Tag Archives: atheism

Defined by opposition

Some people seem to be having an identity crisis of late. Far more words than necessary have been spilled over whether or not Britain is a “Christian” country – a debate whose only endpoint seems to be applying an adjective to a collective group of some 63m or so people in the hope of electorally appealing to the proportion of those that identify as such.

The prime minister’s comments, coming after talking about his faith but before calling the police when the bishop of Oxford came to visit, prompted the utterly predictable backlash from the British Humanist Association (BHA). Beyond the futile question as it stands, the debate (if you can call it that) is symptomatic of a wider issue of how we define ourselves either as individuals, communities or societies.

One thing I have begun to notice of late is how we often define ourselves in terms of what we are not. I’ve been known to do it myself sometimes. It seems as though it is easier to express ourselves via some means of negation than it is of affirmation. Or at least, if there is some affirmation is quickly followed by a clarification which is expressed by negation. In other words, saying, “I’m X. But by X, I don’t mean Y” where Y might be confused or conflated with X, or may be thought to be some sort of subgroup of X.

In the case of the BHA it may (rightly) be saying we are not explicitly a christian country but without offering any kind of positive alternative.

I might wonder if there is some kind of Popperian sense of falsification going on in some of our heads. To take the work of one of the signatories, Richard Dawkins, for example, in The Extended Phenotype he was very keen to repeatedly point out that his formulation of evolution was not Lamarckian. Here, he provides good evidence which seems to go some way to falsifying the position he is countering. Though in so doing, one must be careful to fairly and accurately portray what one might be defined against, or else fall prey to the straw man fallacy (not that I am suggesting that Dawkins did this in The Extended Phenotype).

I might guess that our tendency to be drawn to the straw man is because it is easier to look to another and say that we are not like them rather than articulate a positive statement about what it is we believe and stand for. And it is, I would posit, easier to besmirch  a view we disagree with it and be loose in doing so than to put forward a tightly argued proposition of our own.

Apart from intellectual laziness, one of the dangers is potentially to throw the baby out with the bathwater. To take an example, I know a lot of people for whom the term ‘Calvinism’ is one of the greatest evils in the world. By running as far away from any hint of it, much of the good and right things that Calvin wrote (though I wouldn’t agree with everything he wrote and wouldn’t usually call myself a Calvinist) may be left behind.

If we were to move to another area of interest, I sometimes wonder about particular expressions of atheism. One wonders how such an idea might be articulated if there were not such a thing as theism against which it could lean.

I’m not really making a point here, just musing out some thoughts on a Friday lunchtime. Do  you see others (or even yourself) trying express their identity in terms of what they are not?

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Sympathy for atheists (part 2 of 2) – some frustrations

One of the frustrations I have in discussing matters of faith and ‘religion’ with atheists, which I don’t get when discussing with people of other faiths, is the insistence that the primary issue is whether or not God exists. But, as I said in part 1, to critique someone’s point of view, it helps if you try to see things from that point of view, even if you don’t hold to it yourself.

So in looking at atheism, which is not merely a rejection of christianity, but of any ‘religion’ that may be described as theistic, I do have a great deal of sympathy. After all, if the existence of God had been proved there would be no need for much further discussion and we could all agree. But the fact remains that God’s existence has not been proved. There is still doubt and disbelief, and that is not entirely irrational.

Where my frustration lies is with those who I would describe as more fundamentalist to whom this is seen as a blocking problem. i.e. one which must be resolved fully and finally before any other progress can be made. When I try to speak of the good work of many a philosopher and theologian over the centuries, who have wrestled with a great many of these ideas and those related to them, I often get a response back that theology is “nothing more than weasel words” or a play on semantics or some other similar kind of put-down.

That point of view I have little sympathy for. Imagine for a moment that I am a sceptic about chemistry. Having read a little chemistry, I know that the whole science is dependent upon the interaction of electrons and their “orbits” or quantum shells. But this imaginary sceptic doubts whether there is such a thing as an electron. “Show me one,” I demand. “Let me hold it in my hand and turn it over so that I may examine it.” The chemist friend, who is extremely patient, explains that one cannot hold an electron in the hand as one might hold a coin. He pulls up a blackboard and does some illustrative diagrams, though he explains that these are models which represent the behaviour of electrons, but which are not necessarily 100% accurate depictions thereof. He does some fancy demonstrations by throwing group 1 metals into water, putting nails into acid and setting fire to the resulting gas. He does everything he can with the means available to his disposal to show me that chemistry is real. I turn to him and say, “That’s just trying to weasel your way with coloured flames and powders. You haven’t shown me a single electron.”

