‘Things that have sustained religious beliefs in the past are not easy to maintain.’
In the 1960s the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell gave a succinct explanation of how society contributes to our picture of reality. The part played by society, he wrote, is fairly straightforward: reality is confirmation by significant others.
Translated out of the jargon, it means that if we are disposed to accept something as real, and the people who matter to us believe it, we believe as they do. If medical authorities assert that two injections of a vaccine are more effective than one, we believe it, if we respect medical authorities. If our circle of close friends assert that a particular cafe has the best coffee in town, we are inclined to believe it.
On the other hand, if we find that those whose company we value do not confirm our most cherished beliefs, there is a good chance that these will fade. That seems to be the fate of religious beliefs for many people in a secular society like ours. Things that have sustained religious beliefs in the past – regular church attendance, private prayer, and reading spiritual material like the Bible – are not easy to maintain.
Is there anything that is commended in our secular societies that can support religion? There is: the wide publicity given to good works. Examples are assisting refugees, championing the environment, promoting sport for the disabled, or helping the homeless.
Why do activities like these support religion? They can have a spiritual dimension.
People who are significant to us are not always those we know personally. Tolstoy is a significant person for me because his writings earn my respect. He is an interesting religious figure in that, although he was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church for his criticism of Christianity, he excels in exhibiting the spiritual dimension that can arise from helping others.
This does not come through in his great novels like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but it does through his short stories such as ‘What Men Live By’ and ‘Father Sergius’. The latter is the story of a nobleman who sought perfection in everything he did. He became a monk, but was provoked into a sexual scandal, which made him flee the monastery and become a wandering pilgrim. He found, when he helped illiterate people with reading and writing (and left directly afterwards, without waiting for their thanks), that ‘little by little God began to reveal Himself within him’.
Friends are familiar with the inner spiritual condition giving rise to good works. The situation envisaged by Tolstoy is happening in reverse: the good works bring about the spiritual condition. We could try it ourselves, and see whether life copies art.
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