Hesitations about the “Ottawa” experience
There was one thematic trajectory at the Ottawa conference, Eschaton 2012, that seemed to me deeply questionable, and even, perhaps, deceptive, because so apparently anodyne. One of the things that the study of religions tends to do is to define things in such a way as to (i) present religious belief as an unproblematic means of exploring ordinary human reality, and (ii) to make what is expressed under the first heading of ultimate importance to human beings (because that’s the way religious believers view them), but often fails to recognise that it does the second. It’s the kind of thing that so many religious “experts” use when they want to say something to the effect that “the god you don’t believe in isn’t the god I believe in either,” while, of course, leaving the god just hanging there in midair, without any clear definition or delimitation. Such a god could be anything or nothing, or just, as the first speaker at the Eschaton Conference, Alan Doust, called it, a thought experiment. I was just getting up to inject a note of scepticism into the conversation when suddenly the discussion was brought to an end. Gotta get in there more quickly if I want to be heard! But I tend to mull things over a bit trying to get my ducks all in a row, so the only option left is to introduce a note of scepticism here at several removes from that evening.
At first sight, it seems to make perfect sense. Since myths are not really about gods and demons, angels or jinns, or even fairies at the bottom of the garden, since these are just imaginary entities, they must be about something else. Perhaps, then, they’re about human experience, and putting that experience in the only way that seems to capture the exaltation and significance of the experience. So gods and their doings come to be thought of as — as Alan Doust put it — cultural “thought experiments.” The particular type of speech in which this is done is called mythology. And myths, we were told, are simply everywhere. Politics itself, one speaker declared, is a mythology, which really leaves the door wide open to all sorts of wonderful high jinks with words. Someone got on the elevator after the last comment was made saying, “Politics is not a myth,” and I had to agree. I guess my problem with the idea that it is – if this is really the way that myth is used in religious studies departments — is that it fails to mark off a distinct form of discourse. It’s a bit like the definition of the word ‘religion’, which people seem to turn themselves inside out to compass, without noticing that, if we are going to treat the word ‘religion’ as undefinable, we are mistaking meaning as something that attaches to a word, so that, if we are going to use it meaningfully, we will have to nail down every possible inflection that the word is capable of. In this sense definitions amount to the discernment of essences (in the Aristotelian sense). Since there are very doubtfully any of these to be had, the project is doomed to failure.
But many of the words we use are unproblematical in most of their uses, even though there is a penumbra of ambiguity over some uses of the word. That penumbra of ambiguity seems to hang on certain words like a shroud, because the words try to define aspects of culture that are very prominent, and yet, despite similarities, do undergo various transformations as we move from culture to culture. The word ‘religion’ is one of them, and one way of dealing with the ambiguity that results is to resort to the word ‘myth’ instead, because ‘myth’ has wider application than ‘religion.’ And if we can disarm the ambiguities of ‘religion’ by referring to ‘myth,’ we also notice a rather happy expansion of the field of enquiry too. We can then assimilate what we would unquestionably call religion to those things that are not, in normal usage, thought to be religions. Like politics, for example. And then, it seems, as if by magic, we have come to the postmodernist nightmare, where words tend to mean anything or nothing, and we have really defused the confusions that we began with, and perhaps, in the course of it, justified laying a pall of ambiguity over everything. It seemed to me that this was happening; and when this happens, it makes scepticism look like the odd man out. How can one be sceptical of something that is defined so broadly as to absorb contradictions?
And yet, what I wanted to point out to Alan Doust (who appeared on the scene almost as Moses returning from Mount Sinai) when he was talking about myths as thought experiments — which, by the way, they are not, except, perhaps in religious studies departments, or in anthropology – is that this lets religion off the hook just at the point where it should be kept on it. Because, if these are thought experiments, these thought experiments kill. Recently one such ”thought experiment” killed a woman in Ireland, and too few people seemed to notice that a killing was the point at issue. The death of Savita Halappanavar wasn’t a mistake. This wasn’t just a friendly thought experiment. It was a deliberate killing, because a myth said that she must die. But in fact myths are not thought experiments. Thought experiments are done in thought. Myths, if they are experiments at all, are social experiments, and many of these social experiments have gone badly awry over the centuries. And when social experiments go awry people get hurt. Descartes imagining an evil demon who may falsify everything he believes true is one thing; Athanasius dreaming up a way to express what he meant by belief in Jesus as incarnate god is a completely different thing, and a number of people got killed over the issue, when they were not simply exiled (as Athanasius himself was on several occasions). Bands of marauding monks cruised around like the SA, terrorising people into belief in Athanasius’ “orthodoxy.” This, if a social experiment, failed, although it went on failing for the next fourteen hundred years or so.
And this is what many students of religion do with the gods. Perhaps, says Keith Ward, in his book God: A Guide for the Perplexed, considering the slow demise of god (or God) in the modern period,
what has gone wrong is the idea of God as a sort of extra fact. But what else could God be? To discover that, we might need to return to the roots of religious belief in human experience, and try to see how talk of God, or of the gods, arises and what it is meant to express. 
Now, I’ve read Ward’s book a couple times, and each time I read it I grow more perplexed, so, as a guide for the perplexed, it doesn’t work for me. For when he says this:
This is the first lesson to learn about the gods. They are poetic, symbolic constructs of the human imagination. 
