Religion without God

Peter Clark, Lecturer in Zoroastrianism at Cardiff University and a member of the Cardiff SoF Group, reviews Religion without God by Ray Billington (pp 160, Routledge, 2001 ISBN: 0415217865, £12.99)

I had this book in my hand when I called at the presbytery of my church. The priest, a friend whom I admire and respect, saw the title of the book and proclaimed the idea "nonsense". You can't have a religion without God, he said. I cited Buddhism and Jainism as two faith systems that function more than adequately without recourse to a creative deity (traditions that Billington considers in this book). Is Communism therefore a religion? he countered, and so I replied that while it has some of the characteristics of a religion (bearing in mind the etymology of the word, meaning "to bind"), it lacked a sense of the numinous, which I believe to be the ground of religious feeling.

This discussion shows that to entertain the possibility of a religion without "God" is a major problem for many (I would say most people who subscribe to one of the Abrahamic faiths). Indeed, when I first went to university to read Religious Studies as a devout and believing theist—believing in an interventionist, all- pervading creator simultaneously immanent and transcendent—(and having recently given up training for the RC priesthood) I simply could not get my head around the fact that Jainism does not recognise the existence of a creator, and still less the need to worship one. Also, the removal of "God", or the realisation that it is not an essential component in a faith system, might imply the lack of "worship" or indeed any form of liturgical activity (although this is not always the case). This does not necessitate the rejection of the numinous, and it could be argued that the sense of transcendence can, given certain circumstances, be enhanced when there is no God "out there" to supply the other side of the conversation.

If Jainism and Buddhism operate non-theistically (although not necessarily atheistically since "gods" or beings like them do have a place in expressions of both traditions), not all Eastern traditions are thus. The concept of deity in such systems is often blurred since it is not necessarily central to human belief or behaviour. As Billington points out early in the book, Advaita Vedanta, a school within that which we call "Hinduism", sees the union of the self (Atman) with the transcendent (Brahman) not as a supernatural event, or a "dualistically" grounded fusion of two discrete orders of being, but as the natural conclusion of human endeavour following a lifetime's (or many lifetimes') commitment to certain religious precepts and practices. All of which goes to show that the supposed Western claim of monotheism as the only valid—or at least the most sophisticated, or perfect—expression of religious belief is in need of a challenge, which is precisely what Billington sets out to do in this book.

After some necessary preliminary discussions on the nature of religion and belief, Billington gets to the heart of his subject in chapter 3, in which he discusses not so much "God" as the ideas people have held about God across the centuries and across the world (although he stays in the main with the West as his concern initially is with the monotheistic faiths). The raison d'être of the book is clearly outlined, as Billington wants to show that "while religion is fundamental to the human condition, God is not". He discusses concepts of "God" as deism, pantheism, theism, dualism and so on. He is weakest when discussing Zoroastrianism, which he upholds as the exemplary dualistic religion (or ditheistic to use an alternative term which he evidently favours). In fact the claim that Zoroastrianism acknowledges two "gods" (which ditheism certainly implies) could not be further from the truth since the evil spirit (Ahriman as he came to be known in developed Zoroastrian theology) is destined for complete destruction at the end of time; is not equal either in power or knowledge to the "Wise Lord" or supreme deity of Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda; and he is certainly not worshipped. At best we could describe this tradition (though it doesn't seem to bother many Zoroastrians) as an ethical dualism operating within an overall framework of eschatological monotheism.

Polytheism is, surprisingly, given comparatively little space—surprisingly since if Hinduism is a polytheistic system (a notion which needs to be carefully qualified, as Billington suggests), it is spread across almost the entirety of India and has found a home in most Western countries and also gave birth to Buddhism and Jainism (at roughly the same time, about 500 BCE). Other sections in this chapter consider "proofs" or "ways of demonstrating" the existence of God, calling on, of course, Aquinas as his first witness in the matter. If this all seems rather laboured and obvious to many who have studied religion for any length of time, it must be stated now that one of the strengths of Billington's book is that it can be equally appreciated as much by the non-specialist as by the professional. And of course, if Billington is going to show us that God is not a necessary component in religion he has got to show us just what that unnecessary component entails. So he is not just setting up Aunt Sallies in order to knock them down but providing very valuable groundwork for the rest of his discussion.

Is Billington being condescending when he suggests, in the next chapter ("Mysticism"), that polytheistic religions are best appreciated by the unsophisticated mind, which might be comforted by the belief that protective deities are watching over the individual's welfare or might be invoked for favours or on auspicious occasions? Is this a condemnation of, say, Hinduism, which has produced some of the most sophisticated literature (in its Vedic times we have examples such as the Rig Veda, and Upanishads, and later such masterworks as the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana), art and music the world has seen, to say nothing of its philosophical richness? Billington places such a religious tradition on what he terms to "lowest level of experience", for those who need to "visualise an idea before it can become a reality in their minds and so have an influence on their lives". I do think that he might have been a little more generous towards such traditions.

