Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Apologia or Unapologetic

Francis Spufford

Listening through to the BBC Radio Four programme with Richard Dawkins this morning I couldn't help thinking of the nature of the evidence he demanded for religion. I began making notes to the effect that:

The problem with Dawkins's notion of scientific evidence is that most of life is not in the scientifically evidentiary field but elsewhere, eg individual psychology, social psychology, society at large and the influence of different experiences on different people.

Demanding evidence of love, or even friendship, or of the true impact of events is generally thought to be unrealistic. It is a kind of stupidity to think that religion is dependent on physical propositions about the world. Only stupid religion is dependent on such things.

Thinking on a little further:

This is not to claim that religious dictats should be taken seriously. On the contrary they should be resisted with a general scepticism. I am not really interested in the claims of religion as such - I am concerned with the integrity and unknowableness of people's perceptions of the world. To allow people these perceptions is not to concede that their perceptions are right, only to allow for the possibility that their conditions and perceptions are not of exactly the same kind as concern the field of scientific study.

These thoughts being out in the open, via Facebook, there were plenty of interesting replies. The day before I had read Max Dunbar's piece on Francis Spufford's Guardian critique of the atheist line, or rather its vulgar version.

Having done so, I thought the only fair thing was to read Spufford for myself, so I downloaded his book, Unapologetic, from which the Guardian piece was taken, and quickly read it. Here are my notes, which are simply notes:

The book, though in more chapters, consists of essentially three parts: 1) The nature of religious experience, 2) Yeshua - Jesus as God incarnate, 3) The Church.

The whole reads like an intelligent sermon, in matey sermon tones. I don't much like the tone though I can see why he adopts it. He is clearly a smart, deep-feeling, well-read writer bending over backwards to make his case.

He calls the book Unapologetic and claims it is not an apologia, but that is what it really is. The apologia is primarily addressing the average Guardian-reading, liberal-left sceptic. Leave out the Guardian some of the time and he's in my back garden.

The problem - and I do think it is a problem - is the join between the three parts. You can practically hear him take a deep breath each time, preparing to jump. Parts 1 and 2 and 3 don't follow each other on grounds of necessity: they follow the historical trajectory.

How does it work?

Part one asserts the nature of the experience. It's an existentialist defence. Faith is nothing to do with science or verifiability, he asserts. It is an unverifiable experience. I understand the position and more or less hold it myself. The only trouble with the long list of caricatures of the broadly Christian position he starts with - and which formed half of his Guardian piece - is that they are not without foundation, being based on realities, in so far as the Church has claimed authority on precisely such grounds, and worshippers have resorted to real versions of them. In other words, the caricature isn't made up: like all caricatures it is an exaggerated version of reality.

Part two is very good at carrying us through a version of Christ's mission as intended to appeal to a modern reader. It lays out a parallel existential figure that opposes institutions, including the institution of the self. It embodies the absoluteness of the God of Everything. If Spufford cannot precisely define incarnation he at least offers a model of how it might take form in a historical sense. This is more or less the way I have always understood the story of Jesus which - he tells us this quite clearly - is to be imagined as a story, albeit in real history. There is a show of Biblical scholarship here, Paul's Letters predating the Gospels etc. The defence hinges on imagination - if we can imagine the real figure of Yeshua in visionary terms, he argues, we may go on to understand him as incarnation.

Part three - a spectacularly big jump from anti-institutional Christ to a full-blown institution - is spent in admitting the mistakes and barbarities of the Church while declaring them to be common human faults. He disagrees that the Church is primarily, or uniquely, responsible for various evils, and makes a reasonable fist of the case by pointing out the church's good acts (good by our lights) as well as admitting its bad ones. He then zooms in on the significance of the mass / eucharist / communion experience and takes a CoE ecumenical position regarding the various branches of the Church. This is a bit wishy-washy. He takes on the big political evils and, as a socialist, the idea ofconservatism with a small c. 

In the end he doesn't really address the caricature charges: instead he provides a reading of Christianity that might exist independently of them, as something serious one might consider without extraneous noise. Again, the trouble is that, loud as it is, ithe noise isn't entirely extraneous. If the Church is just another human institution riddled with faults, why is it special? How does it claim authority? And he does tuck away the more awkward parts of the Bible to concentrate on the agreeably challenging passages.

So these are the notes. Why, I wonder, am I trying to address this question at all. Maybe because I find Dawkins a bit juvenile, almost infantile at times. One commenter quoted a Dawkins tweet on the newly appealed case of the nurse forbidden to wear a cross around her neck while on duty:

"Such fun being a victim. Waaaah, I'm allowed to wear my crossywoss only INSIDE my BA uniform, where only God can see it."

Reading that I can't help thinking: Why is a grown-up intelligent  man behaving like a prep-school prat?


Harry said...

Hi George,

Thanks for saving me the reading of one more book!

