World Religion

The second plenary speech at the 1996 conference was given by Don Cupitt, Lecturer in the Philosophy of Religion at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. It is drawn from his book Religion after the Gods which will be published later this year.

In times of rapid social change, many people are inclined to lament the passing of old ways and old certainties, and to be pessimistic about the future. But in this year's Sea of Faith Lecture I want to argue in the contrary direction, because it can happen that historical change makes old beliefs suddenly become absurd and old values ugly. One may welcome as a liberation the revolutionary changes in religion and morality that are now sweeping the world. Why shouldn't we create new values? We need them.

In what follows I present, in slightly edited form, some of the closing sections of a forthcoming book, Religion after the Gods.

Globalization and the end of the Other

At the beginning of the twentieth century it was still broadly the case that every human person and every human product had an obvious cultural provenance. Everyone and everything belonged somewhere; that is, it had a background or context in which it could be situated. Between them a panel of historians, anthropologists, museum curators and the like would be able (or rather, would have been able, had they been armed with today's knowledge) very quickly to identify, with very little likelihood of error, just about anything presented to them. And in this context, note that to 'identify' something means to give its home address; that is, its place and date of origin within some historically-evolving cultural tradition.

Each tradition, whether it was as small as a tribe or as large as a civilization, and even each period within a developing tradition, was a coherent totality with its own distinctive flavour or style that coloured its every product, whether human, material or 'ideal'. You could not possibly confuse anything Baroque with anything mediaeval, or anything Spanish with anything German, and so on. Of course there is such a thing as translation and of course there are analogies and homologies between cultures, but there remains an important sense in which cultures are incommensurable with each other. To each people the rest of the world seems profoundly Other, alien, 'strange', exotic, outside and foreign. So much is this the case that many peoples regard contact with the Other as causing ritual defilement.

In 1900 only a few thinkers were beginning to see the implications of all this, thinkers such as Ernst Troeltsch and others influenced by German Idealism, and, most important, the French social theorist Emile Durkheim.

The argument now almost continues itself. The cultural totality within which a people lived was their creator. In it they lived and moved and had their being. It shaped everything they did and made. It had ultimate authority over them, to such an extent that everywhere men are expected to be ready to die for it. It had produced them and named them, giving them their identity, and it was therefore only fitting that they in return should be required to give it their unconditional allegiance, identifying it by its true and proper name, hallowing its sacred Name, and being ready to fight in its name--the Name of your One God, it is now clear, being equivalent to the unique and distinctive character (= stamp or mark) and claims of the cultural totality or Symbolic Order to which you belong.

A fairly tidy scheme of thought is now in view. Gods are ethnic; each named god is covenanted to a particular people whose god he is; your god's function is to badge the cultural totality within which you live and to which you owe allegiance; every theology conveys a host of social messages, because the religious Law laid down by your named god is a set of framework rules for producing your people's version of the Symbolic Order; and finally, your god indwells you at least in the sense that (poetically speaking) the national spirit indwells each person. More exactly, you have very specific cultural inscriptions written all over you. All your speech and all your behaviours are culturally-moulded and legible. That is the literally 'literal' meaning of divine indwelling: that the Law is written on our hearts--meaning, that we are inwardly formed and made by the sign-system within which we function.

So the normal and happy state of affairs in the human world is one in which the tribe, the language-group, the nation-state or whatever is internally at peace, united in worship of its own god, and externally is always militantly prepared to defend itself against the encircling Others. The happiest state of all is a state of open war, a time when it is well known that the crime rate, the suicide rate and mental illness rates tumble. People are united in directing all their hatred and aggression externally against the Other, and so are deeply at peace amongst and within themselves.

In the last book of the Old Testament, God is reported as saying: 'Is not Esau Jacob's brother? Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau' (Malachi 1:2f.). For there to be choice, there must also be rejection; for there to be love, there must also be hatred; for there to be a We there must also be a They, and the line that includes some must always exclude Others. Separation and not mixture is natural to human groups, and war is normal, not peace. In Israel recently there was an interesting coincidence of opposites when ultra-conservative Jews and fundamentalist Palestinians, Jacob and Esau, were united in opposition to peace with each other. The former group brought about the assassination of Yitzak Rabin, and the latter the assassination of busloads of Israeli civilians. The two groups were at one in regarding separation and war as the normal and happy state of relations between them. Such is conservatism.

