Squaring the circle


Part 2 of Julian’s cunning plan. His suggested stripped-down religion isn’t finding many takers.

But since the main purpose of posting my articles of 21st-century faithwas to find out just how many could support them, the project is not worthless if we find out the answer is hardly anyone at all.

To recap, there’s a lot of complaint that “new atheist” criticisms of the supernatural aspects of religion miss the point. If that’s true, then it should be possible both to set the atheists straight and establish the credibility of religion by clearly stating what faith without silly, primitive beliefs looks like.

Sure! You bet. I’ve always said so (provided we use the word “religion” and don’t use the word “faith” – it was a mistake to shift from the former to the latter there). Religion without silly, primitive beliefs looks like people joining together to participate in a ceremony or ritual. I haven’t a word to say against it (assuming the ritual doesn’t include elements like animal or child or woman sacrifice or other kinds of harm).

The articles aim to set out what is required for reasonable faith in the most general, minimal terms possible. Then, by seeing how many people can agree with them, we can ascertain whether or not there is real and widespread support for a form of religion that avoids the new atheism’s harshest charges.

Here’s my prediction: no, there isn’t, not widespread. The fans of this line wildly exaggerate how widespread the support for it is. They talk as if it were obvious, and mainstream, and central. But it’s the doctrinal kind of religion that’s gaining adherents, not the “reasonable faith” that Julian has in mind.

Preliminary feedback is not encouraging. Before posting the articles I approached a few commentators for their opinions.

Top of the list was Karen Armstrong, since she has been the most prominent advocate of seeing religion as mythos not logos: roughly speaking, as about values and practices, not beliefs about what exists or has happened on earth or beyond. So not surprisingly she agreed with the first article, which asserts that creeds or factual assertions are at most secondary and often irrelevant to religion. She also agreed, with some reservations about the wording, with the second, that religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, and the third, that religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences.

Although she said that she was with me on “religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination”, she said “your wording is prohibitive”, because it “would antagonise a lot of people. It is too bald and needs nuance. There needs to be some acknowledgement that the ‘supernatural being’ is only a symbol of transcendence – something that many religious people understand intuitively – even though they might not express it explicitly. That religious language is essentially symbolic – pointing beyond itself to what lies beyond speech and concepts”.

In other words you have to do what Armstrong does: bullshit and obfuscate. You have to have it both ways. You have to talk piffle about a symbol of transcendence while at the same time insisting that religion is practice not doctrine. You have to avoid antagonizing people, you have to say things that are not “too bald,” you have to add lashings of nuance so that almost everybody can recognize her/his own brand of religion and go home happy. You have to refuse to be clear and understandable, and instead blow a lot of smoke so that all can win, all can have prizes.

Mark Vernon thought the wording could be better. Massimo Pigliucci said it’s ok but he didn’t see the point. John Gray said hell yes but wouldn’t sign anything.

Qualified support, then, but only from a confirmed atheist who is unusually supportive of religion, an agnostic ex-priest, an ecumenical former nun who has rejected all dogma, and another atheist.

It’s like discovering that central state socialism has its defenders, it’s just that none are actual central state socialists. In this case, the worry is that people who do not at all represent real, existing religion are defending it by appealing to characteristics it doesn’t actually have.

Exactly – and this is what the gnu atheists have been saying all along, and getting yelled at for saying. But we were right. Julian can’t get any takers.

If the articles of faith are to provide any hope of establishing the existence of the kind of reasonable faith I think should be possible, we need to get support for them from people who are actually actively and self-consciously religious.

So far, that has not been forthcoming. Theo Hobson, for example, a self-described “liberal” theologian, says: “I’m afraid I don’t really sympathise with this. Christianity can’t be reformed by the neat excision of the ‘irrational’/supernatural. It is rooted in worship of Jesus as divine – the ‘creed’ side is an expression of this.”

Nick Spencer, research director at the eminently reasonable public theology thinktank Theos, was even clearer in his rejection, saying, for instance: “Although religious texts are indeed created by human intellect and imagination, that doesn’t mean they can’t be taken as expressing the thoughts of the divine … I don’t see what’s left of the Abrahamics if you do take this out of the equation in this way”. Spencer also provides little hope of finding too many other supporters out there, adding that “there would be precious few Christians I know … who could sign up to all your points. To take just the most obvious example: according to mainstream Christian thought, Christianity is founded on a belief in the physical resurrection.”