He places those who recognise one supreme creative God on a second or higher level—in other words, Jews, Christians and Muslims (though not of course the Zoroastrians, who don't figure in Billington's schema). This leads directly into the notion of "mystical experience", or the non-corporate, non-liturgical, encounter with a God, which is purely and uncompromisingly personal. Such an experience does not necessarily deny the value or need for liturgical activity, but it operates independent of it. (To return to Jainism—when in India a few years back, I saw a Jain liturgy carried out not by a Jain but by a paid Hindu pujari, basically a priest who is essentially a "technician" employed by the local Jain temple to carry out, for the benefit of the Jain laity, certain functions forbidden to the Jain religious. In this instance it seems that the "mystical" experience pursued by the Jain operates independently of the liturgical to the extent that one precludes the other.) The problem of mysticism, at its most basic, according to Billington, is that the God experienced is that which most closely resembles one's own idea of what that God should be like, and, without denying the validity of the experience it cannot be said to be a foolproof image of God that is encountered. Mysticism's objectivity is denied, and instead it is merely yet another subjective experience although one which the individual mystic believes to be objective. And yet the God of Eckhart, say, is unknowable and even Aquinas asserted that God is unknowable in his essence. Is mysticism then simply a redefinition of the Thomistic notion of the transcendence of God being beyond human comprehension—or does it take it one stage further by saying that you can glimpse or even experience the unknowable without being able to articulate what you have experienced?

The next three chapters are given over to the consideration of three major eastern traditions, which have been mentioned in passing previously in the book. They are: Advaita Vedanta (non-dualist Hinduism), Buddhism and Tao. Advaita Vedanta asserts the assimilation of the "godhead" Brahman into humanity (Atman) in that, to cite the famous Upanishadic refrain, tat tvam asi (you are that). Thus in Billington's understanding the notion of "God" becomes redundant for those who subscribe to Advaita Vedanta (although he acknowledges that there are those within the Indian system who do not make such a leap, preferring to retain a "dualistic" view of the universe in which Brahman and Atman are separate).

Buddhism, and particularly Zen Buddhism, occupies chapter 7, and once again Billington shows successfully how a religious tradition is able to sustain itself without needing to call upon or acknowledge a God. He remarks that Zen is so far removed from the original teaching of the Buddha as found in the Pali canon and thus some commentators have questioned whether it is entitled to be called a "school" of Buddhism at all; certainly it seems to have more in common with indigenous Chinese expressions of religion such as Tao which he next considers. But both classical Buddhism, exemplified in the Therevada tradition and maintained to some extent in the Mahayana, and Zen, teach that enlightenment is the supreme goal of the individual; enlightenment in this sense must mean subsumption in which the individual ceases to exist in any discernible sense. The word for enlightenment in Zen is satori, a word which means "knowledge", but knowledge on an intuitive or noetic level rather than knowledge gained by learning.

As with Buddhism in its various guises, there seem to be some differences of opinion as to what actually constitutes "Tao" in the tradition that bears that name. One school wants to suggest that the Tao can be likened to the Brahman of Hinduism, but this is compromised by the fact that the Tao, although it can be "witnessed to", can never be known and others remark that it can be equated with, say the Godhead of Eckhart, unknowable but necessary for the sustenance of the universe. In terms of mystical experience, the Tao seems to be the all-pervading (although clearly impersonal) wisdom which belongs to everyone, and not just those who would identify themselves formally with the tradition; it belongs to the Buddhist, and even to the Christian mystic, but it is not God, because Taoism does not need God (and Billington tentatively suggests that Taoism might represent a move towards a "secular spirituality").

But if mysticism and non-theistic spirituality can be found in the "established" world religions, Billington now wants, in this next chapter, to widen the field somewhat—indeed, to do away with boundaries entirely and thus he seeks to uncover religious experience (but not God-experience) in areas which are not traditionally deemed to belong to the families of world religions (but which may form part of them). The author considers "the arts", and implies that the experience or understanding of nirvana can be for one person what the experience of music is for another. As a musician myself, I can certainly identify with Billington's suggestion that a piece of music can convey one to new heights of awareness or experience, but ultimately nirvana is understood as a permanent state (as far as we are able to use human language to express the inexpressible) whereas the experience of a piece of music is a temporary one, even if the effects of the music might have far-reaching consequences for the listener's psyche. So I find it hard to agree with Cupitt, whom Billington cites with apparent approval, when he says that there is more religion in art than there is in theology. Theology is, after all, the "doing" or "acting out" of faith, whatever faith that may be. This is why Altizer was able, in the 60s, to proclaim an atheistic theology, with (most notably) his Gospel of Christian Atheism; this is why John Robinson was being honest about God as he perceived God as well as honest to God in his famous, though now surely somewhat tame, book.

One of the biggest problems to face all religions is the question of the origin of evil; it has never been totally satisfactorily solved despite the huge amount that has been written about it both by scholars and members of faith communities trying to wrestle with the matter. Equally vexatious, then, must be the problem of "good". Ultimately, Billington wants the terms written out of the religious vocabulary. The person, he argues, who is able to see beyond these ideologically loaded categories is truly liberated. In the meantime, however, I think perhaps we can content ourselves with the idea that one person's meat may well be another person's poison. It is wrong for a Jain monk to enjoy any of the benefits of creation: wine, good food, sexual relations and so on; it is equally wrong for a Zoroastrian priest not to.

The author concludes by saying that, whatever else we may think about it, religion is real. It happens and it happens to us all. It is, he wants to assert, that experience of the numinous, though not of God, because the God of history is so shadowy and unknowable it cannot "be" in any real, or relevant sense.

Billington's book is generally consistent, and although the scholarship seems spread thinly in places, this is possibly an inevitable result of his having to consider so many different religions in order to argue his case. Nevertheless, as a thought-provoking book, and one which must take its place alongside (and even supersede) some of Cupitt's earlier explorations, it is unmatched by anything I have read recently. It is remarkably readable and accessible and should be studied by anyone who cares about the future of religion. I shall certainly be recommending it to students, and particularly those who for the first time will be encountering "God-less" religions. Ray Billington, despite his stance vis-à-vis God as an objective reality, offers an optimistic glimpse of the future of religion.