In his “progress of heathenism” series over at the Guardian Julian Baggini has gone from pillar to post and back again without once acknowledging that he’s got the whole thing wrong from the beginning. He just has to be right. The new atheists are a bunch of football hooligans, and by the Lord Harry, he’s going to persevere with this view no matter what the truth is. A few weeks ago he had all but acknowledged that religion really is about belief, and that those beliefs really had no foundation in reality. But now he’s claiming that, regardless of their contentlessness, like some song lyrics, it’s really the music (the tone) that matters, not the words at all. So, when the archbishop of Canterbury says — as he apparently did last night in his debate at the Sheldonian with Richard Dawkins (as the Independent reports) – that while he accepts the findings of science, he reserves the right to consult the Bible over other matters having to do with human meaning and purpose, he was talking about content, not tone. As the archbishop said:
“The writers of the Bible, inspired as I believe they were, were not inspired to do 21st-century physics; they were inspired to pass on to their readers what God wanted them to know,” Williams argued. “In the first book of the Bible is the basic information – the universe depends on God, humanity has a very distinctive role in that universe, and humanity has made rather a mess of it.”
Speaking about tone in this context, I’m afraid, just won’t do. The inspired writers, we are to suppose, passed “on to their readers what God wanted them to know.” The problem here, as the problem always is when it comes to religious belief, is that others choose other books that are held to contain the revelation of what God wanted people to know, and, to use the expression from the Passion narratives, “their testimony did not agree.” The basis for claiming a revelation of what God wants us to know simply doesn’t work, and it really doesn’t matter what tone of voice you say it in. The pretence that speaking about tone at this point will make some kind of substantial difference is just a way of avoiding the issue, not of responding to questions that must be asked. The Bible is not a song lyric, where, in fact, let it be acknowledged, the tone may make all the difference. The Bible is a work which purportedly contains the revelation of a god, and this makes all the difference, we are supposed to think, with how we are required to live our lives.
Indeed, so important is the content of this book, and its implications, that everything from the use of sex to the question of assisted dying, the conduct of war, the position of women, and the exclusion of homosexuals from the fullness of human life, depends upon it. To suggest that it is about tone, as Baggini does, because, presumably, religious life has its own rhythms and feel about it, is a con game. This is not to suggest that religious people are stupid or that they simply don’t get it; but it is to say that when people have forms of life where the tone is the important thing, and those forms of life have decisive implications for the way other people should live, tone simply isn’t enough. If people want to acknowledge that religion is something like pop music, and you can either take it or leave it, love it or hate it, and that doing either has no significant practical consequences, then we can allow religious people to play the tone game as much as they like. Indeed, this is the suggestion of those who argue for a secular settlement for political society and the participation of religion within it. Let people play their own religious games, or sing their own religious songs, whatever the tone, and however others find the tone, whether they do in fact love or hate it, and let the life of the community proceed as though religion itself was a collection of nonsense syllables which are expressed in a context where it is only the tone that is specially important, and we’ll all be as happy as clams.
But religion isn’t like this. The religious, like the archbishop of Canterbury, will say that the Bible is a revelation from God, and it contains what God wants us to know. And amongst those things, as he made clear in his 2006 speech to the House of Lords about assisted dying, is that God deprecates anyone who even thinks about ending his or her life before the “appointed” time, that suffering has its value which secular people cannot know, and it should be forbidden anyone, no matter how horrible their state of life, to have help to leave it. This is completely unacceptable, because then it isn’t just about tone — and it never was – and if Julian Baggini thinks that we should forgive religion a multitude of sins because we just don’t get the tone right, then Julian should go back and think about these matters seriously, and without the determined shallowness to ignore what people who are opposed to the intrusion of religion into their lives are so concerned about.
Julian wants to label people like me as shrill and strident, and now he’s even going to say that I don’t get the tone just right. Well, I’ve got news for him. I played the religious game for years and years, and sang the religious song, and I think I had the tone down pretty pat, but when it comes to the intrusion of religion in my life or in the lives of those I love, then I just want the religious to keep their worn out songs to themselves. It is intolerable that Julian should go on in this fashion, ducking and diving, just because he hasn’t found a way to condemn the new atheists with enough fervour, when, at one point in his heathen’s progress series, he seemed so agonisingly close to the threshold of being a new atheist himself. But Julian just has to play nice, and find fig leaves for the religious to hide beneath, where they can go on pretending and intruding themselves at crucial points in the lives of others. Religion is just an excuse to interfere in people’s lives, and it’s about time we told religious leaders and their bleating sheep followers, to stuff it.
However, anyone who has been paying attention to the anti-atheist scene in Britain over the last week should be abundantly aware by now of just how raucous the bleatings from the religion side of the aisle can be, with its nearly unhinged condemnation of Richard Dawkins, because he forgot the long title of Darwin’s classic book, and, because of that, showed himself unworthy to carry the banner for atheists. Mary Ann Sieghart goes so far as to Dawkins as “puffed-up, self-regarding, vain, prickly and militant.” How could Julian Baggini have paid attention to the “over-the-top” condemnation of Dawkins and his beliefs, and still think that the problem with atheists is that they just don’t get the tone of religion right? Atheists, he says, are simply tone-deaf to religion, and that, he thinks, matters. Indeed, that’s the title of this piece in the Guardian: Being tone deaf to religion does matter.