Giles Fraser, even though he is a radical cleric who recently resigned as canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, says this is “tricky” and “I’m not sure I can assent to any of these. Which is not to say that I agree with their opposite either. These are just not the terms in which I do God.”

[Chorus] This is what the gnu atheists have been saying all along. Religion really is religion, theism really is theism. They aren’t kidding. They aren’t secretly atheists who just like to go sit with the neighbors of a Sunday morning.

One source of resistance is that the articles are expressed as beliefs when for many, the whole point is that we need to move away from putting beliefs at the centre. Hence Gray would prefer the second article to talk of “religious practice” not “religious belief”, while Hobson says “believing in God” is “rather unhelpful” and that it’s “better to talk of ‘doing God’,” which is just the phrase Fraser used when expressing his reservations.

But I’m afraid I find this all too evasive.

So do I. That word is one of the most tattered and worn in my vocabulary, I give it so much use.

Julian remains optimistic though.

However, even if this middle path does vanish, that does leave one intriguing possibility open. Could it be that the common ground I’m looking for is not one centred on belief at all, but something else, such as a commitment to certain values around enquiry and coexistence? I think it might and it’s a possibility I hope to come back to in due course.

Does one really look to people who have supernatural beliefs for a commitment to “values around inquiry”? I don’t. I think people who have supernatural beliefs are more committed to their supernatural beliefs than they are to values around inquiry. That’s why I’m not a fan of the supernatural beliefs.

 

 

Comments

  1. HP says

    There’s something I’ve been trying to say for a while now, and I’m having a hard time expressing it: From a group perspective, there’s no social value in believing things that are reasonable or moderate.

    [See what I mean? That’s not very clear.]

    Religion, historically, is about creating social groups that are larger than any single tribe or clan, but smaller than, say, everybody. That’s why the rise of religion goes hand in hand with settled agriculture and the establishment of cities. It’s how you identify who’s in and who’s out, when your group contains more people than you can know personally.

    But a religion that makes reasonable claims (e.g., sunlight is warm, it’s good to be kind) is a religion that anyone can join. And a religion that anyone can join is no better than no religion at all if you want to rally Us against Them. There has to be at least one supernatural or irrational claim at the center of any religion, or there’d be no way to identify outsiders.

    For any aspiring religion, irrational beliefs are a feature, not a bug.

  2. says

    That’s interesting (and perfectly clear). But one problem I see is that in fact in the past religion was supposed to include everyone, and in many places still is.

    I think the basic point though is exactly why people like Giles Fraser balk. The irrational beliefs are a feature, not a bug. Thanks very much, Julian, but we don’t want to drop them. Without them…it’s just some people sitting in a church for no particular reason.

  3. Ewan Macdonald says

    A rare and very welcome journey into the reasonable from the Heathen’s Progress series. I have to hand it to him, as much as he is scrambling for a false centre he is at least very much willing to see where it takes him, and that he’s likely to find it rather lonely there.

    Regarding “inquiry”, this seems to becoming a bit of a religious meme in the UK at the moment. Now that they’re not so much in a position to tell people what to do, those of a theistic bent get to ask the “big questions” instead.

    I have a fair bit of sympathy for the transcendent, the contemplative tradition. What I don’t think is that it necessarily entitles someone more right to ask questions than it does the next person (which places me in trembling, quavering opposition to the Archbishop of Canterbury); and (as Julian, I think, would acknowledge if he had a longer word count and more time) that representatives of the major religions even fit that bill especially well. As for those who follow the more belief-based religions, well, I think your article on the Rabbi and the queen summed that one up nicely. I don’t really like taking lectures on things like consumerism from people who cosy up to monarchs.

  4. says

    There have been repeated attempts to define some form of naturalized religion over the decades – Dewey was one prominent exponent. They never seem to take on. The core of the enterprise, however – fashioning some community around shared values which might look like a religious community, but that wouldn’t be religious in a traditional sense – strikes me as exceedingly valuable and increasingly necessary. I never fail to meet people who express a deep desire for such communities every time I visit a Humanist group. I don’t this this should be very surprising: we don’t lose our existential needs when we choose not to be religious, and there are few secular spaces in which to satisfy them.

