Julian Baggini is not paying attention
I’m sorry, Julian, I’ve been really patient with you — well, at least I’ve tried! – but the time has come for some plain speaking. You’re simply not paying attention. While you’re off there in your little cubby-hole, writing about atheists and believers, and coming to the silly conclusion (if conclusion it be) in your latest article in the “heathen’s progress” series — “Give me a reasonable believer over an uncompromising atheist any day” — the world is going on in its wonted way, and it’s not, for the most part, uncompromising atheists vs. reasonable believers: it’s unreasonable and uncompromising ideological religious believers imposing their will on people, believers and unbelievers alike, because they see into the very mind of God himself, and know all the right answers, and, knowing them, believe they have the right to force those answers on other people, who may or may not share their silly supernatural beliefs. Just take a look, almost any day you like, at the religious horrors that Ophelia Benson chronicles over at Butterflies and Wheels in her “Latest News” slot. Here are today’s horrors:
On Sunday, an Egyptian military tribunal acquitted an army doctor of performing so-called virginity tests on seven female protesters last spring.
Bill Donohue explains, “The church has been too quick to write a check, and I think they’ve realized it would be a lot less expensive in the long run if we fought them one by one.”
Amina Filali, 16, swallowed rat poison after being severely beaten by her rapist “husband.”
Obama admin sides with theocrats of Liberty Institute, making Supreme Court hearing more likely. What the hell?
And they don’t care who you are, or what your own beliefs or preferences might be, they’re going to do everything in their power to shove their insipid beliefs down your throat, however much suffering this might cause. Check often for the latest insults to women and unbelievers, and to hear the whingeing of the religious at the obstacles put in their way by secularists, atheists, and others of that abominable genus.
The problem with Baggini is that he seems to think that this atheist vs. religious kerfuffle is just an academic discussion with people like the idiots over at the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion, who think they can square the resurrection of Jesus, or the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, with the findings of science, but it’s not. It’s just not. It’s about religious people’s increasingly vociferous campaign to have even their nuttiest prescriptions applied to ordinary people in some of the most horrifying situations imaginable, without the option. And speaking about compromise and “the virtues of sincerity, charity and modesty” simply won’t do in this context, for such virtues are in scant supply when it comes to the things that agitate religious people the most, whether it’s really serious things like keeping holy the sabbath, or making sure that men are on top in the sexual act, or middling things like slaughtering animals in the most painful way possible, or campaigning against the right of gay people to marry, since believers really know what marriage is all about and what it means, or whether it has to do with trivial things like having an abortion or seeking help to die when life has become an intolerable burden.
However, we’ll take it as read that Baggini prefers to talk to reasonable religious believers than with uncompromising people like me, people who happen to think that religion is becoming more and more uncompromising and silly as time goes on, as the bases for their beliefs become fewer and fewer, since there is simply no reason at all to think that Christianity is compatible with science without thinking that Hinduism or Sikhism or Islam or Jainism or Zoroastrianism or Judaism are just as compatible, which makes a load of bullshit of the religions, despite the semi-reasoned discourse called theology. Of course, I can see quite clearly that within the parameters they set, theology can be quite a rational undertaking, so long, that is, as you forget that at its foundation it’s all shifting sand, whether the sand is composed of the hermeneutical pluralism that is inevitably involved in reading from supposedly sacred texts, or the cultural or ethnic pluralism in which those texts are read, or simply the plurality of sacred texts or corpuses of belief themselves.
But you can, I acknowledge, once you have observed those limits, find swathes of intelligible and sometimes positively profound discussions of human issues and values carried out with a great show of reason. You only notice the problem when you come down to the foundational documents, historical events, or other things thought to underlie the superstructure of doctrine and theology that, on its face, looks so reasonable, and where even compromise is sometimes possible. It’s important to remember, though, that at these foundation points reason has a tendency to sink into the thirsty sand of diversity and plurality. And all the show of reason in the world will not give substance to the discussion built on this vanishing foundation. I acknowledge, though, that it does seem reasonable, just so long as you don’t reach too far down towards the foundations. One can carry out the most complex conversations imaginable about the nature of God and God’s will for his creation, just so long as you stay away from the boundary areas, where the words sink without a trace into intense hermeneutical squabbles about the meaning of this or that text, or word, or turn of phrase written thousands of years ago.
