This is my first blog post at Free Thought Blogs, so I want, from the start, to explain my own reasons for being here, for thinking of myself as a “freethinker” (a term which still does not come easy to me), and for wishing to join a community dedicated to freedom of thought, atheism, and opposition to religious belief. I also want to make the point as clearly as I can, as I start out, how Elizabeth (my wife who died in 2007 in Zurich) is the main inspiration of all that I write, and the patron “saint,” if you like, of this Blog. Without her, I would have been a very different person indeed. I will also remark on some of my present interests and concerns.
At the masthead or banner of my blog choiceindying.com, there from the very beginning in December 2010, has been the tag line, “Arguing for the Right-to-Die and against the Religious Obstruction of that Right.” However, had it not been for Elizabeth, my wife of almost 18 years and best friend for 20, whose picture (sitting on a peak in the Lake District) is in the banner above, and who is now in my Gravatar image as well (precisely because what I am trying to say about her part in this is true), I probably would never have come to the point of disbelief, for not only was she a disbeliever long before I was, it was her struggle to die, when her MS, and the misery and pain and indignities associated with it, became so intolerable, that opened my eyes to the fact that, even for a liberal “believer” of the “Sea of Faith” sort, there were moral issues of great importance that I had simply overlooked by the general institutional support that accompanied my membership in, and action on behalf of, a specific religious institution. This stood out for me in stark relief the moment Elizabeth tried to take her own life, and failed, thus setting her on a course which would eventually take her to Zurich, where Dignitas, the assisted suicide organisation which accepts foreign applicants, helped her, with great kindness and dignity, to die, as she sought to do.
Elizabeth herself, though many years younger than I, was the formative influence in my life, far more important than schooling or religion. A woman of great integrity, energy, intellect and joy, she offered me unconditional love, and provided the basis for the freeing of my mind from the dead weight and trammels of my past. Though I do not believe in destiny, the shape my life took seemed – because I can only think of my life until the point that Elizabeth and I exchanged our love as but a propaedeutic and forerunner to the fullness of life that I would come in time to know with her – almost predestined, as though we were supposed to meet and fulfil each other’s dreams of love and commitment. This was expressed in a poem I wrote after her death, entitled “Easter Rising,” about an unexpected intimate encounter with Elizabeth very early on the first Easter morning after we had (earlier in the year) first exchanged our vows of love (and, truth be told, shortly before I would go out to celebrate another resurrection, in a more formal, liturgical way). The poem ends on this note:
One flame forever,
as in the snow,
each to each,
as the sun began to climb,
and, as one, arose together,
that first Easter morn,
enfolded in each other,
a new creation,
of each other born.
Religion, from that point, began to play an increasingly secondary role in my life, and though I continued to function as a priest in the Anglican Church for all the years of our marriage — and was, indeed, more actively involved in the institutional life of the church on a diocesan level – it was perhaps inevitable that, with Elizabeth’s death, my active participation in that ministry should come to an end. I soon realised that “faith,” for me, had become not only very tenuous, but, indeed, an impediment to clarity of thought and fulness of life. I remember with great affection, however, the years I spent as a priest, and the people I served and learned to care for and admire during all those years, especially those years of priesthood which I shared with Elizabeth, who taught me (for the first time in my life) what it is to love and to be loved in return. It was when the beliefs of the church began to have an immediate impact on the life of the one I held most dear, that close relationship with the church, and participation in its official ministry became intolerable. It is important to recognise that the church does not truly acknowledge the right of its members to value things differently than these things are valued through the church’s institutional expression; and being an active and supporting member of the church is in fact to uphold and defend those values, even when one most strenuously disagrees.
I am reminded here of something written by Ronald Dworkin (as I believe*, though undersigned by Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, Judith Jarvis Thomson, and T.M. Scanlon), in the Philosophers Brief, an Amicus Curiae brief to the Supreme Court of the United States in the matter of the State of Washington et al. v. Glucksberg et al. and Vacco et al. v. Quill et al. (argued before the Supreme Court on January 8, 1997), where the six philosophers argue that
[c]ertain decisions are momentous in their impact on the character of a person’s life — decisions about religious faith, political and moral allegiance, marriage, procreation, and death, for example. Such deeply personal decisions pose controversial questions about how and why human life has value. In a free society, individuals must be allowed to make those decisions for themselves, out of their own faith, conscience, and convictions.
This is an insight that is vital, not only, of course, for those seeking death, but for those wishing to live their lives in the light of their own convictions about the value, meaning and the purposes of life. Christian churches, as well as other religions believe, without foundation, that not only do they have access to the true meaning and purpose of life, but that they are peculiarly suited to establish norms of moral guidance which alone have the right to be publicly recognised as determining principles for the organisation and direction of whole societies. In the process they have made it all but impossible (depending on the local power of church or mosque and minaret) to receive help to die, divorce, abortion, or even effective contraception. And, as the recent sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church testify, or the widespread terrorist activities carried out on behalf of Islam make very clear, such religious institutions are prepared to resort to their own laws and principles in order to evade the scrutiny of public officials over criminal acts which would, if known, bring their institutions into severe and lasting disrepute, or which do, being known, bring their religious beliefs into justified contempt.
