A strange problem is bedevilling attempts by atheists to state their case. Not all that long ago atheists could have simply pointed out that people no longer believe in the resurrection or the incarnation (of Jesus), or no longer believe that there is a god who meddles in human affairs, and we’d be sure to gather some people into the net, and no one would have returned fire with, “Well, really, that’s not what religious “belief” is all about,” as John Gray does in his latest piece of postmodernist chicanery over at the BBC. (Hasn’t he heard? Postmodernism is dead!) Now, whenever an atheist wants to talk about religion they will be given a thousand and one reasons why he or she simply hasn’t managed to characterise theism in a way that theists themselves will acknowledge as even coming close to what they (claim to) believe. Indeed, like Gray, they may say that religion is not really about belief at all. It’s much more important, as Gray says, how you live.
Only Gray has tried to go a bit further than people like Eagleton et co., and asks the question: Can religion tell us more than science? More about what? – one is just burning to ask. Since, as he says at the end of the piece, “What we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live,” the title of his piece is almost entirely misleading. He doesn’t think religion tells us anything. He tells the peculiar story of Graham Greene “converting” to Catholicism, but Greene, by his own admission, didn’t really “convert” to anything at all. He simply joined a gang for some inexplicable reason, perhaps having to do with the baroque worship of the Catholic Church, or perhaps because, like Somerset Maugham, as Maugham imagined, in his cranky heart, Greene thought he was returning to the religion of his ancestors, forgetting perhaps that Heraclitus’ saying about not being able to step into the same river twice applies especially to things like cultures and churches.
But the really strange thing is the idea that, by simply denying that religions like Christianity are comprised at least partly by collections, or even, as in the case of the Catholic Church, systems of belief, one has escaped criticism. If it’s not about belief, but about how you live, what are the beliefs for? As Stephen Fry pointed out emphatically at the Intelligence Squared debate on the motion, “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world” (which was lost hands down), if the Catholic Church claims to provide some kind of assured ground for morality, how come its morality simply mirrored the values of the societies it passed through? “What is it for?” Fry asked, with some impatience, if it can’t do better than that at discerning right from wrong.
And John Gray, to be brutally frank, seems to have spent twenty minutes or so making an ass of himself on the BBC, meanwhile obviously thinking that he was saying something profound. Religion is all about myths, he suggests, and then he points out, rather obliquely, to the claim that:
The idea that science can enable us to live without myths is one of these silly modern stories. There’s nothing in science that says the world can be finally understood by the human mind.
It’s not at all clear what he thinks the connexion is between the two sentences in that short paragraph. I am myself one, who, every other day, has the sense that religion perhaps contributes a kind of weight to life that science cannot provide, but whether or not it is a silly modern story that science can help us live without myths says nothing at all about whether ”the world can be finally understood by the human mind.” After all, science is the critical application of reason, so that whatever conclusions it comes to will be held tentatively, until a more complete understanding, if that is possible, is discovered, and perhaps, in the absence of myths, this open-ended story is perhaps the best place for most of us to begin the project of living, knowing that myths are just stories, and that science, while it doesn’t know everything, is an ongoing search for knowledge, and that knowledge is probably the best basis upon which to live a life, if it is to be lived well. Besides, what does he mean by the idea that myths “enable us to live”? What can this possibly mean? I sometimes have the concern that, without the mythological, without that sense of something beyond, ordinary people will find life shallow and uninteresting. As Marx says about religion, it is the spirit of the spiritless situation, and sometimes it seems to me that the illusions of religion are necessary for some people to see their lives as somehow valuable or deeper than the daily routine of going to work, coming home, buying stuff, and living lives of quiet desperation can provide. I’m not at all sure that’s true, but it is not at all clear what Gray means by myths enabling us to live either.
I do think, though, that the one thing that atheists do have to get a hold of, so that they have something to offer to people, is death, and what death means for living our individual lives fully, and how best to live our lives in the knowledge that we will die. That seems to me to be a vital issue that disbelievers need to contend with. For myself, as I have said before, it was a transformative relationship with a remarkable woman that made my life meaningful and purposeful at all, much more meaningful and purposeful than myths could ever have made it, and that, in itself, gave such weight to my life that death itself seems to be a pretty small concern. And that may, indeed, be how it is for others, and that the chief meaning is to be found in some kind of vivifying relationship.
Perhaps, after all, that’s what Gray means when he talks about myth:
Myths aren’t relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They’re stories that tell us something about ourselves that can’t be captured in scientific theories.
Just as you don’t have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don’t have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.
Myths can’t be verified or falsified in the way theories can be. But they can be more or less truthful to human experience, and I’ve no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself.
But this is simply confusion. Believing that love is true is necessary if that love is going to transform your life. If you thought that the love wasn’t truly real, it couldn’t transform life, because the uncertainty would eat away at the foundations of the relationship. The same thing, I think, applies to myths. People may not have to believe them, in one sense, in order for them to be transformative. For example, it may not be necessary to believe, as a matter of historical fact, that Jesus rose from the dead, in order for the story of the resurrection to play a transformative role in one’s life; but if the myth is not true in some sense, then it is just a story. Myths function because at some level they are held to be true. Fundamentalists, because they can’t see how the myths can be true in a world in which we know too much, tend to suppress what they really do know (or at least might know) in order to retain the truth of the myth, so that it can do its work of transformation in their lives.
