A category mistake that atheists make

Imagine that you have nine grey mice lined up in a row, and at the end of the row there is an elephant. The elephant is coloured in exactly the same shade of grey as the mice. Now if the question is then, ‘how many grey creatures are there?’ then the answer is ten. However, if the question is ‘how many mice are there?’ then the answer is nine. If someone answers the latter question with the answer ‘ten’ then they are including the elephant in the category ‘mice’ – and that is a mistake. It is a type of mistake that philosophers call a ‘category mistake’ for it rests upon placing an item into the wrong category.

I want to explain a category mistake that atheists often make when they are making polemical arguments against religious believers (mostly, but not always, Christian believers). The particular argument that I’m thinking of is the ‘one more god’ point, which can be summarised in the following way: all human beings doubt the existence of almost all the gods that have ever been believed in; atheists simply doubt the existence of one more god than the religious believers.

Normally resting behind this sort of argument is the assumption that the movement from believing in various gods to not believing in them represents a sort of progress. It is part of a more general story that claims that western culture is moving steadily away from the superstitious darkness of religious faith into the wonderfully enlightened realm of secular thought. This story took root in the latter half of the nineteenth century and was conventional wisdom by the middle of the twentieth. It has, however, largely become discredited and it is now extremely rare to find someone with academic expertise in this area who still has faith in that story. Obviously it takes time for the wider culture, especially the media, to catch up with academic developments, but it is happening.

This story of progress, however, does have roots in our own religious tradition. The very language of an ‘Old Testament’ and a ‘New Testament’ indicates as much. Even within the Old Testament, however, it is possible to trace the development of the Hebrew understanding of God (that is, Yahweh), and explaining this will help to understand the category mistake that I argue that atheists commonly make. In 586 BC the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem:

“On the tenth day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, who served the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down.” (Jeremiah 52:12-13)

The King of Judah was brought to the steps of the Temple, whereupon his family were slaughtered in front of him and then he was blinded and bound, taken into captivity to Babylon itself. There he joined all of the upper classes in Judah’s society, who had been taken into Exile by the Babylonians: ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137).

Imagine that you are part of this society which sees Yahweh as present in the temple and knows, therefore, that Jerusalem is inviolate and invincible – and then utter disaster comes upon you. This is where a great shift in Hebrew thinking about Yahweh happens. Up to this point the Ancient Hebrew people had thought of Yahweh as a tribal deity: “our god is bigger than your god”, where Yahweh is simply one god amongst other gods, maybe the most powerful in the pantheon but certainly one amongst others. When you are faced with this sort of calamity, however, you have two choices: you can either say, “Our god isn’t as strong as the other gods, therefore he is dead” and the worship of Yahweh dies off (which happened many times in ancient history); or – and here the genius of the Hebrew people is demonstrated – the people respond by escalating the attributes of Yahweh and say, “Yahweh is faithful; if this has happened to us, Yahweh must also be in charge of the Babylonian armies, therefore Yahweh is the only god, Yahweh is the creator of everything”.

In other words, what happens at the time of the exile in Babylon is that there is a shift from Yahweh as a tribal god of the Israelites, to Yahweh as the creator of all things. In other words a shift from thinking about Yahweh as a god (lower case g) to thinking about Yahweh as God (upper case G). This is the real genius of the Hebrews: to be faithful no matter what. They are “a stiff-necked people”, but this steadfastness is why they are the chosen people. God touched them and gave them a way of growing into a greater understanding of the truth.

In other words, to return to my original image, at the time of the exile the Ancient Hebrews stopped thinking of God as being one mouse alongside other mice, but realised that God was in fact an elephant – that he was radically unlike what they had previously believed. From this point onwards, in the Judaic, Christian and Islamic tradition, it is a mistake to think of the standard religious language about God as describing the equivalent of one god amongst other gods – to think of the elephant as a mouse. They are simply not the same sort of thing. To assume otherwise is a category mistake.

