I began writing this post by saying that it would be unusually short. However, I find it difficult to say what I want to say in a brief compass, so I thought I’d add this introduction to make it just a bit longer!
On this morning’s Guardian Comment is Free page is the latest in Julian Baggini’s series on the new heathenism. As the series progresses Baggini approaches closer and closer to the new atheist position. As I understand it an important aspect of the new atheist approach to religion is to be forthright in the criticism of religion, thus being less concerned about the offence that such criticism may cause, and, at the same time, to insist that supporters of religion state their position clearly, and with as little ambiguity and slippage of meaning as possible.
Baggini’s new article is entitled: “‘You just don’t understand my religion’ is not good enough.” This is a move that John Haught made in his debate with Jerry Coyne, where he tells Jerry that he doesn’t believe in “Jerry’s god” either. However, the point really is that the religious believer must make clear precisely what he or she means by the locution ‘god’ right up front, and very few believers do this. As Antony Flew says in his famous book, God and Philosophy, the identity of God must be clear from the outset, otherwise the argument is really about nothing. However, not only did Haught not identify the god he was speaking about, he really poisoned the well from the start by saying that only through personal transformation can one come to know God. In other words, Haught is saying, nothing that Jerry is about to say can in any sense be about God, because Coyne, by definition, has not had the religious experience of personal transformation which is a necessary condition for understanding what we mean when we speak of God.
But Flew’s point still stands:
This is the question: ‘What is it that all these magnificent attributes are supposed conceivably to be the attributes of?’; or ‘How is it considered that it would be possible to pick out God, in this sense of God, as an object of discourse? [God and Philosophy, 2.10]
In what Haught said about God in the debate, he referred ambiguously to that towards which everything is evolving as their end, or the loving presence which wants the universe to become itself, or the one who is experienced by the person who has undergone a transformative experience, but at no point did he offer a clear indication of what, when he used the word, the word ‘god’ was to mean.
This puts Julian Baggini’s point in a particularly striking way, for this is precisely what Baggini is saying. The trouble is that Baggini is really, at the same time, still very leary of the new atheists. He tells us, for instance, that
Terry Eagleton’s quip that reading Richard Dawkins on theology is like listening to someone “holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is The British Book of Birds” is a funny and memorable contribution to a debate that is rarely amusing and frequently forgettable.
But in context the quip was truly silly and not funny at all — nor was it meant to be. It was intended as a mordant criticism of Dawkins’ conception of God, and he goes on to say, as though it were at all relevant:
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences
between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?
The obligation lies with the religious believer to define god in such a way that we can argue intelligibly about it. And Dawkins’ definition is itself surely not far off the mark, whether or not he has read Aquinas in depth, or compared Aquinas’ epistemology with that of Duns Scotus.
If the word ‘god’ is so ambiguous that we need to read in depth every theologian that has ever written on the subject, then there is no way that the critique of religion can even begin. We must simply all become theologians. The question is whether theology is to be taken seriously or not, and that depends entirely on the answer to the question of the existence of God. Haught said rather loftily that he didn’t believe in Coyne’s god, but at no point did he really indicate what kind of being God may be taken to be. Indeed, he says at one point that all we can do in the presence of the infinite is to remain silent. This bears a decided resemblance to the quotation from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, which is placed under a picture of a googly-eyed archbishop:
Neither the archbishop’s oracular description of faith, nor Haught’s relapse into a very similar silence will do, if we are trying to discern whether or not belief in God can in any sense be thought to be reasonable or true.
And that, of course, is precisely what Baggini is saying, and while I think it is true that atheists and believers have to a large extent been talking past each other, the main reason for this is that religious believers tend not to define God in a way that serves to pick out a possible being, belief in whose existence is rationally justified. But Baggini wants to say more than that. Take the following, for instance:
It is always possible to think there is a fog when really it’s just that your glasses have steamed up. But I’m not only prepared to allow that an intelligent religious faith might have a big fat mystery at its heart, I think it must have. Only the most juvenile gods are like super-humans we can truly understand. If there is a God, it must surely [be such that it] passeth all understanding.
He goes on to say that believers have to pay a price for this mystery. Indeed, he says, quoting the archbishop:
If, like the archbishop of Canterbury, your faith is a kind of “silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark”, then think very carefully before you open your mouth.