The frustration that the chemist would feel at my imaginary dunce is the frustration that I do feel for those who would ask for a proof of God before looking at any other aspect of christianity. For me, and also for many other christians, the route to belief leaves a big clue in the name – Christ. Though my understanding is that Christ is a title, the same as Messiah, which is attributed to Jesus. So when referring to the person I will tend to refer to Jesus rather than to Christ.

Going after the historical Jesus

Given that this christian’s faith is grounded in the person of Jesus, if any wish to dissuade me from my belief (as you are perfectly entitled to do) then this must be the starting point, rather than an attempt to start with the question of God.

Logically, there’s nothing wrong the latter approach. If the idea of God could be disproved then not only would christianity fall but so would most religions. In this respect, it’s a prize that any atheist should desire, if being right is their aim. Yet it is because the idea of God varies so much from one religion to the next, that trying to disprove its existence is a tricky task.

There certainly have been efforts made to try to discredit Jesus, though some of these fall prey to the same kind of bad apologetics I alluded to before. Here, I think specifically of adherents to the Christ Myth hypothesis, who believe, contrary to evidence, that Jesus never existed. Even Richard Dawkins has backed away from such extreme irrational revisionism!

To discredit the figure of Jesus would only result in the falsification of christianity. To try to discredit all other religions would require more effort. This would put to the test those who not only do not believe in a god, but who also claim that not believing in a god is an insignificant part of their lives. I see whole twitter feeds, comment profiles and blogs dedicated to telling us how much of a non-issue it is for them. Yet such an effort would be needed to allay the suspicion that atheism is a lazy cop-out, a non-thought process. I’m sure there a number of things we don’t believe in, but the truth is we either don’t give them much attention or we have a glib answer to hand.

To those who do not think much about the matter, I can understand that. There are a great many things in this world to worry about, competing for our attention. So why should you pay attention to the guy on the street corner yelling out random things interjected with the word ‘Jesus’ every now and then. I don’t expect you to know the difference between a Mormon and a Jehovah’s Witness, let alone why neither of them are typically regarded as christians, in spite of seemingly having so much in common with your friend who says she goes a pentecostal church, or your uncle, the lifelong anglican. It’s absolutely to fine for you to have your (non-)belief and I don’t find there anything wrong with that. I might disagree with you, but if so, let us sit down and reason together.

To those who have thought about the matter, and admit as much, I commend you. It takes guts to be willing to take a serious look at something you disagree with. I would have some questions to ask you, though maybe I’ll save those for another time.

Conclusion

I suppose my point is this: atheists and christians often talk at cross-purposes. For a christian to speak of God, we do not all speak with the same understanding or viewpoint. I speak from my own perspective, many aspects of which will be familiar and shared with a wide range of christians from a number of denominations and those of none. There are ideas of God which I reject, such as the depictions of an old man with a large beard in the clouds, a sky fairy or kind of invisible puppeteer. I know of no christian whose beliefs are expressed as such, or which could be fairly described likewise.

Theology is not so much a study of God, as a searching of God. It cannot be contained in a cage to have Its behaviour studied, to see how it reacts to certain stimuli. In part 1, I mentioned an ordo fides that the christian has. In this respect, God is best seen as a sort of tentative ‘conclusion’, but not a ‘conclusion’ that is ever finalised, if you get what I mean. I know I’m playing loosely words there, but I admit I struggle to find the perfect expression. But one person’s ‘conclusion’ should not be another person’s starting point. To do so misses out on a wealth of reasoning and nuance which may not be readily apparent from a concise statement of conclusion – such as a creed or other statement of faith.

To be an atheist can be to be wholly independent of any religion. That is, a viewpoint of non-belief that is purely a vaccum, not referencing any other viewpoint, whether “religious” or not. It need not be though, and of those that I ‘meet’ on the internet, in particular their atheism is formulated with specific reference to a number of religions, in particular the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Islam, Christianity and Catholicism (where I am careful to distinguish the latter two, though many conflate them  – incorrectly in my view).