Of course, this does not end all the arguments. I would emphasise also that this is not an argument to establish that there actually is an elephant in the room. It remains possible to say that the religious believers are mistaken and that what they believe to be an elephant is in fact simply another mouse, and that the religious believers are deluded in thinking otherwise. Yet to pursue that line of argument necessitates engaging with what is actually claimed about God by the religious traditions, most especially what are seen as the attributes of God such as omniscience and omnipotence and so on. This is something that the most prominent atheists signally fail to do. After all, the finest human minds for thousands of years have pondered the details of this question. It would be something of a surprise if someone like Richard Dawkins, who has never received an education in this subject, was able to overthrow the tradition with his ‘one more god’ jibe.

Those like Dawkins will undoubtedly continue to insist that mice and elephants are the same, but there comes a point when all the powers of logic and reasoning fail and it is simply a matter of saying ‘look and see’ – but then, some blindness is wilful. Wittgenstein once wrote “… it is not that before you can understand it you need to be specially trained in abstruse matters, but the contrast between understanding the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things which are most obvious may become the hardest of all to understand. What has to be overcome is a difficulty having to do with the will, rather than with the intellect.”

Of airplane crashes and anti-depressants

The story of Andreas Lubitz and the doomed Germanwings flight is a terrifying one. There are many details of the story yet to emerge, most especially around what may have been Lubitz’s motivation in enacting such carnage. I have been struck by the way in which steps taken to make us safer have sometimes made us more vulnerable, in that making the cockpit impregnable from the outside makes the passengers on a plane even more dependent upon the good intentions of the pilot. A good example of where good intentions can go awry and make things worse.

What seems to occupy the headline writers on the shelves of shame opposite the tobacco counter in the Co-op is the question around his ‘depression’. I do not wish in any way to question the reality of the experience that is presently given the label ‘depression’. There are phenomena that people experience within their own mental life that are often life-denying at a minimum, life-destroying as a maximum. Please do not interpret anything else that I say here as in any way denying this first and most basic truth. My issue is all to do with how these phenomena are understood and how those who have to endure them are treated, both by medical professionals and by wider society.

Firstly, I would want to ask questions about the convenience to a society that has available to it a form of language that isolates the problem within a single person. If it is established that Lubitz was ‘mentally ill’ then it substantially relieves the wider society of any responsibility for what has happened. Any questions about the social context within which a person is living, and which may contribute to their mental suffering, are side-stepped. It is simply bad luck, the misfortune of a particular genetic inheritance. Nothing to see here, move along.

In contrast I would want to insist that ‘no man is an island’ and that we cannot understand mental suffering without paying close attention both to the social context in which that suffering takes place, and to the particular life-story of the person concerned. Is the person diagnosed with a ‘mental illness’ a victim of discrimination or bullying or social isolation? Are there people in their lives who love them? Has something happened recently, such as a bereavement or divorce, that might trigger severe sadness? It is, after all, perfectly understandable that someone in such a situation would experience all the symptoms of what are presently labelled ‘depression’. Such a person is not mentally ill, they are grieving, and this is a perfectly normal and human response to a particular situation. It says a lot about our culture that the dominant psychiatric guide for dealing with such a situation has recently changed its policy so that, if someone is deeply sad for more than two weeks after a major bereavement, they can now be classed as ‘depressed’ (the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition’ or DSM5).

This leads directly to my second area of questions, which is to highlight the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the forms of diagnosis that are offered. In American Law – and the DSM5 is an American publication – it is only possible for drug companies to sell medicines for named disorders. Where those medicines are being provided by commercial enterprises, as with the American health care system, there is a strong financial incentive to increase the number of named disorders so that there are more opportunities to sell medication. This is why there has been an explosion of ‘disorders’ that can justify the sale of new pharmaceuticals. I find it significant that almost all the major pharmaceutical companies spend vastly more on the sale and marketing of their drugs than they do on researching their effects. (For more on this, read ‘Big Pharma’ by Ben Goldacre.)

