Most people living in irreligious Britain will have noticed the adverts (and they are adverts!) asking the passer by ‘Got questions about life?’ or similar. They are, of course, for the Alpha course which depends on the Christian religion being able to answer those questions. Yet it is no accident that such posters appear in a country which, according to a recent survey, now has a majority describing themselves as having no religion.
Without planning or deliberation the British have embarked on what Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, claims as a unique experiment in 40,000 years of human history, namely, living as a society without an agreed narrative of our communal place in the cosmos and in time. Whatever humanists or secularists may say, this is a challenge on two different levels. On the personal level, for many people (including many educated people) it is hard to get along without feeling they have been allocated a ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’ for their lives from some outside agency. It can be pointed out that to call the outside agency God is only to push the question of meaning back one stage, and add the worry about God managing to give us agency at the same time – including to behave in abominable ways at times – but like all criticism that does not help the desire for the ‘positive’. Then on the social level, there is the old chestnut about keeping morality and community without religious sanction, which really amounts to worrying how we get other people to behave well if they don’t believe God told them to. (In fact badly behaved people usually seem to behave badly anyway, as we see from just looking around or from history, but again the same point about criticism – or ‘critique’ – applies). So we’re back with those questions about life again.
Without a religious faith I have to accept the scientific view that the cosmos has no agency and therefore cannot care what we do or think. But we have agency and so we do care. That suggests we can develop meaning and purpose for ourselves, including as a society which means taking account of other people. A humble place but the best we can do. Which leads to specific questions we can, and should, ask ourselves. Try this question set, for example:
I don’t know the answers to these questions – if I did you’d never hear the end of me. But people in general are going to answer them, or maybe leave the answers to the Silicon Valley corporations?