Sunday, 15 April 2007

Face to Faith

The latest, infuriating, Face to Faith column in the Guardian reminds me of an exchange I had with the religious editor Stephen Bates a few years ago, I first wrote to the readers' editor Ian Mayes, who forwarded my email to Bates:
Stephen Bates (Open door, December 19) is quoted as saying that he is “by no means averse to including humanist or secularist writers” in the Face to Faith column, but that it “is intended…to be a space for non-polemical or philosophical reflection. This means not attacking the beliefs of others” and that “humanists and atheists find this very difficult”. Could he then please explain why recent columns on October 22 and November 19 have both been dedicated to attacking secularism and atheism?
(The second article I refer to is by "Nicholas Buxton, one of the participants in The Monastery series on BBC2, is writing a PhD thesis on Buddhist philosophy" perhaps the same individual as the author of yesterday's piece where "Nicholas Buxton is training to be a priest in the Church of England at St Stephen's House, Oxford".)

I won't repeat Bates's reply but I think you can get the gist of it from my response:
I think it is somewhat disingenuous of you to use Polly Toynbee's dismissal of religion in her opinion column as evidence to support your contention that atheists and secularists would be unable to adhere to the Face to Faith guidance that they should not be polemical or attack the beliefs of others. Toynbee is writing in her own column, and has no editorial limitations on attacking others, nor does she represent the entirety of atheists and secularists.

Furthermore, I am not aware that Toynbee does in fact engage the kind of polemic you ascribe to her. Certainly her recent article on the Narnia film was far from your caricature. I have read through a few recent columns by Toynbee (indexed by the Guardian search engine with "Polly Toynbee" and "religion" the search terms) and I do not recognise the picture you paint of her, even in a column with the provocative title "My right to offend a fool".

I note that you tacitly admit that Fraser and Buxton attack atheism and secularism, despite your claim that your instructions mean "not attacking the beliefs of others". Far from being courteous, Giles Fraser says that "atheism is prone to a self-satisfied smugness", refers to the "self-congratulatory piety" of secularists, and says that "atheists remain trapped in a 19th-century time warp...that harks back to an era of fob-watches and long sideburns", and "...atheism is about as alternative as Rod Stewart. [Many atheists] think of themselves as agents of some subversive counterculturalism. This is ridiculous to Da Vinci Code proportions", while Nicholas Buxton says that "...for much of the last century, atheist regimes pursuing enlightenment ideals inflicted massive suffering on their own people. Perhaps we'd actually be better off if we were all a bit more, rather than less, religious."

These are exact complements to the kind of arguments you are objecting to in your characterisation of Polly Toynbee.