One of the most dispiriting experiences is trying to find support for progressive moral ideals in ancient texts which were written when such ideals were considered abominations. Many years ago when I was a member and subsequently chair person of a diocesan sexuality task force, trying to reach some compromise about our Christian understanding of the role of gay and lesbian persons within the church, I discovered how difficult it is to reach mutual understanding let alone compromise. Indeed, in the end, compromise proved impossible. There were those, like me, who believed that the biblical texts could be interpreted in a gay-positive way. This is not quite so ridiculous as it may seem, since the understanding of homosexuality in the biblical text was the immediate reaction of people to relationships which appeared to be completely unnatural. Relationships between gay men were understood as unnatural relationships between heterosexual men, consumed with lust and debauchery. Homosexuality was not understood as a natural inclination of persons of the same sex towards each other. (Lesbianism, of course, is not recognised in the Bible at all, possibly because its writers, like Queen Victoria, could not understand how women could have sex — thought of, unsurprisingly, principally as penetrative — but more likely because, in a patriarchal society, women were not free to choose in any event.) So, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Bible is silent on the subject of genuine homosexuality, which should have opened the discussion up to some kind of reasonable compromise, which was not, in the event, forthcoming, and indeed brought about a de facto schism within the Anglican Communion. Along with women in ministry this provided the opportunity for the pope to do some border raiding, creating Anglican “ordinariates” for disaffected Anglicans, who accept neither women in ministry nor homosexual persons in relationship — but of course they love them just the same.
The point here is that there is no way, within the parameters of a supposedly “revealed” religion, for any ordered development or change. In other words, the appearance of rationality and compromise is just that: appearance. Sure, we can speak together with a certain amount of charity and modesty, but when push comes to shove, as we can see in regard to such things as gay marriage or assisted dying, the draw bridge of reason is taken up, and the moat is filled with water. Not only does rational discourse come to an end, but practically any silly characterisation of your opponent suddenly takes on the air of profound good sense and reason — as when Ann Widdecombe speaks knowingly about the priest representing Christ at the altar and Jesus having been a man. (You can see a glimmering of the theological problem in the italicised words.) Baggini thinks that, when we reach this stage, what we should do is to exercise charity, by which he means
… the effort to try to understand the views and arguments of those we disagree with in the most sympathetic form we can, being critical of their strongest versions, not their weakest ones or straw man caricatures.
The problem is that when you build your house on sand, as Jesus himself said, storms and floods are going to be its undoing. I’m all for looking at the strongest case, but when there isn’t a case at all, and it all ties back, in the end, to the supposition that it has all been revealed, and that even the strongest arguments have no effect on a conclusion’s validity (as the Vatican’s Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian explicitly says), where does charity begin? Isn’t it more reasonable, at this stage, to join Sir Ian Mckellen and say something like this:
As for Qu’rans, were they left in hotel rooms, the only solution would be to throw out the whole thing — something that I have done, on occasion, with Gideon Bibles — excising pages can sometimes seem not quite radical enough.
So, I don’t think Baggini is being honest. Certainly, we can speak reasonably with believers, when they are speaking reasonably; but at the heart of religious believing is a dogmatism that is ineradicable. Sometimes, to be honest, I see the same tendency at work amongst atheists as well, and that may perhaps be what Baggini is taking aim at here. For there is a sense that if you don’t accept a certain orthodoxy with respect to things like free will or the evils of religion (which are, of course, many), then somehow you have let the side down, and then people start to speak in terms of betrayal. And this is, I agree, a completely unsatisfactory way of speaking. It is simply unhelpful to start talking, like the religious, as though there were an orthodoxy about unbelief which must not be betrayed.
Baggini says that he is “looking to form a “coalition of the reasonable” of atheists and religious believers,” where his virtues of charity, modesty and sincerity come in. And that would be all to the good, if we were able to form such a coalition. However, we have to have some reason to do so. What would such a coalition achieve? The other day Baggini suggested that atheism cannot deal with the crises that inevitably come in the course of life, and that in this area religion does much better (see “Yes, life without God can be bleak“). Atheism, he suggests, is partly about facing up to the starkness of life without religious comfort. And, certainly, there is no question that religion itself probably grew out of catastrophe, and helped to assuage some of the worst feelings of hopelessness and loss. But religion also put the centre of gravity of life outside of life itself, so that people who are facing crisis look, not to each other, but to an extra-human dimension, for hope. This is what, in my experience, a priest could offer people — not an otherworldly hope, but a way to find deeper meaning in relationship and crisis right now. In some ways this is arid, but it is also honest, and it focuses feeling on each other, not on something beyond. And this is where we ought to be focusing our attention: on those we love and care about, not on some imagined other. I found that, faced with a situation in which someone was sick or dying, I could not speak about hope in resurrection, or meeting one’s loved ones in another life. This simply made no sense. What made sense was the regard that people had for each other here and now, and the greatest strength and hope came from greater intimacy and sharing, not from directing one’s thoughts upon a hoped for consummation at the end of time (or whenever the supposed afterlife is thought to begin).
Deflecting our attention onto another world has another effect. It tends to make of this life an obligation, so that, at the end of life, people are forced, by religious interference, to endure the most horrific sufferings, instead of being given the option to bring life to a peaceful and dignified end before all hope is gone. Death itself is not the fearful thing. In my experience not many people fear death itself. What they fear most is dying, and religious scare-mongering continues to make it impossible to overcome that fear. The scare-mongering is about what will happen if we legalise assisted dying. The answer is that it depends on what people want at the end of life. In the Netherlands, where euthanasia and assisted suicide have been legal since 2001, and accepted two or three decades before that, the proportion of those who opt for assisted dying is a very small percentage of those who die every year, but as those who know will tell you, simply the knowledge that the option is there is an enormous comfort to those who have begun their journey towards death. To know that you can choose, if things become intolerable, is a great reassurance that you will not be forced to endure the most horrifying and degrading suffering, and that you can choose to avoid it by receiving assistance to die as and when you choose.
