Religion (the voyage out)

Dear Board,

I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.

Sincerely yours,
Groucho Marx.

Among the two social groups to which I belong – friends and acquaintances – I seldom have any reservation expressing my estimate of religion.  I will however admit that the topic is generally not widely circulated and that in some circles of either group I wouldn’t dare say what I think. Religion can be a touchy issue.

Privately I have adopted an immobile stance on the subject.  I regret that my view is not tempered by the liberality that we’re all entitled to our own opinion.  I have a dim regard for religion often likening it to snake oil. And I certainly haven’t any knee-jerk admiration for those who propound the subject. In that respect I suppose I am as single-minded as the religious types though the prejudice does nothing either to enlighten or to dissuade me. I harbour the same sorrow for the believers as they do for me as a non-believer.

By way of introduction I am officially confirmed a member of the Anglican Church of Canada. That event took place in 1963 when I attended St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario. Subsequently I was Warden of our local parish in Almonte, Ontario and I have predominantly counted Anglicans among my closer friends and acquaintances. I did however become disenchanted with the Church for its preposterous social conventions, among them prohibition of the ordination of women and homosexuals. I stopped attending church regularly and I did not succumb to the entreaties of the ministers to return.  I have since only attended the church for the celebration of a wedding anniversary and for two funerals at which I was asked to speak about the deceased.

In recent years the Anglican Church of Canada has been a leading progressive force within the Anglican Communion. In the 1970s the then primate, Ted Scott, argued at the Lambeth Conference in favour of women’s ordination. The Anglican Church of Canada ordained its first woman as a priest in 1976 and its first woman as a bishop in 1993. Many parishes, particularly in the west and even more particularly on aboriginal reserves, were already served by women deacons and allowing them to be ordained priests regularized their situation and permitted a regular sacramental ministry to be available in the parishes they served. Nonetheless, this change — in concert with such moves as allowing the remarriage of divorced persons — caused strains among more conservative parishes, both Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical. In the early 1970s some members of the Anglican Church of Canada left to join breakaway Anglican groups such as the small Anglican Catholic Church of Canada.

Since the 1990s, the Anglican Communion has struggled with controversy regarding homosexuality in the church. In 1998, the 13th Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops passed a resolution stating that “homosexual acts” are “incompatible with Scripture”. In 2002, the Diocese of New Westminster, in the Anglican Church of Canada, permitted the blessing of same-sex unions. In 2003, two openly gay men in England and the United States became candidates for bishop. In the Church of England, Jeffrey John eventually succumbed to pressure to withdraw his name from consideration to be the Bishop of Reading. In the Episcopal Church in the United States, Gene Robinson was elected and consecrated Bishop of New Hampshire, becoming the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion and in apostolic Christianity. This was highly controversial and led several hundred bishops to boycott the 2008 Lambeth Conference. As an alternative to Lambeth, many of these bishops attended the Global Anglican Futures Conference in Jerusalem. The BBC, in 2009, reported that many clergy in the Church of England “already bless same-sex couples on an unofficial basis”. Many provinces, primarily from the Global South and representing about half of the 80 million active Anglicans worldwide, have responded to these theological disputes by declaring a state of impaired communion with their Western counterparts.

The critical turning point for my approach to religion was my  introduction to “The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology” written by English and American political activist Thomas Paine published in three parts in 1794, 1795 and 1807. I won’t pretend for a minute that I could recite even one word from the book.  However what I read of it, and what I read by others about it, is entirely consistent with my knowledge of what is logical and philosophically sound. I will presume to reinforce this position by stating that my undergraduate degree (Bachelor of Arts) was a major in Philosophy (basically modes of reasoning, logic and analytical thinking); and I then obtained a Bachelor of Laws (which was primarily devoted to deductive reasoning). In addition I have dedicated much of my spare time to mastery of debate including a fondness for the power of argument.  All of this must for some appear to be mere puffery in the face of what is reputed to be the awesomeness of religion but I am not so readily inveigled.

As conservative as I am in many respects, I resist mass movements and stubbornly maintain my independence of mind. I mention this because it is currently popular to malign religion as though it were the new age of intellectualism.  While that alone frightens me (and instinctively disinclines me to accept it) what is more telling is that opposition to religion is nothing new at all.  There is no question that Thomas Paine had many adherents when he first published his “Age of Reason” in pamphlet form. What however is equally true is that there were just as many people who had so much riding on the preservation of religious institutions that they effectively silenced his argument. Indeed it is only as lately as the last ten years that the American government is finally acknowledging the extraordinary influence of Thomas Paine upon the very institution of the United States of America.

In December 1793, he was arrested and was taken to Luxembourg Prison in Paris. While in prison, he continued to work on The Age of Reason (1793–94). Future President James Monroe used his diplomatic connections to get Paine released in November 1794. He became notorious because of his pamphlets The Age of Reason, in which he advocated deism, promoted reason and free thought, and argued against institutionalized religion in general and Christian doctrine in particular. He also published the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1797), discussing the origins of property, and introduced the concept of a guaranteed minimum income. In 1802, he returned to the U.S. where he died on June 8, 1809. Only six people attended his funeral as he had been ostracized for his ridicule of Christianity.