big pharma

My final area of questioning is about the efficacy of anti-depressants, that is, do they actually enable a person to be cured of ‘depression’? The evidence rather suggests not. I recently read an excellent book by Irving Kirsch entitled “The Emperor’s New Drugs”, which I heartily recommend for anyone with an interest in this topic (Kirsch is a lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School). Kirsch’s main target is what he calls the ‘chemical imbalance theory’ of depression, and his main area of research is the comparison of anti-depressant drugs with placebos. Kirsch does not dispute that people who are given anti-depressants experience a benefit from having done so; what he disputes is that there is anything medically effective going on. That is, his case – a case that I find thoroughly persuasive – is that anti-depressants work because people expect them to work, no more and no less. Kirsch writes: “Depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it is not cured by medication. Depression may not even be an illness at all. Often, it can be a normal reaction to abnormal situations. Poverty, unemployment, and the loss of loved ones can make people depressed, and these social and situational causes of depression cannot be changed by drugs.”

What concerns me about the language being used with respect to Lubitz is that it can confuse our understanding of all that led up to the crash. It is too convenient to argue that it was the result of one person who was mad or bad or both. I believe that we need to have a much more thorough conversation about what is presently called mental illness, starting from the areas of questioning that I have outlined above, to ensure that, as with locked cockpit doors, we are not simply making a bad situation worse as a result of misguided good intentions. It is also true, of course, that what is presently considered to be the preserve of psychiatrists used to be well understood as the cure of souls. I will return to exactly what that phrase means at a later date.

Following a crucified God

crucifixionGrunewaldWe live in a broken world. We want our world to make sense, but sometimes it just doesn’t. Sometimes the brokenness of the world can overwhelm us, and our desperate desire is to have a way of making sense of what happens, a way to put the brokenness right.

Christians have lots of words to use in such situations; most of them are called prayers. The trouble is that I know from my own life that there are particular times, such as a sudden bereavement, when the words run out, when begging doesn’t seem to be answered, and there is just silence. There are only a certain number of times that you can put your whole heart into praying such words.

The process of saying those words so often, though, and in such a heartfelt manner, changes us. It burns off the dross that we so often fill our minds and hearts with. We get more in touch with the things that we truly value – the clutter gets swept aside, and the central building blocks of our life – our love for our nearest and dearest, a husband or father, a brother or child or friend – these come into focus. And we realise just how very precious they are. For we each bear the image of Christ within us, we are each made in the image of God, and we are each so very, very precious. I think that is how God sees us. One thing that I take away from my own place of bereavement is this sense of the richness, the value, the sheer beauty of a human being, another soul. It is not easy to let something like that go.

There is often still a sense, in me, that if only we do things the right way, then the brokenness of our world can be fended off. That our bereavements and breakdowns can be set aside. If we could only say the right words in the right way then the world can go back to what it was before. This is a type of magical thinking, it is not Christian thinking. Magical thinking in this sense is about controlling the world for our own purposes, using occult means. This is one of the main reasons for Christian missionary success – if the God of these incomers can heal the sick, give people back their sight, or knit bones back together then their magic must be the most powerful magic, their God must be the most powerful God, so let us convert to their rituals. Traces of this can still be found in the Old Testament by the way – and we can trace within the Old Testament a growth in understanding of God, from being the magical figure who was under Israel’s control, to the Creator of the universe.

The central reality that is brought home to me so clearly in my own difficult days is simply this – that we are not in control. God is in control. God will make the creation in a way of his choosing. This seems an obvious thing, a trivial truth, and yet I do believe it is one that we have almost forgotten in the structure of our lives. It is certainly a hidden truth in our culture. We have become accustomed to getting our own way with most things. If we break a leg, we expect to be able to recover, and return to our previous normal life – when that is something astonishing in human history. We are accustomed to being able to see during the dark winter hours, and be kept warm and well fed. Yet, within all the insulation that we surround ourselves with, all the comforts that chloroform the soul, God is still the fundamental ground of our being, the support on which we sit. We are utterly and irreducibly dependent upon God.

Which brings me back to prayer. The heart of prayer is love; that if we bring love to the centre of our awareness, then God is able to work through us. And what is the Christian response to living in a broken world? We follow Christ crucified. In other words, we declare that God is not separate from our own suffering, He is alongside us. That through what happened on the cross, God himself takes on the burden of our suffering and starts the process of putting it right.