And such was pretty much the state of affairs in the Europe des patries of 1900. But, conversely, by the end of the twentieth century it has become clear that the process of rapid cultural globalization now under way presents a profound challenge to all our ancestral ways of thinking, ways of feeling, and ways of constructing our various worlds. What has been happening in Northern Ireland, in Bosnia, in Israel/Palestine and in many other places has been more than enough to convince a fairminded person that we simply cannot afford any longer our old tribalisms, our old ethnonationalisms and our old religions. They are all of them hatred-machines. They unite only by dividing, binding people together in fellowship only by directing their aggression externally against the demonized Other. The heretic, the apostate, the heathen, the infidel, the enemy of God, the dirty foreigner--all this is a vocabulary we can no longer afford. The world has become too small and crowded to permit the use of such language.

Interestingly, our great multinational corporations and systems of communication and exchange already have to practise and do practise a kind of global political correctness. They rather deliberately bracket out, set aside, any consideration of gender, nationality, race, colour, creed. A worker is a worker and a customer is a customer, regardless. It is conventional to criticize the multinationals for being mobile, rootless, anonymous and interested only in profit, but I'm pointing out that it is precisely these features that make them morally so superior to our old locally-based national and religious identities. Being mobile and global, they cannot afford to operate by generating and excluding an Other, and they have therefore had to find a new basis for communal loyalty.

How do they do it? When the great multinational companies and exchanges are called virtual countries, people wonder how they manage to command the loyalty of those who work for them. They are not bound by the traditional ties of blood, land and religion. They are a kind of entity that has been able to appear only after the end of the old agriculture-based type of civilization, and that seems radically secular by its standards. The multinational company shows, as Singapore shows, that a flourishing human society doesn't need to be bound to a particular stretch of land given to the founding fathers by God, doesn't need to be of one blood, and doesn't need to be bound together in worship of the God of the fathers. More than that, it doesn't need to define itself vis-a-vis an encircling, threatening Other, and it therefore does not need a guarded continuous frontier separating like a skin its interior from the exterior.

It is very postmodern suddenly to realise that we don't actually need roots, identity, stability, or a provenance any longer. We can do without all those things. Me, I don't want them any more. I prefer to be without identity. I'd like to belong to no ethn and to have no Other. They call me a nihilist: but I'm beginning to feel at ease, at home in nihilism. There are those who hope to restore the good old days by turning Islam into a new demonized Other; but quite apart from the fact that outside the traditional territory of Islam there is now a very large and growing Muslim diaspora which is itself destined to become postmodernized, the attempt to restore our own sense of identity by victimizing Islam is in any case unnecessary and unprofitable. We simply don't need the old social and religious categories and ways of thinking, and have no reason for attempting at this time of day to reinstate them. We do not need them in order to create community, and, curiously, we do not need them in order to be ourselves.

The postmodernization of persons, of cultural products and of goods goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Already in connection with figures like Melba and Chaplin we see both that they were made ubiquitous by new technologies, and also that they were in themselves somewhat nomadic and elusive. We are not too sure that we know just where they were born, where they died, what their nationality was, and what were their real names. Does it matter? And something similar in due course gets to be true of thousands of twentieth-century figures, just as it is of more and more late-twentieth-century goods. As the technologies get to be more and more powerful, everything is multiplied endlessly in order that it can become immediately accessible to everyone. Otherness disappears in the infinite free-associating hospitability of mediaspace. When I have read a shelf of novels about the lost world of East European Jewry by I.L. Peretz, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer and others, then that world belongs to me as much as to the Jews themselves. Why not? The new globalized culture breaks down the barriers of space and time, Otherness and Difference, and returns everything into the superabundant virtual present.

