I know that Julian Baggini’s latest Guardian piece on the relationship between science and religion — see “Religion’s truce with science can’t hold” – is not, as such, about the new atheism. But since he began his critique of the new atheism in such a pugnacious way (see “The New Atheist Movement is destructive” in the Norwegian freethinker’s magazine Fritanke), where he set out his opposition to the new atheism after saying that their books had nothing new to teach him, so he didn’t bother to read them, it seems worthwhile interpreting what he has to say about the truce between religion and science in this context. As he said in his opening attack on the new atheism:
Not reading The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith is perfectly reasonable. Why on earth would I devote precious reading hours to books which largely tell me what I already believe? These books are surely mainly for agnostics and open-minded believers. In fact, I think atheists who have read these books have more of a responsibility to account for their actions than I do my inaction.
I wonder if he has changed his mind, and has bothered at least to gloss the texts whose attitude towards belief and believers he considered so retrograde that he could say things like this: “The new atheism has also, I think, created an unhelpful climate for atheism to flourish.” Let’s complete that paragraph:
The new atheism has also, I think, created an unhelpful climate for atheism to flourish. When people think of atheists now, they think about men who look only to science for answers, are dismissive of religion and over-confident in their own rightness. Richard Dawkins, for example, presented a television programme on religion called The Root of all Evil and has as his website slogan “A clear thinking oasis”. Where is the balance and modesty in such rhetoric?
But he hasn’t shown that Dawkins is immodest or over-confident, and since he hadn’t at that point read the book (by his own admission), he was scarcely qualified to say that he is. Add to this the fact that ”The Root of all Evil?” not only had a question mark, but was also a title not chosen by Dawkins himself, and that in the programme Dawkins was, while giving good reasons for thinking that religion was a problem, gentle and respectful towards believers themselves (and far more forbearing that I would have been), if not towards their beliefs; and it might justly seem that Dawkins’ balance and modesty were not so obviously lacking as Baggini suggests; nor should Baggini’s confidence have been bought so cheaply.
So we must now ask whether Baggini hasn’t painted himself into a corner, for now it is he who is telling us that the relationship between science and religion — the truce, as he calls it — simply can’t last. Dawkins was saying this and slightly more five years ago when The God Delusion appeared. There can’t be a truce, said Dawkins, because there is no substantive content in religion with which to negotiate. What does religion say that science must take into consideration? The assumption that religion and science are scrapping over the same things assumes that religion has something that science should take cognisance of and doesn’t. But what could that be?
In the latest in his series of Guardian CiF pieces, which began on the 1st October with “Heathen’s Progress, part one: stalemate,” (which I commented on at the time), entitled, this time, “How not to be a dogmatic fundamentalist,” he suggests that “[i]t’s not how strong our views are, or how vigorously we defend them, but how open we are to others changing our mind,” that really counts. And that may indeed be true, but the question has to be asked, when it is a matter of dispute between science and religion, just what this might mean. After all, religion, with no firm ground upon which to base its beliefs, is, in competition with science, as Baggini himself says, going to lose. As he puts it so plainly — one might even say, dogmatically:
The less comfortable wet fish slapped around the face is that how easily science and religion can rub on together depends very much on what kind of religion we’re talking about. If it is a kind that seeks to explain the hows of the universe, or ends up doing so by stealth, then it is competing with science. In such contests science always wins, hands down, and the only way out is to claim a priority for faith over evidence, or the Bible over the lab.
And of course that is just what religious believers like Albert Mohler, Denis Alexander, Alister McGrath, and so many others do, which explains why the new atheism has been so withering about religion’s claim to go one better than science, and to answer the why questions, which so often turn out to be lightly camouflaged how questions.
And this, of course, is just the problem, and has been all along. Baggini says, innocently pretending that he hasn’t just dropped a bomb in the middle of the sanctuary:
If it is of a kind that doesn’t attempt to explain the hows of the universe, then it has to be very careful not to make any claims that end up doing just that. Only then can the science v religion debate move on, free from the illusion that it rests on one question with one answer.
