Oliver Chan: Nun of the above, a new civic faith for a post-religious world

Despite growing up atheist to two religiously-raised parents who never minced words about the existence of God, religion was always present in my childhood. When my turn came for my pious aunt to secretly baptise me as a baby, it probably imbued me with the Catholic guilt that still plagues my mistakes. When I was a child we regularly visited an aunt, once a strict Carmelite Nun, at her walled-off convent where we chatted through a grill and received ice-creams via a small compartment, like in an old bank. Then in later years there were exotic Catholic funerals with Latin prayers, swinging incense censers and a priest wearing Warehouse-bought British sneakers with his formal vestments. Despite my skepticism towards an omniscient being, I’ve still respected these ceremonies and symbols that made my atheist upbringing look austere in comparison, and generally disdained when Grammar school classmates mocked religion to prove their newfound Dawkinsian logical genius.

During the last decade, this sort of atheism has lost its initial appeal to many non-religious people. Hijacked by ‘New Atheists’ who used the Muhammad Cartoon controversy and ‘no god’ bus campaign to attempt to define their values as ‘inalienable right to be a dick’ civil libertarianism and often needlessly-provocative mastheads of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Ricky Gervais, this atheism stands for nothing in particular. In the age of Brexit and Trump, skepticism alone provides no substitute for what religion, for all its faults, has provided whole societies worldwide.

The decline of religion as our dominant source of morality is inseparable from the wider loss of community in developed countries. In his paper ‘Bowling Alone’, which provided the basis for the bestselling book of the same name, Robert D. Putnam highlights the universal decline in participation in American civic organisations – including the Scouts, Red Cross, Lions, political parties, trade unions and religious congregations – since the 1960s. Religious decline has arguably had a greater impact, because religion has historically formed the heart of community. Neighbourhoods, towns and villages have been traditionally centred on houses of worship. Places of worship have been central to social, economic and cultural life, including through facilitating recreational groups, singles evenings, camps, Sunday schools, kindergartens, business networks – and baptisms, weddings and funerals. Religion was the safety net before welfare. Charities with religious foundations still provide housing, schools, food banks, social services and international aid, including St Vincent de Paul, World Vision and Oxfam.

“In the age of Brexit and Trump, skepticism alone provides no substitute for what religion, for all its faults, has provided whole societies worldwide.”

This loss of religion has also contributed to a spiritual vacuum. The concept of existential meaning and purpose greater than the individual, spirituality drives people in their passions, sense of self, and connection with others. Spiritual values with religious inspiration are deeply-embedded in our modern secular institutions and thinking. Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and other scriptures containing the wealth of thousands of years of moral and ethical considerations have inspired secular legal systems and political philosophies. Spirituality is also arguably the creative inspiration for music, cultural and artistic creation.

Consider Sister Wendy: the ultimate crossover of hermit nun, art critic and star of cult BBC art shows, who visits galleries and gives thoughtful interpretations of famous art from a “naughty Gainsborough” to the nude female form, and the personal torment of a Stanley Spencer painting. Art, she says, connects her to God and gives her smart, more accessible opinions than many professional art critics, without being beholden to moral literalism; notably she discredits the blasphemy of Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’. Without such spiritual inspiration, we can lack purpose, imagination and connection.

It’s not difficult to see greater social disconnect and a lack of shared values that religious institutions once, albeit imperfectly, dominated. We interact less with our neighbours, are more distrustful with others, and are less likely to regularly engage in politics or vote. Putnam’s post-9/11 surge in youth participation in American community has been limited to the affluent ‘haves’, with greater disengagement occurring amongst the ‘have-nots’. Our political institutions alone are no match for the disconnect that culminated in Donald Trump.

“We interact less with our neighbours, are more distrustful with others, and are less likely to regularly engage in politics or vote.”

The ‘civically disengaged’ made up half of Republican primary voters last year, suggesting Trumpism thrived on this disconnect, with ‘Rust Belt’ states helping Trump into the presidency. In disconnected societies where the free market is the dominant social institution, consumer identity is the new arbiter of values. Our sense of self is derived from what brand of coffee we buy, which news sites we read, the neighbourhood we live in and who we vote for – only insofar as how our personal brand is perceived by others, of course. Seems that you can go shopping with values after all.

Modern community and spirituality requires alternative sources rather than one true voice. Atheism has no physical community, membership, values or ethical frameworks, economic, political or cultural philosophies, or charitable contributions. The spiritual counselling of Eckhart Tolle books and therapy offers personal rather than social empowerment. Democratic institutions are failing too, evidenced by the rise of populism. The problems that have plagued religion are similar to those of politics, in that institutions built on rigid hierarchy can become self-serving, corrupt and use secretiveness and violence to preserve power. The worst historical instances of fundamentalist violence – whether the Spanish Inquisition, Partition of India, or ISIS’ treatment of women and LGBTI – involved mob organisers and political leaders using literal interpretations of religious purity to appeal to our worst bigotries during times of crisis, and using violence for social control.

Public obedience via unquestioning faith and fear makes religious fundamentalism no different to the secular violence of colonialism, communism or fascism – the latter being the greatest source of state-sanctioned violence for at least the last century. Cover-ups of corruption and crime within both have been motivated by self-preservation and fear, whether it’s Catholic pedophilia being protected by the church as the infallible voice of God, or Jimmy Savile’s abuses being covered up by the BBC, hospital and charity management.

“Public obedience via unquestioning faith and fear makes religious fundamentalism no different to the secular violence of colonialism, communism or fascism.”

If hierarchy is the cause, our revulsion with religious and political institutions must be disentangled from community and spirituality. Community requires politics but doesn’t need apparatuses of elitism, professionalism or manipulative messaging, just as spirituality can find religious inspiration without rigid moral purity. By combining traditional and new local and national, philosophically and culturally-driven groups, movements and institutions, rigid hierarchies, unquestioned faith and fear can be replaced with communities based on participation and accountability. Emerging spirituality can inspire a new civic faith based on reestablished values of trust, reciprocity, empathy, dialogue, mutual interest – or at least Alexis de Tocqueville’s “self-interest rightly-understood.”

Elements of such a civic faith already exist within many aspects of our lives. Politics has seen the rise of youth-driven grassroots movements such as Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and Momentum. While such campaigns still risk the deification of ‘JC, our “absolute boy” and saviour’ and his spiritual hymnal, so they must ultimately provide new forms of political participation beyond elections. Participatory political structures for citizen decision-making such as Citizens Assemblies, Citizen Juries and participatory budgeting combined with digital technologies can combine expertise and public input to make democracy on all levels more transparent and accountable.

Better urban planning can physically build closer, accessible, personable neighbourhoods if housing is affordable for all. We can also find a new moral discourse within our popular culture. If the purpose of violence, sex and magic in Quranic, Biblical and Torah scriptures is to provide alluring morality tales, surely Game of Thrones is modern gospel. If online dialogue on plot, character motivations and symbolism is a healthy medium of ethical dialogue, HBO and AMC are the unlikely scribes, while recappers become our new clergy.

For all its faults, religion once and still provides community and spiritual meaning that can’t be replicated with skepticism, consumerism or professional politics. A civic faith of multiple components can reestablish civic values for the 21st century. It’s where a Nun, rather than living behind convent bars, is part of the community and maintains a spiritual life via interpreting paintings to BBC audiences, using that knowledge to participate in arts and culture debates and discussing via online forums the moral lessons on stories about “tits and dragons”.

Oliver Chan is a London-based social and political researcher and writer, and Politics and Economics Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Oliver.