The old sort of life, rooted in place and time, land and kinship, and exclusive national and religious allegiances, is already largely lost. Already we know too much and have become too plural. Various sorts of ethnonationalist and religious fundamentalist may think they can turn back the clock; but they cannot. Already reality has become a web of communications, an outpouring, outsideless flux of signs which has caught us up and carried us away with it. It is, and we are with it, foundationless and goalless. It isn't going anywhere, and nor are we. There is such a torrent of little meanings that there can no longer be any great overarching Meaning-of-it-All in the old way.

So what happens to religion and morality in these strange new conditions? The answer to that is obvious: we go solar.

The end of morality and the return of ethics

The rapid decline of the old religions, I have been saying, is linked with the passing of the old agriculture-based civilizations and the very specific types of political structure and religious ideology that they produced. It has recently been predicted that by the year 2000 half the human race, and by the year 2025 two-thirds of all humanity, will be city-dwellers, hooked into the new global culture.

We have seen that, in order to get itself going in the first place, the early city-state had to set up a very strong sacred Centre of authority and focus of allegiance. This developed in time into a clear dualism between the sacred and profane worlds: God and king, temple and palace, heaven and earth, the supernatural and natural worlds. The god in his temple bound his holy people to their holy land, and the cycles of human days, years and lifetimes into the cyclical rhythms of the cosmos. By their exclusive allegiance to the god and to the specific version of the Symbolic Order that he had given them, his holy people distinguished themselves from the encircling (threatening, unclean) Others round about. A certain ethnic pride in their own separateness and unique identity thus compensated them for the stringent disciplinary demands of religious Law.

At the peak of its development the whole system generated very large-scale narrative cosmologies and systems of doctrine. When, during the so-called 'Axial Age', a new concern about the individual's journey to personal salvation arose and had to be built into the system, each individual's life-history was also taken up into a lengthy narrative. God had (so you hoped) predestined you for salvation from all eternity, and your earthly life was but a moment in comparison with what would come after it. It might take 90,000 lifetimes for you to become a Buddha, and it might take 500,000 years of Purgatory to make you fit for Heaven. Final blessedness was thus both infinitely important and almost infinitely far away. Yet every act in your life might in principle have a direct bearing on your personal attainment of your final goal. Accordingly, elaborate systems of religious Law were developed, with the aim of producing a morally-unified life properly oriented towards the attainment of its last End. Morality thus came to be seen on the legal model: it was ascetical, disciplinary and very long-termist.

The single most impressive intellectual achievement of the old order was Plato's metaphysics, the twenty-odd founding principles of which sustained the old order until the Enlightenment. But as agricultural civilization has gradually been replaced by our new science-based industrial civilization, so a line of philosophers running from Hume and Kant up to, more recently, Nietzsche and the young Derrida, have simultaneously been at work, dismantling Plato's entire platform plank by plank.

So what happens next? Interestingly, the old faiths were not only very large-scale and cosmological; they also developed, in dialectical opposition to the large-scale vision, a highly focussed and short-term vision centred around the individual's desire to experience salvation, not at the end of time, but now and in the present moment. The contrast here is roughly that between dogmatism and existentialism, or between metaphysics and its deconstruction; between the cosmic Grand Narrative and the sudden conversion of soul or flash of enlightenment (satori) by which the individual momentarily seizes blessedness.

The Grand-Narrative vision sees the way to salvation as a lengthy pilgrimage, an arduous ascent or a disciplined purging which passes through many stages. To sustain us on the journey we will need a great disciplinary institution that teaches us all the right things to believe and all the right rules to keep. During the great journey which is History we regularly re-mind ourselves of the founding events that began our journey, and the hope of glory awaiting us at its End. The life-story of the individual is thus given meaning by being taken up into the larger social and cosmic story. My own life-story, from my baptism to death, purgatory and Heaven, fits into the Long March of the Church, militant, expectant and triumphant, which in turns fits into a cosmic narrative that runs from Eternity to Eternity via Creation, Fall and Redemption.