However, if one thing has become clear in all the to-and-froing between religion and the new atheism over the last five years or so, it is the fact that religion can’t give up on the hows of the universe, since, from the religious point of view, the hows just are answered in terms of whys. Take the whole idea of evolution and the role that a god might have to play in it. As it stands, there is no room for god at all. The process is self-contained, and functions without cette hypothèse la. We are, it seems, quite clearly, the product of evolutionary forces working on the material sources of heredity over billions of years, right down to our brains and their complexity, and culture and its multiplicity. But this simply won’t do from the point of view of the religious, as Pope Karol Józef Wojtyła made very clear to the Pontifical Institute of Science. There is an ontological leap, he told the assembled scientists, from mere animals to human beings, and at some point God injects into the human DNA the necessary ingredients for the production of souls — a claim which Edward Feser has used (a bit comically) to defuse the problem of polygenism and Original Sin, since God could have chosen a primordial couple to carry these ingredients and thus (faithful to the doctrines of the Council of Trent and Pius XII’s Humani Generis) give rise to a human race burdened by sin, as, we are assured, all humans now living are by descent from this original couple.
However, by saying this kind of thing, by insisting that there must be an intrusion by religion into a realm where only scientific answers count, the pope puts himself off the reservation, and he really says all that the new atheists have been saying all along. There is no room for accommodation here, and if scientists need to be open to having their minds changed, the only thing that should change their minds is more scientific evidence, not obiter dicta by theologians. That is, in claiming to answer why questions, as when John Polkinghorne, in the example that Baggini uses in today’s article, answers the why question of fine tuning “by saying that the life-enabling laws of physics are ‘graciously provided by the creator’,” Baggini is saying that scientists cannot, at this point, simply allow their minds to be open to such prevaricating chatter, since here theologians are trespassing on turf where they don’t belong. There is no room for accommodation here. And, of course, Dawkins and Coyne and Harris and the other new atheists will wholeheartedly agree, but they’d go on to say that they’ve been saying this all along. And they’d also point out, with some justice, that, since this is what they’ve been saying all along, the claim that they are (in that oxymoronic phrase) “fundamentalist atheists” simply has no substance.
The question of revision of belief that Baggini puts at the heart of the debate between religion and science, and between religion and the new atheism, is, in many respects, a non-question. Religious doctrines are, to a great extent, depending, of course, on how spongy your hermeneutics are, fixed, and not open to change. Scientific theories are, to a great extent, depending on the amount of confirming evidence there is, likewise pretty stable, though always open to new evidence — though such evidence would have to be overwhelmingly convincing to undermine established science. But the basis of certainty in each case is entirely different. Jerry Coyne says that theology is making stuff up, and to a large extent that is true. Theology, and religious belief generally, cannot present the kind of evidence that science can. It must refer to subjective experience, on the one hand, with all the difficulty that subjective experience presents for any attempt to establish that it is experience of an objective something. The title of David Hay’s Templeton book, Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit, says it all. Where? is the immediate question that springs to mind. The second source for religious conviction, on the other hand, lies in authoritative traditions, and doctrines based upon them. But if you think of this process of forming a tradition and separating essential beliefs from inessential elements, and see this in relation to, say, Mormonism, which is still undergoing such development, it is easy to see how vulnerable this process is to ridicule. The only reason that, say, Catholicism, might be thought to be so much more “objective” and “secure” than Mormonism, is simply that the formative tradition lies in the past, and is no longer subject to close examination. But where it is, as it is by students of early Christianity like Bart Ehrman or Elaine Pagels, or historians like Charles Freeman, the tradition looks just as insecure and arbitrary as Mormonism.
And this really is the problem with Baggini’s assessment of the new atheism and its relationships with religion. He begins the second installment of his new heathenism series — “How not to be a dogmatic fundamentalist” – with this paragraph:
If there’s one thing guaranteed to irritate a new atheist it’s the accusation of being “militant” or “aggressive”. Unfortunately, it’s an irritant that they can’t avoid. To pluck out just a few examples, Booker prizewinning writer Howard Jacobson has attacked “the new aggressive form of popular atheism” saying it “lacks imagination and, worse still, it lacks curiosity.” Pope Benedict used his recent trip to Britain to condemn “atheist extremism” and “aggressive secularism”. Even atheists are in on the game: philosopher of biology Michael Ruse has regularly criticised “atheistic fundamentalists” for their “nastiness” and “near mystical veneration of the leaders”. Heck, I’ve even described some atheists as “militant” myself.
