I like Giles Fraser. He sometimes has interesting things to say, and even sometimes sounds quite profound. He showed admirable loyalty to moral principle when he resigned as Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, over the “Occupy” protests last year, an act which took a considerable degree of courage, not only because he put himself out of a pretty high profile job, but also because such kinds of public criticism of the church are not welcomed by the those higher up the ladder of privilege in the church than he then was. Yet I have to admit when I read some of his columns for the Guardian, I strikes me that he has a repressed desire to go even further and simply dismiss the great religious game altogether. Of course, I may be wrong, but, given the example of his latest Guardian column — “Confusion may cause us anxiety, but it is a rational reaction to life’s mysteries” — it seems to me he’d be a lot happier in the ranks of atheists and humanists than he is in the church.
However, that’s pretty loose speculation. Let’s begin at the top, where he speaks about being a clutz at languages, and parlays being a dork into a criticism of “scientific atheism.” Trying to learn Hebrew, he says, was like being thrown in at the deep end; he was simply all at sea, and yet, he suggests, that’s a pretty rational place to be:
It feels like learning to swim by being thrown in the pool. And at the moment there is nothing to reach out and grab on to. Yet perhaps this is the only way. No one ever learnt to swim on land. Learning is doing. And yet the curious thing is, I don’t really mind the feeling of being confused. In fact, I find that confused is a pretty rational reaction to most things in life. I suspect the people who are not generally confused by life haven’t been paying attention.
It reminds me of the time when, having just begun at university, I walked into the stacks of the library, and despaired of ever coming to know all that I wanted, so much, to learn. Then, of course, I realized, having overcome my initial sense of panic, that one learned one step at a time, though the sense of confusion and sometimes even panic still assails me at times, especially now that I know the end is much nearer than it was in those far off days, when I was just beginning. And I do, very often, feel more confused, and have the sense of knowing less, than I did when I began, for I was more confident then, and not a little taken with my wit and verve, much of which has been wrung out of me by the changes and chances of life.
However, back to Fraser. He wants to contrast his sense of confusion with what he imagines it might be like not to be in a state of pious confusion. Here’s the way he imagines that the “scientific atheist” manages a clearer and smaller world:
Part of the reason I prefer religion over scientific atheism is that I find atheism to be less tolerant of confusion and disorder. It’s easy to subscribe to some general pret-a-porter philosophy that puts everything neatly into its ontological place; but the price you pay is a smaller, diminished world. Or maybe that’s the gain: after all, a diminished world is less threatening.
Yet it would be hard to find a less accurate description of scientific atheism. Of course, there are indeed islands of clarity in science, and surely no one would begrudge the scientist the right to feel quite pleased with having made at least a small clearing in the middle of a jungle of obstreperous facts and mysteries that are still reluctant to give up their secrets. Think of Lawrence Krauss’s claim that, ridiculous as it may seem, and confusing as it may be, the scientist is forced to accept what results from their experiments and observations, that nothing is really something, and that the world as we know it by our senses is produced largely as the result of particles that give mass to the otherwise massless waves and particles, some of which are passing straight through us, undetected, all the time.
Indeed, the whole point of science is to be puzzled about the world around us, and to carry out investigations and experiments that can explain, and so dispel, the apparently unresolvable confusion of the complex phenomena with which we began. Now, being confused by the phenomena is a perfectly reasonable, even rational state to be in. But it seems odd to suggest that it is rational to stay that way. So when Fraser says that it is natural to feel anxiety at the confusion of life’s mysteries, one only has to say that this is right. But it seems particularly odd to suggest that simply resigning oneself to the confusion and the mystery, without testing whether or not there is a way through the confusion to understanding, is a rational thing to do. I don’t know whether Fraser actually learned Hebrew as he set out to do, but would it be rational just to stop at that point of confusion, and be forever ignorant of a language he wanted to learn? Or would it not make sense to apply himself to the study of it, and dispel the confusion?
