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?