Julian Baggini has put up the next installment in his series of articles on the common ground between atheism and religion. Actually, the point and purpose of the articles seems to be evolving as we go along. The first in the series (which was entitled, “Heathen’s progress, part 1: stalemate) was published on 30 September this year, and here is how he began:
In a debate that has been full of controversy and rancour, there is one assertion that surely most can agree with without dispute: the God wars have reached a tedious impasse, with all sides resorting to repetition of the same old arguments, which are met with familiar, unsatisfactory responses. This is a stalemate, with the emphasis firmly on “stale”. My heart sinks whenever I am invited to talk or write about the existence of God, whether science is compatible with faith, or whether religion is the root of all evil. I struggle to say something new, knowing that this is such well-trodden ground, the earth is packed too firmly for any new light to get in. The only hope is to start digging it up.
I think it is only fair to point out that he still hasn’t made much progress, and that the ”stalemate” — if that is what it was — is still at stalemate, whether it’s still stale or not is hard to say.
However, while Baggini says that he isn’t blaming either side, despite some of his Guardian articles which are, arguably, straight “new atheism” — if that is a genuine individuating term — he also began his series (linked above) by giving the new atheists a bit of a drubbing, just to make clear that he hasn’t really changed his mind:
[T]he new atheists are spiritually tone-deaf, fixated on the superstitious side of religion to the exclusion of its more interesting and valuable aspects.
The problem is that he hasn’t himself found any interesting or valuable aspects of religion to tell us about, and in what seemed like a fit of desperation last week, he devised a set of test questions for religious believers to answer which, he hoped, would force the hand of the religious, and make them choose a kind of faith that Julian thinks intellectually respectable, or consign themselves to the league of benighted holdovers from the past.
The first responses to last weeks’ articles of an intellectually respectable 21st century faith are now in, and, while I hate to say it, it seems to me that the outcome was entirely predictable. Giles Fraser tells Baggini that this is not how he “does God,” though this sounds a lot like a cop-out. I did say last week that leaders in the church would find it hard to come out with a clear yes or no. Theo Hobson, still vacillating, I take it, over his vocation to the priesthood, sides decidedly with the conservatives, though professing liberalism:
I’m afraid I don’t really sympathise with this [Hobson told Baggini]. Christianity can’t be reformed by the neat excision of the ‘irrational’/supernatural. It is rooted in worship of Jesus as divine – the ‘creed’ side is an expression of this.”
In other words, no, Christians are still committed to the supernatural — as well as to certain beliefs about it. You can’t worship Jesus as divine if there is no divinity. Anyone thinking about ordination would say that, wouldn’t he? Meanwhile, Nick Spencer — no surprise here — opts firmly for revelation, and informs Baggini that
Although religious texts are indeed created by human intellect and imagination, that doesn’t mean they can’t be taken as expressing the thoughts of the divine.
Never mind that there is no known way of distinguishing divine thoughts in the Bible from human ones — what, shall we just take all those with which we agree as divine, and slag the rest? — Spencer needs the supernatural to make his religious medicine go down.
On the other hand, Karen Armstrong, archpriestess of ambiguity, is, says Baggini, “basically with me,” with strong qualifications about the humanness of sacred texts (article 4). Baggini explains:
Although she said that she was with me on “religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination”, she said “your wording is prohibitive”, because it “would antagonise a lot of people. It is too bald and needs nuance. There needs to be some acknowledgement that the ‘supernatural being’ is only a symbol of transcendence – something that many religious people understand intuitively – even though they might not express it explicitly. That religious language is essentially symbolic – pointing beyond itself to what lies beyond speech and concepts”.
Baggini doesn’t see why his wording should cause a problem, but this, I think, is because he doesn’t realise how much is hidden in Armstrong’s equivocation. And it’s true, of course. Saying that sacred texts are human through and through would antagonise a lot of people. The simple reason is that most religious people believe that their texts are indeed divine communications. Some will acknowledge that they are also human. After all, how else would God speak to us, other than through human words? Jesus is said to the Logos, the Word made flesh, the incarnation of the divine principle of rationality and creativity informing the universe and human life, so of course human language can also do duty as divine self-communication. The problems of separating the divine from the human remains — which is why Christians seem unable to make up their minds definitively about Jesus’ human status. As a human he must have flaws, and yet, in general, Jesus is assumed to have been without any. The same problem haunts biblical hermeneutics.