Take the recent shenanigans over Adam and Eve. Now, from some points of view, the Adam and Eve story can be just a myth, simply a way of showing how men and women will always fail in their moral lives and fall short of the good. And, against the backdrop of this story, it is still possible for people to live through the story of Jesus’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, in such a way that it is spiritually transformative. Eastern Orthodox Christians, who never made as much as Augustine did of the idea of “original sin” (as a specific historical moment, when human life was transformed from its god-given beauty and wholeness, to a state of sin and death, deserving only condemnation), can still think of the story as a mythical retelling of the essential nature of being human which requires some kind of intervention by God in order to provide the basis for the godlikeness of which we are capable. On this understanding of the story as myth, we were created as we are, and need the incarnation, resurrection, and apotheosis of Jesus to underwrite the theosis (the becoming godlike) of which we are inherently capable, and the only thing that can’t be only myth, on this account, has to do with incarnation and resurrection. At some point the myth has to touch down in reality, or it simply can’t perform its transforming — or in this case, redeeming — work. Myth alone can’t do this. And no matter how much Gray thinks he has provided a buffer between myth and science, he can’t keep the characters of the myth from striding out of the story right into everyday reality without emptying myth of is power.
Of course, some people will here advert to ”believers” like Jack Spong or Don Cupitt as examples of believers who have managed to keep the faith in spite of their conviction that none of the myths touch down in reality. But if the believer takes comfort in this then he has already given up any claim that he might have had to the title of believer. Cupitt knows this. As he says in one of his later books, The Old Creed and the New, he no longer calls himself a Christian, because he is simply not prepared to get bogged down in the game of trying to prove that he is orthodox, which he considers a completely pointless exercise.
That the details of belief are still important was recently revealed, rather humourously, though not, I suspect, for the government adjudicator involved, in the case of an immigrant from China to Canada who claimed refugee status on the grounds that, as a convert to Catholicism, he would be in some danger were he to be deported to China. But “Ms. Andrachuk, an Immigration & Refugee Board adjudicator,” as the National Post reports, was not convinced, so she put the new Catholic through his paces by asking him a number of questions about his Catholic beliefs, and, when he failed to answer a crucial question — one about what becomes of the bread and wine in the Eucharist when consecrated by the priest — she concluded that he was just using his claimed conversion as a ruse to allow him to stay in Canada. Mirabile dictu, the would-be refugee thought the bread and wine represented the symbolic presence of Jesus. He did not know that Catholics believe that the substance of the bread and wine are actually, and miraculously, transformed into the real body and blood of Christ. Ms Andrachuk’s conclusion?
“I find, on a balance of probabilities, that the claimant is not and never was a genuine practicing Roman Catholic,” she wrote.
“I find that the claimant’s level of knowledge of the Catholic faith is not commensurate with someone who has been a Roman Catholic for three years.”
Alas for Ms. Andrachuk, however. Many lifetime Catholics make the same mistake. According to the National Post report on the story:
A poll conducted last year by the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a secular firm, found 45% of U.S. Catholics believed the bread and wine were mere symbols.
Father Tom Rosica, a Toronto-based Catholic educator, was not surprised by the results.
“It is an indication of terrible education and confusion among our people,” he said at the time.
“… an indication of terrible education and confusion among our people.” That they didn’t know that every time the Eucharist is celebrated an actual miracle is performed before their very eyes!
Does this show that Roman Catholics in the United States are the victims of a poor religious education? It might seem so, but it could just as easily be that it is simply impossible to convince people that a veritable miracle takes place at every mass. But what it does not show, despite John Gray’s rather dismissive comments about science, is that myth doesn’t need to be true in order to be effective in transforming people’s lives. Belief is still important. In fact, it is central to the religious project — and certainly to the religious projects of the great monotheisms. It’s difficult to keep large numbers of people up to date on what the churches teach. Like most people, when it comes to reading and study, religious people are just as lazy as their disbelieving cousins (although the latter tend to know more about religion than believers), but this doesn’t mean that belief isn’t important. The truth is that most people take their beliefs on authority, and think that accepting that the church knows what their beliefs are is enough to qualify them as believers if they adhere to the church and its teachings (whatever these are). I cannot count the times when parishioners have asked me, “What do we believe?” If they didn’t know that the bread and wine were believed actually to become flesh and blood, that’s not because that belief is not important, but because they simply accept the beliefs of the church, as the church teaches them, but may not know, in specific cases, what those beliefs actually are.
John Gray thinks that, if belief were important to religious believers, believers would be able to give a detailed explication of the beliefs that they hold. But religious belief doesn’t function this way. Amongst fundamentalists, for example, it is of the greatest importance that they believe what the Bible teaches, since the Bible is the inerrant word of God. But the Bible teaches practically anything, if you’re inventive enough with your interpretation. So, at any given moment, the beliefs of fundamentalists will be all over the map. But this doesn’t show that beliefs are unimportant to them. It just means that their beliefs are sometimes wrong. If they are corrected by someone whom they regard as an authority, they will change their beliefs in a trice. And while this seems to make belief a fairly unstable stew of beliefs, half-beliefs, mistaken beliefs, and uncertain beliefs, nothing about the way the beliefs are held makes them unimportant for believers. The archbishop of Canterbury, in an interview with Richard Dawkins, found it almost impossible to express what he believed about the resurrection of Jesus, but this didn’t make belief in the resurrection any the less important for him. It just made the belief less determinate than one might have expected from so highly placed a leader in the church, one who had actually taught theology at Oxford. And this is just what one would expect, given that religious beliefs are about things that are not confirmable either by empirical evidence, or by their unequivocal expression in some authoritative source. What has happened, despite people like Gray and Eagleton, who, though apparently unbelievers themselves, want to buffer religion from its cultured despisers, is that religious belief simply has become more uncertain as science has invaded territory once the exclusive possession of theologians. But this hasn’t, as Gray claims, made belief less important, it has actually made it much more important, even as it makes it less certain and explicit. For, without the beliefs, the myths become simply stories, and stories are not enough for religions to be going on with, otherwise reading a novel would be sufficient to make a believer.