The government of our imagination (converting Richard Dawkins part 2)

Last time out I talked about poetry and the different ways in which language could be used. I want in this article to convey something about how language structures our existence. To do that, I need to talk about imagination and government.

Look around where you are right now – look up from the page in which you are reading these words and see all the different things there are that are close by. Is there anything that wasn’t first born in the imagination of some particular person? If you are in a room then that room was first designed by a human being; the paint on the walls and the features hanging there came from a person’s imagination; similarly, the furniture, the carpet, the cup of tea by your elbow – all these were first formed in someone’s imagination. If there are plants, it is highly unlikely that they are in a ‘natural’ state – no, these too have been formed by the human imagination. Possibly the best case for something around you that wasn’t first born in the imagination is if there is another human being nearby – but that’s worth a more thorough conversation at another time.

My point is simply that so much of the physical space that we inhabit is typically mediated by our imaginations – what we imagine is the parent of what has come to be. Our imaginations, therefore, are tremendously powerful and impactful upon our world. Which means that we need to play close attention to what we do with them.

Which brings me to the question of government. Is the government real? Most would say so. If someone didn’t believe that the government was real – as in, they truly were committed to that proposition – then they would cease to pay their taxes. There would then ensue certain consequences, up to and including the imprisonment of such a person. That wouldn’t necessarily convince that person themselves that the government existed, but it would persuade most onlookers to at least act as if the government were real.

Yet in what way can we call the government real? It is not a material ‘thing’. There is no object that we might touch and say ‘this is the government’, nor is there any person we might touch – not even our most gracious sovereign lady. We cannot walk up to 10 Downing Street and ask for the government, nor Whitehall – not even Town Hall in Colchester.

My point is simply that there are many things that we are normally quite happy to accept as real which do not qualify as material objects. In other words, there are realities in our lives that are not susceptible to scientific investigation, at least in the form that this has historically taken. We might suggest a spectrum of reality from things that are least involving of human beings – like the movements of planets – to those which are most involving – such as the operations of governments – and say that science is a more appropriate study of one end of that spectrum and less appropriate to the other. Adding, of course, that all parts of the spectrum are ‘real’.

The far end of the spectrum, the one that most involves human beings conducting human lives, is the realm which I am trying to point towards in this article. It is born in our imaginations and yet takes on a life of its own. There is no one person on whom our government depends. Should any person with a key role suddenly vanish out of existence, the government will carry on and simply replace that person with another who will take on the duties of the role. It is rather like an ant’s nest – if you remove any particular ant, the colony will carry on as if nothing has happened. If you stamp on the nest and then step back, the ants will simply reproduce the nest once more. The colony can be seen as having an existence separate from any of the constituent parts.

This doesn’t just apply to governments. It applies to all the various institutions and organisations that we human beings so like to form – churches, scientific bodies, golf clubs, theme parks, tribes, shopping centres – the whole glorious gamut of human endeavour. The Bible has a description for all of these things, calling them ‘principalities and powers’. The struggle with these things is the primary location for what Christians call ‘spiritual warfare’: in other words, the never ending attempt to become better people, more open to the will of God.

Now it might be argued, contrary to my ant colony example, that the government does not exist in any real sense. To use the language of my previous article, the materialist would argue that because there is no specific material correlate to the word ‘government’ then it has no ultimate reality. It is simply a construct of human thinking.

What provokes a wry smile in me when I ponder such an argument is simply that it is one that Richard Dawkins’ own work has done quite a lot to undermine. After all, it is Dawkins who coined the understanding of memes. Memes are mental constructs that exist independently of the human minds in which they operate. Dawkins argues that religions specifically are defective memes, viruses of the mind. There is a remarkable correspondence between what Dawkins has begun to describe as ‘memes’ and what the Christian tradition has considered to be the principalities and powers – they are both, using different languages, describing some of the fundamental building blocks of distinctively human life.

This, finally, is why religions pay very close attention to our use of language, and seek to regulate that language through things like prohibitions against blasphemy. When we speak differently we live differently. Words and names have immense power, for both good and ill – which is why Plato, the original fascist, sought to ban the poets. As language is born from our minds, so is the world in which we live structured by our imaginations. If we do not govern our imaginations well then we shall end up being governed in unimaginably bad ways.

