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.