I tend to agree with your take on young Master Dawkins... he's really doing it to be provocative, I suppose, with his rib caged swelled by the (arrogant?) assumption that reason is on his side in all matters... to me it is a 'reason' though that can't be complete if it does not take the full experiential realities of human life into cosideration (how could it then be fully reasoned?), which includes irrationality; is he proposing some sort of sanitised and therefore inherently inhuman 'reason'-based cutural revolution? Sometimes that's the impression I get.

It does seem to me however that the most authentic religious people are more characterised by a direct experiential doubt than by belief in simple truths created or adopted by their own, small human brains (real doubt I mean, not just cynicism, say). I think artists are in a good position to understand this, as they have to rely on a sort of doubt when they create; they have to empty themselves of certainties in what they are doing in terms of results (to express it in negative terms... big general statement that, but I'm just throwing it out there).



Anonymous said...

As the daughter of parents who were once lapsed catholics but now collapsed catholics i enjoy disscussions of religion. i personally am an atheist however i think i still feel the need for society to have "gods" in its culture for the sake of myth and ritual. i just don't think society has devaloped appropriate alternatives yet. i find Dawkins and his ilk throw babies out with bathwater. In their insistance of denying a god they don't explore the wider functions and effects of religion. They don't preach tolerence and their haranging seems as insecure to me as those who claim a god would care about masturbation. When he tweets like a schoolyard brat he shows no understanding of psychology or faith: no respect for faith as a valid experiance and respect that such things can be a value to the entire human race. i think philosophers are exploring faith more deeply these days and i think Dawkins is as crude as any idealogical preacher.

And harry as an artist that last sentance of yours resonated beautifully with m

Mark Granier said...

Yes, Dawkins can be a prat. He endorsed the 'Brights' Movement and wanted to replace the word atheist with bright (as in, 'I am a Bright'), claiming it was a less off-putting word, apparently oblivious to the provocative implication: Theist=Dim.

And Harry, yes, doubt is a good thing I believe. I worship in the church of doubt, which is partly why the poetry of RS Thomas and Milosz appeal so much to me (though I have room for Larkin's Aubade too). I like Martin Amis's take on agnosticism, as an acknowledgement of ignorance. Now, I'm off to see a programme I taped: Horizon's 'How Small Is The Universe.'

Gwil W said...

As far as I can see, which is probably not very far, 'religion' and 'faith' are two different coins rather than obverse sides of the same coin.

I can't visualize an agnostic having faith by definition i.e. of 'not knowing' but strangely I can imagine an atheist, someone like Dawkins, having a kind of faith in something, it must not be a God, it could be simply in the power of the 'mystery'.

I see religion as a control of people system. You don't even need a lot of police and soldiers if you get everybody to join. Faith on the other hand I see as individuals connecting themselves in their own particular way to the universe/s

George S said...

I suspect we are in broad agreement on these things. The distinction between faith and religion is precisely the one I am concerned to draw. I am, for all that, aware that a one-person faith might, at an extreme, be merely an eccentricity or even madness. I am also aware that people find common ground in their faith and get together to form churches and that each of these churches may vary as much as the churches St Paul spent a lot of his time visiting and writing to.

Eventually these churches become formal institutions (see the third part of Spufford's book) and that brings other potential problems into focus. The houses of religion can be quite different from the faiths of the individuals that comprise them. Hence the orthodoxies and heterodoxies and heresies, and all that follows.

Which is not to say that I personally would want to condemn this or that specific church - just to express a keen scepticism about their nature and a strong resistance to their injunctions.

Harry said...

These are becoming pressing issues with the rise of the Christian right everywhere being encouraged as they are by the political and cultural inroads being made by the fundamentalists in the US.

The guy touted as Northern Ireland's next Minister for Health, for example, is a Young Earth Creationist who believes the earth to be only several thousand years old. All these fossils lying around are just remains of animals from the flood, of course... sigh... why should a Health Minister be concerned with developments in science any way?

He opposses women who have been raped having the option of abortion based on his interpretation of an ancient text:


I'm all for toleration when it comes to personal belief, but when fundamentalism becomes a political force that threatens hard-won rights it must be vigourously opposed everywhere.



George S said...

Completely with you there, Harry. Precisely the kind of thing on which Hitchens in particular was dead right.

Gwil W said...

I think we are basically in some kind of harmony, but I would just like to add to what I said above.

I see 'Religion Inc.' as a universal club with worldwide factions. People join Religion Inc. ,willingly and/or unwillingly, at various stages in their lives: by birthright, by invitation, by being forced or cajoled into joining, by paying a monthly fee, by simply walking through the door, by taking an oath, or by signing a paper, or donning a uniform, or simply by sitting under a tree. The members basically agree to abide by the club's rules and conditions if even if they are at times unjust and complicated. So diverse and so full of self-interest are the various factions of Religion Inc. that strife and conflict often breaks out within Religion Inc. and as disease does, spreads also to non-members.

George S said...

True, though as an ex-student of mine, now working in Vietnam, with much experience of poor countries in Asia, points out - in such countries, without a social security net, it is only the temple that tends to the poor. To us, who no longer need them in the same way, the religions are generally a curb on liberty - there, while curbing liberty, they also offer basic sustenance.

Gwil W said...