It’s a fascinating thing watching children learn language. At first, infants imitate sounds, and it is not altogether clear that they see that they are words with meaning. Eventually, they start to use words to refer to things that they want, even if they are not words in the language. My daughter Kirsten, for instance, when she was learning language, liked apples, but she called them “umpies,” and she would lift up her little hand and say, excitedly, “Umpy! Umpy!”, until she was handed one to eat. And my son Alex, when he was learning to speak, thought that the word ‘banana’ referred to the colour yellow, and would cry out with a joy of recognition, when he saw the yellow sheaths around the bottom power pole guy wires, saying excitedly, “Banana! Banana!” This early phase passes quickly, and as they gradually add more words to their vocabulary they finally come to the absolutely stunning point when they simply know, and begin to speak in well-formed sentences. It’s as if a penny drops, and once it does their progress in learning language is rapid and unstoppable. (Apparently I never spoke single words when I was an infant, and I was taken to a specialist to see if there was not something wrong with me. But when I did begin to speak, I spoke in sentences, and now I’m as verbose as verbosestoic!) Perhaps this amazing moment is a bit like Bernard Lonergan’s idea of conversion, when he uses the word ‘conversion’ in relation to ‘intellectual,’ ‘moral,’ and ‘religious.’ It’s as if there is a shift to a new paradigm, like the figure ground illustrations in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.
However, there’s something just a little odd about saying that the confused state is a rational one to be in. Fraser, it seems, wants there to be points of mystery which simply remain mysterious. But why he should think that this is necessary in order to be creative and to stretch oneself imaginatively is simply bizarre. He says, as we have seen, that part of the reason he prefers religion is because of its tolerance for disorder. But when he goes on to speak of what he calls “a general pret-a-porter philosophy that puts everything neatly into its ontological place,” and suggest that the price for this “is a smaller, diminished world,” one has to wonder where he gets the idea that the scientific world picture is something in which everything has its own neat ontological niche. After all, science is expanding all the time into astonishingly new, and amazingly complex, theories about how the universe exists, and what drives that expansion is imaginative curiosity. Reading Janet Browne’s biography of Darwin, especially the first volume, which has a detailed account of Darwin’s researches whilst on his round the world, five-year journey on the Beagle, one is struck by the expansiveness of Darwin’s imagination, and his imaginative attempts to find theories that would explain the diversity of things that he saw. This was not a pret-a-porter philosophy, if this means something like a neat collection of facts that you can simply take away in a holdall. Indeed it was not. What we see is a confused young man, who started out with a pretty simplistic idea of the world and how the variety of living things in it came to be, becoming more and more perplexed at the complexity of things as they really are, and it is that perplexity and confusion that began to drive Darwin towards the theory that eventually was to bear his name.
One of the strangest things about Fraser’s article comes at the end, and it too fails to make the point. Throughout the article he uses his own situation after his resignation from St. Paul’s as a metaphor for the mystery that stands at the centre of religious experience. Thirteen months ago he knew where he was going. He had a plan.
But [he writes] as the old Jewish proverb has it: “Man thinks, God laughs.” Which I guess is another way of saying that the world is a bigger place than the comforting order we impose upon it. That was, roughly, the same answer that Job received out of the whirlwind of confusion after his own spectacular annus horribilis.
But this simply will not do. It is religion which imposes a comforting order upon the world, not science; for it is science that calls that comfortable world into question. And it is arguable, as I have said before, that the answer that Job gets does not solve, but deepens his confusion. If anything, Job has more questions than answers, and the god who appears to him out of the whirlwind answers none of them. He may repent in dust and ashes, but that is not a particularly imaginative thing to do. Indeed, by any reasonable standard, Job’s experience shows him that the only thing that exists in the world is arbitrary and indifferent power. Now, this may be the explanation of the Jewish proverb, but it is out-of-place in the context in which Fraser uses it. For Job’s confusion does not result in a bigger, broader world, rich in new experiences, or new discoveries, but in resignation.
Fraser suggests, in what can only be the most confusing terms, that rather than follow a map, the best thing might be
to become an intellectual flaneur, to wander around the landscape and get thoroughly lost.
But wandering aimlessly is scarcely an answer to anything. Perhaps Wittgenstein is right when he says that the basic form of the philosophical question is “I do not know my way about.” But not knowing one’s way about is supposed to give a fillip to examination and discovery. It’s not meant to be a permanent state of confusion. To suggest that the atheist is “often snooty about confusion, wanting to distance themselves from its messy and circuitous ways”, is entirely to misunderstand. I sympathise with Fraser, and the way his world must have been turned topsy-turvy by his resignation from a position which upheld a system which he could not in conscience continue to support. But it must not be thought that topsy-turvydom is in any sense a good state to be in, if it does not provide opportunities for a richer, more meaningful, more morally responsible life. Mysterianism for its own sake is simply obfuscating, where it is not confabulating. If confusion and puzzlement serve any purpose at all, it is that it drives the search for answers, not that being confused is itself pointful activity.