I simply get more and more confused. I think I know what poetic, symbolic constructs are like, and they simply don’t have the weight that is attributed to gods. Poets and other artists use images and symbols all the time, and, in general, no one gets killed over disagreements as to what their images mean. Women don’t die when they’re miscarrying just because of images and symbols. There has to be something real to cause people to act this way, or, at least, something believed to be real — and something believed to be real has the same consequences as that something would have if it were really real. But believing something to be real is treating it quite unlike the way we treat myths and metaphors.
The point is that people seem to think they can slip away into metaphor without anyone noticing that the cat swallowed his tail and ate himself up. You simply can’t turn myths and metaphors into absolutes. Nor can you do a thought experiment in which people die, and get to say, “Well, it was only a thought experiment, after all.” Myths have to cash themselves in in terms of some reality (or something believed to be real) in order for them to have the kind of weight and significance they are claimed to have. And if Keith Ward thinks that gods are simply poetic constructs, then why is he still religious? Perhaps, as Paul van Buren says in his essay “On Doing Theology” (in the Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures (vol. 2, 1967/8)), theology is what happens when — van Buren wrote this before people realised that there were women in the world — men are “struck by the biblical story, in which they undertake to revise continually the ways in which they say how things are with their present circumstances, in the light of how they read that story.” (53; italics in original) But if that is what theology is: being struck by a story, and reading that story in the light of present circumstances; then we need some better way to deal with the outcome of that process. We can no longer consider these “thought experiments” to be definitive for people who dissent from their imaginative accounts of our present circumstances as these circumstances are interpreted through the lens of an ancient story.
With the greatest respect, though with genuine concern, I found my participation in a panel discussion that was intended to deal with the relation between faith and scholarship a bit like trying to nail Jello to the wall (Linville notes our disagreement in the blog post linked below). For if the student of religion can always slip away into metaphor when the going gets tough, then religion both has and has no power, and religion becomes just one myth amongst others, of which politics is perhaps another. And yet identifiable religious institutions have real power and do not mind flexing their muscles from time to time just to remind us that they are there pulling the strings behind the scenes, and they are not doing this because they think of their beliefs as “mythical” in the sense meant in religious studies departments, but because they think that metaphysical arguments demonstrate that there are beings corresponding to their beliefs, however described. We were assured that the new student of religion soon gets used to the protocols of religious studies, and comes to understand that religions are simply cultural constructs like political parties and other bearers of cultural meaning.
John Gray does the same sort of thing in Black Mass, for example, when he opens his book with this claim:
Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion. 
This is a claim he never makes good in the rest of the book, and a lot of places where he claims to be doing just that are mere assertions, not proofs. And the biggest problem is that assimilating practically everything to mythology (one panel member chose religious studies because it encompassed almost everything) — and, by extension, to religion, makes it almost impossible to say things that need to be said. Classifying Roman Catholicism or Islam as myths in the requisite sense, as, in one sense, they doubtless are, has the effect of removing their fangs just at the point where they do the most harm, and rules and practices, such as those which killed a woman in Ireland, or FGM, by which not only are girls mutilated without their consent, but women are (and this is only in myth, mind you) regarded as in a large measure sub-human, and are taught to regard themselves so — as I say, rules and practices under this description get to be assimilated to things like the stories about the gods in Hesiod’s Works and Days or Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, when they are doing real harm to real people right now. Roman Catholics believe in a god who not only deplores abortion, but considers it to be as evil a deed as killing an adult woman (or letting her die, which is the same thing), with all her experiences, memories, plans, projects, hopes and fears, and this is a belief, whether a thought experiment or not, that should not only be deplored, but should be rooted out and banished from public discourse. The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t deserve respect if this is what it thinks, and acts on that thought. And speaking of the Roman Catholic belief system as a mythology doesn’t really account for the kinds of inhuman and inhumane practices that result from it.
So, as you can see, while I had a great time at the conference itself — although, a bit like Jim Linville, who records some of his misgivings about his own presentation, I had some problems with my presentation, and came away feeling that I was unable to do justice to what I had come to say — I think it had to do with the “closeness” (not to say oppressiveness) of the Victoria Room compared with the spaciousness of the O’Connor Room; I felt distinctly uncomfortable just being there, and found it hard to breathe — anyway, back on point: While I had a great time at the conference itself, and was privileged to meet a number of people I had only known in the internet sceptical community at some distance, and while I enjoyed many earnest and enlightening conversations, I also had a feeling of alarm that religion can so easily be categorised and studied in ways which apparently ignore the way many if not most religious people hold their religious beliefs. My later years as a priest I spent reinterpreting Christian belief, so that it was, as religious studies departments apparently hold, a matter of living an ordinary human life within the parameters set by a story and modern experience, but that was widely regarded as an odd way of understanding faith, if not out and out heretical. And if the religious studies folk are right, there is no reason I should not go on being a priest, since this is not to hold anything that is in conflict with science or other aspects of modern life, for religion can be just a different way of being modern. But I know that I understood belief very differently when I began, and would not have countenanced even women in ministry or revisions of the liturgy, let alone supposed that God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit were not genuine hypostases of the divine nature which, in whatever way in being, created the world and me and dealt with us within infinite compassion and love. So it is a bit troubling to see that religious studies cuts through all that baggage in order to tell us what religion really is, after all. And it seemed to me that I would be doing a disservice to the things that I now stand for if I did not express that concern here.