A bit more bull

I’ve been reflecting on the ‘dialogue’ that was taking place over at Stephen Law’s site, about the problem of suffering and so on. A few things come to mind, the first a quotation that I may well have shared before:

The ‘third rate’ critic attacks the original thinker on the basis of the rhetorical consequences of his thought and defends the status quo against the corrupting effects of the philosopher’s rhetoric. ‘Second rate’ critics defend the same received wisdom by semantic analyses of the thinker which highlight ambiguities and vagueness in his terms and arguments. But ‘first rate’ critics “delight in the originality of those they criticise…; they attack an optimal version of the philosopher’s position”–one in which the holes in the argument have been plugged or politely ignored.

I don’t know who originally wrote it, but it was Matt K who posted it on the MD discussion board about five years ago when I came across it. It has more and more resonance with me as time goes on. (NB I’m thinking in this post primarily of the other commenters, not Stephen himself, who seems more circumspect).

The second thing that strikes me, in a sort of ‘background awareness’ sort of way – that is, I might be wrong but haven’t yet seen any reason to suspect that I am – is that my interlocutors mistake the nature of religious language. I have written elsewhere about there being different sorts of knowledge or belief – compare for example ‘Mrs Jones has committed adultery’ and ‘your wife has committed adultery’ – and the point is the embedded nature of religious beliefs within certain practices and forms of life. In other words, the depth grammar of religious belief is not the same as the depth grammar of, eg, a scientific debate. Scientific or philosophical language is simply not the same sort of thing as religious language. My interlocutors seemed to believe that if they could point out an inconsistency or gap in my thinking, in an abstract sense, then this would be enough for my whole way of life to come crumbling down around my ears. Hence the discussion rather rapidly seemed unreal. There is, here, I suspect, a commitment to an Enlightenment-era model of rational discourse, which gives rationality the primary place in shaping a world view. In my view rationality has very definite uses, but there comes a time when it is redundant in assessing truth.

One aspect of this is something I call John Locke’s ghost – that is, I believe that my interlocutors are haunted by seventeenth century terrors. John Locke advanced the argument that we are morally accountable for our beliefs (see this book), and the context for this was the way in which the peace of Europe had been sundered by (supposedly) religious warfare through the preceding 150 years or so. There is therefore a peculiar static charge associated with accepting ambiguity in a world-view – if you quite happily accept that there is something not fully understood in your belief system then you are fall under a judgement of moral failure – and thus a fear for life and property. I think this is often completely unconscious – it’s been absorbed into general Western culture (especially academic culture) – but it isn’t a perspective that can sustain much rational scrutiny itself. It’s a ghost that could do with a proper burial.

Which leads into the final thing I would want to say – the incomprehension and ridicule of mystery. Mystery seems to be assessed as the complete abdication of rational faculties, rather than their fulfilment (which is how mysticism is understood in the Christian tradition). To bring out this point it’s worth making a comparison with the way that science evolves. No scientific view or theory is perfect; each has flaws and gaps; but these are not seen as things which necessarily overwhelm the system as a whole. What causes the system as a whole to collapse – ie a paradigm shift – is when the framework itself is no longer seen as fruitful for further enquiry. This was one of the points at stake in the Galileo debate – even though a heliocentric model was less accurate than the Ptolemaic one in use at the time, the heliocentric model held out the prospect of being much more fertile, which was why the scientific approach embraced it. The same thing applies to the embrace of a religious faith – here there is the possibility of ‘fruitful lines of enquiry’ which, translated from scientific language into religious language means ‘here I can grow as a person’, ‘this is not sterile for me’, ‘this is food for my soul, not just my intellect’. That doesn’t mean that there are no gaps or mysteries – but religious faith is not unique in that – it means that these particular gaps aren’t overwhelming in the context of everything else in play. More than this – it is precisely the intellectual tradition of religious mysticism that gives a proper understanding of what to do in the face of these gaps.

I think my dominant impression – and it is a sad realisation – is that not only do I feel that my point of view was not understood but that there was no desire to understand it. No sense of a genuine dialogue and interchange of views, no sense that a religious believer might be something other than dishonest, intellectually crippled and emotionally cowering. There was a distinct flavour of ‘real men don’t eat quiche’ in the comment thread – where the religious are by definition the quiche-eaters, as compared to the red blooded atheists who are the brave pioneers into the intellectual wilderness. (This despite the fact that this particular wilderness has now been so well travelled that Tesco has decided to open a new store there). My interlocutors seem content to keep their noses pressed to their well-thumbed critiques and have no desire to engage in an honest exploration of what a religious perspective entails. There seemed very little intellectual curiosity on display (and surely curiosity is linked to courage?).

I’ll finish with one more quotation – again, I suspect I’ve quoted it before, but it is a good one – from Denys Turner, in his ‘how to be an atheist’ essay:

“…since today my purpose is to encourage the atheists to engage in some more cogent and comprehensive levels of denying, I shall limit my comment to saying that thus far they lag well behind even the theologically necessary levels of negation, which is why their atheisms are generally lacking in theological interest… such atheists are, as it were, but theologians in an arrested condition of denial: in the sense in which atheists of this sort say God ‘does not exist’, the atheist has merely arrived at the theological starting-point. Theologians of the classical traditions, an Augustine, a Thomas Aquinas or a Meister Eckhart, simply agree about the disposing of idolatries, and then proceed with the proper business of doing theology.”