Today, however, the whole cosmological or Grand Narrative side of religion has totally collapsed. We know, if we know anything, that there is no rationally-ordered scheme of things out there, and there is no Grand-Narrative meaning-of-life already laid on for our lives to be fitted into. We know, if we know anything, that there isn't 'literally' any supernatural order whatever, and there is not 'literally' any life after death. All this is all there is, and, as everyone knows, when you're dead you're dead.

And what is all this? There is and there is only an outpouring, continuously-renewed flux of minute world-events, of which we are simply parts. We can apprehend the world as and only as our world, a world coloured-up by our own feelings, formed by our language and structured by our theories. There is no real world, in the sense of a ready-made Cosmos with rationality, meanings and values antecedently laid on for us. What we see before us is not a naked world, because we never see a naked world. What we see is always and only a world-view, a construction of things that we have ourselves evolved over the centuries and millennia past. We see a world highly made up, fully clothed, and every bit of the way we see what we see has a history. Both on the largest scale and in the smallest detail what we perceive is a humanly-appropriated world.

In our hearts we all know that that is how things are. In which case the spread-out, Grand Narrative cosmological sort of religion is either dead, or at the very least in need of drastic revision and reinterpretation. As for the religious emphasis, it now comes to be placed on the short-term vision. Not the large-scale doctrine-system and moral code, but the telescoped, contracted vision, which is sometimes called an 'ethic' in the archaic sense, and otherwise may be spoken of as a form of consciousness, as a 'spirituality', as a way of life, and so forth.

What survives of the old religions, then, is a small number of tricks and techniques of religious existence: ways of being a self and of relating oneself to the whole of which one is a part. These tricks can help us to love life and live well: that, now, is religion. We have described three such tricks. The Eye of God is the trick of relating oneself to oneself via the universal; seeing oneself and one's expressed life as if through God's eyes. This is what remains valuable in the idea of God. The Blissful Void is the trick of relaxing completely, slowing oneself and one's passions down until the self is as it were dispersed into the fleeting insubstantial Emptiness of all existence. You must learn to experience nihilism as levity, lightness. The strange unexpected happiness this brings is a wonderful deliverance from the fear of death, loss and suffering. Solar Ethics is the trick of casting oneself unreservedly into the flux of existence, spending oneself, living as hard as one can, burning without being afraid of burnout. This state of being 'lost in life' I call 'ecstatic immanence'.

Such were the traditional--or partly traditional--techniques of religious existence that were mentioned earlier. Their use is ethics. A further and crucial point is now to be developed: they are all voluntary, and the setting in which they are to be appropriated and practised is innocent.....

World religion

All around the world now, schoolchildren are studying much the same syllabus: English, Mathematics, Science and Technology. Transport, communications, the financial and commodity markets, and even news and entertainment are almost completely globalized. Everywhere, cities contain much the same range of institutions--the bank, the hospital, the power station, the broadcasting station, the university, the high-rise office block--all employing much the same range of skills, and resting on much the same bodies of knowledge. A single continuous world-culture is very rapidly consolidating itself.

This new world culture is secular and increasingly transnational. Within it we hear the language of nationalism and of religion only from those people who most fear and are trying the hardest to resist the changes that are taking place. They fear oblivion, because they suspect that they and everything they have stood for--their world, their beliefs and values, their identity--will shortly vanish unlamented and be completely forgotten. In the hope of confirming and prolonging their distinct identity they beat the drums, close ranks and adopt a permanently-embattled posture. Yet for how long can this work? In the Indian subcontinent Hindus may battle against Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and against Sikhs and Muslims in the North-West. But in the great territories between, India is beginning to modernize rapidly, and the time will come when the voice of the markets demanding peace and stability is louder than the voice of the old gods demanding war.

It is very curious that God and Mammon should have changed places ethically. Mammon is an internationalist. He wants people to be healthy and well-educated. He wants peace and stability, progress and universal prosperity. By contrast, God (especially in the Middle East) appears to have become a Moloch who demands ignorance, poverty and war. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse may be very bad for human beings, but they are very good for God.

