On Gods and Nations

Friday August 22, 2008

William Blake

Not that long ago I wrote on this blog about the attitude we have here in the UK to religion in public life – that, whilst on this curious little island where I was born we don’t like religion to be particularly demonstrative, we somehow have the vague idea that religion is a Good Thing, if it is kept within its proper bounds. Religious enthusiasm is not something that we particularly go in for (although there are no doubt exceptions), and in general we prefer a rather more mild-mannered approach to religion.

The archetypal religious meeting in the UK is some kind of a gathering at which the faithful get together to mumble their various prayers and perform their assorted rituals, and then everyone files out to consume endless urns full of weak tea, and to nibble nervously upon stale biscuits. I have attended Quaker meetings, Anglican church services, Methodist services, Baha’i meetings, numerous Buddhist groups, and at all of them, I have found, at one point or another, myself holding a tepid cup of tea and a biscuit, usually a Rich Tea or a Digestive (or at least the local budget supermarket’s Own Brand version thereof). Indeed, sometimes you would not know whether you are at an Anglican gathering or at a Buddhist gathering at all, were it not for the fact that at the former you are fairly certain to get cow’s milk in your tea, and at the latter you will more likely have soya milk.

In my earlier post, I expressed some unease with this mild-mannered approach to religion. Say what you like about extremists, but at least you know where you are with them. They don’t mess around. Extremists – and here I am only surmising – don’t have weak tea and biscuits and mild chit-chat at their meetings. Instead they swing one way or the other – either opulent feasts of monkeys’ brains and the braised livers of their enemies or ascetic meals consisting only of water and of single grains of rice.

I have been thinking about religion in the UK again, in part due to the article I read in yesterday’s Guardian, written by philosopher A.C. Grayling (who seems to be so prolific at the moment, that I cannot escape from the secret suspicion that there is not one A.C. Grayling but three – three identical A.C. Grayling triplets, all philosophising away busily, and if this is so, who are we to complain?). In the article, Grayling wrote about David Miliband, the MP for South Shields and Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom. As Grayling pointed out, it is not unthinkable that David Miliband could – in the near or more distant future – become Prime Minister, and this would mean something rather astonishing: for the first time, we would have an atheist for prime minister in the UK. Grayling went on to talk about the benefits that there might be of such a change.

Atheist leaders are not going to think they are getting messages from Beyond telling them to go to war. They will not cloak themselves in supernaturalistic justifications, as Blair came perilously close to doing when interviewed about the decision to invade Iraq.
Atheist leaders will be sceptical about the claims of religious groups to be more important than other civil society organisations in doing good, getting public funds, meriting special privileges and exemptions from laws, and having seats in the legislature and legal protection from criticism, satire and challenge.
Atheist leaders are going to be more sceptical about inculcating sectarian beliefs into small children ghettoised into publicly funded faith-based schools, risking social divisiveness and possible future conflict. They will be readier to learn Northern Ireland’s bleak lesson in this regard.

And so on. Now, to a large degree, I am in sympathy with Grayling (or even with all three of them). Here in the UK, the way that religion is tangled up with public life is deeply peculiar and is in need of some clear thinking and straightening out. On balance, I think that faith schools are a bad idea. I certainly agree with Grayling about the disproportionate influence of the Church of England in public life. And I believe that the claims that are made by religious groups that religion is good for us, as Daniel Dennett argued at length several years ago, are claims that, at the very least, should not be taken at face value, but that should be opened up to empirical research.

But I wonder if Grayling’s hopes for an atheist prime minister are rather too optimistic. Even if Miliband were to become Prime Minister, and even if he were to do many of the eminently sensible things that Grayling suggests, I am not sure whether we’d be entirely free from the supposed dangers of belief in mystical entities.

After all, it seems to me that ‘God’ belongs to a larger class of privileged objects that all share the same properties.