It is almost inevitable that any prolonged discussion between a christian and an atheist will involve some level of disagreement. What I would hope need not be necessary is any form of insult, ridicule or hectoring. Because there is a great risk of talking past one another, or of possibly making assumptions about what another person does and doesn’t believe, why not listen to one another? Don’t assume you know what another person thinks, but hear them out before interjecting with any clarifications. Be aware that another may be approaching a subject from a completely different angle, couching their reasoning in different terms and with different emphases.

By all means, we should challenge one another and permit ourselves to be challenged. Only, if you do, don’t demand everything on your own terms. An atheist might want to discuss the question of God’s existence, but if that’s not the way a christian naturally approaches the issue, don’t be surprised if the response seems oblique. Likewise, to any christian that might wish to challenge an atheist, listen to what they have to say first; don’t project onto them the views of others who may hold similar views. If we can base discussions on these foundations, then I would hope that there may be a lot less unnecessary disagreement and that any disagreements remain solely on the things which matter to each of us in our shared humanity.

Sympathy for atheists (part 1 of 2)

It’s probably fair to say that I spend a reasonable amount of my spare time questioning and investigating my faith. This involves not only my own critical thinking, but also reading both proponents and opponents of my faith. I won’t agree with all, but I think it’s better to be well-informed of as many relevant viewpoints as one can reasonably manage without being confuddled by the noise. Indeed, if you look through my fairly eclectic reading, I hope you’ll see a fair array of views present. The idea behind this is somewhat akin to “iron sharpens iron.” i.e. the better quality the opposition I engage with, the more refined my understanding will become. Of course, if anything is revealed to me which falsifies any idea I’ve had, and it stands up when scrutinised, tested, etc. then the most logical course of action is to change my mind.

It would be my hope that any other person who regards themselves as a rationalist would recognise this as being a fair description of their worldview. You might choose to word it slightly differently, but I think the essence of the idea is there.

So when it comes to christianity, there are two different sorts of opposition. One would be someone who at claims to be a christian (see here for a longer discussion on this) but who holds a very different viewpoint. An example of this would be Marcus Borg, who would say he is a christian, but who thinks that the history is less relevant than the “more than literal” meaning of the christian message. The other kind of opposition would be atheistic, whereby the claims of christianity are thought to be false.

This is where I come to the slightly provocative title of this post. I have lot of sympathy for atheists who, very rightly, would wish to counter a christian viewpoint. The reason I have this sympathy is the great variety of beliefs that are held by different christians. Not only that, but to those who don’t live and breathe christianity, it’s not always clear what is an essential belief held by christians and what might be incidental.

If one is to provide an incisive critique into christianity, then it helps to try to view things from a christian’s perspective. One of the attacks I read and hear most frequently is the attack on the idea of a God.  Yet I do not know of many christians for whom this is their starting point. Though it is true that without God, christianity would be a nonsense, it is not the start and end of christian belief. To say that God is the Alpha and Omega does not mean to say that a belief in God is all there is, it is a more poetic statement about the cosmos. As has been demonstrated repeatedly by a number of christian/atheist discussions, there is little agreement about what one might mean by ‘god’ – at one end you might come up with such a pithy definition that it lacks any depth or understanding; it is barely an outline, bearing little resemblance to the portrayals made of God in scripture, art, belief and apologetics throughout history. At the other end of the scale, one might try to come up with a highly detailed and nuanced view of God. One of the many dangers here, though, is that few other christians would wholly agree with the description given. In this case, one must go through every understanding of God and attempt to refute each in turn; a task which is surely too great for any one person to attempt.

There is a wider question of whether or not any description of God could ever be said to be accurate. I would argue, somewhat apophatically, that the answer to this must be ‘no’. However, before I lunge down the route of mysticism, I would give a kataphatic response that we can get a glimpse, a beginning of understanding. To me, that beginning is found in the person of Jesus.

Of course, and this may have occurred to you, that the opening line of the Apostles’ Creed is a statement expressing belief in the existence of God. This, I will admit, is a personal bugbear of mine as the authors of the creed seem to be trying to work somewhat chronologically through the bible rather than express what I would refer to as an ‘order of belief’ – an ordo fides, if you will. To my way of thinking, I go by Jesus’ sayings that “no one can come to the father except through me.” and “he who has seen me has seen the father” [John 14:5-14].

In practice, I don’t know of many people at all who are christians because they first believed in the existence of God and then somehow progressed on from there to christianity. So even though I am happy to describe myself as a theist, and have no issue with anyone describing me as such, it is secondary to my being a christian.