The cross is foolishness to a rational mind because it does not represent a complete or fulfilled life. The philosophers of Ancient Greece sought a way to live that avoided suffering, a way that would lead to a fulfilled life of great wisdom and old age. So to hold up as wisdom a way of life that leads to being executed in the prime of life is folly. Worse, the cross is a stumbling block to a religious mind because it is a scandal, an offence to a system of belief. It is a sign of disfavour by God, a sign that God hates the person to whom this is done. For God clearly acts through the crowd, and blessing in this world is the most prominent sign of God’s approval.

Christians belong with Christ crucified. We declare that God is not on the side of those who seek a worldly wisdom that gives worldly satisfactions, nor on the side of those who equate the approval of the world with the approval of God. No, we say that God is to be found with those who are broken and shattered, those who are on the edges, who do not enjoy the favour of the world. These are the ones to whom Christ came.

We live in a broken world. We each carry wounds that have been carved into our flesh, engraved upon our hearts. I believe that the only way through our brokenness is to follow Christ crucified, for Christ crucified tells us the truth about the world, and the truth about God. Yet we Christians do not simply follow Christ crucified. If our story ended there it would surely be scandalous foolishness. Our story ends with the resurrection, but notice that when doubting Thomas meets Jesus, it is through placing his hands in his wounds that he is finally convinced. The wounds are the anchor point of reality for Thomas. They show that Christ has suffered alongside us. And there is a deeper mystery here, for the way of Christ’s resurrection is to demonstrate redemption, not restoration. It is not as though the crucifixion did not happen. It is not as though Christ has been returned to the state that he was in before it happened. No, Christ bears his wounds, they define who he is – and yet, whilst wounded, he is the source of life and light and peace to all who can see him. So we follow Christ crucified, yes – but Christians follow Christ crucified because we know Christ risen, and so we have grounds for hope, and for trust, and these things give us the strength to carry on, day by day, hour by hour, as we navigate our way through our broken world.

Why bother with a church that isn’t spiritually serious?

One of the long themes in Scripture is the divide between the priestly class and the prophetic class. Each of them expresses something of the divine purpose and each has a particular besetting sin to which they succumb when they lose touch with a living faith.

The priestly class upholds the form and ritual that has been mandated and commanded for worship. The prophetic class demands that the life of the nation must honour God through establishing social justice. When Jesus attacks the traders in the Temple he is acting prophetically. When he attends synagogue ‘as was his custom’ he is conforming to the priestly pattern.

By mentioning these things I merely wish to say that I am aware that an over-emphasis upon the priestly responsibilities at the expense of wider questions of justice is a temptation of the religious professional. My concern with regard to what has happened at St John’s Waterloo is that the priestly element to worship has been completely forgotten. That is, it’s not so much that Canon Goddard has done something wrong, it’s that he didn’t have any awareness that it was wrong. It is that absence of awareness that concerns me most.

After all, one of the most essential parts of a spiritually serious faith is the notion of the sacred. That there are some things which are more important than others, some places that are more important than others, and that these more important things are marked out as distinct and different in the life of the faithful. They are, indeed, named as sacred. Do not treat these things in the way that you treat other more mundane things. It is this difference in value between the sacred and the mundane that is the principal means by which a wider sense of value is inculcated. It is impossible to have a Christian virtue tradition, in MacIntyre’s terms, without some sense of the holy and the sacred.

In the life of the Church of England, this has included land – certain land, and certain buildings erected on that land, have been consecrated. That is, they have been dedicated to the worship of the God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They have been set apart for that purpose. They have gained a quality of holiness. It would be fitting for us to take off our shoes before entering into the holy space, as Muslims do before entering into a Mosque, and as Moses did before the burning bush.

With the consecration, certain acts become prohibited – and those prohibited acts are those that profane the sacredness of the space. Specifically, any act of worship which is not of a Christian character would count as such, whether that service be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan or Mormon. The sacred space has been consecrated to Christian worship – any other form of worship that takes place in that space is a breach of that consecration. This is not to say anything whatsoever about those other forms of worship, whether good or bad, it is simply to say that if such worship takes place in a place that has been made sacred for Christian worship then this is profanity, sacrilege and blasphemy. It must not be done, on pain of self-undoing.

