Hugh Mackay is probably Australia’s leading social researcher and commentator. His book Beyond Belief (2016) explores spirituality and religious belief in Australia.
It is, I think, as much a vehicle for Mackay to share his own spirituality as it is solid social research, and it contains some interesting insights. In a chapter titled Reasonable Faith he examines the benefits and drawbacks of faith (not just in God, but in people, or in almost anything) and suggests agnosticism often isn’t a bad option.
He then offers three questions to assist us to decide whether and what to believe.
1. Does it make sense?
“To sacrifice Reason in the name of Faith is too dangerous a trade-off” is Hugh’s starting point. He says, if we were thinking of joining a political party, we would want to look at their manifesto in detail, and determine how strictly we would be required to hold to it. If we couldn’t agree with policies the party held strongly, it wouldn’t make sense to join.
Hugh argues that believing in a religion is the same; we have to think it makes sense. “Evidence matters” he says.
It is hard to argue with this principle. But perhaps he holds it a little too weakly. Is it enough to think our belief about God “makes sense”? Or is it necessary that we believe, based on whatever evidence we think is required, that it is true?
He gives two examples of people who lost their faith in religion and/or God because certain practices or minor beliefs they were taught in their childhood didn’t make sense as they grew up. But perhaps these examples also show that this criterion is a little shallow? Is it not possible that the belief in God was correct, but some believers simply have odd ideas about peripheral matters? Proverbially, they may have thrown out baby and bathwater.
2. Does it point to a better world?
His starting point for this question is: “The best reason for investing your faith in something …. would be that it offers a pathway to the good life.” This sounds awfully shallow and selfish, until we see that he defines “good” in moral terms, and warns: “Avoid the deadly trap of regarding faith as a pathway to personal happiness.”
He points out that our deepest satisfaction in life comes from a sense of meaning, and so our “faith should offer a sense of meaning and purpose that transcends self-interest”. He argues that any self help programs we participate in (such as yoga, meditation or mindfulness) will be worthless unless we live “courageously and lovingly in the material world”.
These ideas are well supported by the science of positive psychology, and I believe he is correct. But again, I can see a slight discontinuity. If we choose to live lovingly because it will give our lives deep satisfaction, are we really living lovingly or selfishly?
Or is this being too introspective? Whether it is logical or not, if more people lived courageously and lovingly, the world would surely be a better place. He urges us to ally ourselves with faiths, ideologies and organisations that are working to make the world a better place, and I guess if we do that, we will find our values and life aims changing for the good.
3. Does it matter?
Essentially, this question asks whether what we believe in will make any difference to the way we live. If it doesn’t lead us to want to create a better world for all, then what is the point?
Does this appeal to you?
Hugh Mackay suggests that many Australians who have left behind the organised christianity of their upbringing are finding their meaning and values in this less defined sort of spirituality. Do you think he is right?
My feeling is that his postmodern spirituality will appeal to some. They will want to live by unselfish values but cannot find good reasons to follow a defined religion, or even perhaps to believe in God.
But some others will feel that they can only commit to something that they believe is really true. Some of these will find christianity or another religion passes the evidence test, and that will form the basis of their life and values. Others of them will feel they need more evidence, and so cannot even travel far at all with Hugh; they will be atheists or (probably more likely) agnostics with a less clear basis for their values.
And of course there will remain another group that doesn’t choose to think about these issues much at all. They seem to me to be the ones who miss out the most, unfortunately.