But this simply won’t do. If faith is a “pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark,” then, I am afraid, opening your mouth simply won’t do, however carefully you think about it; and if God does pass all understanding, then it — whatever ’it’ refers to — is, after all, beyond all understanding, and cannot be put into words at all.
Baggini says that “[t]oo often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively.” But if, at the heart of faith, there is something that passes understanding, then there is nothing more to be said. The thing that distinguishes religious belief from a kind of pure, meditative spirituality, is that it is about something, and even if, with Tillich, we want to say that that something is not really a “thing” at all, but something beyond existence, if belief is to be belief that something is true, then it must have some ontological status, however that status is described. But if it does really disappear into mystery, then even saying as much as Tillich does about the “Being beyond Being” becomes meaningless twaddle. And what would a religion, at least an institutional religion, be, if it had no beliefs? But if those beliefs are to be based on something that disappears into mystery, then how are we to distinguish beliefs which are worthy of belief from those which are not?
I await with interest the coming articles in Baggini’s series on the new heathenism, but it seems to me that this is what the new atheists have been saying all along. So far as I can tell, people like Dawkins, Harris, Coyne, Hitchens, Dennett, Myers, and so on, have been demanding clarity from the religious. What is it that you believe? On what do you base your belief? Why should we believe what you believe on this basis, when others (say, Jews, Muslims and Hindus — since so far the new atheist challenge has been directed mainly towards Christianity) believe quite different things on arguably a similar basis?
Have the new atheists, say, to go no farther, failed to make themselves understood? I do not myself see why this should be thought to be right. Atheism itself is simply a denial that there are any grounds for religious belief. Atheists themselves cannot define the religious territory that they negate. The religious must do that, but to my knowledge, so far the religious have not provided anything substantive in reply, either in terms of a definition of what it is that religious believers believe, or in terms of the grounds that they offer for this belief. And, until they do so, atheists must await the religious response. God disappears — as in the most recent case of the John Haught – Jerry Coyne debate — in a puff of ineffability. But the religious, while in argument they resort to ineffability and mystery and vague expressions, eff the ineffable all the time. Haught did it in the same lecture, where he says Christians must stick to their understanding of God which is made manifest in Jesus as the self-emptying of God — which is the ineffable effed — but where he also says that the best expression of our encounter with the infinite is silence. He really can’t have it both ways.
But Baggini, who has already told his story about the new atheists, and is determined to stick to it, cannot justifiably begin with an implied criticism of the new atheists, when his article is really about the failure of religious believers to make their beliefs clear. Religion, traditionally, in the Western tradition, has been assumed to consist, not only in faith as trust, but in faith as propositional (creedal) belief, enumerable beliefs, and while it is true that defenders of religion have resorted to mystery and silence in response to criticism, the religions they represent continue to express their faith in statements of faith, catechisms, creeds, and moral prescriptions. Until religion retreats to a position of silence in the face of mystery, those beliefs are open to question and refutation.
Another way to escape criticism (which I do not intend to discuss here in any detail) is to retreat into culture, where religion is seen simply as a cultural human creation whose meaning is restricted to this life and this world, even as it speaks in terms of god or gods, the afterlife, heaven and hell. Such sophisticated ways of “believing” may pass the test of orthodoxy for some religious groups, but, in the end, whatever sophisticated believers may believe, most, as Aquinas recognised, would believe quite simply and straightforwardly, not having the time or opportunity or aptitude for the study of such mysteries. Those who speak for faith cannot be permitted the luxury of retreating into culture, any more than it is reasonable to take refuge in mystery. How the majority of religious believers believe, and as insititutions variously define and enumerate those beliefs, cannot simply be excluded by fiat. The retreat into supposed “sophistication” is as dubious a move as disappearing into the fog of mystery. This is why Jerry Coyne’s list of Catholic evils is as relevant to the debate about religion as is Dawkins’ fairly conservative definition of what he understands by the word ‘god’. “This is what most people believe” is not an irrelevant point to make in the argument with religion, just as “I don’t believe in your god either” is not an answer to the criticism that there is no evidence for such a being. The only answer that will do is: “This is what I mean by ‘god’. Here is the evidence for the reasonableness of belief in such a being.”