Thought for the Day - Canon Dr Alan Billings

Last week Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal, and former President of the Royal Society, was criticised by some fellow scientists for accepting an award from a religious body, the Templeton Foundation. The award was for making ‘exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual foundation’. The critics were nonbelievers who hold that religion is a type of irrational belief and so inimical to scientific reasoning. Since Lord Rees is also a non-believer those who censured him found his acceptance of the prize baffling.

Explaining his position, Lord Rees made a distinction between religious belief and religious custom. Like his critics, he too is sceptical about religious belief. He can’t understand how intelligent people can be believers, though accepts that many are. But unlike his critics he wants to respect rather than dismiss what he calls religious custom. For that reason, as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, he is happy to attend services in the college chapel. He is content, as he puts it, to participate in the traditions of his tribe.

Lord Rees is not alone. Earlier this year Baroness Warnock, the distinguished moral philosopher, also a non-believer, published a book, Dishonest to God, in which she too declined to dismiss religion. She wrote about her own early formation in the high Anglican tradition at school where she learnt to appreciate liturgy and sacred music.

I’m sure that every parish priest in the country will have encountered people with a similar attitude and approach. There are, for instance, those who at times of mourning or celebration find themselves turning to the familiar rituals and ceremonies of Christianity. They want to mark these occasions not just with private emotion and reflection, but by joining with others. For them the rituals and language of the Church enable people of whatever beliefs to join together in expressing thoughts and emotions in ways that have power to move and inspire.

Or again, there are those parents, anxious about what they see as the moral relativism of the times, who seek out a school that takes religion seriously, because, while it is perfectly possible to be moral without being religious, Christianity can be a source of morality. The New Testament provides vivid and memorable stories that encourage moral reflection that will serve children well throughout their lives.

What all this points to is a far richer understanding of the nature of religion than those reductionist accounts that see it simply as a matter of beliefs. There are beliefs. But there is also performance and practice.

Yet some, both within and outside the church, find this hard to comprehend or accept. They want to make the boundaries between believers and non-believers harder-edged. This is a shame; it doesn’t serve well that body of people who might not believe but do value religion - all those who are enriched through participating in the traditions of their tribe.

Release date: 11 Apr 2011

4 minutes

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