(Now there are some exceptions to this blanket prohibition when it comes to ecumenical co-operation with other Christian denominations, when, as I understand it, it is possible to gain approval from the relevant Bishop to allow, eg, a Methodist service within an Anglican church. These points also do not apply to other non-consecrated spaces within a church complex, such as a church hall.)

Now there may well be times when, as a prophetic act, it is necessary to act against such a consecration, yet surely such an act would need to be done with a full awareness of the nature of the intended act, and a fully prayed through understanding of the likely consequences. I see Jesus in the Temple precincts as the paradigm form, and I see that as the specific reason why he was executed.

Now I have no desire to add fuel to the pyre on which a witch-hunt can find a conflagratory fulfilment. I think Canon Goddard might simply apologise and promise not to do it again, and that would be the end of it. What most appalls me about this episode is, as I say, the seeming unawareness that there is any issue here, and the way in which the discussion has been presented in terms of ‘hospitality’. If such language is to retain any sense then it must involve some level of respect to the host; most especially it must involve offering respect to those things which are considered by the host to be of utmost value, those things which are considered holy. The language of hospitality is simply inadequate as the governing description for what has happened. There is a barren and atheistic secularity to such reasoning that I find shocking amongst clergy, and it is this that makes me wonder – what is the point of a church that isn’t spiritually serious? That does not treat holy things as holy but rather, as simply incidental details to be discarded at the behest of any passing good idea?

I think a church that no longer has a sense of the sacred, and therefore of the boundaries of behaviour by which to police the sacred, has failed the Ichabod test, and the Glory of the Lord has departed from it. The consecrated space has become just another building, and then it doesn’t matter what happens within its walls one way or the other. God has left the building.

On the question of what is permissible in church

The Daily Telegraph has a story about a church in London which has been hosting an Islamic prayer service. There are more details here, presumably written by the person who shot the video.

First point: do not believe everything that you read (or see or hear!) in the newspapers (I speak with authority).

That being said, unless the video is demonstrated to be a forgery, I think this is a serious breach of ordination vows – specifically the declaration made at ordination and then repeated at each new appointment that “in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon”. I believe that there are other elements of Canon Law that are relevant.

I believe that our words matter, and when ‘Allahu Akhbar’ is chanted in a church, then this is a quite straightforward example of blasphemy – it is a profaning of Christian worship – and sacrilege – a profaning of the place of Christian worship. To argue otherwise is to indulge in syncretistic nonsense of the worst sort. The different faiths, whilst they have all sorts of family resemblances, are not simply different paths up the same mountain. It matters that Jesus was crucified, and to preach Christ crucified is to say that Jesus was killed, which the Koran explicitly denies.

I can see all sorts of arguments for pursuing peace, hospitality and friendly co-operation with those of non-Christian faiths and no faith at all. What I cannot see an argument for is abandoning our own distinctive identity, with all that binds it together.

Fundamentalism, fairy tales and the beating of dragons

Wittgenstein once wrote “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians etc., to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them, that doesn’t occur to them.” In other words, the dominant understanding of the ‘arts and sciences’ in our culture is that science does the ‘hard’ stuff, the important stuff, all that provides real knowledge, whereas the realm of the arts and humanities is merely a question of what entertains us – and are we not entertained?

This over-emphasis upon scientific truth has taken two specific forms. The first is to say that scientific truth is the only truth, and that is an outlook called positivism. This approach took shape in the nineteenth century but it is implicit in much that goes on for a hundred years before then. Positivism argues that only things which can be established by reason or by empirical proof and investigation are valid knowledge. Anything else is rejected. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, who in other ways is quite sensible, says: “If we take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” That is the voice of positivism, and when positivism says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, it is radically constricting our capacity for true wisdom. If the serious questions facing our civilisation are ultimately questions of value, then such an approach can produce nothing to say on this subject. The root problem of our time is the way in which the over-emphasis upon science in our culture has crippled our ability to see clearly and exercise a proper discernment and wisdom in our lives.