Will there be, can there ever be, a new globalized world religion which does not work by dividing humanity into a We and a They, but expresses an emergent collective consciousness of the unity of the whole human race with our common world?

A century or two ago, people still thought this might be possible. Various Westem thinkers since Liebniz have been impressed by the strong moral solidarity of Asian societies, and since Schopenhauer many have also been impressed by the analogies between the histories of Indian and of Western philosophy. Until as recently as the generation of W.E. Hocking, Aldous Huxley and Arnold Toynbee there were those who hoped for a religious unification of the human race under the aegis of something like the perennial philosophy.

That approach has now been abandoned. Hocking's well-known report Rethinking Missions (1932), which advocated an (approximately) syncretistic approach to the Asian traditions, was sharply rebutted by Hendrik Kraemer in The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (1938) and, more generally, all the great religions have subsequently chosen the path of difference and separation, rather than the path of syncretism. More important, with the end of both metaphysical realism and moral realism the postmodern world has become quite remarkedly postphilosophical. Without any commonly-understood philosophical vocabulary, the traditional religions of humankind can now survive only as fundamentalisms--which is what they have largely become.

What would seem to follow for the rest of us is thoroughgoing permissive pluralism. If indeed there is no One Great Truth out-there to serve as the basis for a future world-wide common human religious consciousness, and if indeed there is no One True Morality out-there either, then perhaps Nietzsche is right and our truths are indeed merely 'those illusions without which we cannot live'? What is true for any person is what gives that person a feeling of enhanced strength, confidence and vitality (e.g. Will to Power, nos.533-535), and there may be any number of such subjective truths. In which case, surely, one should be happy to see the three thousand or so New Religious Movements, the thousand or so New Age groups, and the hundreds of sects of the various major faiths which are, all of them, flourishing, teeming, in today's Britain and also in other Western countries? If their beliefs work out well for them, then their beliefs are true for them; and since there is no independent Truth-out-there, and all of us are entirely free to build our worlds in the ways that seem best to us, we have no basis for calling other people's worlds irrational. Let a hundred flowers bloom! The old mirroring type of rationality, which consisted in the conformity of the human mind with the way things are out there, is dead. There is no ready-made, antecedently fixed, way things are out there. On any view, surely, the world has to be interpretatively plastic enough for a large number of widely different religious faiths each to work out happily for its own adherents. So why shouldn't they all peacefully coexist, just as widely-different works of modern art co-exist in the art gallery?

The Californian, very Californian, philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend (1975) argued in this vein for what he called 'an anarchistic theory of knowledge'--by which he meant, he really did mean, scientific knowledge. Neither philosophers nor any others are entitled to stipulate in advance what is going to be allowed to count as genuine scientific method, or where the boundary between science and non-science is to be drawn, or anything else of that sort. Any attempt to lay down rules in advance only invites transgression--as everyone knows in the case of art, but as is also true in the case of religion, and (according to Feyerabend) even in the case of science. Haven't there been lots of historical examples of extremely distinguished asses trying to rule out in advance as counterintuitive scientific theories such as the transmutation of species, or General Relativity, or quantum theory?

Have I made the same mistake in this book? Have I been trying to describe a priori the shape of a future world faith, when on my own anti-realist premises the future surely has to be more and more of the sort of formless anarchy that we are already seeing? We have no objective justification for feeling pained by the variety and excess of modern art, and no objective criteria for stepping in and attempting to impose law and order upon it; and by the same token, we surely have no objective justification for feeling pained by the variety and excess of modern religious expression, and no truly objective criteria for stepping in and attempting to impose intellectual order. Why shouldn't there be anarchy?

In reply to this important point, I have said three things.

First, we have quite recently emerged from five to seven millennia of agricultural civilization. During this very long period human life was grounded in a common vision of the cosmic order, and human conduct was guided by laws that emanated from an immensely-strong sacred Centre. We got accustomed to having the moral order and all our values laid on for us: everything was already well founded, familiar, and life was firmly grounded and guided. Now we have rather suddenly lost all that, and we feel highly disoriented, free-floating.