So, what’s the score? The religious are least likely to subscribe to Baggini’s four articles of 21st century faith, though A.C. Grayling, an atheist, argues that the articles
… leave out the crucial bits about religious belief, which are that there is powerful supernatural agency or agencies active in or upon the universe, with … responsibility for its existence, an interest in human beings and their behaviour, a set of desires respecting this latter, etc.
In this I think he is right. I don’t think the articles do sum up what, for a religious believer, must be included in the essentials of belief. And that is no doubt why Baggini finds Theo Hobson and Giles Fraser simply evasive. There is a kernel of belief at the centre of religious faith which is simply ineliminable. The expression ‘doing God’ is used by Fraser to slip away into the fog, like the young follower of Jesus who fled naked away, leaving his garment behind, when the authorities tried to arrest him. (Mark 14.52)
This of course should come as no surprise to Baggini, since last week he said that
Rejecting the articles of 21st-century faith means admitting many of the things that are claimed of religion by “crude and simplistic” new atheist critics.
After all, he was trying to present believers with an inescapable cleft stick, thus forcing them to choose. I did say in my last comment on Baggini’s series of articles, that
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!
And it is interesting to watch them do it. After all, the locution “doing God” is the shimmer. It’s not an answer; it’s how you avoid answering. And I did say that religious leaders are most likely to use this expedient. A person “doing God” could be as belief-laden as the most fundamentalist, creationist Christian; but ”doing God” could also be the mark of a person who is travelling light, accepting belief in God, miracles, relationship with Jesus, and all the rest of the religious bag of tricks, as simply a way of speaking mythologically about human beings, their commitment to each other, and the values that they share — although, of course, at the same time trying hard not to let the cat of such reticent belief out of the bag.
What I don’t understand is where Baggini thinks he may go next. He proposed the four articles of 21st century faith as a kind of test of the rationality of faith. Now, however, that it seems that this project will not produce the results he wants, he suggests that there may still be a reasonable outcome.
… even if this middle path does vanish, [he says, referring to agreement about the four articles of 21st century faith] that does leave one intriguing possibility open. Could it be that the common ground I’m looking for is not one centred on belief at all, but something else, such as a commitment to certain values around enquiry and coexistence?
But this is not an intriguing possibility at all. What he refers to under the rubric of “certain values around enquiry and coexistence” is precisely what he thought he was doing by offering the four articles for consideration. These were supposed to mark out those who could be considered to be people whose faith was entirely intellectually respectable — that is, as satisfying the canons of rational enquiry. I assume that Baggini thinks that the four articles already expressed what he meant when he speaks here of “certain values around enquiry.” Coexistence is simply the desideratum. That, presumably, is why Baggini has been taking the new atheists to task, because they have been so hostile to religion and its belief claims, insisting that they give a good account of the ethics of religious belief. The response, very often, is that religion is not about belief, but this is now shown up as an escape strategy. This is what the religious fall back on when their beliefs are challenged.
In fact, by suggesting this “intriguing possibility” isn’t Baggini playing the same game? Last week he said, putting all his cards on the table:
So as you can see, the stakes are high. Rejecting the articles of 21st-century faith means admitting many of the things that are claimed of religion by “crude and simplistic” new atheist critics. And since I myself have often been critical of this camp, I actually have more to lose than most, should hardly any religious folk be able to sign up to these articles, or explain clearly why they won’t in such a way that doesn’t leave them either lost in a fog of obfuscation or hanging on to outmoded doctrines.
But now, it seems, he wants to back out of this commitment. The responses he got to the four articles was predictable. Now he’s got them, though, does he want to back out? He seems to be thinking: There simply has to be common ground somewhere! By suggesting the particular “intriguing possibility” that he does what Baggini is doing, I’m afraid, is obfuscating, in very much the same way that the religious do. But one thing won’t let him wriggle off the hook he’s been caught on. The “intriguing possibility” includes “values around enquiry.” I assume that those values are already expressed in the four articles, which is why we have article 2:
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.
What’s hidden in this article is commitment to a rational epistemology, that is, values around enquiry to which Baggini has already committed himself. Doing God, belief in the resurrection, commitment to sacred texts as sources of divine intelligence: all these break all the epistemological rules which an intellectually respectable 21st century faith must not break. Baggini must keep this in mind has he goes forward, or else he will turn out as shimmeringly evasive as the most accomplished religious escape artist!