The other way of over-emphasising science is to say that scientific truth is the most important truth, to say that what we gain from these processes of scientific investigation is more important that anything else. This is fundamentalism, and this is the outlook shared by both Richard Dawkins and those who take a literalistic approach to the Bible. It is not commonly understood that Biblical fundamentalism springs from the scientific revolution. It is, in truth, a direct product, because it interprets the Bible through a scientific lens – the Bible is put through a scientific meat grinder because what is wanted from the end is a scientific sausage. Where particular forms of knowledge are seen as higher than others, and where science is seen as the most valuable, then, in order to preserve the value of the Bible, it has to be seen as the most authoritative scientific text. That is what fundamentalism is, and it utterly misses the point about Jesus. If you look into the origins of fundamentalism, in America, the end of the nineteenth century the beginning of the twentieth, it is very explicit – they defend their views by saying this is the scientific approach to the Bible. Richard Dawkins and the fundamentalists agree on what sort of text the Bible is – and I think they both completely miss the point.

Scientific knowledge and awareness, compared with the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories, is comparatively trivial. In fact narrative is the most important way in which our understandings are formed. Our way of telling stories to each other is the means by which our emotional bedrock is formed. This is why the common recognition that science has too important a place in our cultural life has only been able to be voiced at the margins of society, amongst the poets and playwrights – those whose scientific credibility is not strong. The mythology of Faust developed when the scientific revolution was taking off, and it captures the truth: Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain some scientific knowledge and only realises at the end that it was a bad bargain. Similarly, the legend of Frankenstein expresses the same truth, as do any of the myriad stories with a white-coated mad scientist, crying out “I’m going to discern the truth of the world”, and terrible consequences follow. These all describe the consequences that come when science is given more value than it deserves, and life becomes damaged or destroyed. As the story has developed in the telling, the scientist is replaced by a monster, then by a robot, and eventually by computers and ‘Terminators’. In each case what is missing is the emotional core, the ability to exercise a human judgement.

Simply put, science is ultimately trivial. It can act as the robot helper, collecting samples and sifting evidence, but on the question of wisdom, of what we are to value, of how we are to live, science – the scientific method and the culture which it has fostered and within which it is passed on – science is silent, and can never speak. Although the scientific stance is an important part of a wider wisdom, the converse is not the case. This is a moral blindness, and our scientific culture is systematically blind when it comes to questions of morality. I therefore call our society asophic because it is blind to wisdom. Science’s technological genius is providing us with tools, but the way that science has been taken up in our culture has removed our ability to see what to use those tools for. Our sense of what is right, our sense of what is of value, our sense of what is human and what is humanly important – these have all been ravaged by the dominant culture, like crops consumed by a plague of locusts.

Science cannot help us to determine what it is that we most value, or how to distinguish between different values. Our delusion that it can is the fatal flaw of our civilisation, with a single great consequence: we have forgotten what it means to be wise. Our scientific endeavours must be made subject to wisdom, both intellectually and practically – it is only in this way that we will be able to deal with the problems we now face. To become wiser, we need to become reacquainted with the wisdom traditions of the world, and most especially our own, Christianity. To quote from another of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

(Courier article – adapted from part of my book)

A few brief thoughts on the Bishop’s Pastoral Letter

I am delighted that the Bishops have written such a document. Those who cry ‘Archbishops should stick to theology’ are simply parading their ignorance.

I am most particularly delighted that the document is rooted in the language of virtues and character – clearly the influence of Alasdair MacIntyre and his disciples like Hauerwas. This is very much where I would position myself.

Lastly, despite some questions about tone, I think the overall tenor of the document is a good one – it is an invitation to a larger conversation. I very much hope that it bears good fruit.

So, for once, I want to applaud our hierarchy for something. Of course, I have some specific detailed disagreements, but they may or may not be worth writing about!

