Philosopher Julian Baggini has written a series of seven essays on religion and atheism at the “Comment is free” section of The Guardian. His avowed purpose was to find common ground between atheism and religion, and his arguments are set out in these pieces:
As he said in the first essay:
Broadly speaking, the problem is that the religious mainstream establishment maintains a Janus-faced commitment to both medieval doctrines and public pronouncements about inclusivity and moderation; agnostics and more liberal believers promote an intellectualised version of religion, which both reduces faith to a thin gruel and fails to reflect the reality of faith on the ground; while the new atheists are spiritually tone-deaf, fixated on the superstitious side of religion to the exclusion of its more interesting and valuable aspects. A plague on all their houses: all are guilty of becoming entrenched in unsustainable positions. For there to be movement, all are going to have to recognise their failings and shift somewhat. The battlelines need to be redrawn so that futile skirmishes can be avoided and the real fights can be fought. This is the first in a series of articles which together will attempt to do just this.
I thought from the outset that this enterprise—though some of Baggini’s essays proved quite good—was futile. It’s not likely that religious people will abandon their beliefs in the supernatural, for even the most liberal faiths retain beliefs in things that are scientifically untenable, like the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, or the active intervention on Earth of a theistic God.
And some New Atheists have indeed recognized the valuable aspects of religion—its social work or function as a supportive community—but think that we can have all that without basing it on tenets that are palpably false, and have pernicious side effects like promoting AIDS or denigrating women and gays. How many Christians on this planet would remain Christian if they knew with certainty that Jesus, if he even existed, was not the son of God, but an itinerant preacher who didn’t differ from other itinerant preachers? How many Muslims would remain Muslim if they knew without doubt that the Qur’an was a man-made fiction and that Mohamed was not a prophet but a merchant with delusions of grandeur? The “valuable aspects” of religion would simply vanish if its adherents knew their faith was based on lies, for religion itself would disappear.
And, on balance, New Atheists see religion as a net problem: the bad aspects outweigh the good. Clearly we can have good, caring societies that aren’t religious, as we see in Scandinavia, so you needn’t have faith to do that, and you can do that without the pernicious side effects of faith.
Given all this, it seems almost impossible to find common ground between the faithful and the Gnus. Indeed, why would we want to find common ground between such implacably opposed systems of thought? Do we want to find common ground between Western medicine and homeopathy? No, we want to get rid of the latter, for, although many people claim that homeopathy is helpful, we know that on balance it’s harmful. Did we want to find common ground between segregationists and integrationists? Nope; we wanted to get rid of the former, despite their bogus claim that segregation had its good points.
The whole issue of why we need “common ground” between religion and atheism (or between religion and science, which is philosophically and methodologically free from gods) needs to be examined. Do we want this comity solely because we desire less conflict in society? Conflict and rancor always occurs when we’re trying to dispel entrenched but harmful beliefs.
And in whose interest is such a reconciliation? Clearly many “modern” religious folks, because they need both the psychological comfort food of religion but don’t want to appear backwards by rejecting science. It’s also in the interest of scientists who are religious and don’t want to experience cognitive dissonance. And it’s also in the interests of accommodationists who feel (wrongly, I think) that by showing religious people that because science doesn’t necessarily entail atheism, so that their beliefs need not conflict with science, they will then lose their aversion to science. For the rest of us non-accommodationist athiests, I see no reason to pursue common ground with a system of superstition that is, on the whole, bad for society. We don’t want to make common cause with religion, but to hasten its disappearance.
And indeed, Baggini discovered that he couldn‘t find common ground. He describes his failure in his latest Guardian piece, “Is common ground between atheism and belief possible?” This is based on the reaction of people to Baggini’s description, in his penultimate post, of “The articles of 21-st century faith,” his proposal for a kind of faith that would quell the dispute between theists and atheists. Here’s what he proposed:
To do this I’ve formulated four “articles of 21st-century faith”: beliefs that I think would make religion entirely intellectually respectable, even to the hardest-nosed atheists. They are neither so vague that anyone could put their name to them, nor so specific that people who are broadly sympathetic should feel unable to do so. They are brief and minimalist, stating clearly and concisely only as much as needs to be stated to establish the legitimacy of superstition-free belief. Here they are:
Preamble. We acknowledge that religion comes in many shapes and forms and that therefore any attempt to define what religion “really” is would be stipulation, not description. Nevertheless, we have a view of what religion should be, in its best form, and these four articles describe features that a religion fit for the contemporary world needs to have. These features are not meant to be exhaustive and nor do they necessarily capture what is most important for any given individual. They are rather a minimal set of features that we can agree on despite our differences, and believe others can agree on too.
1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practice a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices. Any creeds or factual assertions associated with these things, especially ones that make claims about the nature and origin of the natural universe, are at most secondary and often irrelevant.
2. Religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth, including miracles that bend or break natural laws, the resurrection of the dead, or visits by gods or angelic messengers.
