Few takers for sophisticated version of religion

I’m beginning to think Julian set a cunning trap with his Heathen’s Progress series. He started with everybody gets it wrong, it’s more complicated than that. He went on to let’s offer a minimal version of religion and see if all those non-literal (sophisticated, “it’s more complicated than that”) believers will sign up to it. He pointed out that he had the most to lose if they wouldn’t, because he’s been saying that new atheists get it all wrong by ignoring the non-literal sophisticated “it’s more complicated” segment of believers.

If it really is the case that lots of mainstream religious leaders and believers can happily sign up to this, then religion really is the much more benign, unsuperstitious thing that liberals and agnostics have said it is all along. If not, then I hope these voices will concede that theirs is a vision for how religion should be, not as it is, and join in the criticisms of the religions that actually surround us today.

And guess what – they fell into the trap. Jonathan Chaplin said pretty much what we pesky new atheists say – that religion really does include some actual supernatural beliefs.

Baggini’s article 1 requires those occupying his putative common ground to affirm that “to be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices” and that “creeds” are secondary at best. But no one who wishes in any way to stand within historic Christianity could possibly assent to that reductionist assertion.

Well quite – which is what we’ve been saying all along. Karen Armstrong would assent to that assertion – she wrote a whole book making it – but her claims that that view is central and normal are not believable, as Jonathan Chaplin helpfully confirms.

Admittedly, Christians have sometimes been overly preoccupied with defending creedal assertions at the expense of communal practice. But to imply that an insistence that creeds are essential to religion is to be “hanging on to outmoded doctrines” is crassly pre-emptive. It will simply ensure that the “believers” who huddle together with Baggini on his supposed common ground are all rather like the theologian Don Cupitt, who ended up not believing in anything resembling a Christian God, and whom the atheist philosopher AJ Ayer, in a famous television debate invited (I paraphrase) to “come clean and admit you are on our side”.

Exactly. Julian interviewed Cupitt for TPM years ago, and had pretty much the same thought.

Has he been planning the trap all this time? Sly devil.




  1. devdasdavids says

    The question is where he will go next in his series. Will he close the trap, exposing the religious as actually, you know, religious and thereby admit that the “new atheists” have been pretty much right all along? Or will there be more equivocation and dancing around the fence?

    I don’t really mind as long as he gets there (i.e. here!) in the end.

  2. Hamilton Jacobi says


    So while I would certainly claim that my Christian faith requires me to believe that God brings about certain events on earth – including what he calls the spooky ones like the bodily resurrection of Jesus – I won’t accept as a starting point for discussion Baggini’s insistence that these be described as supernatural.

    It’s hard to know what to say to someone who doesn’t think of resurrection from death as supernatural. Yes, according to the second law of thermodynamics, it’s not impossible, just very very very improbable. But I don’t think he knows quite how improbable it is.

    Julian has posted some initial responses to his proposal here. The results are just what you would expect.

  3. Jeff Alexander says

    His articles of 21st-century faith are consistent with what is taught at my synagogue. I consider myself to be religious and have no problems with any of his articles. If there is interest I can provide specific examples of how each of the four articles is consistent with what is taught and practiced at my synagogue.

    I suspect, however, that my synagogue is not the norm with respect to what is taught and practiced.

  4. sailor1031 says

    “Admittedly, Christians have sometimes been overly preoccupied with defending creedal assertions at the expense of communal practice. But to imply that an insistence that creeds are essential to religion is to be “hanging on to outmoded doctrines”

    Well the catholics, who are a large minority of xtians, adhere to both creedal assertions and communal practice. The nicene creed is to this day the official precis of catholic belief. Coupled with the extensive liturgy (prayers for every day and every day a saint’s day), the seven sacraments etc. it forms a rigid religious structure that, if its adherents did but know it, allows no room for individual variation. Where catholics individually, or en groupe at the behest of a progressive parish pastor re-interpret the rigid dogmas and procedures to be less constrictive and more – well sort of ‘woolly’ dontcha kno – they are at risk (like the orders of nuns in america) of being firmly put back into line by the Rcc Inc executive team. Anglicans are largely the same, with the exception of those who are actually catholic in disguise anyway, who already adhere to the strict belief and practice. Baptists? are they”woolly”? not that I have ever seen. There’s a lot of this ‘hanging on to outmoded doctrines’. Maybe Julian is just not quite right about some of this.

    My own belief is that he’s not quite sure where he’s going with all of this. I am very grateful to Ophelia that I don’t have to read it all myself; at 72 life’s way too short!

  5. Ken Pidcock says

    But most religious believers could not accept such an understanding of the supernatural.

    Full stop. Leaving us to wonder what understanding of the supernatural most religious believers could accept.

    D’ya think that alchemical beliefs can legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant?

  6. says

    Jeff – do tell Julian that, if you feel like it. He clearly wants takers! I think it’s easy to find a contact address for him, or I can forward to him if you like.

  7. says

    Thanks for the links to Eric’s posts, Hamilton. I’d seen the earlier one before, but had only glanced at it (being short of time at that particular moment).

    This (from that first one) is telling –

    If you’re a liberal believer, and a member of the Sea of Faith network, for example, the articles simply express what Sea of Faith members already believe about religion. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that Baggini spoke at the Sea of Faith London Conference this year, which was held “in association with The Philosopher’s Magazine.“) So, a Don Cupitt or a Richard Holloway could easily subscribe to the articles. However, in 1994, a young priest, Anthony Freeman, was dismissed from his post as vicar of a parish in the Diocese of Chichester after publishing a small book, God In Us: A Case for Christian Humanism, which expressed precisely the kinds of beliefs that are summarised in Baggini’s articles.

  8. Jeff Alexander says

    I’ll try and contact Julian. Feel free to pass along my comment and email address to Julian.

  9. says

    The lack of interest in Dr Baggini’s proposal might be explained by the lack of credibility of one who can assert that the negation of “A and B” implies the negation of A.

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