The Church of England is an institutionally abusive church

In the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Metropolitan Police were criticised for being ‘institutionally racist’. I have for some time now believed that the Church of England is institutionally abusive, and I would like to spell out what I mean by that.

Institutional racism (from Wiki): “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”. It is the ‘institutional’ part that is key; in other words the emphasis is not so much that individual members of an organisation are in themselves racist – they may or may not be – rather, it is simply that, in being obedient servants to the institution, those individuals cannot but help to act in a racist manner.

In a similar way, my claim is not that members of the Church of England are in themselves personally abusive – they may or may not be – my claim is that, in being obedient servants to the institution, the individuals within it cannot help but act in an abusive fashion to those in their care.

Let me give some examples of what I mean.

The first is Jeffrey John, and the question of whether this man was fit to become the Bishop of Reading. Views on that question are split. What is alleged, however, is that the decisions about whether he is to be a Bishop or not are being made, not on the grounds of his own personal merits but rather on whether it would lead to adverse financial and political consequences for the Church as a whole. So this example has two elements: firstly, is it the case that financial considerations are determining the appointment of Bishops (and if so, what are they)? Secondly, why is this not publicly confirmed information? I have written before about the way in which it seems that Bishops are simply incapable of telling the truth about a situation. This is profoundly unhealthy.

The second case is Jonathan Hagger, aka the MadPriest. Here we have someone who once suffered from depression and received medical treatment for it, so that it has not recurred. He is also a faithful local pastor and someone with a clear gift for sharing the faith through social media. One would have thought that such a person would be cherished by the institution, and encouraged to deploy their gifts more effectively. On the contrary, because Jonathan was a whistleblower about a specific case of abuse he has been completely frozen out of the church establishment.

Finally I would mention the hierarchical defence of the Green report (see here). This might seem trivial compared to the previous two, but I think it illuminates the attitude that I am seeking to highlight – and it is what has triggered this post. The needs of the institution – and the need to protect those in high ranking and established positions in the institution – are leading to a closing of ranks and a suppression of dissent. This is, once again, profoundly unhealthy.

There are many other examples that I could refer to (see here for an earlier form of this rant) as I know very few clergy in the Church of England who are in a place of peace with regard to the institution. There are, of course, also many positive stories of good care and consideration – but these are where someone gets ‘a good one’. It is wrong that the avoidance of abuse by the hierarchy is such a lottery.

My point is that, pervading the institutional atmosphere of the Church of England is an unhealthy mix of fear and denial of the truth. This leads to directly abusive consequences whenever the needs of the institution are placed ahead of the needs of the particular persons involved in doing the work of the gospel. The Church is a fallen principality – that is not news – but this needs to be taken very much more seriously.

I believe that faithful Anglicans must more and more operate on the basis of a division between “the gospel as the Church of England has received it”, and the workings of the institution which at the present time instantiates that understanding. We need to actively and radically foster the former, and keep a wary distance from the latter. To use my more hackneyed analogy, we need to spend much more time on our lifeboats than on how we run the ship.

If we continue to allow the Anglican gospel only to be expressed through the institutional forms then I see no grounds for believing that any thing will change. The institution will continue to devour its own children and then it shall die a sad and lonely death, for the Glory of the Lord will have departed from it.

The meaning of Islamophobia

Courier article

The word Islamophobic is being cast around quite a lot at the moment, and I thought it would be good to spend some time thinking about what it actually means, to see if we might be able to disentangle any truths from underneath the opprobrium.

The first point that I would like to make is about the ‘phobia’, which literally means fear, but which in current discourse principally means a fear that is unreasoned, irrational or rooted in an unacceptable prejudice. So arachnophobia is a fear of spiders, agraphobia is a fear of open spaces, whilst homophobia is not so much a fear of homosexuals as a dislike rooted in a particular view of the world. It seems that the word ‘Islamophobic’ is being used by critics in that latter sense; that is, the claim being made is that those who offer criticisms of Islam are doing so on the basis of a prejudice.

