Tuesday, 24 July 2012

in spiked, July 23, 2012

Are Roswell believers
really that barmy?

It’s easy to mock the geeks who think aliens crash-landed in New Mexico, but their paranoia is part of a big trend today.

Friday, 6 July 2012

in The Catholic Herald, July 6, 2012

Give me Opus Dei and Richard Dawkins any day, by Patrick West

The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, Faith, by Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp, OUP, £16.99

One characteristic shared by fundamentalist believers and hardened atheists is a predilection for literal-mindedness. The former assert the literal truth of revealed holy texts, which the latter dismiss as stuff and nonsense easily refuted by science and philology. On the other hand, tacit ambiguity has been a constant among mainstream Christian believers, many of whom have tended not to regard the Bible as a historical text, but a holy book rich in metaphors, symbols and parables. Quarrels as to the exact nature of transubstantiation or the reality of miracles are testament to Christianity's long relationship with doubt.

This is particularly true among more liberal and progressive elements within the Christian fraternity. And herein lies the problem. Once a believer accepts the dubious historicity of and contradictory elements within the gospels, and attempts to square the New Testament with science, his faith invariably becomes emptied of theology. All that will remain in its place is the system of ethics upon which it is built. This is why you usually hear calls for "social justice" from progressive, borderline agnostic Christians - because they no longer believe so much in divine justice (think Richard Holloway, for example)

The authors here could be described as progressives, but they are adamant that Christianity should not be stripped of its spirituality. Indeed, in an otherwise polite tract they are derisive of liberal post-Christians, who "critical of inherited doctrines, cheerfully jettisoning convictions that once defined the core commitments of Christianity... subject their own proposals to rather less critical attention... Whatever is deemed worthy of preserving - an experience of 'new being', a commitment to environmental stewardship, or resistance to racial, sexual, or economic oppression - is often put forward with the same unwavering passion of religious conviction with which the traditional beliefs themselves were once advanced". 

The authors fully acknowledge the scientific and historic challenges to Christianity. The New Testament is an unreliable guide to faith, they write. The gospels, for instance, differ as to who was at Jesus's execution, what was said by Jesus and those around him and what happened afterwards. Evil will always be with us. God cannot stop bad things happening because that would break the laws of nature; if He violated natural law once he would be compelled forever to do so again. 

There are also contemporary, social challenges. They speak of the dilemma of pluralism "and the consequent difficult of asserting with any confidence that specifically Christian claims are actually true,". Being a Christian is often merely the result of being raised as one. They confess, almost ruefully, that their own theology has a "christological tinge", and if The Predicament of Belief wasn't mired with verbs in the conditional and subjunctive moods, one could conclude that the authors were certified cultural relativists.

Yet, they maintain, these obstacles need not lead us to refute the claims of Christianity. They "find the either/or challenge - the demand either to accept the biblical narratives at face value or to abandon distinctively Christian claims altogether - unhelpful". Their alternative would not demystify Christianity, and would acknowledge the "axiological and theoretical power" of religious accounts. Thus they call for "Christian minimalism": a pared-down belief system that asks us to adhere to fewer of the Church's claims, and of those that remain, with less certainty.

A cynic might call this watered-down Christianity. Invoking the "anthropic principle", the argument made by some scientists that the Universe is "fine-tuned" for life, they extrapolate that there must be an "intelligent designer", or what they call a "not-less-than-personal" cause to everything - something like a mind, which has intentions and desires, and seeks our well-being. What exactly this is, we will never know: "God is involved in every instance of human action and experience in ways that infinitely exceed our comprehension". But this doesn't really matter, because humans have the capacity to willingly suspend disbelief, to play make-believe. Of supernatural rituals they affirm: "one striking characteristic of adept practitioners is their ability to enter into such moments with great regularity and frequency, all the while preserving a tacit awareness that the claims in question may well not be literally true". Jesus of Nazareth retains "a uniquely authoritative role ... in determing the relation of that divine reality to human beings"; in other words, He matters because other people think so. And in any case, we need to believe in God: "the contemplation of our finite selves, in isolation from any broader communal or spiritual context, quickly becomes a source of nausea or claustrophobia, leading to despair or madness". This is a model example of confusing is with ought. 

The Predicament of Belief is written in a measured and courteous tone, and its exhortation to embrace truths contingently is superficially quite reasonable. Yet it seems simultaneously cynical and feeble. It asks that we believe in something because it's better than believing in nothing, that Christianity is probably true, and even if it's not, let's pretend it is anyway because it makes us happy. This is expedient Christianity. 

While too much conviction can be a dangerous thing, I actually prefer the certitudes of evangelical Protestants or Opus Dei, and judging by the former's ascendency in South America in the latter's packed seminaries in the United States, so do millions of others. Likewise, give me the clinical rationalism of Richard Dawkins any day. They adhere to beliefs because they think them to be true, not because they want them to be true.