However, since the Nicklinson case was heard, and Nicklinson was given leave to argue his case, the pundits are on the prowl again. Allison Pearson, of the Telegraph, seems to think that she’s sewed the thing up as tight as can be:
None of us would want to be shut up in the prison of ourselves with only a blinking eyelid to communicate with the world. Even so, I’m afraid I think that Tony Nicklinson’s desire to change the law of the land so he can be killed in the comfort of his home is wrong. Others suffer as he does –Professor Stephen Hawking comes to mind – but they make the best of the dreadful hand that fate has dealt them. Tony Nicklinson could refuse food, but his wife objects that starvation is a horrible way to die. Yet isn’t Tony Nicklinson’s argument that his life is too horrible to live?
Strange that she should personify fate in this way, which is almost religious, so that she can think: Why shouldn’t he be prepared to die in a horrible way, since his life is so horrible now? He’s been dealt this hand, so he should play it out to the end, and, if not, why should he not be forced to starve himself to death? Pearson missed the point where Tony Nicklinson has actually said that his life is only just bearable now. What he wants is an assurance that, when he finds that going on is no longer just bearable, he can have help to die quickly. Why should he be required to suffer more, just because Allison Pearson thinks that one horror added to another doesn’t add up to more horror?
Meanwhile, in a leader, the Telegraph says that the right to be killed is not a matter for the courts, despite the fact that Mr. Justice Charles has argued, in his judgment in the case of Tony Nicklinson and Ministry of Justice and Others, cogently, that it is; and that where a democratically elected legislature refuses to take up an issue that deserves to be discussed and settled, because of the socially contentious nature of the issue, and the fact that there are people who are suffering now who are asking for relief, the courts quite rightly, in a rights-based democratic system, have a role to play. Quoting Lord Bingham, Mr. Justice Charles argued that:
The Attorney General is fully entitled to insist on the proper limits of judicial authority, but he is wrong to stigmatise judicial decision-making as in some way undemocratic.
And further that:
As Professor Jowell has put it “The courts are charged by Parliament with delineating the boundaries of a rights-based democracy”. [para 32, v]
The Telegraph leader writer finds this intolerable:
Changing the law relating to murder without the authority of Parliament is inconceivable.
But that is strictly nonsense, since Mr. Justice Charles has already done so — conceived of it, that is.
The point that I am making is that it is all very well for Baggini to suggest that he’d as soon have discussions with reasonable believers as he would with unreasonable atheists. Indeed, he says that he has “often had more fruitful dialogues with some Catholics and evangelicals than [he has had] with some fellow atheists,” which, of course, is possible. No one is suggesting that religious believers are incapable of reason — at least I hope they aren’t. But what has been suggested is that the epistemic foundations of religious belief are very shaky indeed, and that, at that point, religion fades off into dreamland, without a solid feature in sight. At this point we have no choice but to tell them that they have gone beyond reason’s limits and are trying to climb sheer cliffs without a foothold, or even a small crack to drive a piton in.
Yet on the basis of this foundation the religious are quite prepared to say that people should be made to suffer horribly of the diseases they are unlucky enough to die from, while others, more fortunate, die almost instantly, their sufferings soon at an end. Fate, Pearson would no doubt say, dealt them different hands. Or they are prepared to say that, “Yes, we know that you’ve been raped, but the rapist’s child now growing within you has as much right to live as you do, so, sorry, but you’ll just have to bear with it for nine months. What you do then, of course, is up to you. You can give it up for adoption if you like. But we’ll chain you to a bed, if you don’t see reason.” Or, “Yes, it’s unfortunate that you’re going to die, but die you must, because your baby has as much right to life as you, so forget about your dreams, your baby will have to have the dreams that you never had the chance to dream.” (On this score, see Ophelia’s latest post: Bishop to hospitals: let women die, that’s an order.) Or, “Well, if you hadn’t been so stupid, this problem would never have arisen. It just shows you to be the slut you are. However, you’ll just have to take your chances. Maybe you won’t get pregnant, but, whether or no, you can’t have a pill to avoid pregnancy, because if there’s a zygote in your womb, it has as much right as you to be alive. So, get used to the idea. This’ll teach you not to sleep around. Marriage of man and woman is, after all, prescribed by God’s law.” It’s this kind of thing that leads me to say that Julian is simply not paying attention, for there are many more stories about the hideousness of religion, and whether he can have reasonable discussions with Catholic and Evangelicals is neither here nor there; it’s these irrationalities that lie at the heart of religions that we oppose, irrationalities that poison the lives of so many, and force so many to die in horror. Don’t talk to me about the reasonableness of religion. It’s rational, right down to the point where they say, “And that’s why we have to force you to do this.” It’s then that you look at the foundations, and find that they are, after all, nothing but shifting sand.