This prejudice is often rather confusingly called a racist prejudice, which is bizarre as Islam is not a race but an ideology, a religious faith – a way of understanding the world and organising personal and social behaviour in the light of that understanding. Which leads to the further point that it is indeed irrational to be afraid of an ideology – one might as well be afraid of theoretical physics or Tudor history – rather, the fear is about what that ideology might lead people to do.

Which means that we need to examine the evidence, to establish whether there are any grounds for the fear that this particular ideology (or, possibly, particular subsets of this ideology) lead people to behave in ways that would make it rational to fear Islam as a whole. Specifically, the fear tends to be a fear of violence specifically plus, more broadly, a fear that an existing culture will be displaced and then replaced by an Islamic culture.

So what might be the relevant evidence to consider?

If we look at the founder of Islam then we can see a remarkable man who was a capable and successful military commander. We can see that Islam was first established and developed, during Mohammed’s life, by military means. If we then look at what happened in the first few hundred years of Islamic life we can see that pattern repeating itself, as the Islamic armies rapidly and successfully expanded throughout the Middle East, developing a single Islamic culture. That culture rapidly displaced and replaced the existing Christian culture in those lands. Through the following centuries we can see continued military conflict in every direction, from Spain to India, as the Islamic culture expanded into new territory. I think this point is generally accepted.

Today, this association with violent conflict continues, primarily in the context of terrorist acts. Most major European cities have now had experience of this – London, Paris, Madrid, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and so on. This is a worldwide phenomenon, as a simple glance at the headlines can confirm. Those who perpetrate such violent acts explicitly claim that they are doing so as faithful Muslims, and shout ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great) whilst perpetrating atrocity. It would seem undeniable that some of those who claim to follow Islam seek to express their devotion through violent, military means. This, then, is the rational ground for a fear of Islam – that there seem to be a great many followers who would wish to cause violent harm to those who are not such.

The question then becomes – is this a true representation of Islam or not? After all, we are assured by our political leadership (and they are all honourable men) that Islam is a religion of peace. We are also assured by some Islamic leaders in this country that those who carry out such atrocities are not faithful Muslims.

What can be done in such a situation? After all, it is very difficult for an outsider to fully understand the heart of an ideology. An outsider might consider that a division of the world between the ‘house of peace’ (dar al Islam – where Islamic ideology is dominant) and the ‘house of war’ (dar al harb – where Islam is in the minority) to be something that tends against peaceful co-existence, whereas an insider might justifiably respond, ‘this simply refers to the spiritual struggle’.

What is not in dispute is the actual behaviour that gives rise to the fear. We can discuss the precise nuances of technical language in academic terms but there comes a point when such debates are rendered pointless by the actions that are taken. What seems indisputable is that there are members of the international community, both nations and individuals, that claim to be Islamic, and that, as a direct consequence of that claim, are carrying out acts of astonishing barbarism.

How are we to respond to such a situation? Is it possible to respond in such a way as to reduce the risk of violence? After all, there is a little merit in the claim that the present violence has been exacerbated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the question needs to be – can Islamic society so police itself that it is able to restrain the vicious extremists from causing chaos? Or is Islamic society so internally compromised that it doesn’t have the resources required to form itself as a peaceful participant in the world community?

I’m not sure that Western society is in a position to give an answer to those latter questions; I’m sure that, as a Christian, and therefore a definite outsider, I am badly placed to give advice. What I do think is that, if our own society is to defend itself against an aggressively violent and nihilist ideology, it cannot do so by becoming aggressively violent and nihilist in turn. That, in truth, would represent the most thorough abandonment of our own values. We need to model a better way, a way that, whilst still doing all that is prudent to protect ourselves in practical and military terms, makes our main aim one of extending hands of friendship and the fostering of community, at both local and international levels. Which is, I believe, what the overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad also desire.

Jesus once said that his followers were required to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. This, I feel, is the right way in which to understand Islamophobia – that there are rational grounds for some fears, but that those fears need always to be placed within a larger human context, such that all individual Muslims are loved as those that bear the image of God. We need to be wise to the very significant dangers that some Muslims pose, whilst also being innocent enough to see them as God sees them. We cannot establish a Christian society with unChristian methods.