How I would convert Richard Dawkins (part one)

It’s a bold claim to even suggest – that it would be possible to convert the most notorious atheist in the Western world. Yet I think that it would be possible, given enough time and good will. How would I do it?

To begin with, I would not engage directly with any of the arguments that Dawkins puts forward in his book ‘The God Delusion’. Instead, I would want to talk about the nature of language. After all, the arguments that are used by both sides of the debate, believer and atheist alike, are embedded in language. If we don’t have an awareness of what sort of thing language is – or, perhaps, of the many different things that language is – then we are likely to go astray.

Given the excellent nature of his writing, then, I would begin by discussing poetry with the good Professor. I would want to explore what makes for good poetry over against bad poetry. Why are some writers revered for their use of language, whilst others are reviled. What is it that gives certain words their power? Through the discussion of poetry what I would most want to achieve is a sense of how we can be creative with words, that words can be manipulated in certain ways in order to achieve certain effects.

Of course, the good Professor may not wish to accept my point here. I have had discussions with some atheists where it has become clear that they are ‘tone deaf’ when it comes to poetic language, and see it as an irrelevance to the question of atheism. At that point, if there is no meeting of minds then the discussion would be over. I’d have to accept failure in my attempt to change a mind.

However, if the point about poetry is accepted then we are away.

My next step would be to explore how we actually use language in every day life, drawing attention to the many different ways in which language does different things in different situations. Consider how the word ‘water’ is deployed in these different contexts: by someone responding to the question ‘what would you like to drink?’; by someone who has just been given a glass of water but who has been expecting a glass of champagne; by someone struggling through the desert for days and who has discovered an oasis.

In these situations we still have a fairly direct connection between ‘water’ and what is being discussed, there is simply a different emotional content being expressed in the use of the word.

Now consider the word ‘lovely’, and how that word might be used in different ways – to express both approval and disapproval, scorn or boredom.

Hopefully by this time the good Professor will be coming to see that language is a remarkably flexible instrument, and see that when we are considering questions of religious belief we need to pay attention to what is actually being done when certain language is being used.

Before talking directly about religious language, however, there is one last element of ground-clearing that would need to be done, and this is connected to the philosophy of science.

If a scientist spoke about ‘water’ it would be a reference to a substance with the chemical composition H2O – and, crucially, in our contemporary culture, this is privileged as the right way to understand the meaning of the word, with all the other ways of using the word (as discussed above) being considered as derivative.

In my discussion with the good Professor what I would most want him to understand is that this privileging of the scientific way of using a word has distinct and particular historical roots. It flows from a decision that what can be measured through instrumentation is more real than anything else, and possibly the only real thing that there is. Furthermore, this attitude is rooted in a philosophy known as materialism, and in the history of philosophy it has had a long struggle with an opposing philosophy known as idealism – the key feature of idealism being the assertion that reality is fundamentally mental and not material.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century heyday of scientific triumphalism, materialism seemed to be self-evidently true. Throughout the twentieth century, however, that confidence came to be understood as increasingly misplaced. The impact of quantum physics, which showed that the separation between the observer and the observed was not ultimately valid, was particularly dramatic. That shift in understandings, however, takes time to filter down from the scientific and academic realm into the area of popular conversations. These days, in philosophical circles, a simple embrace of materialism is regarded as a sign of ignorance – the sort of attitude that a first-year undergraduate might hold before beginning a proper study of the subject.

So to sum up part one, all of the discussions that I would have had so far with the good Professor – about poetry, about the use of language, about the philosophy of science – would have been with the intent to make him more aware of the presuppositions and assumptions that lie behind his other statements. My hope would be that, in becoming aware of those assumptions, he might start to recognise the intellectual integrity of alternative positions. He might not, of course – in which case I would have nothing futher to say – but in that case his arguments are not with religious believers but with the very many (frequently atheistic) philosophers of language and science who disagree with him, and I would happily leave the burden of persuasion to them!

One last point: by ‘Richard Dawkins’ I mean anyone who is aggressively committed to an atheist position, as set out in something like ‘The God Delusion’. My aim in these articles is simply to draw out significant tensions in their position, trusting that if this became clear that it would, at the least, lead to self-questioning and perhaps a less confident proclamation of atheism. The most that I might realistically hope for is an openness to further conversation. I rather doubt that any one person can ‘convert’ another – that is something that needs to be a work of the Holy Spirit if it is going to last and not simply be an exercise in power and manipulation.

