The article by Julian Baggini disucssed in yesterday’s blog post was a reply of sorts to this article by Madeleine Bunting. She starts with some encouraging words:
This is Holy Week. It started yesterday with Palm Sunday and continues through Holy Thursday, Good Friday and culminates this Sunday with Easter Day. One can no longer assume most people will be aware of this, let alone the events these days mark; in a recent UK poll, only 22% could identify what Easter was celebrating. What other system of belief has collapsed at such spectacular speed as British Christianity? One can only presume that the New Atheists are organising a fabulous party to celebrate. Richard Dawkins could stump up for the crates of champagne out of his sumptuous royalties from The God Delusion.
England sounds cool. Would that she were describing the situation here in the States.
But I’m curious as to how many of the country’s finest minds would join the celebrations. Increasingly, one hears a distaste for the polemics of the New Atheist debate and its foghorn volume, and how it has drowned out any other kind of conversation about religion: what it is, the loss of it, whether it matters, and what happens in a post-religious society? From sometimes surprising quarters there is an anxiety about the evangelical fervour and certainty of the New Atheists: they are so sure they are right, but there are plenty of people – and many of them would not count themselves as believers – who can’t share their contempt for religion.
I have no doubt that the sort of person from whom Bunting hears is dismayed by the New Atheist books. I wonder, though, how representative a sample that is.
The headline of Bunting’s article is, “Real debates about faith are drowned by the New Atheists’ foghorn voices.” The implication is that the New Atheists are engaging in fake debates. We hear about “other conversations” we are supposed to be having. She seems to be writing from the perspective of one who regards it as obvious that the fact claims of religion have little merit.
The fact remains that a great many religious people take their dogmas very seriously indeed. Dawkins et al are perfectly correct in addressing themselves to that issue, and to the even more important issue of the negative effects to society of being too solicitous towards such belief. Bunting is free to hang out with whomever she fancies to be the nation’s finest minds and to wring her hands over whether anything of value remains in religion once its empirical content has been removed. I would invite her, though, to spend some time in Kansas or Oklahoma before dismissing the more mundane concerns of the New Atheists as engaging in fake debates.
Skipping ahead a bit:
What many argue is that the New Atheist debate has ended up down an intellectual dead end; there are only so many times you can argue that religion is a load of baloney. Ask a philosopher like John Gray or a historian of religion like Karen Armstrong and they are simply not interested in the debate; they bin the invitations to speak on platforms alongside New Atheists. Gray dismisses them as offering “intoxicating simplicity”; Armstrong is appalled by their “display of egotism and arrogance”. Both are deeply frustrated by a debate inflated by the media that generates heat but no light. They see the New Atheists mirroring a particular strain of fundamentalist Christianity with no knowledge of the vast variety of other forms of religious faith. In common with their Christian opponents, they share “the inner glow of complete certainty” – as Wilson describes his atheist conversion.
Dawkins et al are perfectly aware that there are many forms of religious belief, including those forms that are not centered around a collection of fact claims about the natural world. If those other forms were dominant among religious people generally there would be no reason for them to write polemically. But they are not. It is people like Bunting who are addressing a fringe sort of religion, while Dawkins et al are confronting the more mainstream form.
Meanwhile, all of the New Atheists and especially Hitchens and Harris have shown themselves perfectly willing to discuss religion with anyone who is interested. Having watched some of these debates I can tell you they are always polite and civil towards their interlocutors and make no attempt to shout anyone down or cut anyone off. If Armstrong and the others feel they have a take on religion that is poorly represented in modern discourse, then perhaps they should stop binning those invitations to sit on panels with people who do not share their views. If she is consistently turning down invitations, then I would say she deserves much of the blame for the fact that her views are not well represented in public discourse.
Armstrong and Gray converge again on where they pinpoint the key mistake. Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths. What “belief” used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of “love”, “commitment”, “loyalty”: saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles. Faith is something you do, and you learn by practice not by studying a manual, argues Armstrong.
Has Armstrong not heard of the Nicene Creed? It is perhaps the oldest clear statement of the essentials of the Christian faith, and it remains, in various forms, the basis for most versions of modern Christianity. It is a set of propositions, pure and simple. There is nothing in it about committment or loyalty. I don’t know how Armstrong formed her conclusions about what faith is “supposed to be.”
I am sympathetic to the view that religion is about ties to your community, with the rituals representing visible evidence of your membership in that community. In a recent eight day period I participated in two Passover seders and a Bar Mitzvah, and enjoyed all three of them. I don’t believe for a second that God afflicted Egypt with ten plagues or parted the Red Sea so that my ancestors could make their escape. But the ritual has some meaning for me nonetheless.
If we evovle to the point where most people view religion in that way then I will be happy to engage in the more high-falutin arguments Armstrong seems to prefer. Until that time I prefer to inhabit the real world. And in that world far too many people do not share Armstrong’s view of what faith is supposed to be.
A few paragraphs later we come to a prime example of the gibberish so beloved of liberal theology:
It’s a perspective that Gray shares. Describing himself as a sceptic, he looks to another border of belief for deeper insight into the nature of faith: the dialogue between the theistic and non-theistic. Intriguingly, where Gray, Armstrong and Vernon all end up is with the apophatic tradition of theology. Apophatic is a word no longer even in my dictionary, but it’s a major tradition of Christian thought, and central to the thinking of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: it is the idea that God is ineffable and beyond powers of description. S/he can be experienced by religious practice, but as Armstrong puts it: “In the past, people knew we could say nothing about God. Certain forms of knowledge only come with practice.” It makes the boundary between belief in God and agnosticism much more porous than commonly assumed.
But the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe. He was turned into an old man in the sky with a long white beard or promoted as a cuddly friend named Jesus. Arguing about the existence of such human creations is akin to the medieval pastime of calculating how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.
Pure twaddle. People of a bygone age knew we could say nothing about God? I’d say all those people throughout history declaring the Bible or the Koran to be infallible thought they could say something about God. The seemingly endless flood of people engaging in religion-inspired violence thought they knew something about God. Augustine and Aquinas had plenty to say about God’s attributes and about what He wanted from humanity. Armstrong is talking through her hat.
I don’t know what it means to refer to God as a she, describe her as something that can be experienced by religious practice, and then turn around and say that God’s existence is not a proposition in which you believe or disbelieve. And what sort of knowledge do we gain access to by religious practice? I really hate this sort of argle-bargle.
The article meanders to a close with one more paragraph. Bunting is concerned that when the old, false myths die their well-deserved death, people are left floundering in a sea of meaninglessness and nihilism. I see no evidence that that is the case, and Bunting, at any rate, provides no inkling of a solution to the problem. Personally, I will worry about people’s existential crises after we have followed England’s example and have relegated traditional religion to the margins of society. Until then I will worry more about the bizarre religious beliefs of those less sophisticated than Armstrong.