On the need for secular festivals and truth

It’s Easter Sunday. It’s therefore a very significant day for Christians across the world. But should it be a national holiday for the UK? It will be interesting to see how many of the population actually identify as Christians in the census we completed two weeks ago. Ten years ago, only 59.9% of our citizens said that they were Christians, down from 71.6% in 2001. If the 2021 census returns a figure of less than 50% should we continue to regard this country as Christian? Should there not be a complete divorce between the State and church? Any church? Any religion? These, surely, are legitimate questions to ask. If we genuinely believe in freedom, fairness and human rights it’s wrong to force a default Christian structure upon everyone, especially if it’s only relevant to a minority of the population. In a truly fair and open society we should all be free to practice any faith or none at all. No one should be made to feel socially excluded because their thinking finds it impossible to accept the myths being peddled by religion.

The festival or holiday that I have the biggest problem with is Christmas. I want to join in the festivities, I genuinely want to feel a part of what is being celebrated. But for that to happen I need to ‘but in’ to the idea behind it all, and my thinking will simply not accept the concept of God, let alone a God that can have a son through a virgin birth. However, there are very good reasons to have a social festival at the end of December. The winter solstice marks the genuine end of one year and the start of another. What better time to gather with friends and family and reflect on the year past and look forward to the year to come? And a spring festival at around the time of the equinox is a great occasion to stop work for a few days to reflect on the new life bursting forth from nature, from the natural environment all around us. What better time to reflect on our relationship with the rest of nature? If people with particular religious beliefs want to add their own interpretations to these festivals, that’s fine with me. But the festivals themselves could and should be made accessible to any rational person.

In saying all this, I do not wish to suggest that there are not good elements to religion. Whilst the metaphysics provided by the various religions has been totally superseded by science, and should be discarded by all rational beings, their ethics often captures some enduring human values. If we could all learn to love our fellow humans in the way Jesus of the Christian Bible taught his followers to love, we would all benefit no end. But this is not because a mythical god has instructed us to adopt certain values, it’s because over the course of human social evolution certain values have been found to be invaluable to maintaining social structure and coherence. But such an acceptance also comes with a serious health warning. Some of the social values and ethical behaviour taught and codified by religion is seriously out-of-date. In particular I’m thinking of various faiths’ attitudes to same sex relationships and their enforcement of gender roles and sexuality in general.

Now apart from loving your neighbour, another ethical value (as far as I’m aware) universally endorsed by religion is that of telling the truth. And it’s very easy to understand why. Telling the truth, being honest in your dealings with others, lies at the very core of any stable community or society. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how quickly social life would collapse without it. This has been a particularly dominant theme in my thinking the last few weeks, not least because I’ve just finished reading Peter Oborne’s The Assualt on Truth. This book is a damning indictment of our Prime Minister. It clearly documents the history of Boris Johnson’s distortion of the truth, his falsehoods, and his arrogant dismissal of personal accountability. But of even greater concern than Johnson’s disregard for the truth is how certain national newspapers (I don’t need to name them, you know the ones I mean) have completely failed to call him to account. Had Jeremy Corbyn lied even a fraction of the amount he would have been annihilated by these papers. As far as I’m aware, these papers have not even offered a review of this book. If, as a society, we hold so little regard for the truth, or are so partisan in how we apply it, what sort of future awaits us?

Another reason why ‘truth’ has been at the fore of my thinking is that I’ve been working on an introduction to the problems associated with the concept of ‘truth’ for both the next meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group, and the spring symposium of the national Philosophy in Pubs network. I will write this up for a blog post at the end of the month, but for now let me whet your thinking appetite by suggesting that when placed under close scrutiny ‘truth’, as Oscar Wilde observed, “is rarely pure and never simple”.

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