Yesterday (2 May 2011) Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse published a short review of Mary Warnock’s Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion out of Politics, and announced that a review will be published in the upcoming issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine. This is good news, since this is an important, if somewhat confusing, book, and I was glad that I was not alone in being confused by it, including the title. The book is mainly about the role that religion played in the British House of Lords in defeating bills having to do with medical ethics. The focus of my own interest is on issues concerning assistance in dying, but Mary Warnock was also the chairperson of the House of Lords Select Committee which reported on the ethics of stem cell research.
The confusing part is the role that Warnock gives to religion. In fact, after describing in some detail the destructive role that the bench of bishops in the House of Lords played in the defeat of Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, it is strange to see the vigour with which she maintains the importance of the role of religion in society. The last words in the book urge us to do “all we can to fend off the forces of theocracy.” (166) Throughout the book, in different registers, Warnock acknowledges that morality does not come from religion, and is not dependent on it. She objects, for instance, to the “conflation of religion and morality, and the habit of according moral authority to the declarations of religious leaders,” (109) suggesting that it was this which led to the defeat of the assisted dying bill. She goes on to speak of secular morality as not just a leftover from the past, even though, in the past, Christianity dominated ethical thinking (113). Indeed, she says clearly that
Ethics need not return to the past in order to come back to life.
I heartily agree — yet, if this is true, surely religion plays only a small part, and an inessential one at that, in providing support for morality and the law which derives from it.
As Warnock points out, “there are many people for whom religion means nothing at all.” (94) It is a disservice to society to base morality and law on religion, because the end result of this would be that for those for whom religion is simply mumbo-jumbo such laws will have not significant justification. For such people:
Religion and morality are together one big fairy tale. Those who profess religious faith, and those of the clergy who are unable to discuss moral issues without reference to God, do a great disservice to society, insofar as they prevent moral questions being taken seriously except by those who share their own beliefs. 
This is quite evident in the contemporary movement in support of assistance in dying. The old consensus regarding suicide and euthanasia has broken down in many places, and it is only religious belief which can keep the old prohibitions in place. Of course, the religious, and, in particular, the Roman Catholic Church, field enormous campaigns to maintain these ancient superstitions regarding assistance in dying, but the law is being widely ignored, and every day seems to bring new cases where people have in fact “taken the law into their own hands” and helped loved ones die when suffering has become too great. Many of these cases are brought to trial, and in most of these cases juries are reluctant to convict, for the simple reason that helping suffering people to die is widely seen as the exercise of compassion and respect for human dignity.
So why does Warnock think that it is important to preserve religion, and that the loss of religion would be so disastrous? In Chapter 5 of her book she seeks to answer the question: “So is religion also, and separately, necessary to human society?” (125) The answer she gives is not ringingly clear, but seems to be a qualified yes. So, what is so important about religion that it cannot be surrendered without loss to society?
The first thing to notice is that Warnock is, as she says, particularly concerned about the Christian tradition. (130) However, she acknowledges that religions are themselves human constructs (128). Since she speaks in the same way about morality, it is not altogether clear what she means by this. In the sense in which she speaks of it, all human knowledge is a human construct, since,
… if there had been no human beings on earth, no one to raise questions about how they came to be there, or how they can save themselves from danger or put up with the inevitability of death, there would have been no religion. [loc. cit.]
But there would have been no science or mathematics either, no biology, physics, chemistry, geology, and so on. So, this does not really pick out anything unique about religion, and when she carries on, from this point, to discuss biblical history, and the development of the concept of one god, and stresses the importance of “the imaginative and cohesive power of the monotheistic religions,” (130) it is not really clear what she has in mind. In what way does the developmental history of the monotheistic religions provide a basis for arguing for their special value to contemporary society?
Warnock spends some time discussing the twentieth century process known as the demythologisation of the Bible, though she thinks this is a confusing label for the process (133). What demythologisation did was to represent the myths of the Bible as expressing the truth about humanity in imaginative terms by reducing myth to story. In other words, it refused to read the myths as reports of actual occurrences. As Warnock points out, the process came to an abrupt end with the resurrection of Jesus. Demythologisation did not reach that far (“We were not allowed to treat it as myth,” Warnock states ), and this should have made it clear to her why the word ‘demythologisation’ was apt. Rudolf Bultmann, for example, whom she mentions in passing on page 133, thinks of the gospel myth, or kerygma, as he called it, as expressing, in a mythological way, existential truths about human being, and, as such, of continuing significance even in the modern age, and it is not clear that the resurrection survives Bultmann’s Entmythologisierung. Of course, it meant, as Warnock points out, that “the fundamentalist standpoint [was] patently untenable,” and something “to be embraced only by cranks and fanatics.” (133) The gathering in Rome of hundreds of thousands of devotees to celebrate the beatification of Pope John Paul II is evidence that cranks and fanatics comprise a large proportion of believers. Just the spectacle of a well-known theologian, co-editor of the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, defending genocide, and organisations like Biologos or the Templeton Foundation, are clear indications that the demythologisation of the mid-twentieth century is quickly becoming a memory.