  5. says

    HP and Ophelia, regarding #1 and #2, if I understand you correctly, you are proceeding from an erroneous assumption, which is that the only way to build a strong community (which, I agree, by definition requires rules for inclusion, and therefore exclusion) is around some shared proposition regarding nature or some-such.

    Many communities are built around ethical principles or values, though, and an entirely naturalistic community could be (and has been many times) formed around that shared set of values. Even a commitment to rationalism, in a society with many who have no such commitment, can form such a rallying-point.

    Clearly this excludes those who do not share the values, which provides some of the necessary boundaries for group cohesion. But even if you got to the unlikely point that everyone everywhere shared the values, that’s no reason to believe such a community couldn’t continue (and would mark the triumph of rationalism and secular values, so what’s to complain about?).

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    … establish the credibility of religion …

    With a mission statement like that, how can this project do anything but fail?

  7. karmakin says

    Well, I don’t think either HP or Ophelia are supporting it, but yes, I’ve been told as well that there’s a definite unwillingness to jettison the supernatural elements as they’re seen as a very strong cultural marker. That is, people believing in what is a crazy outlandish idea create stronger communal ties because it means everybody is more invested in the community because of the outlandish idea.

    I don’t really believe it either, and I don’t think it’s necessary. I’d go as far as to say I KNOW it’s not necessary. But that’s what I’ve heard claimed, and it’s why this effort is a fool’s errand. Although maybe it’ll be a good teaching moment for him. Who knows.

  8. anat says

    Perhaps Julian might have been able to get agreement from Yeshayahu Leibowitz if he had asked him before he died in 1994. I recall an interview a questioning young Israeli conducted with him about what he was supposed to believe as a Jew. Leibowitz denied that a Jew was required to believe that the universe was created by God, that the revelation on Sinai was an event that happened in physical reality or that the messiah will arrive (any messiah that arrives is a false messiah, a true messiah is always in the future, always coming). To him Judaism was defined by its praxis. Claiming that God was acting in the physical world was an idolatrous belief to him, as far as I understand.

  9. jamessweet says

    I think I actually approve of what Julian is doing here. He’s giving religion the fair shake that accomodationists are always asking for, but doing it for real, with no hiding. Good on him, I think.

    And yeah, so far it seems to be vindicating our position :)

  10. says

    HP @ #1: “There has to be at least one supernatural or irrational claim at the center of any religion, or there’d be no way to identify outsiders.”

    Yes, I would go along with that, up to a point. Except that the functioning group is not the believers in the religion, but the members of a congregation or sect of a subset of that ‘religion’. Catholicism evolved its own way of handling the desire to be different, but Protestantism exploded into thousands of churches and sects.

    My favourite example is the Baptists, who parted company with the water-sprinkling mainstream, insisting instead for full-body immersion, preferably in a river. Study the history of it all and you find that each schism is led by some charismatic preacher wanting to be pope of a small church, rather than having to submit to some other cleric’s authority.

    If you have not aleady done so, you might find a few inspired thoughts in the writings of Emile Durkheim: the group worships itself.

    PS: A great threadstarter here from Ophelia.

  11. Deepak Shetty says

    something that many religious people understand intuitively – even though they might not express it explicitly.
    Bwah ha ha ha.
    I wonder if I could have answered my science exams with this.
    Julian’s exercise seems pointless though – you’d have to ask the average guy on the street, not the liberal. There’s barely a believer who thinks that prayer never works with whatever miraculous intervention that needs.

  12. says

    HP @ #1: “There has to be at least one supernatural or irrational claim at the center of any religion, or there’d be no way to identify outsiders.”

    This is a tempting thought, and there may be something to it. But there’s an assumption here that there is no way to identify out-groups without these (wrong, effectively) beliefs. I suspect differentiation could be made along gradations of reasonable beliefs, because , for example, insufficient evidence is available to come to a solid conclusion about the facts. As one or two others have hinted, morality has been, and continues to provide grounds for reasonable disagreement.

    Further, it’s possible that an equatorial tribe could, like Hume’s Indian Prince, develop a belief in a ‘supernatural’ form of water, in solid form, which would separate them from nearby tribes, who would scoff at their solid water belief (it being irrational based on their experience of water). Then westerners arrive, with ice, and it turns out their irrational belief was correct all along. So an irrational belief may not be a wrong (nor of course a supernatural) belief to achieve the effect you’re after.