The bible and apologetics don’t always help

Another area of sympathy for atheists comes from the area of christian apologetics. Though there is some that I like and find quite stimulating, there is, quite frankly, a load of old guff out there. But why is apologetics needed? Surely the key source material for christian belief, the bible, has the answers?

Sadly, not. The question of the existence of God is barely addressed in the bible. Aside from a particularly unhelpful little quip in Psalm 14 and a less than convincing appeal to the argument from design at the start of Romans, there is very little in the 66 books which set out a case. Instead, God is very much a factor which is assumed. It was only much later that the question began to be posed and the idea of God doubted and disbelieved. Only then was there a need for apologetics.

However, the field is cursed by a problem. That is, those who are christians already (in most cases) accept the conclusions before they hear the argument. This creates a predisposition to agreeing with the argument, regardless of its validity. Thus, many a well-meaning christian has parroted a line of bad reasoning. Though before my fellow christians accuse me of being an infidel, I would point out that the same is true of many an atheist. If you read the Amazon reviews of something like God is not Great or The God Delusion, you will find a great many reviews there are from atheists who have read those books to reinforce their confirmation bias. So no one group is entirely free from what I think is a very natural tendency to seek out the like-minded.

That’s it, for now

I do have a few more points to make, but I shall leave for those for later, as this is getting quite long. In case those points address concerns you may have now, I’ve not opened comments on this piece; you’ll have to wait until the 2nd part next week.

Book Review: Dialogues and Natural History of Religion by David Hume

A word first on the precise book I read, as I am aware that the works of David Hume have been published under various similar titles but with different contents. This version was published by Oxford University Press and has an introduction written by John C.A. Gaskin. The bulk of the book is made of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and The Natural History of Religion. It also contains Hume’s My Own Life, section XI of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and a letter dated 10/03/1751 concerning the Dialogues.

As a freethinking christian, I am advocate of reading views that contradict one’s own. You can see some examples of other such books I have read, including those by Marcus Borg, Christopher Hitchens and Ben Whitney. When I asked Simon Clare for a recommendation of such a book, he mentioned Hume in passing, but ultimately recommended Whitney. Though I thought it would be worthwhile having a read of some of Hume’s work.

The inclusion of section XI of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding was a little odd, as the notes reference other sections which weren’t included in this volume.

The bulk of the book is made up of the Dialogues, which I confess came as quite a pleasant surprise as I was not expecting a classic work of atheistic thinking to be quite so good. The thing that struck me most was the format. I’ve not read a work like it since I did Plato’s Republic quite some years ago. Instead of a straightforward exposition, Hume has created several characters who enter into a protracted discussion. In so doing, the notes to the book state that Hume somewhat disguises what his own view is. The two main characters are Cleanthes (who dominates the early part of the discussion) and Philo (who dominates the latter part). There is also Demea who interjects occasionally. Though Demea is not cast as a simpleton, as Galileo did in a similar dialogue which got him in an awful lot of trouble, he is regarded as an earnest believer and is not as nuanced as Cleanthes.

In setting up a dialogue as he has done, Hume somewhat disguises what his own view was. Cleanthes is, roughly, the reasonable believer while Philo is the extreme sceptic. Which of these represent Hume’s voice? The notes attached, and a few comments I’ve seen when looking into it, say that Philo represents Hume’s true view. Given the body of the other writings in this volume, that is an understandable point of view. Though in the letter about the Dialogues which is included, Hume explicitly states that he sides with Cleanthes. The notes try to dismiss this by stating it was a typo, though I’m not so sure.

As for the contents of the Dialogues themselves, they can be roughly divided up into two parts. In the first, the existence of God is assumed and then the question is posed as to what we might discern about the nature and character of God by mere observation of the world around us. In so doing, Hume deliberately blinkers the conversation by limiting it to “natural religion” and excludes any consideration of history. In this first part, the ultra-sceptic Philo puts in his objections occasionally but is typically well-countered by Cleanthes. However, having started with the fairly narrow premise of what might be inferred about God, it is of little surprise that the answers which emerge are very limited. An interesting point raised in the notes in that this first half is meant to be a counter-argument to the argument from design, though it was written before William Paley’s famous, influential and nowadays disregarded work, Natural Theology. I say it is meant to be a counter-argument rather than it is a counter-argument as it seems to me that Hume and the participants in his fictional dialogue rather side-step the issue and merely present other, reasonable possibilities so that one could only conclude that natural theology is not compelling, rather than showing it to be false.