It’s all about the story

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I am often asked to give reasons for believing in God. Whilst I very much honour the motivation behind the request, I feel that it is based upon a mistake and I would like to explain why.

In the 1930s the philosopher Bertrand Russell would often engage in polemical debate with representatives of the Christian churches. There was one particular debate with a Fr O’Hara that Wittgenstein listened to, after which he commented “Russell and the parsons between them have done infinite harm”.

For Wittgenstein, and for me, the problem with this sort of debate is that it turns religious belief into some sort of weak science. “The symbolism of Christianity is wonderful beyond words,” said Wittgenstein, “but when people try to make a philosophical system out of it I find it disgusting.” What he was very opposed to was any attempt to “elaborate a philosophical interpretation or defence of the Christian religion”.

In part, this was because Wittgenstein was very aware of the primitive roots that lie behind all our patterns of thought. In discussing James Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’, which was an immensely influential work at the time, he criticised Frazer for completely lacking an historical imagination, writing that “Frazer cannot imagine a priest who is not basically an English parson of our times with all his stupidity and feebleness”.

To imagine that religious belief is based upon some sort of intellectual exercise is a grave mistake. Moreover, it is a grave mistake not only in mischaracterising the sort of thing that religious belief is, but also in giving far more importance to a narrow sense of reason and logic than either deserve.

In an academic argument, the one who can make the most reasonable and logical points can make progress. Yet that reason and logic – all reason and logic – is based upon unstated premises. The fallacy of Modern (capital M) philosophy is that it believed that reason could provide the foundation for our knowledge. Post-Modern thought is characterised by the recognition that this was a fool’s errand from the start, for (as Wittgenstein wrote) we do not acquire our most fundamental beliefs by a process of ratiocination.

We human beings actually form our understandings, first from the patterns of life into which we are born (including the language that is our mother tongue), and then from the stories that we are told from an early age. Such stories do not have to be put into books; more often they are simply told and retold as we grow and as a community develops. Our supposedly secular society is not immune to the power of stories – we are told things about science and progress, for example, that are clearly very tall stories.

Which brings me to the point that I would like to make about what it means to believe as a Christian. Our most fundamental commitments are shaped through stories, and so, to be a Christian is to have our understandings shaped by the Christian story. The most important element of that is found in the stories around Holy Week and Easter, and perhaps I shall describe them in more depth at that time of year. For now I would like to talk about the Christmas story.

It is surely one of the most familiar tales in our culture – baby Jesus born in a manger because there was no room in the inn. It is the subject of so many Christmas cards and it seems so very sweet. Yet there is much more to the story. Take, for example, the way in which Jesus is born far from home and is immediately taken to a different country as a refugee, where he has to stay for some years before his homeland is safe.

A Christian would see this as the working out of God’s providence; to put that differently, a Christian would see God as at work in, and found with, those who are refugees fleeing from political persecution. As a result of this, a Christian perspective on our present refugee crisis would suggest that God is also found there – that amongst the poor and vulnerable infants fleeing from a war zone may be found those who will be carrying out God’s will today.

When he grew up, Jesus himself said explicitly that it was not those who called him Lord who would enter the Kingdom but rather those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked – for in doing so, those who are generous will be looking after Jesus himself.

To be moved by the Christmas story in this way, to be affected by it and to then to live differently as a result, is to start to understand what it means to believe in God. Belief in God is not a matter of abstract propositions, as if God was simply the result of a magnificent equation. Belief in God is living differently according to different priorities, acting out our own stories in the light of a very much larger story, one that gives our own lives a particular weight and meaning.

Which is why, despite my own argumentative and belligerent tendencies, I don’t believe it actually helps anyone to grow in faith to come up with grand philosophical justifications for religious belief. There is certainly room for thinking about the faith, for loving God with our minds, for what has traditionally been called apologetics – yet to think that anyone can come to faith by the use of logic is, I believe, a tremendous mistake.