  • They are all very big.
  • They are – within their boundaries – omnipresent.
  • They all demand – and inspire – allegiance.
  • They are assumed, by those who speak for them, to be good by nature.
  • They are all (at least in a sense) eternal
  • They inspire fraternity in those who claim allegiance to them

Objects of this kind could include Gods and deities, but they could also include secular creeds, ideologies and Nation States. Nation States are also Big Things. They are as omnipresent as Gods, at least within their de facto boundaries and sometimes (it is claimed by their adherents) beyond them. They demand allegiance, and there are very real penalties for those who do not respond favourably to this demand. They are also assumed to be essentially good (noble, true, upright, brave, strong, etc. etc.). No national myth, unfortunately, reads as follows: “We’re just a bunch of confused and jittery mammals with big brains that, more often than not, get us into trouble.” They also claim for themselves a kind of eternity (from the frankly embarrassing Rule Britannia to the bellicose Star Spangled Banner): Nations, in national mythology, have existed since time immemorial. Like Gods, they are primordial entities. And finally, they inspire a sense of kinship between their subjects, so that we might well kill or die for countless others we have never met, for the sake of the Nation.

In his book , Benedict Anderson notes the paradox that, whilst the idea of the Nation is very hard to define or to analyse (we could here add another point to the list – both nations and gods are curiously hard to pin down with definitions), nevertheless, nationalism – which he considers a ‘cultural artefact’ that was born in the late eighteenth century – has exerted, and continues to exert, a huge influence on the contemporary world, so much that millions upon millions have been inspired to kill or to die simply for the sake of this construct. Gods, it is beginning to seem, exist in surprisingly similar way to the ways that Nations exist – impossible to define, curiously nebulous, cultural constructions that nevertheless have a kind of reality to them, in that these constructions can lead, for better or worse, to real effects in the world. And it is intriguing that Anderson claims that the dawn of nationalism coincides with the dusk of religious thought as an underlying fabric of society. If this is so, then an atheist Prime Minister, although it might make a refreshing enough change, may not liberate us in the way that A.C. Grayling suspects from the thrall of vaguely defined, omnipotent entities that seemingly hold power over life and death, entities the belief in which is often, by its detractors, dismissed as being “superstition”.

# · David Chapman


In America, we get weak tea and cookies (which is what Americans call biscuits) at Buddhist groups too. I wonder whether that is one of the many things Trungpa Rinpoche brought with him from Britain?

On a more serious note, I am writing a book on nihilism and eternalism, in the Buddhist senses, as they manifest in contemporary Western culture. Currently it presents Buddhist academic philosophy in the language of Western academic philosophy for an audience of non-academic non-philosophers, which suggests that a major re-think is called for. My theory is that it needs to be recast as a series of rap songs, in homage to Drukpa Kunley.

Anyway, the outline calls for a chapter on politics, and the inherent eternalism of nation-state government is a major theme. Contrariwise, I take markets as a main source of emptiness. It is non-coincidental that Adam Smith’s conception of markets was the main influence on Darwin. Markets and evolution are the best metaphors for the interplay of emptiness and form we’ve got in the West, maybe.

As a staunch atheist, I find non-theistic forms of eternalism (such as nationalism) to be the most interesting. Theism was thoroughly debunked long ago. Maybe one reason that hasn’t helped all that much is that we are still subject to numerous secular eternalisms, which are just as insidious. More insidious because they have not been pointed out as emotional substitutes for God.

# · Peter

I wonder if there are others who cringe at the chauvinistic nationalism at the Olympic Games – the smug satisfaction at the medal tally and athletic triumphs, the glee at other nation’s losers and other nation’s humiliations. I do not see much in the old gentlemanly restrained spirit of competition in Beijing but an orgy of blustering nationalism – ‘we are superior to you as a people’ stuff. All this, of course, arising from our evolutionary inheritance of needing to have a leader of the pack,a boss gorilla -eternalism indeed. I have tuned out embarrassed at my fellow human beings and fellow citizens.

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