But what he doesn’t seem to notice, even here, is that by describing the new atheists as militant, Baggini simply misunderstands the relationship. Not because the new atheists make no mistakes, and may sometimes give short shrift to ideas that need to be developed further; but simply because the new atheists are, at heart,
scientists naturalists, and insist that, if religious belief is going to provide a solid basis for belief in a scientific age, it must provide evidence. It’s really as simple as that. Some people, like John Haught, accuse the new atheists of scientism, but this is simply a calumny, and undeserved. Science, as Dawkins says, is the only way to find out about the natural world, not the only way to find out about things simplicter. It may not help you find out whether a piece of art is beautiful, or whether a symphony is moving, or whether your wife or your husband really loves you, but for any substantive belief about what there is in the universe, science is going to win hands down, because, as Hawking says, it works. So art, poetry, music, architecture, and all the richness of our cultural lives is never going to be adequately accounted for by science. This is simply something that one has to immerse oneself in in order to benefit from it, as anyone who has seen Jerry Coyne’s pictures of the culinary delights that he has enjoyed in the different places he has visited, from Costa Rica to Boston to St. Petersburg, will understand.
Religion’s claims are much greater than this. Not only are they greater; there is no way to make religious claims without being dogmatic. There’s no evidence that a man such as that described in the gospels ever existed. Perhaps there was an apocalyptic preacher on which the gospel myths are based, but that the gospel Jesus ever existed is very doubtful. Myths develop with surprising rapidity, and when a community begins to gel around a myth, and attracts detractors, the process not only speeds up, but dogmatism and ideas of faithfulness, of false and true faith, of false teaching and teachers and their perfidy, quickly follow, so that insiders and outsiders can be easily identified. Traditions themselves are fragile, and can only be maintained by constant watchfulness, by identifying and extruding doubters and innovators, and reinforcing orthodoxy. Religious systems of thought are almost entirely different from systems of rational thought, like philosophy, say, or science, both of which flourish when they prompt questions and doubts. Religion, by its very nature, is often immune to doubt and question. Since it is not based on evidence, and cannot be falsified by evidence, being open to revision can destroy it. Even liberal Christians have their limits, because they know, within a narrow margin, how much dissent faith can stand before it will implode.
A good example of this is Richard Holloway. Holloway began as a conservative Anglo-Catholic, and ended up as what he calls an “after-religionist.” In an interview with Pat Kane of the Independent, he says this:
And that’s my problem with Christianity. You have to buy original sin as a reality, not as a fertile symbol or metaphor – and only when you do that, can you buy the whole edifice. That really is bad faith, an authoritarianism that no contemporary person can respect. Good faith, in my view, is about throwing things away all the time, not holding on to unjustifiable premises.
But that kind of “good faith” is impossible in the religions, because they are institutional, and because institutional, seekers of power and influence. They cannot sit light to their beliefs, because to do so endangers its believing base, and it is numbers that give religions power. The new atheists are told repeatedly that they don’t understand religious belief, but this is simply a ploy to distract attention from what the religions do.
Theology itself can be daring and doubting, but it cannot touch the believing base of the religions; for if “throwing things away all the time” became the norm, religions would become incoherent and institutional cohesion would be lost. But the cost of such coherence is high. It produces the kind of hanging onto things that repulsed Holloway so much that he had to leave. It happened at the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops:
It was nasty, twisted – there were closeted gay groups of priests who were the most vigorous conservatives of all… It made me so bloody angry. I became allergic to meeting with other bishops; it felt like an alien environment. I said to Jeanie [his wife], at 5am one morning, ‘I’ve got to leave.’ And when I decided to retire, I never missed a beat – no railing at the altar, handing God my resignation. It was a deep-down wise decision, and I haven’t missed it for a second.
If the kind of questioning ”theology” that Holloway now indulges in were to become the norm, the churches would simply fly apart from the centrifugal forces of doubt and questioning. And that is why religion will remain dogmatic at its core, and why openness to changing one’s mind is simply not accessible to the religions. It may happen one by one, as religious believers are leached away from religion by the corrosive forces of science and reason, but a religion whose leaders were open to changing their minds in the way that Baggini suggests is necessary in order to avoid fundamentalism would spell the end of religion, because religions have no foundation. They are built on air, and openness to revision would quickly expose this.