Warnock suggests that
… the more intelligent clergy are somehow deceiving their congregations, allowing them to suppose that they believe something that they do not believe, an uncomfortable position for them to accept. 
That this is doubtless true is shown by some of the research done by Daniel Dennett and colleagues on the phenomenon of disbelieving clergy. Whether it is a silent majority or not is hard to say, but increasingly (in my view) believers are being encouraged to believe that religion does in fact speak with authority about an unseen world and its relationship to our own — which may possibly force more clergy into an ambiguous relationship with the truth. Liberal religion is exceptionally unstable, since it works at cross purposes to traditional beliefs. The judicatories of even the mainline denominations must not alienate their largest and most faithful base, which is composed, largely, of simple believers, who find academic theology both too subtle, as well as unrelated to sacred scripture and liturgy as these pertain to their lives.
In the end, Warnock seems to think that religion functions best as story. “[I]t is,” she says, “the persistence of the Romantic ideal that gives life to religion.” (151) In this connexion she tells the story of Ruth Rendell (Baroness Rendell of Blabergh), who lost her faith, “and lamented the loss of the pleasure she used to get from attending morning service and hearing ‘the most beautiful prose ever written in the English language’.” Like Thomas Hardy, and perhaps Martin Rees, she is a “churchy” atheist. What forced Rendell to give up her belief was “her inability to believe in a benevolent but omnipotent God,” and she quotes Darwin on the Ichneumonidae. Warnock goes on with these words:
What neither [Darwin], nor [Rendell], could accept in its place was the ‘noumenal’ or Romantic view of religion, where literal truth is not sought, and within which there may well be no place, even metaphorically, for any such creative God, whether his intents are thought good or bad. The religious imagination, it seems to me, has no need of such a God. 
Warnock explores the imaginative possibilities of religion for a few pages, suggesting, for instance, that it is a way in which
… we may, through our sensory experience, glimpse something else, something that all human beings aspire to, something that is secure, beyond time and change. 
While I can understand the longing, I cannot understand the solution. Like Heraclitus, I believe we must accept time and change, and find within it the only security, temporary as it may be, that there is to be found. Anything else is nostalgia, and I think that Warnock’s nostalgia for a Britain that is fast disappearing, a Britain of cathedrals and parish churches, of beautiful liturgy, and an imagined past of cultural stability, is what drives her religious ideal. A glance around the world should convince her, I believe, that this is no longer an option, no matter how precious the memories are. This is not how religion functions in the world today. The Romantic ideal of religion is past. Now religions are “duking it out” in real time, and it is no longer the civilised theologies of liberal Anglicanism, represented by figures such as Maurice Wiles, Don Cupitt, David Jenkins, Richard Holloway or Jack Spong, that are living options for the religious, but something much more primal and visceral and unforgiving. The old certainties are reviving again, ancient texts are, despite having been discredited as authoritative sources by modern critical study, asserting their old authority, blindly leading the blind. Warnock continues to hold that, though not necessary, religion may still be good, and may provide the imaginative resources to deal with the insecurities and vagaries of life, its major turning points, and its inevitable end in death. Where religion does harm, as in the idiotic stance of the Roman Catholic Church on contraception, or its doctrinaire stand on matters such as the absolute prohibition of abortion or assisted dying, or belief in the grave disorder of homosexuality, it is not, says Warnock, religion that is to blame. Rather, it is
… the belief that religion can provide unassailable moral truth, and, above all, that it has the authority to enforce what morality dictates. This is what does the damage, and has always done so. 
Yet it is simply not clear that the distinction can be made between religious stories and their moral implications, between religious institutions and their claimed authority over the lives of believers. Warnock is right to warn us about the dangers of theocracy, for those dangers are daily made evident wherever religion is strong and organised; and while she may find liberal Anglicanism both aesthetically pleasing and existentially satisfying, this kind of religion is bound to remain a minority pursuit. Believing that we can in fact reduce all religion to this happy state is just a Romantic dream. It will never satisfy those for whom religion is central to the project of living a godly, as opposed to a human, life. Such religion may in fact provide imaginative and aesthetic resources for living a fuller human life, but it will never, in my view, be the majority of expression of any religion, and, as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins have pointed out, support for this form of religious believing inevitably gives comfort to the fanatics and cranks, who are shameless enough to use Darwin’s and Einstein’s studied ambiguity about religion as support for the most egregious forms of literal faith.