Thursday, 4 November 2010

Religion needs a Stephen Hawking

Too many people just don’t get religion. The media, politicians, authors, entertainers, policy makers and so on are all too often guilty of understanding religion in a childish, simplistic and grossly inaccurate way.

A public perception of God paints him as a man in the sky with a beard, a booming voice of condemnation, a jealous and petty punisher of humankind or on the opposite end, a good but ultimately benign force in the universe.

Among too many politicians and policy makers, religion is seen as a nice little quirk. Somewhat like the cultural traditions of some distant exotic land - interesting, amusing, but not really something to be taken too seriously.

In a documentary some time ago, Richard Dawkins asked - “how can God speak to a billion people at the same?” The question is frankly bizarre for a theist since it betrays a deep, deep misunderstanding of to whom the word God is referring. It is common to hear people, in a matter-of-fact fashion, that all religions believe all other religious followers are going to hell, another statement that is factually untrue and even notionally incorrect. And the British Humanist Association recently launched a campaign aimed at stopping self-identified Christians as listing themselves as ‘Christian’ since they failed to live up to the BHA’s perception of what a Christian should.

All of these show a society that in moving away from religion, has forgotten what it was in the first place.

So where does Stephen Hawking come in to it? Well, Stephen Hawking is perhaps most known by the laymen for authoring ‘A Brief History of Time’. The book successfully condensed some of the most advanced and complex scientific theories of the modern era into an easy to read paperback for popular consumption. He has since published similar books, such as The Grand Theory (which famously claimed God was ‘unnecessary’.)

Just like Stephen Hawking, religion needs authors who can convey the subtleties of religion to a wider non-specialist audience. Currently, the only author I am familiar with who successfully fills this niche is Karen Armstrong, yet more are needed.

Books on Christian theology are dense and unapproachable, the traditional Islamic texts are either written for a Muslim audience, or when written for a wider-audience, preachy and at times, patronising (notable exceptions are the biographies of the Prophet Muhammad produced by Lings and Salahi). How many people truly understand what ‘Hinduism’ is about beyond Diwali and sacred cows? How many non-religious people could accurately describe an Abrahamic conception of God?

And so much more importantly – is there enough understanding of the role religion plays in society today? The way it influences the human individual and then the individual in a group?

I strongly feel there isn’t.

Writers like Karen Armstrong are needed not to proselytise, but to build bridges and to cement understanding an increasingly diverse society that risks falling apart as drifts ever close to individualism and isolationism.

So religion needs a Stephen Hawking… or two.

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