I would much rather talk about the King of the world being found in human form as a vulnerable baby, carried on a wing and a prayer out of the reach of evil tyrants and government apparatchiks who are ‘just doing their job’. I would rather say ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est – that where there is love in the world, where there is compassion and mercy, forgiveness and healing, that is where God is to be found. Such things can never be demonstrated with reason and logic. We can know, understand and believe in these things only by telling our stories.

I wish you all a peaceful, joyful and holy Christmas.

Is it worth arguing with Dawkins?

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What makes for a useful argument? There are several things that need to be in place before a discussion can be mutually fruitful, rather than such discussion descending, as politicians’ arguments so often do, into a simple exchange of soundbites and slogans. The classical form for understanding a particular subject divides the material into three categories – grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Grammar is where to begin, the ground stuff: the basic vocabulary, that which is needed in order simply to know what you are talking about. This is the stuff that needs to be learnt by heart before being able to progress any further, so it includes things like the alphabet, number sequence, basic dates of history and so on. Without this foundation it is literally impossible to progress any further in an understanding of the subject area.

After grammar comes logic. This is where the basic raw material has been learned, and now it is possible to apply reason to that raw material. This is where the rules of interpretation are established and put to use, where words can be formed into proper sentences, where numbers can be put through equations, where a story can be told around a particular historical sequence of events and so on.

Rhetoric comes last. Rhetoric is where things can become creative, for this is where those who have mastered the grammar and logic of a subject are able to begin building new arguments and ideas; that is, this is where it is possible to develop new rules for the logic. This is where creative and interesting work can be done – and sometimes this creative and interesting work is so profound that it completely recasts the grammar and logic of the subject in question.

The great problem with arguments about theology and philosophy of religion in our society is that those who make the most noise are people who think that they are operating at the level of rhetoric when in fact they have not yet even engaged with the basic grammar. Richard Dawkins, for example, hasn’t even achieved the level of being wrong. He is like a baby first learning to speak words, whereby it is mostly gibberish that comes out, and when there is a coherent word you cannot be certain that it matches up with a coherent thought.

Theology and the philosophy of religion have been studied by the finest minds in human history for three thousand years and more. There is a rich and fertile intellectual field that interacts with every other intellectual field, most especially the philosophy of science and the philosophy of language – it is not possible to have a rigorous understanding of physics without an equally robust understanding of metaphysics for example (as Aristotle knew). In order to make a coherent contribution to understanding in this area it really does make a difference if you have become acquainted with the way the topics have been debated through history, not least because by doing so you discover many of the most common mistakes that have been made in the past, and you are therefore set free to not repeat them.

This intellectual history has many twists and turns, new pathways and dead ends. One particular dead-end is associated with the rise of twentieth-century atheism. The roots of that form of atheism are clear. It flows from arguments put forward by David Hume in the eighteenth century, moves through the development of analytic philosophy with people like Bertrand Russell, took a canonical form as ‘logical positivism’ with the publication of AJ Ayer’s ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ in 1936, and was taken as received opinion in undergraduate circles in the 1960s. The arguments that Dawkins and his ilk like to make are cut directly from the arguments made by people like Russell and Ayer nearly eighty years ago. He isn’t saying anything new. Of course, the tradition doesn’t stand still, and what was intellectually fashionable in the 1960s had begun to be dismantled by the 1990′s and is now regarded as rather quaint. Ayer himself has disowned the book that was so influential, stating that it was full of mistakes that he spent the next fifty years trying to correct.

So when someone who has been formed in an intellectual tradition like philosophy engages in debate with works like those by Dawkins, Hithens and their brethren, it can be immensely frustrating. There is no basic agreement on the terms of the argument, no consensus as to the grammar and logic, let alone the rhetoric. Dawkins himself is very clear about his distaste for theology as he consigns it all to an intellectual scrapheap (using what is basically a ‘logical positivism’ type of argument to do so). At that point, what can the educated person do? She can simply say ‘you don’t know what you are talking about’ and leave it at that.

Unless…. unless she sees that there is a genuinely enquiring mind behind the arguments and disputes. Where there is a good will and an open mind then it is possible for a shared understanding to be formed. Please note that this shared understanding does not at all mean that the beginning student using Dawkins’ arguments will end up being converted to Christianity. Not at all. It is perfectly possible to understand the tradition completely, to know the grammar, be an expert in the logic, and to be creative rhetorically within the mainstream Western philosophical tradition, and still be a completely convinced atheist. It’s just that such an atheist would not be intellectually lazy, parroting opinions at fifth or sixth hand, and most of all, such an atheist would have a proper understanding of what it was that he was rejecting. That is what is most missing from Dawkins.

