How do humans live meaningful lives in secular societies? Do they need religion, or will some notion of spirituality and the numinous suffice, if it’s even needed at all?
These questions are central to Hugh Mackay’s new book, Beyond Belief.
The respected psychologist, social researcher and writer addressed these questions in front of a capacity crowd for his Author Talk at Castle Hill Library on Wednesday.
Finding the meaning of life is by now something of a cliché of philosophy, and from the outset Mr Mackay rejects the idea.
“Human life means nothing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth living,” he said. “I’m not at all concerned with finding the ‘capital M’ meaning of life.
“I am far more concerned, though, with finding meaning within our lives.”
Hugh Mackay’s diverse background of study is evident as he skips effortlessly between philosophy, sociology and theology. He believes that religion’s origins and continued existence relies on it soothing our most fundamental human anxieties.
“Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human mind in its endless quest for answers,” he said. “This sense of an impenetrable mystery at the heart of our existence explains our existential angst.”
This angst is what he believes draws people to try to find meaning within their lives, often resulting in religious adherence.
But, in spite of this, people across the Western world have turned away from organised religion in recent decades.
“There are people who say this doesn’t have very much to do with my life,” Mr Mackay said. The perception that organised churches are out of touch with modern life is also a major factor in declining religious participation.
“There are many women who say, I don’t think they’ve heard about the gender revolution. I don’t think they understand about equal opportunity, I don’t think they understand that female leadership is as acceptable as male leadership,” he said.
However, according to Mackay, the central reason for society’s abandonment of organised religion is the irreconcilability between dogma and reason.
“There is something that has turned off people in the contemporary world more than anything else – and that is the expectation that they should believe things that they just can’t believe,” he said.
“There are certain bits of dogma and church doctrine of prescribed beliefs to which people say, that would collide with my sense of reason; I couldn’t sign up to that even though I am very interested in the fundamental teachings of Christian faith.”
While many people have historically sought existential refuge in religion, Mackay argues there is an emerging trend for informal spirituality. In separating spirituality from the problematic nature of institutions, people find exploring the idea of the numinous more accessible and palatable.
“In researching for this book, I was speaking to a young man about his post-doctoral research. Early in the conversation he said, ‘By the way I’m SBNR.’ I said ‘Sorry, what’s that?’ to which he replied ‘Spiritual but not religious’.”
“So I went home and Googled it and of course there’s a website; millions of people around the world identify as SBNR. Their slogan is Love is the Answer, You are the Question – which is just the kind of thing you’d expect to see out the front of the Castle Hill Uniting Church.”
Hugh Mackay believes there are underlying commonalities in every human’s quest for meaning. “I think there is a soft revolution in the Western world, people are thinking very differently about spirituality and their existence. They are, as it were, moving beyond belief,” he said.
“What seems to lie just under the surface is a common ground between all people who want to do good in the world.”
Mackay identifies the fundamentally human desires of belonging, storytelling and having faith as essentially the same yearning for meaning.
“The discipline of attending church is hugely beneficial for some people; it’s somewhere for them to belong.”
The power of storytelling for Mackay is not in the truth of the story itself, but rather the underlying truth that can be found within the message. The most important stories are those that have timeless lessons to impart, such as the importance of kindness, compassion and empathy.
“When you read parables like the Sermon on the Mount you’re being asked to believe absolutely nothing, it is entirely about how you should act.”
While Mackay charted a meandering course through the nuances of faith, spirituality, and meaning, he ended with a succinct message: “When you write a book, the experience always changes you. And this book has changed me more than others.
“The main change is that now I’m not remotely interested in what you believe,” he said. “I’m not dismissing your beliefs, I respect them, but I’m not interested. All I’m interested in is what you’re doing to make the world a better place.”