Religion is traditionally interpreted in terms of literalism, doctrine, dogma, and institution, with ethics as a supplementary and often much weaker interpretation. It is therefore about what you believe, which in turn qualifies you to belong, and, less strongly about how you behave.
Literalism takes the religious text, insists on its literal truth, and derives claimed truth statements from it. Thus we are to believe that God exists, that he created the world, that Christ performed miracles and rose from the dead, that all the events in the text actually happened. These are the claimed facts of religious belief. It is a requirement of ‘faith’ that the text is taken literally, and is deemed authoritative. It’s not clear though that such ‘fact’ statements have any implication even if they were true.
Doctrine and dogma again take the same religious text, but now derive interpretations. These become quite complex and convoluted. You no longer simply have to believe claimed historic fact, but assent to doctrinal interpretation and idea claimed to be meant by the text. In Christianity, these doctrines are expressed in the ‘Creed’. Agreement with God as creator, the virgin birth of Christ, the divinity of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, a final judgment, the work of the Holy Spirit, Christian baptism for the forgiveness of sins, is required, and this statement is made in weekly church services. Complex schemes of personal salvation are added and made into a strict requirement of Christian ‘faith’, although it’s not clear what the difference between belief and faith is in these schemes. Such creeds and statements of doctrinal belief are far more codified, explicit and demanding than the original religious text. But they are binding.
This is all wrapped up in the strong institution of the church. There can be no doubting for example the determination and powerful influence of the evangelical lobby in the Church of England. So, being a Christian apparently requires you to believe claimed truth statements, assent to derived doctrines, experience the personal salvation they prescribe, and belong to, and even to obey, the church.
Increasing numbers of people have found themselves unable to agree with any of these definitions of religion. Many people are atheist, believing neither claimed truth statements, nor doctrinal interpretations, and so cannot with integrity join a church which makes these the fundamentals of its religion.
These interpretations are however neither the only nor the most convincing interpretation of religion. They certainly lead to the exclusion of many people with integrity from such strictly delineated religion.
An alternative set of premises is that the religious text is allegorical rather than necessarily literal, that ethical meaning is the stronger interpretation than doctrine, and that religion finds its birth and being in the human person and not in an imposing institution. In all these ways, religion is rendered apparently weaker, but in fact, becomes far stronger. It is also more inclusive. Literal interpretations are insignificant. It doesn’t matter whether Cain and Abel really existed – it does matter how we deal with sibling rivalry. The virgin birth is an insistence without consequence. The doctrine of the Trinity is a complexity beyond comprehension.
However, a glance at the discourses of Christ shows that the vast majority of what he said was parable with moral challenge, not doctrine. How can a church named after him reverse this emphasis? Many other parts of the religious text offer no doctrinal interpretation at all, and so only have any significance if interpreted as myth with meaning. It is this interpretation of religion which forms the inspiration for other posts in this section of ‘Atheist Spirituality’.
Looked at this way, religion does become more widely accessible, including to an atheist perspective. The bifurcation of western society into a creedal, doctrinal, and institutional church vs an atheist, unbelieving and unconnected secular culture is a great loss to both sides. Some synthesis is possible, and would bring a much needed added dimension to the social whole. It requires a re-interpretation of religion which powerful institutional interests oppose. But since such a fresh interpretation of religion is proposed with a personal rather than an institutional locus, the reluctance of the institution is no great obstacle to its organic development.