My philosophical hero, Wittgenstein, was a part of the intellectual movement that I summarised above – he was Russell’s favourite pupil – yet, even though his own faith was murky at best, he had a very clear understanding of the nature of religious belief and the way in which the philosophical tradition both could and could not interact with it. When he was invited to address the Vienna Circle of philosophers (those whose work Ayer went on to summarise) he realised that they hadn’t grasped some of the basic grammar of what he was trying to do. He therefore turned his chair around and began to recite poetry, in an attempt to shock them into opening their minds. He didn’t succeed. As he later wrote, “What makes a subject difficult to understand — if it is significant, important — is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand. What has to be overcome is not difficulty of the intellect but of the will.” That’s the problem that I see with people like Dawkins – they simply don’t want to understand.

“Jesus is Santa Claus for adults”

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I want to take issue with the comment attributed to Christopher Hitchens by Nick Cohen in the last edition of the Courier, to the effect that ‘Jesus is Santa Claus for adults’.

What is being alleged is that the belief in Jesus held by Christians is similar to the belief in Santa Claus held by young children. That is, there is a fantasy figure who comes bestowing gifts in a hidden fashion, that the children believe because they are told the story by adults. As the children grow up, so the understanding about the nature of Santa Claus changes, and belief in the real existence of Santa Claus gives way to a shrewder understanding of parental manipulation (if you’re on the naughty list Santa won’t bring you any presents), a manipulation which those very same children then indulge in when they become parents themselves. It is something that adds to the wonder and excitement of Christmas for the children after all, so where is the harm in it?

To think of Jesus in these terms is to think of Jesus as a nice story told by the grown ups to the children in a similar fashion, a way of duping the understanding in the service of a more effective manipulation by those with a fuller knowledge of the truth. To stop thinking of Jesus in traditional Christian terms is therefore, on this analogy, akin to a child growing up and looking behind the curtain, or seeing Mummy kissing Santa Claus, or simply glimpsing presents wrapped up and hidden that later ‘inexplicably’ come down a non-existent chimney from Santa. Belief in Jesus is therefore a child-like fantasy, which no grown adult could countenance.

I want to emphasise this aspect of Hitchens’ point. Belief in Jesus is seen as a childish, a relic of a superstitious age that those with a more mature outlook on life have simply left behind. Notice that this means that, in our present society, those who do retain some belief in Jesus (still a majority of the population even now) are seen as child-like by those who have rejected such a belief, like Mr Hitchens.

What I would like to know is how this analogy bears up when an adult is converted to Christian faith. After all, this is not a rare occurrence, it is a daily event. Has any adult ever been converted to a belief in Santa Claus? In contrast, in this country and abroad, mature and responsible adults are converted to a belief in Jesus Christ each and every day – I would guess thousands every day, if not more.

I would like to describe one such example which I know quite well, which is my own. When I was a teenager at school I was a militant atheist, by which I mean I was a devotee of the writings of Richard Dawkins, most especially his excellent ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, and I used his arguments to regularly attack Christian friends. I’m pretty sure that I used the Santa Claus analogy myself. I was quite certain that I was right, that I had matured away from a childish belief in a sky-fairy, and that the march of reason was unstoppable.

What shifted my perspective was going up to university to study philosophy and theology and therefore become forced into a much more rigorous pattern of thinking. I remain grateful to one particular tutor who was immensely patient with me as I trotted out the standard Dawkins lines and in each case he pointed out the logical fallacies and absurdities associated with that position. I would add: this isn’t intellectually difficult, The God Delusion could happily be set as a first-year undergraduate set text in philosophy as it contains so many excellent examples of bad argumentation. Properly considered it would provide a very thorough grounding in how not to make a coherent case.

Put simply, when I was forced to think through an intellectual position more thoroughly than I had done so before, when I had to dig more deeply and not rely on supposedly witty soundbites like the Santa Claus reference, I discovered that what I had been rejecting all along was not Christianity as it had been understood for the best part of two thousand years. Rather it was a caricature of the faith that had become dominant in the Protestant countries of North-Western Europe as a direct result of the political and social effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions. Dawkins was simply echoing arguments first raised several hundred years previously, as Hitchens then echoed Dawkins.