At least during the transitional period, I have suggested that we may find it helpful to keep up some of our old and habitual religious practices and attitudes. We have used the phrase the Eye of God for a non-realistic continuation of the ancient habit of looking at our selves and our own lives as if with a God's-eye-view. The old way of living coram deo (as if before the face of God) was valuably consciousness-raising and morally-stabilizing, and one may usefully continue to pray to God just as one may find oneself often talking to and thinking of a dead person. We have used the phrase the Blissful Void for a practice like that of Buddhist meditation, or Christian contemplative prayer. We wait in silence for the anxiety-driven rush of language to slow down until we become utterly relaxed. The world unknits itself. We enter a condition of Empty void bliss. Is this God, is this absolute nothingness, is this death? It doesn't matter; nothing matters. Thirdly, in returning from meditation into active life we have used the phrase solar ethics to describe an expressivist ethic of self-outing, self-outpouring, self-shedding. We are no longer fearful about dying, or afraid to give ourselves away. We pour ourselves out recklessly into symbolic expression, and then pass on, pass on, and pass away, without regret.

We have added a fourth theme, the Poetical Theology, meaning that we should regard ourselves as having carte blanche to retell the old stories in new ways. In successive generations, as social values have changed, Hollywood has several times retold the Western myth, injecting new values into it. Indeed, every genre is a myth that undergoes continual revision, and we should support, not condemn as blasphemous, those writers and filmmakers who set out in a similar way to reshape the story of Jesus. Whyever not? There is no such thing as blasphemy.

The fifth theme, World-religion, is the most difficult. We have prepared the way for it by arguing: (i) that philosophy in the future is going to be completely naturalistic or this-worldly; (ii) that in a globalized world we must finally rid ourselves of all those ancient ways of thinking that construct religion by separating in all spheres of life Us from Them, and the Holy from its unclean and excluded Other; and (iii), that since we have no access to any entirely independent world-order or moral order, we should give up the old dogmatic realism and adopt instead an expressivist or 'aestheticist' view of the world and of our life.

Although the point is so very obvious, it remains curiously difficult to recognize that we made it all up. We evolved the entire syllabus. We have slowly evolved our own languages, our values, our systems of knowledge, our religions and our world-views. We evolved even our own subjective consciousness, because the brightness, the consciousness, of conscious experience is a by-product of language.

Look out at your own present visual field. What you see before you is in the minutest detail framed and formed by culture and language; framed by cultural categories, seen in the light of theories, formed by words, coloured up by our feelings and evaluations. Our world is our own self- objectification.

We see around us the accumulated product, the 'objectivity', of our own history. Language reflects the point, in the way that, for example, 'France' is the name both of a nation and of the land and the cultural tradition, the social world, which that people have established around themselves. A person's native land, her home, her family, her oeuvre, her world, is her 'objectivity', the accumulated product of her self-expressive life-activity with others. Insofar as my world, my objectivity is beautiful, I rejoice to pour out my life and die into it; insofar as it is ugly, unjust and despoiled it is a judgment upon me and my life, and I must strive to mend it.

Against this background, we can see what a World-religion might be. It follows from the new post-Kantian, post-Romantic vision of the self as being, not a spiritual substance purifying itself for eternity, but a solar process pouring itself out into symbolic expression in its world. Get into the way of seeing your own visual field as your own work of art, and you will understand the point. Astoundingly, environmental ethics and post-modern spirituality turn out in the end to co-incide. Our spiritual life, our quest for redemption and our world-building activity all turn out to be the same thing. There really is an intimate relationship between psychology and cosmology, our inwardness and our objectivity, microcosm and macrocosm.

And did not Tradition half-consciously know all this, when it said that to work is to pray (laborare est orare), that sexual reproduction is procreation, that just to sweep a room may be divine service, and that the fiery orange glow of the sky towards sunset is the blood of Christ streaming in the firmament? As we saw earlier, in the old agricultural civilizations religion became constituted as a distinct sphere of life. But in the type of world religion that we have been foreseeing cultural activity will simply coincide with religious or cultic activity, and with artistic expression.