The second half of the Dialogues turns the question around and Philo takes to the fore. Instead of taking the existence of God as obvious, this is now called into question and instead, the participants look at whether the existence of God is necessitated by what we observe from the world around us. Crucial to this is the classic question attributed to Epicurus, the question of theodicy. In so doing, Hume examines four “sources” of evil and there is a discussion on each in turn, though I did feel that a proper definition of ‘evil’ was somewhat lacking, making the discussion amenable to the prejudices of the participants (i.e. the different voices in Hume’s head which he wrestles with). Consequently, the conclusions of the discussions may be somewhat skewed away from the rational objectivity for which he strives. It is interesting to note that at this point in the dialogues Demea departs, though no particular reason is given; it seems to me that Hume is saying something along the lines of, “given that all has been said, the devout believer has no choice but to concede defeat and leave.” Though I admit, that is just my interpretation. Yours may be different.

I also admit that I used the word ‘conclusion’ in the preceding paragraph rather loosely, as Hume does not really come to any succinct verdict. He certainly doesn’t go so far as to say that he has disproved God, which is what I was expecting, given the book’s reputation as a classic work of atheism. Instead, he merely goes so far as to demonstrate reasonable doubt.  Yet this is, as I said earlier, reasonable doubt on a single strand of theological thought, that of natural theology. If anything, he well demonstrates that this strand alone is insufficient to base a belief of God on. In this, I would agree with him. Though it is Hume’s own limited scope that leaves open much more to be explored. My own faith, for example, though I am fascinated by the fine-tuning question in physics, do not hurry down the path of teleology which tends to lead to the God-of-the-gaps argument. Instead, I take fine-tuning as a possible indication of the providence of God, but I hold it tentatively, aware that it might be wrong. The rock of my faith, however, is the person of Jesus, who, if memory serves me correctly, does not get a single mention in the Dialogues. If he does, then he is certainly not a central figure. Neither is Abraham or David or the Buddha or Muhammad.

So what then, of the follow-up, The Natural History of Religion? The introductory notes states that it was unusual for it to be partnered with the Dialogues, as the Natural History was considered an inferior work, though the editor of this volume wished for them to be paired. In this respect, I would agree with the prevailing view as the Natural History contains far fewer points of relevance.

As an aside, if you read the Natural History (and to some extent, the latter parts of the Dialogues) one may see why the so-called “New Atheism” is really not all that new. The starting premise, though unstated, is that all religion must be untrue. This is assumed, without reason or evidence. The question which then arises, and which this book attempts to answer, is “Where did religion come from?” The answers which Hume gives are, sadly, all too frequently echoed today by the internet atheists one meets on discussion forums whose knowledge and understanding of any religion is shaped predominantly from a few years of attending church as a child, followed by confirmation bias of listening to and reading the naysayers as adults. So we find here an attempt at understanding the evolution of monotheistic thought out of polytheism. There is a discussion likening beliefs in gods to belief in elves and pixies. Yet nowhere does Hume draw on any historical evidence for his assertions. They are stated as though they should be taken at face value, which I doubt even his arch-sceptic, Philo, would have done.

It was a disappointing end to the volume, as I must admit I really rather liked the Dialogues. They have much to offer and much to mull over. Certainly, anyone who wishes to delve into the idea of teleology should only do so if they pay heed to Hume tapping on their shoulder, warning them of fruitless alleyways of thought. Yet to include the Natural History of Religion without tackling the very real historical figures of Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad, to name just three, is to miss the point entirely. That said, I would recommend that anyone who might regard themselves as a christian, a catholic, a Jew or a Muslim, should read Hume.  Though he does little to challenge the specifics of faith, the philosophical musings on what we might know about the nature of God and how we know it is of great value. His case for the reasonableness of doubt is well made and is one that I agree with, even though I do not go so far as some readers of Hume might to do allow doubt to fester into disbelief.

Return from blogging break

Picture courtesy of Damian Gadal (Creative Commons)

Picture courtesy of Damian Gadal (Creative Commons)

Hello all. I’m back from my blogging break. There’s been an awful lot happening in the last couple of months. There have been lots of thoughts running through my head that have gone by without being written down or explored. I’ve made a few comments on other blogs or news/comment websites, but taking a break from the blog was necessary and I think it’s done some good.

I must confess that I have done some writing during the ‘off’ period, mostly in August. Though many are not finished, I thought I’d give a taster of what’s to come, either to whet your appetite or else warn you to stay away.