How, then, is my belief that ‘Jesus is Lord’ similar to a child’s belief in Santa Claus? The real irony is that what I came to realise was that it was my understanding of science that was more like that of a child’s belief in Santa Claus. After all, it was science that had the supposedly wonderful story to tell. Here was a method that provided wonderful benefits, that was a royal road to truth, that was practiced by people who were wiser and more rational than the common person – in sum, it was science that was the dominant belief system in my mind. What a proper academic study of science did for me – and what I really wish someone like Richard Dawkins could make time for – is realising that science is a human endeavour just like any other, with benefits and costs, and which is very much prone to making mistakes.

To my mind, it is the prevalent belief in science, and the deference given to those who dispense science, which is most like the child’s belief in Santa Claus. It is a naïve understanding, and not one that can be sustained after a ‘look behind the curtain’ which marks the threshold from childishness to maturity. This is not an abstract point – lives are at stake. I will write next time of one area in our cultural life where this childish deference towards science has done immense harm to us, with a look at the pharmaceutical industry.

Christianity is not a rational religion

A correspondent in the last issue of the Courier asked that I might consider what the strongest arguments against Christianity might be. I’m not going to answer that in this column, but I do want to write about why I think there is a mistaken assumption in the question. For I do not believe that Christianity is ultimately a matter of good arguments against bad arguments, however good I consider the arguments in favour of Christianity to be. I do not believe that it is possible to be reasoned into a Christian belief, nor do I believe it is possible to be reasoned out of it. To think that this might be the case is to place reason into a position that it is incapable of occupying, and I’d like to explore why.

I believe that it is possible to make an intellectually coherent system from any set of initial assumptions. It is possible to be both an intellectually coherent Marxist and an intellectually coherent Nazi (not at the same time of course); it is possible to be an intellectually coherent Buddhist and an intellectually coherent Muslim; it is possible to be an intellectually coherent Christian and an intellectually coherent atheist. In other words, to be intellectually coherent is not the same as being in possession of the full truth, it is merely a question of pointing out a consistency, that the conclusions of what is believed match up with the starting points of what is believed. Not many people actually achieve this of course – those that do tend to be called fundamentalists of one stripe or another. As Wittgenstein once put it, “The difficulty is to realise the groundlessness of our believing.” That is a comment which applies to all forms of believing, not just religious ones.

The pursuit of perfect intellectual coherence is ultimately a delusion, for all our understandings are destined to be incomplete and partial. Mathematically this has been proven (by Gödel), that even the most beautifully fine tuned intellectual system must be incomplete. So, in so far as you believe that mathematics has the capacity to reflect reality then you are equally bound to accept the limits to that.

The key issue, of course, is about the initial assumptions. How do we decide the premises on which we base our thinking? If it is possible to be intellectually coherent across various diverse and contradictory belief systems, how can we choose amongst them? Well, I am rather dubious that we do so ‘choose’. In Wittgenstein’s ‘On Certainty’ he wrote “I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.” In other words, our most basic beliefs are not the product of ratiocination, of some sort of armchair based abstract theorising. Rather, all of our thinking takes place within a world view that is already given to us.

Consider how important to our beliefs is the language in which they are expressed. It is a commonplace to say that some words cannot be translated – how then can we ‘choose’ what we believe if some things simply cannot be stated within the language that we have inherited? No, the language that we speak is something given to us independently of our choice; similarly, the patterns of life into which we are formed, the habits that we depend upon to go about our daily lives, all the moral and ethical expectations that society places on us from before our birth – all these things form our ‘inherited background’. (Which is why, by the way, the baptism of infants makes sense – it is promising to establish that background rather than leaving it to the world to fill the gap – but that is another argument).

Is it possible for such an inherited background to change? Yes, it is, but it is not something that can be done purely by reason, although reason can be an immensely useful and healing tool to assist in a process of change. Rather, to change such an inherited background is more like the process of falling in love in that it is something that involves the whole of us, all of our passions and deepest concerns, and not just simply our capacity to intellectually reflect.