Depending on where one lives even today it may be wildly unpopular openly to criticize religion. Most American politicians know that without question and often cater to the “religious vote” with an embarrassing obsequiousness (not to mention questionable conviction).  I can’t say that Canada is any more easygoing but religion doesn’t figure quite so prominently on the political scene.

Oddly often when I retire to my bed at night I re-enact a custom I developed as a boy in which I address myself to “Lord” in order to give thanks for what has transpired during the day and for the comfort and love of my family.  I recognize that this borders on apparent hypocrisy though I adopt it only as a convenient model for gratitude.  That is, I don’t read into it any belief in what is for example the Christian ethic; it’s just a habit.  For that reason it doesn’t even intrigue me especially as I know its childhood derivation in what was then a religious vernacular. At St. Andrew’s College we literally attended chapel every day and twice on Sundays.

As a matter of record I should disclose that while attending undergraduate university at Glendon Hall I was a member of Creation 2, an overtly religiously-based theatre company spirited (in every sense of the word) by the late Louis Capson.

Louis Capson was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick. In 1944, he obtained a B.A from the University of Victoria and completed an M.F.A in theatre at Yale. In 1969 he founded Creation 2, a communal theatre ensemble based in Toronto, which remains one of the most unusual iconoclastic theatre groups in Canada. Capson’s first play, THE POTTER’S FIELD, was produced in 1967. Since then he has written twenty-five full-length plays, most of which have been produced by Creation 2. These include Capson’s adaptation of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, and FACE CRIME, a study of Joseph Stalin.

Capson’s plays generally deal with philosophical and political issues, seen from his highly individual perspective: “I think that a living, breathing human being, saying something in front of an audience, is one of the ways to demystify experience…What I’m trying to do is a theatre about thought and ideas.”

Louis Capson has held lecturing positions at York and Ryerson University, as well as taught acting at the University of Victoria.

Toronto’s theatre community gets perplexed whenever the names of Louis Capson (left) and Gary Reeves (right) are mentioned. Their Creation 2 troupe has an insatiable urge to turn the established theatre on its head; says Star staff writer Gina Mallet.

My position with the theatre company was that of financial fund-raiser which pointedly afforded me an insight into the luxurious life-style of the senior officials of mainstream churches and paradoxically contributed to my jaundiced view of the clergy.  Meeting with an Anglican Bishop at a massive greystone cathedral on Bloor Street East, Toronto in a richly appointed office of mahogany and Persian rugs (with a late model black Cadillac parked outside the leaded windows) did nothing to enhance the persuasion of religion but rather contributed to my perception of its manifest disguise. It is of course this undeniable social fabrication which inhibits the denunciation of the church and religion. Even the most cursory examination of its institutions reveals these evident bulwarks. The offices of the United Church of Canada on St. Clair Avenue East were not much different (though interestingly they diluted their force in the same way grape juice replaces wine in the communion). Add to this the outlandish history behind penance and confession in the Catholic Church and the resulting erosion was for me all but complete.

But even ignoring the financial machinations of the church the real source of disbelief is religion itself.  I cannot fathom any measure by which to sustain an argument in its favour even without embracing Paine’s assertion of the inconsistencies in the Bible.  Besides any contest of religion cannot be limited to Christianity, as uncompromising as it is.  Other beliefs which fall under the heading of religion suffer the same failure of logic as far as I can tell.  All the historical foundations of religion are mystical and rife with fairy-tale themes, many of which are sadly nothing short of laughable or which at the very least defy both intellect and imagination.

Not surprisingly I continue to question my determination about religion because I haven’t any palatable explanation of the mystery that is life nor an understanding of the infinite. But this doesn’t side-track me to the adoption of a patently absurd conclusion or inductive leap. I shall always seek a way to comprehend life but until I do I am reluctant to settle for anything that either I or anyone like me has to offer.  For the time being I shall rely instead upon what I accept as synthetic a priori knowledge.

A Priori and A Posteriori Knowledge

A judgment is knowable a priori if and only if it can be justified independently of experience. A judgment is a posteriori if it cannot be known without recourse to experience. Arguably, the truths of mathematics (2 + 2 = 4) and logic (if George will go only if John will go, and George will go, then John will go) are a priori. We do not need empirical evidence in order to know that they are true.

Most judgments of particular fact, however, are a posteriori. I cannot know that a particular room is more than 10′ wide without some sort of experience, for example the experience of measuring the room with a tape measure.

Synthetic a priori knowledge is sufficiently removed from the empirical world to make it incontrovertible and yet so obviously allied with reason to make it compelling.  Granted both synthetic and empirical constructs of thinking may be dismissed as human and therefore arguable but it is the best evidence available for my money. Essentially if religion cannot be proven on that logical basis, I am having no part of it.

However, breakfast was over and Mrs. Dalloway was rising. “I always think religion’s like collecting beetles,” she said, summing up the discussion as she went up the stairs with Helen. “One person has a passion for black beetles; another hasn’t; it’s no good arguing about it. What’s your black beetle now?”

“The Voyage Out” by Virginia Woolf