    Beliefs that confound everyday experience do seem to be easily labelled supernatural, which does rather point to the difficulties of that concept, as has been discussed before.

  13. Egbert says

    I would say delusion (or insanity) rather than supernatural beliefs. The idea that beliefs form the core of religion is to make out that religious persons are at heart reasonable about their religion. It always comes down to faith, and that comes closest to describing the delusion.

  14. says

    Julian Baggini said:

    Could it be that the common ground I’m looking for is not one centred on belief at all, but something else, such as a commitment to certain values around enquiry and coexistence?

    However, with the rejection of article 3 by quite a few of the respondents, we have already established that there’s a problem here too – that in fact, we don’t share common values of inquiry with a large group of believers.

  15. Cassanders says

    @ James Croft, (nov. 30, 6:28)
    ————————————–Beginquote

    But even if you got to the unlikely point that everyone everywhere shared the values, that’s no reason to believe such a community couldn’t continue (and would mark the triumph of rationalism and secular values, so what’s to complain about?).
    —————————————Endquote

    Methinks this is a beautiful but very utopian belief(sic).

    The proto-anarchist P.J. Prouhon had a fairly interersting glimpse of insight: “If all men are my brothers, I have no brothers”. Meaning: The reald-world “content” of the concept brother is diluted beyond usefulness if expanded “infinitely”.

    We belong to a species where empathy is not uniformly distributed and directed, for very straightforward biological reasons.
    I seriously doubt we ever can establish a functional extended family encompassing everybody. We can and should however strive to find better ways for “metaccoperation” between effective extended familites.

    Cassanders
    Quis mutos loqui?

  16. Ken Pidcock says

    Armstrong:

    There needs to be some acknowledgement that the ‘supernatural being’ is only a symbol of transcendence – something that many religious people understand intuitively – even though they might not express it explicitly.

    Such an exquisite courtier’s reply. So concise and so opaque. We are in the presence of a master bullshit artist.

  17. says

    It’s so very condescending for the accomodationists to speak for the importance of religion for the masses, and how unfortunate it is that hoi polloi do not really understand the “sophisticated theology” that underlies their apparent (unsophisticated) belief systems. It reminds me of a man who told me that he was opposed to the promotion of skepticism and atheism – not that he was much of a believer himself, you understand, but he “feared for a world without God”.

    Meantime, this unsophisticated religion that we are told is of no consequence brings us fathers who, in an effort to correct offences against God, drown their daughters (and the mother who gave birth to them): http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1094832–dimanno-elopement-was-the-only-escape-shafia-trial-told

  18. Vicki says

    I know some people who practice Judaism that way: for them, it’s about a community with shared values, and rituals to mark certain events (such as naming a child, marriage, funerals and commemorating the anniversaries of a death). But even within that approach, there are a wide variety of ways to practice: there are Jews who will agree that it’s not essential to believe anything, and then tell other people to accept an array of restrictions that are justified by the belief that God said these things. And that community that is held together by practice and supports an array of progressive ideas also includes people who do believe in God; theism isn’t forbidden, it’s just not the center of how they do it.

    The group I’m thinking of is exceptional (at least statistically); I’m aware of it mostly because my girlfriend is a member. Judaism-as-praxis doesn’t come with any specific set of views on other questions, the ones that are a lot more important to the rest of us, like acceptance of same-sex relationships.

  19. says

    Deen –

    However, with the rejection of article 3 by quite a few of the respondents, we have already established that there’s a problem here too – that in fact, we don’t share common values of inquiry with a large group of believers.

    Exactly. I think that was a really odd choice of common value.

    As Deepak hinted, that thing Armstrong said is really a masterpiece of arranging things so that she is right no matter what – in short, of unfalsifiability.

    There needs to be some acknowledgement that the ‘supernatural being’ is only a symbol of transcendence – something that many religious people understand intuitively – even though they might not express it explicitly.

    Right. Armstrong knows that many religious people understand that God=a symbol even though they won’t say so. Armstrong, like God, can see into their heads. Armstrong knows (no doubt intuitively) that many religious people think exactly what she thinks. How very convenient.

  20. Rrr says

    Armstrong, like God, can see into their heads. Armstrong knows (no doubt intuitively) that many religious people think exactly what she thinks. How very convenient.

