What is religion?

This is one of the most impossible questions to answer and interesting to hear other people try. So I attended a Royal Society of Literature talk last night, delivered by Karen Armstrong at Kings Place, home of The Guardian and Observer. I have read her books and heard her previously so knew it as worth making the journey. The speaker is one of the world’s leading commentators on religions. Not just one, but all the world’s religions. A former Catholic nun, writer of many books, journalist and recipient of one of the prestigious TED awards she started a Charter for Compassion that has been adopted by organisations all over the world. She takes the best of all religions and summarises them as ‘Do unto others what you would have them do unto you’. She asserts that religion isn’t what you believe. It’s what you do. And, in her words, ‘if you don’t do it, you don’t get it’. She describes it as kind of ‘ethical alchemy’. You should be changed by religion, for the better, she says. Quoting the Catholic definition of God, completely opaque to the child, like me that learned it, something along the lines of ‘an infinitely perfect spirit’, she went on to say that it is impossible to define God. The definition lies in the silence when you get into a debate and end up in a conversational cul de sac. Or the silence at the end of a great orchestral piece, before the audience starts to applaud.

The fact that I’m saying those things makes me feel naive because of course I know them to be true. It’s just good to be reminded. By a learned person. A plain speaker. And a woman. Most of my face to face religious education is one way and comes from men. Which is why when I want to know more I read books. By women. Although having said that I do want to read ‘Leaving Alexandria’ by Richard Holloway, former Bishop of London. Having heard the debate with Andrew Marr on this same subject last Monday, he seems another educated plain speaker who is not frightened of honesty, and therefore controversial.

In an article in yesterday’s Guardian, a professor of genetics at Surrey University writes about a recent study that shows that liberal and conservative Christians tailor their God to fit their beliefs. ”Love thy neighbour … as long as he isn’t a homeless person, immigrant, prisoner or living next door to you”. The study suggests that people create their god in their own image so that Tories, Labourites, Republicans and Democratics let their politics determine their beliefs. Except most of us recognise goodness, kindness, compassion when we see them in action. Whether from a professed religious person or not.

I missed my original train to London because I was attending a funeral. I intended to leave towards the end but changed my mind and caught a later train. The funeral Mass was for a woman I’ve known for over 30 years. One of those stalwarts of the parish without whom churches wouldn’t exist – and in many cases no longer do. Not someone with any vested power. A former teacher, mother, grandmother, general helper and friend to all. One of those people who brings you books when you are feeling unwell, remembers to ask about your children, sends cards and smiles a lot. The funeral was joyous and uplifting. There were a dozen priests celebrating. The main celebrant was emotional; unusual for a man of the cloth. He referred to my friend as ‘a priest’. Gulp. Said she is a model to consecrated priests. Gulp twice. The church was packed, the singing glorious. The nearest Catholics get to a state funeral.

So it was interesting to be reminded what learned people believe. But more instructive to see religion in action.

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