In short, my charge is that you are hypocritical in maintaining that atheists or secularists should not be contributing to the Face to Faith column because they will be unable to refrain from polemic when you allow attacks against atheism and secularism. If you wish to keep the column as a protected space for religious views then you should be good enough to admit that, rather than attempting to smear secularists as unable to refrain from attacking others.
I won't repeat Bates's second reply here in full but I particularly enjoyed this:
...because in many ways their creed is based in opposition to religious faith I find it difficult to believe (and have seen no evidence to the contrary) that they are able to sustain an article without attacking others' beliefs in a personal way.
So, on to yesterday's article:
A "religion" is a story we inhabit that makes sense of what would otherwise be nonsense. You don't have to be explicitly "religious" in order to do this (Marxists, Darwinists and Freudians are all in the same game). Whether religion is explained away as an evolutionary adaptation or is in fact a response to a transcendent divine reality makes no difference to this argument for its necessity. We are essentially religious animals.
Now I think I have to take issue with his definition of a religion, which is rather too broad for my liking, the similarities between certain political ideologies and religious beliefs notwithstanding. If you define a religion as any broad exlanatory framework then of course half the ideas of history count as religion, but the word loses all specificity (and, of course, Stephen Bates wouldn't like opening up his Face to Faith column to Marxists). Unlike Buxton (and Humpty Dumpty*) I don't think words can mean anything we want them to and 'religion' has a rather particular meaning:
OED: "5. a. Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, and as being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this belief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feeling as a standard of spiritual and practical life."
Continuing, Buxton says:
...I am puzzled when people dismiss religion, yet blithely disavow the implicit faith commitments and foundational axioms of their own position. Indeed, so-called liberals who aggressively promote secularism in the name of an objective truth or rationality routinely fail to realise that they have simply substituted one set of mythic narratives for another. Our widespread contemporary belief in "progress", for example, bears more than a passing resemblance to more ostensibly religious forms of eschatology. Yet why do we assume that a better future will necessarily follow from an increase in scientific knowledge, or that the spread of global capitalism will bring about universal salvation? Is it really true that competition - whether in evolution or economics - is more basic to human nature than, say, cooperation? What does it mean to talk about the "survival instinct" anyway? Are we saying that the essence of life is an irreducible "will to be"? This sounds more like theology than science. The truth is that the ideology of neoliberalism has become so all-pervasive that we are blind to its dogmatic grammar: hence the fundamental principles of the current consensus, such as "democracy" or "the market", are assumed to be natural and inevitable, even though when analysed they are revealed to be socially constructed.
This seems to just be a hodgepodge of views Buxton finds distasteful; atheism, liberalism, 'Darwinism', capitalism, ?democracy. His bastardisation of evolution by natural selection, and odd attempt to equate it with capitalism, suggests where he comes from. But what I find interesting is that he is attempting to shift the ground of the debate, no longer are we arguing over whether theism or atheism represent 'objective truth or rationality' but whether this truth (science) will bring about progress. This is the sort of argument you tend to see in relativist and other 'postmodern' accounts of science, and represents a curious (but increasingly common in religious apologetics) retreat from the ground of what is truth, and onto a pragmatic argument about what works or what people need psychologically. Surely in forwarding this argument Buxton shoots down his own pretensions to 'the truth' in flames? After all, most socialists, or liberals, and even a fair few conservatives have the sense to recognise that their political ideologies are not 'true' in the same way that scientific theories are, they are expressions of moral standpoints and economic intuitions. Surely the question of theism is too important to be reduced to this level? After all it concernes questions about immortal souls and divine punishment, it isn't just a question of feelling warm and fuzzy inside. He finishes off with:
In the days of the Roman empire Christians were called atheists because they did not worship the gods of the state. We have come full circle: Christians are once again atheists and heretics because they do not worship the "gods" of today's orthodoxy. Now that atheism is the new "religion", religion is the new "atheism". To be a Christian in such circumstances is to be unconventional and nonconformist: it is to be something of a freethinker, espousing a radical vision of human flourishing that shows us how we can be more than what we are, rather than reducing us to less than what we should be.
I find his conflating of entirely separate things - atheism, secularism, and consumerism - to be quite odd, and representative of a particular kind of argument that has been floating about a bit recently. I have to say that I share the revulsion at many aspects of our consumerist society (don't get me started on Christmas) but I think you'll have to struggle pretty hard to pin it at the door of atheism. You need a bit more intellectual substance than this to establish a link between disbelief in a divine being and wanton consumption of consumer goods - particularly in a world of self-justifying yuppy 'spiritualism' and the rise of selfish rightwing evangelical Christianity.

I find most Faith to Faith articles pretty inoffensive, but there is clearly a bit of an agenda going on here and it is interesting that it hasn't changed any since 2005, even in this post-Dawkins world of atheist bashing. It is funny that Christians seem to need to think of themselves as some kind of persecuted minority - not since the early days of the religion has that been the case - it wasn't that long ago that the leaders of all 3 main political parties were Christians (and Catholic, or Anglo-Catholic at that), and the current, and likely next two Prime Ministers (Blair, Brown, and Cameron) are all Christians.

* Alice in Wonderland is one of my favourite books, a great source for silly quotes:
`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.'

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