Possibly the most influential atheist in our intellectual tradition was David Hume, who wrote that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Our beliefs change when our passions change, and our passions only change when something significant happens within our life. For our most fundamental beliefs to change, something similarly fundamental needs to have happened to our lives – a bereavement perhaps, or a personal crisis of another sort. In essence, we need to experience something for which our ‘inherited background’ way of thinking is inadequate; to put it colloquially, we need to have our minds blown by a particular event.

Such events have to involve us as fully human beings, all our passions and desires, loves and hatreds, fears and joys. The closer we come to consideration of such things, the closer we come to being able to change our inherited backgrounds. Which is why it is so essential that the humanities remain central to a civilisation, and why a proper understanding of tragedy is the foundation of all sustainable political resistance. What is most often misunderstood about Christian faith is that it is seen as being in competition with physics or chemistry, that it is offering a scientific description of the way that the world works. That is not where the centre of gravity of faith lies. Rather, the religious point of view is about the ordering of our passions, interrogating our desires in order to find the ‘one thing needful’ that puts everything else into its proper place and enables us to live life abundantly.

Let me put it like this. If you really want to understand the Christian faith, you’re better off pondering the state sponsored execution of an innocent man, and all the issues about a meaningful life that are raised by that, rather than the logical consistency of omnipotence and omniscience. Christianity is not in competition with physics. It is in competition with Sophocles and Shakespeare, or, these days (given the utter impoverishment of our culture) it is in competition with EastEnders and The X Factor. In other words, it is telling a different story about what it means to live well within the world. The great tragedians tell one story; modern soaps and reality television tell another; Christianity tells a third. We need to decide which one we actually believe in, and then live life accordingly.
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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.”

If it be your will

I randomly picked up a Vanity Fair the other day, to discover celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens talking about ‘If it be your will’.

There is a slight irony there. It is at least a possibility that Hitch is unaware of it…

It’s a song I’m finding comforting at the moment:

If it be your will 
That I speak no more 
And my voice be still 
As it was before 
I will speak no more 
I shall abide until 
I am spoken for 
If it be your will 
If it be your will 
That a voice be true 
From this broken hill 
I will sing to you 
From this broken hill 
All your praises they shall ring 
If it be your will 
To let me sing 
From this broken hill 
All your praises they shall ring 
If it be your will 
To let me sing

There are reasons for my lack of posting recently. 
Some time soon I’ll talk about them.

Short thoughts 3 – "New Atheism"

UPDATE: this is starting on Saturday; if any Mersea people want to join in there are a few places left – just let me know.

This is just a plug – I’ve agreed to do a course, spread across two Saturdays next May, exploring the “New Atheism” – what it is, where it’s from, what’s wrong with it, how Christians should respond to it, etc etc.

It will run 10-4 on Saturdays 14th and 21st May, at West Mersea Church Hall.

Details:

PURPOSE / AIM of module:
To familiarise students with the main arguments and methods of the “New Atheists”, to understand where they stand in intellectual history, and to have renewed understanding of – and confidence in – the classical Christian intellectual tradition.

General – including COURSE CONTENT
Six main teaching sessions spread over the two Saturdays, plus time for small groups and plenary discussions. The six teaching sessions are expected to cover:
Introduction/Overview, with especial attention to Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’
Philosophical roots 1: Hume and Logical Positivism
Philosophical roots 2: Locke and the ethics of religious belief
Theological roots: the Christian origins of atheism
Different types of theism: classical and personal
How should a Christian respond to an atheist?

TARGET GROUP – including prior experience needed etc.
No prior philosophical expertise will be assumed for this course, just an interest in the subject matter to be covered – all technical terms will be fully explained. It would be helpful if participants had read Dawkins’ ‘God Delusion’ or a similar book before coming on the course.

For a flavour of my approach to these questions, have a look at my ‘Reasonable Atheism’ series of posts, which are listed here.

TBTM20101017

Britain’s defence review and the end of NATO
8 reasons why the UK SDR must not savage the military

Capitalism saved the Chilean miners
Psychobabble didn’t

Judith Curry on the specific nature of IPCC overconfidence (part one)

My new favourite blog, Edward Feser with a brilliant analogy for humourless atheists
and a specific rebuttal to Stephen Law’s ‘God of Evil’ argument
More succinctly, Kim Fabricius with twelve swift ripostes to atheists