Well, I’m sorry Julian. I don’t think it does matter a bit. Speaking of pop music, but meaning religion, he says:
But sometimes people are tone deaf and they don’t shut up. Take pop and rock music, for example. Many people just don’t get it, but it doesn’t stop them going on about how it is repetitive, banal, simplistic and so on. They just can’t accept that it may have merits they can’t discern and that sometimes it is the very things they despise that are essential: think about how repetition is so important to the groove of great funk.
But religion isn’t pop music. It’s not even close. Religion is something that directs a lot of what people do and the claims that they make to be heard and heeded by others who do not share their “tone”. Think of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops coming out all hot and heavy about contraception, as though there is something inhuman and callously immoral about it, even though most Catholics in the country ignore what the bishops say anyway. Who has the tone right here? And why should we listen to the bishops?
The archbishop of Canterbury has just come out with his and the Church of England’s opposition to the marriage of gay people. While not prepared to be drawn into a public discussion of the matter, the Telegraph reports that he opposes the government’s move to legalise civil partnerships for gay people:
Dr Rowan Williams has refused to be drawn on the issue publicly, but has broken his silence to tell MPs he is not prepared for the Coalition to tell the Church how to behave.
He told a private meeting of influential politicians that the Church of England would not bow to public pressure to allow its buildings to be used to conduct same-sex civil partnerships.
And a former ABC, George Carey, who has always been as narrow-minded as your neighbourhood Pentecostal screecher, has come out in opposition to gay marriage and has expressed himself in the most virulent terms, as has the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. Is this the tone that Julian Baggini has in mind? Years ago, when I chaired a sexuality task group in my diocese, I had inevitably some disagreements with some of my colleagues in ministry. There was a retired priest living in the parish I served, and we were almost at daggers drawn over the affair, so I went to speak with him, hoping that we could come to the agreement at least to disagree. The discussion did not go well. At the end, I said, hoping for a reasonably kindly response despite our differences:
I don’t suppose [I said] that we’re ever going to come to any agreement on this matter. Can’t you see that there is room in the church for both of us?
To which his reply was a curt, ”No!” And there the matter rested, and still rests, since that priest is now no longer with us, and now he knows — or not — as the case may be.
Baggini, in relying upon the notion of tone, forgets that tone is associated, as often as not, with what is believed to be true. And if he can’t see that, he simply hasn’t been paying attention, not least to himself over the last few months, as he has tortured the issue of how nonbelievers should address themselves to religion. Religion and rock music are not the same. When Christians at Easter sing (as many will do in a few short weeks):
The strife is o’er, the battle done;
The victory of life is won;
The song of triumph has begun: Alleluia!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
The powers of death have done their worst;
But Christ their legions hath dispersed;
Let shouts of holy joy outburst: Alleluia!
a lot more is going on than singing meaningless lyrics. The claim is being made that Jesus did rise from the dead — as theologians (and scientific shills for religion) still try against the odds to prove — and that death has not only done its worst to Jesus, who survived the experience, but that the death that we each face has been metaphysically transformed by the victory of Jesus over death. Through his victory, all can triumph over death. Death itself is now just the Devil’s last, desperate fling, and once it is past, we will enter joyously into the kingdom of heaven.
Let’s not mince words. This is not a pop lyric where only the tone of joy and triumph is important. This is a supernatural claim, and the claim comes with a lot of baggage. Unpacking the baggage is a huge deal. If Christ triumphs over death and evil, then we have a responsibility, a duty, an obligation, to face death and surmount all our fears of it, no matter how horrible the experience may be. Just like Christ, we are to share in the suffering that sickness and death have to bring, and we must, like him, endure to the end. This will be good for our souls. Any attempt to shortchange god at this point will be marked in the deficit column of our account. If god sufferred and was victorious, then who are we to try to escape the hangman?
I know the tone of this song, and I have sung it too, and, in the end, it says that you may not have help to die. If you die in misery, then, like the Bible that the archbishop of Canterbury turns to in order to find what God wants us to know, we can know that this is intended just for us, just these horrors and just these pains and just this disintegrative experience is one through which we must pass. Christ has passed through much darker rooms than we will ever be asked to endure, and yet in the end triumphed: what are our sorrows, compared to his sorrows, which the Lord imposed upon him in the time of his fierce anger, in great anguish of soul and body? And are we more worthy than he? Why should we be excused this painful traverse that is now no more than illusion? No, I know this song, and I recognise the tone all too well. And the lyrics mean something, and they will be imposed on everyone, just because they come from God himself. Besides, we will be told, as Paul tells us, that we will not be expected to endure anything above our capacity to endure. These empty words are repeated again and again, despite the fact that they are not true.
The whole thing is a lie. This is not about pop music, Julian. This is about real people, with real life pains and sorrows, horrible suffering that we can scarcely imagine. It’s about people who face life choices, choices at moments of crisis, when their lives, already twisted and distorted by pain and suffering, face the prospect of horrors yet to come. It just won’t do to fob them off with empty words about rock lyrics and their meaninglessness. Mother Teresa, who always gets held up as some kind of spiritual ideal, would address people in the throes of the most evil suffering imaginable, kissing the foreheads of those wracked with pain, with no more than an aspirin as a remedy, and say quietly to them, “Jesus is kissing you.” Well, boo-bop-a-loo-bop, I’ve got news for you! The groans and the screams of the suffering are very real, and there is no god to comfort, no faith that has meaning when the end is as horrible as this. By this point, the lies of religion are palpable, and those lies define what people will be forced to endure. Don’t talk to me of lyrics and tone. I want to know the truth.