At some point, I plan to finish my series ‘The Nature and Origin of Morality’ which has lain dormant for a few years now. I tried an initial sketch when the opportunity arose when guest blogging for The Big Bible blog a few months ago, but I hope to build on this if I get a few days uninterrupted to think and write.

One of the main reasons for the break has been that I moved house. I have written two bits on this. One is a detailed account of the process; the other is a list of hints and tips that I either employed and found useful or things I wish I had done but didn’t. The former was written more for my own reference, but some of you may find it interesting. The latter is more for your benefit or, if I word it correctly for search engine optimisation (SEO) it might help a complete stranger.

Over the summer, one of the big buzz topics has been feminism and the online reaction to some of its outspoken advocates. I’ve commented a little on some points and offered messages of support who have been victims of online bullying, but this piece will hopefully clarify my position of why I will support many feminists but why I don’t adopt the term myself, preferring the expression ‘egalitarian’.

Another topic, as triggered by the cases of Julian Assange, Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden is that of whistleblowing. I think, given this name of this blog, I ought to explore the nature of speaking the truth and what consequences that has and whether there ought to be any restrictions on doing so.

I’m working on a couple of pieces on christian belief, atheism and existentialism with the slightly provocative working titles of ‘Sympathy for atheists’ and ‘On the non-existence of God’. These are quite embryonic in their development and have yet to start their journey from my brain to my fingertips.

One piece that I started a couple of years ago, but have struggled with the wording explores the fallibility of human nature and the wrongdoings that are committed by christians, sometimes in the name of christianity. I’ve restarted it a couple of times and shelved it again and again. This time, I’m aiming to finish it. If you can goad me on or offer encouragement, then that’ll be much appreciated.

The most ambitious project, which I’ve started work on, but am a long way (maybe 2-3 years) from finishing is a statement of faith. I realise that I don’t have anything like that which is at all thorough on this blog, so my intention is to look at the 129 questions of the Heidelberg Catechism, looking at the answers given and giving my own response. I’m aiming to do one per week, in the hope that this will be as much an investigation into my own beliefs as it is an exposition. The objective, as ever, will be to provide food for thought.

In amongst these, I’ll also be putting in some book reviews. Specifically, these are:

Thinking in Numbers – Daniel Tammet
Dogmatics in Outline – Karl Barth
Borders: A Very Short Introduction – Alexander Diener & Joshua Hagen
From the Earth to the Moon – Jules Verne
Longitude – Dava Sobel
A Broad Place – Jurgen Moltmann
Dialogues and Natural History of Religion – David Hume
Around the Moon – Jules Verne
Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction – Timothy Gowers
History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories – H.P. Lovecraft
Robotics:A Very Short Introduction – Alan Winfield
Confessions – Augustine of Hippo

So that’s the plan. I can’t say it’s all a promise I’ll stick to. I may well get stuck with some of these posts and have to shelve them for a while. Other things may crop up which will intrude, either because they are interesting or there is some need that must be addressed. Meanwhile, the offer is always open to host any guest writers. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested. If you’ve got things you’d like to see here, whether it be a point of clarification over some issue or just something you think would be interesting, then please send your suggestions in. I’m always on the lookout for further book recommendations. I’ve got a few hundred on my reading list, but it can never be too long.

So what about you? Been up to anything interesting over the summer?

Book Review: Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams

This was one of those books I picked up on the off-chance as I was browsing round a bookshop one lunchtime. I was aware of its existence a little while ago, when it seemed to cause a minor stir among some Anglicans but it seems to have little longer-lasting impact. The first thing to note about it, however, is that it’s not a book that Rowan actually set out to write. Instead, it’s a collection of transcripts of various sermons and lectures he gave between June 2002 and February 2012. Much of the vernacular used for a public address has been kept; in fact, I’m not certain how much editing was done to the transcripts at all, apart from the staff at Bloomsbury occasionally omitting spaces whenever they thought italics were most appropriate, something I hope they will correct in any subsequent print runs.

As the title suggests, the book is largely about how issues of faith and religion play out in public life. The lectures have been ordered by theme, rather than by the order in which they were first given, so as to try to give some kind of coherency to discussions on a quite wide variety of topics. The first two parts of the book, which are the longest and, I think it’s fair to say, the most intricate, are about secularism, multiculturalism, pluralism and the different ways these are perceived, coupled with Rowan’s own thoughts about which is the right path to walk down.