3. Religions are not crypto- or proto-sciences. They should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe. That which science can study and explain empirically should be left to science, and if a religion makes a claim that is incompatible with our best science, the scientific claim, not the religious one, should prevail.
4. Religious texts are the creation of the human intellect and imagination. None need be taken as expressing the thoughts of a divine or supernatural mind that exists independently of humanity.
Okay, how many religious people do you think will agree with those? Or, rather, how many religious people will disagree with those but say that they agree because it makes them look “sophisticated”? By conceiving religion as practice rather than belief, and omitting belief in superstition and in God-given scripture, you’re immediately cutting out a huge fraction of all religious people on Earth. The only ones who agree would be ultra-sophisticated theologians or near-atheistic religious people like Unitarian Universalists. Atheists and agnostics would object mainly on the grounds that if you accept all four points, what you’re left with is not a recognizable form of religion, for you’ve cut out any explicit recognition of the supernatural—including God.
And that’s what Baggini found. He ran these tenets past several people. Four generally agreed with them: apophatic theologian Karen Armstrong, agnostic Mark “Holy Rabbit” Vernon, and atheist philosophers John Gray and Massimo Pigliucci. But the fact that these were the only people who agreed left Baggini feeling rather empty:
Qualified support, then, but only from a confirmed atheist who is unusually supportive of religion, an agnostic ex-priest, an ecumenical former nun who has rejected all dogma, and another atheist.
It’s like discovering that central state socialism has its defenders, it’s just that none are actual central state socialists.
And, Baggini’s money quote:
In this case, the worry is that people who do not at all represent real, existing religion are defending it by appealing to characteristics it doesn’t actually have.
Most of the religious people surveyed by Baggini rejected the tenets, including Nick Spencer, Giles Fraser, and Theo Hobson. And their reasons were similar: the articles leave out anything supernatural, including God, and don’t bear any resemblance to their own faiths.
Surprisingly, Baggini’s manifesto was also rejected by atheist Anthony Grayling, who makes the obvious objection: that the articles “leave out the crucial bits about religious belief, which are that there is powerful supernatural agency or agencies active in or upon the universe, with … responsibility for its existence, an interest in human beings and their behaviour, a set of desires respecting this latter, etc”.
So Baggini’s efforts, though well intended, were a failure. He concludes that religion really is largely a matter of belief and not practice:
Hence the rejection of the articles suggests that either most liberal religious commentators and leaders are inconsistent or incoherent; or that they ultimately do believe that when it comes to religion, creeds and factual assertions matter; belief that supernatural events have occurred here on Earth is required; religion can make quasi-scientific claims; and that human intellect and imagination are not enough to explain the existence of religious texts.
Is that so surprising? I didn’t find it so. If everyone agreed with Baggini’s points, there would be no conflict between science and faith, nor would we see theists and atheists at each other’s throats.
Finally Jonathan Chaplin, director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics at Cambridge, and a Christian, rejects the four tenets in a Guardian piece called “Julian Baggini’s articles of faith are a nonstarter.” An excerpt:
Even more problematically, his understanding of the natural is, contrary to what he has implied earlier, itself a contestable philosophical presupposition that cannot be proved either by science or reason. So while I would certainly claim that my Christian faith requires me to believe that God brings about certain events on earth – including what he calls the spooky ones like the bodily resurrection of Jesus – I won’t accept as a starting point for discussion Baggini’s insistence that these be described as supernatural. . .
I don’t get why he rejects the “supernatural” label here. These are certainly not events that would not happen if only purely natural processes operated in the universe. But so be it. It’s not really the label Chaplin objects to—it’s Baggini’s suggestion that the stuff described in the New Testament didn’t happen. Chaplin goes on:
Baggini wants a form of religion that is the “benign, unsuperstitious thing that liberals and agnostics have said it is all along”. He will have no problem finding adherents to such a form, though they are a diminishing minority. But let’s not kid ourselves that the ensuing debate would be of any interest at all to the vast majority of intelligent religious believers today.
Though I disagree with Chaplin’s beliefs, I think he’s being absolutely intellectually honest here. Most religious people would have no truck with Baggini’s manifesto of twenty-first century religion. It was doomed from the outset. Finally, Chaplin asks for comity nonetheless:
The first article of common ground I’d like to suggest to him is this: “We acknowledge that both atheistic and theistic beliefs can legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant and therefore proceed in debate on the basis of an attitude of mutual intellectual respect for each other’s convictions.” If he can accept that, then perhaps we can begin to work on article 2. If he can’t well, what the heck, let’s just start talking anyway.
This I totally reject. Theism has no epistemic warrant (i.e., that stuff didn’t happen), and I have no respect for those beliefs. I can have respect for believers, in the sense that they are fellow humans with dignity and certain rights, but I have no respect for the convictions themselves. If this is what Chaplin requires, then he’ll find no common ground. And the rest of us can get on with showing the falsity of faith.