How to Corner a Believer in Four Easy Lessons
Julian Baggini has put up his next article in his series on contemporary heathenism (h/t Mark Jones). This time, it seems to me, he has come closer to hitting the mark. He has devised a test of faith for the 21st century, “beliefs that I think would make religion entirely intellectually respectable.” What the test effectively does — which last week’s proposal of doing an online sounding of people’s beliefs simply could not do — is to separate the sheep from the goats. Baggini’s “articles of 21st century faith” force religious believers to make a choice between beliefs which can be considered intellectually respectable, and those which cannot. If they jump one way, then the new atheists were right all along to take them to task; if, however, they jump the other way, then religious faith is, after all, intellectually respectable, because, in that case, they belong to Don Cupitt’s set, and accept religion simply as a way of affirming a set of values, and religious practice becomes a way of expressing this assent and actually trying to put a particular set of values into effect. Don Cupitt, for instance, speaks often of religion as proposing a moral ideal, and the object of religion as working towards the achievement of this ideal.
So, let’s begin by quoting the entire set of four articles of a 21st century religious faith which, according to Baggini, would be entirely intellectually respectable (the acceptance of which would justify his strictures regarding the new atheists):
Preamble. We acknowledge that religion comes in many shapes and forms and that therefore any attempt to define what religion “really” is would be stipulation, not description. Nevertheless, we have a view of what religion should be, in its best form, and these four articles describe features that a religion fit for the contemporary world needs to have. These features are not meant to be exhaustive and nor do they necessarily capture what is most important for any given individual. They are rather a minimal set of features that we can agree on despite our differences, and believe others can agree on too.
1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices. Any creeds or factual assertions associated with these things, especially ones that make claims about the nature and origin of the natural universe, are at most secondary and often irrelevant.
2. Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles that bend or break natural laws, the resurrection of the dead, or visits by gods or angelic messengers.
3. Religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences. They should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim, not the religious one, should prevail.
4. Religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination. None need be taken as expressing the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity.
Baggini says that he has sent these articles to a number of atheists, agnostics and liberal believers for comment, and we will see next week what the result will be, and then, over the coming weeks, he plans to see how others respond to the articles as well.
And then, of course, we will see. The proposed survey will of course force the issue, because a response to the proposed articles, unlike the very general survey that Baggini proposed last week, will clarify what, in the opinion of those he canvasses, religious belief does consist in. As Baggini states, the point is that, as a simple matter of logic, if you cannot agree with a statement, then you disagree with it, and if you disagree with one of the articles, this is a fairly clear indication of where you do stand with respect to the content of religious belief. It’s a bit like Joshua’s “Who is on the Lord’s side?” This will get us over the hump of the casual “That’s not the God I believe in” retort that so many religious believers use as an escape clause when their belief is challenged. As Baggini says:
For instance, if you cannot say you agree that “Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth”, then it follows that you think religion does require the belief that some supernatural events have occurred here on Earth. [my italics]
The intention, clearly, is to force the believer’s hand, and it will at least be interesting to see what the response of believers will be to having their hand forced in this way. I suspect there may still be a way in which the believer can shimmer ambiguously away, but it will be interesting to watch them do it!
There is one problem that I see, however, right off the bat. Ordinary believers will easily find themselves on one side or the other of the challenge, and may be willing to talk about it, but it may be quite another matter for a leader in the church. If you’re a liberal believer, and a member of the Sea of Faith network, for example, the articles simply express what Sea of Faith members already believe about religion. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that Baggini spoke at the Sea of Faith London Conference this year, which was held “in association with The Philosopher’s Magazine.“) So, a Don Cupitt or a Richard Holloway could easily subscribe to the articles. However, in 1994, a young priest, Anthony Freeman, was dismissed from his post as vicar of a parish in the Diocese of Chichester after publishing a small book, God In Us: A Case for Christian Humanism, which expressed precisely the kinds of beliefs that are summarised in Baggini’s articles. Having had, at the time, a diocesan role in the teaching of ordinands, he was thought unsuitable to continue in that role, and so he was peremptorily dismissed, and his license to practice as a priest was revoked (although his parishioners are said to have supported him). I too could have assented to these articles during part of the time that I was a parish priest, but I would have been very cautious about doing so publicly. As one young priest, recently ordained, said to me (some years ago) with some concern: ”If I told the people here what I really believe, they would think that I am not really a Christian.” Cornering a believer is one thing; cornering a leader in the church (or in any other religion, I suppose) is bound to be another.
There is, however, another problem. It may be possible for some members of a particular religion, say, Christianity, to accept Baggini’s proposed articles of an intellectually respectable 21st century faith, but, if a majority or a very large proportion of those who profess that religion (or part thereof) are unwilling to adopt similar articles, does it still make intellectual sense for the radical believer to continue to belong to a community where many or most members do not accept them? I do not think that it does. When Anglicans and other Catholics — that’s putting the fox amongst the pope’s chickens! — join together of a Sunday morning and recite the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things, visible and invisible,” etc. what is being said and to what effect? What or who does the word ‘we’ refer to? (And what, if it comes to that, do the words ‘god’, ‘father almighty’, ‘maker of heaven and earth’ refer to?) And is its reference in any sense true? The gravitational pull of belief is towards the supernatural, and this can be nicely concealed behind all sorts of handy expressions – here is where people get to talk about the mystical, the mystery, the incomprehensible, etc. The very idea of sacred scripture implies a power beyond it that sanctifies it. Don Cupitt writes a book with the title, The Old Creed and the New, but what, given the Christian tradition, would be Christian about new creed that is acknowledged to be nothing more than human values wrapped up in a myth that was once accepted as the truth about God, the universe, and us? Much as I agreed with Anthony Freeman at the time, and much as I thought that an injustice was done to him by the Bishop of Chichester, it is not clear to me that it is possible to say, as Greta Vosper does in the title of her book, that the church can be a fellowship of those With or Without God, and that those without can use the same language as those with God, and still maintain their intellectual respectability. God is the problem — in us, beyond us, around us, makes no matter: God is the problem. And much as the liberal religious believer might like to rewrite God in terms of human values, the very meaning of the word has its own gravity, and will not let the religions go.
Nevertheless, I think that something quite interesting might come from Julian Baggini’s new throw of the dice. Considering what I said last week about his proposed survey, this at least shows some promise of producing useful results.