If anything though, these chapters could be skipped, as Rowan summarises it all very nicely in the Preface. The rest is more filling in the details. Crucial to this point of view is the distinction between what he refers to as “procedural secularism” and “programmatic secularism”. The former is a stance where no religious (or non-religious) position is given undue privilege in places of public life, such in government or media. The latter is (though Rowan, if I recall from those early chapters correctly, does not use the phrase) “aggressive secularism” – a term that is too often used, more often than not, incorrectly. It denotes the idea that religion ought to have no place in public life; it should be out of sight, out of mind. He does single out the French for having this view, something I have written a little about some time ago.

Rowan advocates procedural secularism whilst rejecting programmatic secularism, as well as those who advocate the latter under the guise of the former. Though he does not mention by name the National Secular Society, the inference is all too easy to draw.

After this opening, which I warn you gets a little turgid, the book moves onto the application of religious (though mainly christian) thinking into other areas of public life. i.e. after having advocated that christians be allowed a voice in a liberal democracy, here is what one influential christian has to say on matters of environmentalism, justice, finance and community.

What he has to say is well thought through, effortlessly sensible and immensely thought-provoking. That said, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Despite the back cover’s claim that he is “the finest theologian in Britain” (a title reader’s of Hannah’s Child may smirk at), there is very little theology here. This more ‘applied’ theology than ‘pure’ theology, to bring in a mathematical analogy. I suppose it is inevitable that the book would appeal to a christian secularist, such as myself, though I would be interested in reading the thoughts of an atheist secularist on the book.

Book Review: Walking Without God by Ben Whitney

Before beginning the review proper, I need to say a few words about how I came across this small volume.

One of the blogs I occasionally peruse is that of Simon Clare (who operates on Twitter as @FaithlessEye). A little while ago, he posted a review/critique of Thomas à Kempis. I have, for some time, been of the belief that it is a good thing to engage with those with whom you are naturally inclined to disagree. So I was impressed that an atheist would be reading quite an old treatise on christian faith; one, I hasten to add, that I have not read myself. I left a comment asking if there was anything he might recommend for me so that I could do a similar exercise, only from a different angle. Walking Without God was his recommendation.

Whitney begins by giving us an introduction to himself, as a former baptist preacher who has, for some reason, given up his faith, though he doesn’t go into the details of when and why. He simply states his case as he now sees it. The bulk of the book is made of 9 short essays, where he has picked a phrase or a verse from one of the Psalms and looks at what it might mean to think about the subject matter of each quote from a perspective that wants to engage with the idea of ‘spirituality’ but from a perspective without God.

In terms of atheist writing, this is about as far removed from, say, Christopher Hitchens, as one might hope to get. Whitney is almost relentlessly positive. Though he gives some critiques of traditional religion, particularly christianity, these are quite reasonable and never descends into the ranting rhetoric that so marred God is Not Great when I read it last year. One might not expect me to agree with everything that Whitney writes but I probably agreed with more than I disagreed with. He is almost relentlessly positive and espouses a worldview that does not set itself against any other, but rather one that can stand up in its own right. I would wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone of faith or anyone of none.

Probably the aspect of the book that chimed with my own take on the Psalms is the sort of “theologically jingoistic” tone of some Psalms, where the author(s) seem to demonise their enemies. I get raised eyebrows when I mention the topic in christian circles. Rather than give a blow by account of each essay, I shall copy somewhat Whitney’s style, by picking some quotes and saying a little about them. Hopefully, this will give you a little flavour of the book, along with my own responses to a small sample of quotes. Though, whilst I acknowledge my choosing of the quotes may not seem wholly representative of Whitney’s book, I admit I cherry-picked them because I found them interesting points of engagement, I think it reflects that Whitney’s style, as he is not really attempting a full-blown study of the Psalms.

“Religion, including the Christian version of it, is about the ‘big questions’ in life; or it should be.”

I’m not wholly convinced about this. While I think christianity should ask the ‘big questions’ I am not sure that that is the point, nor should it be, of christianity. Rather, christianity is the story of the relationship between God and people. What then differentiates christianity from any other philosophy or religion is how the ‘big questions’ are then looked at in the light of this story. It’s asking the questions in particular context. Though the start of this sentence hints at a generalisation of christianity to religion (similar, in my opinion, to using potatoes to make generalised statements about food) Whitney does avoid this for most of the book, which only adds to his credibility.

