different stages in life, and most strikingly to sanctify sex.

Vestiges of Religion

2013, 300 words

Religion comes starkly into focus in the face of death, but not, as is usually thought, in terms of existential questions such as what has become of the dead person or what will become of ourselves on death; that is, not in terms of a metaphysics about an afterlife; but very simply in terms of what do we do with the corpse. Usually there will be one, and it is unlikely to be in a place where we would want to leave it. Whether for an atheist or believer, of whatever denomination or religion or none, the question is not a practical one, such as to what to do with the wilted flowers or the branch that the storm has torn from the tree, but one of ceremony. Even the hardest atheist will normally see the corpse as pause for thought and insist on some minimal ceremony such as moving it only slowly or speaking certain words to accompany burial or whatever form of disposal is chosen.

Seen in this light, there is no conflict of religions any more than there is a conflict between languages. The ceremonies may be more or less elaborate, the time intervals observed greater or smaller, and the words spoken or sung taken or not at face value.

That is, religion, it is maintained here, is first & foremost a matter of ceremony, and indeed of separating out a time and possibly a place for the enactment of the ceremony. The time & place are separate, and the word used for this kind of separateness is “sacred”.

Which ceremony a person, or a community, chooses will usually be a matter of tradition.