    Unlike her, I am not able to see into other people’s heads, so I have absolutely no idea why she won’t change her name to Headstrong! (Carin’ can stay, just adjust the seppling.)

  21. Rieux says

    At the risk of beating a personal dead horse, I have to submit what I think is an unavoidable conclusion that Baggini’s proposals have never been noticed within Unitarian Universalist circles. If they had been, I have to think that prominent UUs—clergy and others—would be on them like white bread on peanut butter and jelly. I could imagine UUs stating the same belief vs. action (doxy vs. praxy) quibble as some of the religious folks quoted in the post here, and others joining Armstrong in complaining about a lack of “nuance” (read: intentional foggy imprecision)—but otherwise, Baggini’s proposal is not only compatible with UUism, it’s damn near synonymous with it.

    Not incidentally, Unitarian Universalism is a tiny denomination far out on the fringe of the liberal wing of American religion. Its market share within the U.S. religion market, though it has always been exceedingly small, has been declining further for decades.

  22. Jeff D says

    Christopher Hitchens’s joke that is relevant to Rieux’s last comment:

    Q. What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian?

    A. Someone who rings your doorbell for no particular reason.

    Along the same lines, back in the early 1970s, Herman Kahn said, in an interview, that the true American religion is a bet-hedging version of Unitarianism: There is at most one god, and we worship him if he exists.

  23. Kevin says

    I still have this feeling that Julian doesn’t get out much.

    Just yesterday, my local TV news featured a “heartwarming” story about a little girl who had a life-threatening illness. Well, not exactly life-threatening, but as a 1-year-old she was going to have to have … GASP … surgery to correct a defect in her brain.

    And her father (a pastor of some such) at a local church wrong a song about how his daughter’s suffering taught him so much about the “miracles” wrought by god. Real, live, interfere with the laws of nature “miracles”.

    Really? That’s a miracle? Your daughter having a brain abnormality that’s correctable with surgery?

    A real miracle would have been the thing fixing itself…or never existing at all in any child ever.

  24. Jurjen S. says

    I’m a bit disappointed that Baggini hasn’t actually sprung the trap. He set it, and he’s allowed it start closing, but he’s now or less announced that the trap is there and is closing and maybe somebody will wander in or out at some point.

    Still, preliminary results do indeed indicate that “gnu atheist strawman” is not, in fact, a straw man and the sophisticated and enlightened emperor of Eagletonia is indeed naked.

    And great Ghu, Armstrong is indeed full of shit.

    […] the ‘supernatural being’ is only a symbol of transcendence – something that many religious people understand intuitively – even though they might not express it explicitly.

    Utter bollocks. I’m sure that religious people, if driven into a corner, would happily seize onto that rope ladder if someone dangled it in front of them, but the reason they don’t express it explicitly is because that isn’t their understanding of the “supernatural being” at all. Just like in real life, nobody actually thinks of God as “the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves” as Eagleton has claimed.
    “In the Condition of Possibility we trust”?
    “La Condition de Possibilité et mon Droit”?
    “Sic Condicio Potestatis nobiscum, quis contra nos”?
    “For the Condition of Possibility of Any Entity Whatsoever so loved the world that it gave its one and only Son, whose Condition of Possibility it also was, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”?
    Does any of that sound even remotely plausible? Nilla, please.

  25. Becca says

    […] the ‘supernatural being’ is only a symbol of transcendence – something that many religious people understand intuitively – even though they might not express it explicitly.

    I’ve been trying to figure out what this means. What on earth is a symbol of transcendence?

  26. julian says

    @Becca #26

    A stand in for a feeling Ms. Armstrong can’t explain, measure or compare to others and likely has no way of knowing you or anyone else feel, are lacking or had a name for before she got posed that question.

    Hope that helps.

  27. says

    Becca, I’ve been wondering that myself. I mean, I’ve seen Armstrong say that many times, but at some point after doing this post I paused to wonder a little more just what she thinks she means by it. I was thinking of writing a little more about it.

    Partly it’s what julian says – just an impressive mumble that doesn’t mean anything. Partly maybe it’s wanting a better version of what humans are. But partly it’s one of the more disgusting aspects of religion – disdaining everything we actually have and know for the sake of an idea of something elsewhere. One of the things I really hate about Armstrong is her insistence on glorifying that kind of thing.

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