In the light of considerations such as these I have made it my business over the last few years, starting out slowly, by making overly long comments on Ophelia Benson’s Butterflies and Wheels blog, and Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True website, to speak out against the dogmatic affirmations of religious institutions on issues such as assistance in dying, abortion, and other issues of public morality, as well as to take the religions to task for the inadequate grounding of their religious beliefs, let alone their moral convictions, and to ask whether such convictions, based on such exiguous or even nonexistent grounds, are plausible candidates for use as foundational principles for public policy or general principles of justice. As religions increasingly intrude themselves into public life with their prescriptions for the good society, which can be built only, so they suggest, on truths about transcendent and eternal things which they claim to provide, it behoves those of us who have been shriven of such beliefs by thoughtful reflection or distressing experience, to challenge continually the right of religions to represent themselves in public life as disinterested voices seeking only the public good. Religions are private associations of individuals of no more importance to the public good than any other such associations, whether golf and country clubs or service clubs like the Rotary or the Lions, and the presumption of bishops to challenge governments should be seen for what it is: a naked attempt at seizing power that belongs only to the people acting as a whole in quest of justice and equity and the greatest liberty consistent with the greatest well-being of all.
These are, then, for me, foundational principles. However, I do recognise that these values must be achieved by means of an ongoing, vibrant moral and political discourse in which the limits of freedom are constantly explored and probed, and the values that make for a good life are the matter of constant inquiry and dispute. It follows from this, in my view, that attempts to place any particular discipline at the centre of the social conversation should be resisted. Recently, a number of philosophers and others have warned the disbelieving community of the dangers of scientism. I am thinking here, in particular, of Philip Kitcher and Susan Haack, both of whom have warned of this danger. Without intending to question the unequalled achievements of science, they see it as a danger to the social good to confine our inquiries to science alone, or to attempt to characterise as scientific all the various pursuits that people undertake in quest of the truth.
I remember, with considerable distress, the occasion on which it became clear that there was nothing further that scientific medicine could do for my beloved Elizabeth, and how that realisation played havoc with her sense of personal fulfilment. Though she rejected with contempt offers from relatives and friends for other supposed options for “treatment,” including, in a couple of cases, so-called “faith healing,” she also began to recognise the inadequacy of science to deal with the more sombre aspects of life, to be a consoling presence in the midst of existential distress. All she had then — and I trust it was enough — was the love and devotion that we had each for each, but it did indicate that the dimension of community which is compassed by religion and its practices, both liturgical and pastoral, might be seen as the expression of human value, however intermixed with poorly grounded metaphysical beliefs. Elizabeth, who contributed not a little to the life and excitement of the church communities of which we were, as two people deeply in love, an integral part, would understand this, for she appreciated the relationship with the community which sustained both of us, even as, little by little, we were letting go of God.
It is for this reason that I have, over the past few years, at the same time that I have been harshly critical of religious institutions, been supportive of the idea that religion, as a human creation, may still contain much that is enriching. It is hard to think that thousands of years of religious thought and organisation, even if there be no gods or supernatural entities to undergird them, have simply been pointless exercises, closely associated, as they have been, with an attempt to understand something of the depths of what it means to be human and to live life within communities devoted to the human good, however variously described. Much theology deserves the characterisation that Jerry Coyne contemptuously assigns to it as Sophisticated Theology™, but it does not for this reason follow that theologians have not understood much that is of interest and importance about the project of being human.
This struck me with particular force when I was reading Jim Holt’s fascinating book Why Does the World Exist? An Existentialist Detective Story (WW Norton, 2012) and came upon the account of his encounter with John Updike, who, despite his interest in science and its awesome achievements, retains a kind of theological insight into the quality of being human, and how closely intertwined this is with what he knows about the scientific origins of life and the universe. At one point in their conversation Updike said
that ruling out natural theology does leave too much of humanity and human experience behind. … to make faith into an abstract scientific proposition is to please no one, least of all the believers. There’s no intellectual exertion in accepting it [viz., faith]. Faith is like being in love. As Barth put it, God is reached by the shortest ladder, not the longest ladder. Barth’s constant point was that it is God’s movement that bridges the distance, not the human effort. [251-252]
My point in quoting this is not to agree or disagree with Karl Barth’s theology, or Updike’s assessment of it. My point is simply that, as a novelist, Updike the novelist is faced with the task of creating believable characters who can be understood “in the round,” as it were. For that purpose, he is saying, science is not enough; it simply does not reach dimensions of being human that are at once real and yet not describable in scientific terms. That, it seems to me, is important evidence that must be taken into account when we are speaking of being human. The poetry of science, as Richard Dawkins has called it, is not enough to account for what Updike might call the poetry of human existence, “the sheer sweetness of being” with which Updike’s novels and stories are, in Jim Holt’s words, suffused. This sweetness is something that I only knew through the love of a wonderful woman, in the light of which alone life seems now, to me, a worthwhile undertaking, however truncated and impoverished by her absence. That is why what I do is all about Elizabeth.
*That it was largely written by Dworkin is my judgement, at any rate, basing myself purely on stylistic grounds.