Many Armenians living in the Western world, but also our compatriots in Armenia, acknowledge secularism while being attached to a whole range of religious traditions. How can that be? We never discuss the role of our church, and thus religion, publicly, and we hardly question the church’s role in our modern lives.
This is not just a philosophical question that needs to be tackled, but an urgent matter that has to be addressed. We are living in an environment where religion is playing more and more of an important role in politics and public life, especially in our immediate neighborhood, both in the diaspora and the motherland.
Just take a quick look at what’s happening in the Middle East, and you will understand that Christianity is being targeted. Look around you in the Western world and you will see how we are more and more absorbed by different sects, but also atheism.
Caught in the middle, we are still preoccupied with basic human needs, both physical and spiritual. The human need for comfort and the desire to understand the meaning of existence still haunts us. How do we cope with that? Could it be why Armenians are moving away from their national religion? Is there an explanation for the conundrum of being an atheist, and yet hanging on to religious traditions, from baptisms to funeral services, weddings and celebrating Christmas and Easter?
The American writer Nicole Krauss (who received William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in 2008) has a fine illustration of what I mean. In her debut novel Man walks into a Room (2002), the story’s young protagonist Samson is visiting a synagogue with his elderly relative Max, a Jewish refugee from Germany. After they pray together, Max explains to Samson that there is no such thing as God. So why are they still they coming here? Wonders Samson.
“To remember,” replies Max.
If you ask, the majority of Armenians who rarely (usually only in connection with the holidays) believe they have reason to attend a church service would probably have the same response as Max from the novel: Very few would invoke God as the reason for the church visit. Many would probably define their stance in the same way as French philosopher André Comte-Sponville: I am a faithful atheist—atheist, because I do not believe in any God; faithful, because I acknowledge my membership in a particular tradition, a certain history, and to certain values that we inherited from our ancestors.
Rarely, except for Christmas or a wedding or funeral, do we “faithful atheists” seek the church, this “spiritual place,” to be reminded of who we are and who we want to be, of a dimension that would otherwise hardly have room in our everyday, rational life.
Being “religious” today, and, for most of us, in secularized parts of the world, is not necessarily an issue of adherence to religious dogmas and traditions, nor is it about perceiving the “sacred texts” as a divine message. I wonder, could it be possible to remain a convinced atheist and still find religion useful, interesting, and consoling, so much so that one can afford to play with its ideas and practices in the secular world?
What’s lacking in our community is this kind of approach in modernizing our societies and church.
Religion in much of the world is still an important force governing society. In recent years, religion has taken us unawares. The rise of the “moral majority” in the U.S., the Islamic Revolution in the Arab world, the growth of religious parties in Israel, the power of Catholicism in Poland and the African continent, all run contrary to the basic thesis that modernity and secularization go hand in hand and can almost be regarded as synonyms. Instead, and against all prediction, religion has resurfaced in the public domain.
An important voice has been Jonathan Sacks, a professor at the University of Essex, who developed the idea of moral ecology. In his book The persistence of faith: Religion, morality, and society in a secular age, Sacks discusses the role of religion in modern life. He points to the attitudes necessary for society’s wellbeing and affirms that it cannot be created nor maintained through political means. This “moral ecology” can best be nurtured only by religion. Neither the individual nor the state—two key concepts in the secular world—has proven to be suitable foundations and guarantors of a moral society, he argues. Only an ethical stance that includes the absolute (many of us call it God) will put man at the center and give him a unique dignity and joy. This approach allows us to build a world that is more human than that in which human beings, nations, and economic systems have become gods.
A good society has its own ecology that depends on multiple sources of meaning, each with its own integrity. With this we come to perhaps the most profound truth of the Armenian Christian Church and its ethics—that ethic has been based on justice, compassion, and a respect for human dignity, guiding our societies.
Good conduct was not dependent on governments, laws, police, inspectorates, regulatory bodies, civil courts, or legal penalties. It was dependent on the still, small voice of God within the human heart. It was part of our character; it was a virtue and a sense of obligation. Our families devoted immense energy to educate the young in the ways of goodness and righteousness.
A moral vision, a clear sense of right and wrong, is present in our stories, in the texts that were read, the prayers we were taught, and the rituals the church performed.
These were the standards our community expected of its members.
Today, at least for many of us, God might be dead or invisible. But the experiences that made man create God in the first place are still very much real. That is why most of us, while announcing our choice to be secularists, continue to adhere to certain religious traditions. This paradoxical yet somehow functioning equilibrium turns complex with the ongoing debate about the role of religion in society. Religion seems to have returned with a revenge. It is a difficult discussion in a time when religions’ most extreme expressions dominate. We are drowning in news reports from parts of the world where a suicide bomber detonates his charges in markets and mosques, where churches are burned down, where women are discriminated against, where homosexuals are executed, and writers are tortured for their words—and all in the name of one or another god.
Our modern time seems to be a breeding ground for God’s relentless warriors. Fortunately, there is also room for the uncompromising atheist who upholds secular society, where religion is every citizen’s private matter and not allowed to affect the social order or political decisions.
Atheism is still a minority belief in the world, but there is a great interest in it. Hyman, a professor of philosophy of religion at Syracuse University, explains that this “fervor” in atheism can be seen as a mirror image of the religious awakening in many secularized societies. Atheism has been radicalized, he says, not least as a result of (and response to) violent religious fundamentalism, with its unabashed ambitions to influence the values of society.
The disagreement between atheists and believers of God is hardly about whether a personal God exists or not. Therefore, the atheist’s firm denial of the personal God is as knocking on an open door. The same applies to today’s atheists who continue to reject God, arguing that science has in a compelling way, once and for all, shown that atheism stands for truth. Just claiming atheism to be “true” reveals that it still stands in the shadow of the God it denies.
To conclude, belief in a god’s existence is more than anything else a matter of affirmation of a spiritual dimension in our life. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s sorrowful words, “There is a space reserved for God inside each man,” which must be filled with meaningful content that will enable him to find a purpose in life.
It is in this philosophical abstraction, rather than in a personal relationship with a god that has turned into worship, that as a modern and secular person, I feel at home.