Dismissing religion born of prejudice, ignorance

The poetry of the karakia should be embraced not disdained, Peter Matheson writes.

"I’m not religious". You sure hear this mantra a lot, reflected in the dwindling numbers attending church services. I have been studying and teaching religion all my life, here in Otago, in Scotland, Germany, the United States and Australia, so I know most of the arguments for and against religion.

Many of my own family and acquaintances keep clear of religion, although this is less true of Islamic, Māori and Pacific Islander friends. And then, of course, there is the recent kerfuffle about karakia at council meetings, which throws up all manner of intriguing issues.

In the course of a long teaching life I have had to bone up on just about everything in church history from Jesus to Martin Luther King, so not much about religion surprises me any more.

I haunted the Hocken Library in my student days and have never lost my fascination with missionaries like Hadfield, who challenged settler perceptions. So the fascinating and multi-textured stories about religion, its saints and sinners down the ages, are always with me.

Culturally, socially and politically religion has always formed the life of societies. Deformed it, too, at times. The sick piety and arid dogmatism you encounter in religious history hit you in the face, especially if you are not privileged and male.

Karen Armstrong, though, makes the point that without the promptings of religion, with its sometimes alien rituals and expectations, we tend to drift into pursuing the four Fs: food, fighting, fleeing danger and the unmentionable f...ing. We end up, she says, embracing the burgeoning religion of me. We may well be wired for compassion, we humans, but living it is another matter. So the old, unpopular word discipline still cuts it for me.

Without the marae or the mosque to nudge us and stretch our horizons we do tend to drift through life and death in an individualistic way. With all the predictably negative consequences for relationships and social cohesion.

Not true, I know, for those rare spirits who have music or art or poetry or social concern coursing through their veins and find transcendence there.

What is incontestable is that there are formidable intellectual problems about embracing any form of religion. The churches have also had to come to terms with a disgraceful record of sexual abuse and bigotry about gender.

What gets me, though, are the truck-loads of ignorance about how contemporary believers actually face up to these challenges.

Think of the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis or the late lamented Colin Gibson, with his passion for justice, the environment and his celebration of life’s mysteries.

Not that most of us contemporary believers come within cooee of these inspiring figures, but were working on it. Destiny Church is the exception that proves the rule.

"I’m not religious", people say. But it’s not true. If we are honest, we all have our gods, if not transcendent ones, then we worship career and family and prosperity or even, a la Putin, deify the nation. The current penchant for dismissing religion as dated and unworthy of serious attention is largely powered by prejudice and ignorance.

Religion is the poetry of existence. A karakia expresses the inexpressible. Maybe we need to relearn that, and rejoin the conspiracy of compassion and hope.

So before you say again: "I’m not religious", why not attend one of the educative events the mosque puts on, or experience the beautiful contemplative Taize liturgy in All Saints at the North Ground, or attend a marae. We New Zealanders are down to earth people, but it may well be that by shunning religion we are bombing out not only on the rich traditions that have made us who we are, but on the perspectives we need to cope with an increasingly uncertain future.

 - The Rev Dr Peter Matheson is Emeritus Professor, Knox Theological College, Dunedin.