“The gospel accounts were written later of course by those who now believed certain things about him so they are not to be trusted as any kind of impartial record.”

I would agree with to an extent. As I write my reviews partly as I’m reading, but partly after I finish, I must confess that this sentence is being written about 4 days after I finished the book. Already, I have moved on and am reading Marcus Borg’s book, ‘Jesus: Uncovering the life, teachings and relevance of a religious revolutionary’. He takes a very similar tack to Whitney here, but then, as a member of the Jesus Seminar, that may not come as a surprise. I will write more about this anon. But for now, I would merely say that to recognise that there is an angle does not mean that the gospels should be disregarded. Scepticism doesn’t mean throwing the historical baby out with the metaphorical bathwater. When it comes to gospel hermeneutics, I would side more with the critical realism of Tom Wright (as espoused in the first half of The New Testament and the People of God) than with Whitney, who seems to be more on the side of Bultmann’s demythologisation programme. I may be wrong about that, but it’s the impression I got.

“I suspect that Jesus has been turned into something he never intended to be and that many subsequent claims made about him are based on misunderstandings, such as taking things literally about his birth and death that were never intended to be seen in that way.”

The question of literalism is indeed a thorny one, as alluded to above. In order to any kind of sensible or coherent opinion, one must ask the question, ‘how did the particular anecdote (or pericope) arise?’ One considers the testimony of Papias of Hierapolis that Mark’s gospel was based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, so it should not be surprising that that particular gospel omits a story of Jesus’ birth. Who then, was the source for Matthew & Luke? It seems most likely that the one person who remained with the disciples after the resurrection who was also present at Jesus’ birth was Mary. The difficulty faced then, when looking at the figure of Jesus, is trying to come up with a sensible and consistent set of criteria that would allow for the distinction between what was the written form of oral history and what were ‘editorial’ embellishments. Whitney doesn’t give any such details, so the reader is left slightly guessing at how Whitney thinks Jesus’ history has been distorted. It would also be worth exploring, in my view at least, precisely what Whitney thinks the original intention was behind the stories of Jesus’ birth and death.

“Religious faith should be a means through which we grapple with and express our deepest emotions, not, as it sometimes seems, a way of repressing them into a set of rules and regulations.”

My response to this epitomises my view of the book. There is little here which I disagree with; I think it’s a very good statement. However, when it comes to saying “faith should” it just seems to be pointing slightly in the wrong direction. Expressions of the christian faith come in many shapes, sizes and colours. I hope readers of this blog get a fair impression of where I stand; what I accept, what I reject and what I am agnostic about. Amongst those that I disagree with are those who hold to something akin to a Pelagian point of view that christianity is about rules and regulations. This may come about by trying to get everyone in society to adhere to your moralistic rules or when routine becomes a ritual which must be observed with pious regularity, usually at the disdain of non-conformists such as myself. That said, I have long been suspicious of christians whose faith is primarily, if not wholly, based on emotions. So while our feelings may inform, colour or shape our beliefs (and indeed vice, versa), neither one should dictate the  other.

“In respectable Victorian Britain city businessmen stopped off at a child prostitute on their way back to their home in the suburbs where the family both stayed together and prayed together.”

This comment towards the end of the book stands out as most unusual when one considers the whole book. It is certainly a novel statement, made seemingly as a statement of fact, though with no evidence offered in its support. I include it here as it highlights the fact that Whitney doesn’t cite any references. I’d be interested as to what support he has for it.

“…Jesus also seems to have taught that the poor and the helpless were at the centre of what he called the ‘kingdom of God’. This is when we are closest to the historical Jesus, whatever the church has done with him since… It is an interesting phrase [and]…is one of the most common phrases in the New Testament and so must be at the heart of what religion is supposed to be about… The rule of God on earth, or ‘the right way of living’ in my understanding, is what matters.”

This reflects possibly a far more insightful view of the christian message than most I have heard either from any atheists or a great many christians. It brings to mind something Tom Wright once said, that the authors of the gospels would take exception to the apostles’ creed, as it jumps from Jesus’ birth straight to his death & resurrection when the gospels actually contain quite a bit about what he said and did in between. Thought I wouldn’t equate God’s rule on earth with ‘the right way of living’ this is a far better portrayal of christianity than the straw man of ‘magical sky pixie’ or similar such terms that get banded about on tiresome internet arguments. For that, I doff my cap to Mr Whitney.