Category Archives: Sanctity of Life
Religion is, at its very heart, a dishonest, dissimulating undertaking. That’s one of the reasons why I cannot, with Richard Holloway, leave religion alone to get on with its dirty business. Some of its business is good, and secular people have not been as effective in reaching out to the lonely, the depressed, the marginalised, the desperate, the dying or the hungry. Some secular people, no doubt, share Nietzsche’s contempt for pity, and the way that morality, as it has been understood, places a cap on abundant and exuberant life, the life, in Nietzsche’s image, of the triumphant warrior, who expresses his zest for life through acts of dash and courage, who stands, sword raised in passionate salute, roaring his affirmation. In this he shared D.H. Lawrence’s love of passion and vitality, the thrill of being fully alive in the flesh.
But religion distrusts the flesh, distrusts its passions, its insistent lusts, its fiery dash and spirit. Flesh is turned to dirt, and the coupling of bodies into something almost sub-human in its abandonment to passion. That’s what Augustine had against it, that it did not respond to reason. He believed that Adam, had he not fallen, would have had a purely rational sex life responsive to the rational will. Male erections would happen only for the purpose of procreation, and there would be no blinding pleasure in it, pleasure that quite overcomes human reason. Pleasure is the enemy of religion, because it reduces the human to the animal. At least that is the underlying fear.
Julian Baggini tells us today that he is bringing his “heathen’s progress” to an end this Saturday with a Manifesto which, he suggests, if we agree with his conclusions today, we will find much to agree with, or if not, we should rub our hands together in eager anticipation of yet one more opportunity to rant. For someone who is seeking to common ground, this seems a strange way of putting it. Agree with me or rant: those are your options. When he began his journey, he says,
I was particularly keen to reposition atheism, to move away from the focus on hostile attacks on religious metaphysics and more towards a positive, constructive alternative that was capable of seeing the virtues as well as the vices of faith.
Yet, as I have commented all along – in what, no doubt, Baggini holds to be a ranting way — Baggini does not seem to have been too sure of his position. Sometimes, he spoke with unvarnished vigour in terms compatible with the so-called new atheists. At other times, he seems ready to tip over into a kind of liberal adherence to the convictions of faith. Indeed, Baggini’s path has been nothing, if not confusing, a desultory journey through a maze of belief and unbelief. Yet today he comes to some conclusions, a propaedeutic, it seems, to the looming Manifesto. Let’s consider them now.
He begins by complaining about tribalism:
First of all, it is dispiriting to see how tribal so many people seem to be. For all the interesting, thoughtful comments that have been posted on the pieces I’ve written, and supportive emails I’ve been sent, there have been many more that have used whatever the subject of the week is as a simple pretext to get in the familiar old digs against whoever the other tribe happens to be.
But consider Baggini’s original statement of purpose:
Broadly speaking, the problem is that the religious mainstream establishment maintains a Janus-faced commitment to both medieval doctrines and public pronouncements about inclusivity and moderation; agnostics and more liberal believers promote an intellectualised version of religion, which both reduces faith to a thin gruel and fails to reflect the reality of faith on the ground; while the new atheists are spiritually tone-deaf, fixated on the superstitious side of religion to the exclusion of its more interesting and valuable aspects.
In which, not to put too strong a point on it, he divides people up into tribes, including the rather jaundiced view of the new atheists as spiritually tone-deaf. If his intention was to mitigate the tribalism, perhaps he shouldn’t have started off in quite this way. The real problem seems to have been that Baggini didn’t really know what he wanted to accomplish with his series. The Guardian gave him free rein, and he’s taken full advantage of it. At one point he says things that make him sound just like a new atheist. The next moment he thinks it more appropriate to veer off in the direction of religious believing, and rant about the new atheists, and their failure to see how emotion and thought are combined in rational deliberation, and how this contributes to their misunderstanding of religious believers who take their experiences more seriously than their beliefs. But then, again, he acknowledges that many Christians take orthodox beliefs at face value. Indeed, he goes so far as to say:
… whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value.
But what about the spiritual tone-deafness of the new atheists, and their failure to recognise the more valuable aspects of religion?