Julian Baggini appears to veer back and forth in his posts on religion and atheists like a drunken driver careening from one side of the road to another. At some times he says that atheists are right; at others he decries us for dogmatism and shrillness. His latest post at the Guardian is in the latter vein, as you can tell from its title, “Give me a reasonable believer over an uncompromising atheist any day.” He’s asking all of us to adopt a few virtues as we “search for common ground” in the debate between faith and atheism. Of course, it’s not at all clear what sort of common ground there can be here: it’s a clash between two completely different worldviews: one based on evidence and reason, the other on dogma, superstition, and revelation. What sort of “compromise” is possible?
In the search for common ground in the religion debate, I suggest the virtues of sincerity, charity and modesty can do this work.
By sincerity, I don’t mean simply that people genuinely believe what they say. Rather, they are making a genuine effort to discover the truth and are able to question honestly the beliefs they were brought up with or have adopted in adult life. As some put it, they are fellow seekers.
In this vein, I’d suggest that atheists are far more “sincere” than believers, for many of them used to be religious, and rejected faith because of the lack of evidence. Many of the rest of us feel likewise. And really, how many believers, save the extremely liberal ones, are racked with doubt, constantly engaged in seeking the truth about God?
By charity, I mean the effort to try to understand the views and arguments of those we disagree with in the most sympathetic form we can, being critical of their strongest versions, not their weakest ones or straw man caricatures.
I plead “not guilty” here, as I’ve read many sophisticated theologians and have found that it’s all, at bottom, a bunch of piffle. Besides, shouldn’t we often attack the form of faith held by believers themselves, not just the weak apophatic tea dispensed by theologians?
By modesty I simply mean some real sense that we are all limited in our understanding and that no matter how sure we are, we could be mistaken. Even when others go very wrong indeed, we can recognise that there for either the grace of God or the luck of chance go I. This kind of modesty is not incompatible with having strongly held beliefs and certainly doesn’t require agnosticism.
Yep, all scientists (well, most of them) admit that we could be wrong about God, but if you look at the evidence, I’d bet on the no-God side. In my taxi on the way to the airport, I talked to my cab driver, who was a Muslim and wanted to expatiate on God. He told me that the Qur’an gave scientific evidence for the origin of life (“it came from dirty water—like pig water”). I asked him if he didn’t think that he’d be a Baptist had he been born in Mississippi, or a Catholic if born in Spain. He admitted as much, but went on to defend Islam as the true faith. (It is the accident-of-birth form of belief that I consider one of the most telling arguments against the truth of a given faith.)
The point is that yes, we should recognize that many people are brainwashed into their faiths as victims of circumstance. Maybe I would have been a Muslim had I been born in Lahore. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t argue against Islam—or any religion—with all the fervor I can muster. What kind of modesty should I have? If a religious person has arguments for the existence of God, let him bring them on. Since I haven’t seen any good ones, I guess I’ll remain “immodest.”
But what is the “coalition of the reasonable” for which Baggini is asking? So far as I can determine, it’s his ill-fated attempt to get the faithful and nonbelievers to agree on a set of principles for “reasonable faith”. Baggini set out four of them here:
1. To be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise 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.
For obvious reasons, particularly points 2 and 4, Baggini failed to convince the faithful (see his post on the failure here). I have no opinion on the first three points, for as an atheist I can’t see dictating what religion should or should not involve. But it’s palpably true that most religions do involve the supernatural, a theistic God, and claims about the real world. You’re not going to get many Catholics, Baptists, or Muslims to accept these four points.
I do, however, agree on point 4. But you’ll not get the faithful to agree on that. Given the nature of faith, Baggini’s “coalition of the reasonable” is doomed to failure, and he knows it. He’s reduced, in the end, to lambasting atheists for not being “reasonable” enough, even though the faithful rejected his tenets even more vehemently than did the atheists.
Baggini’s is a losing battle, and demonstrates that there is no rapprochement between the scientific and religious views of the world. But we knew that all along.
His final exhortation:
. . . I really do think that the most important divide in the religion debate is not between believers or non-believers, but between those who show the virtues of reasonableness and those who do not.
That’s why I’ve often had more fruitful dialogues with some Catholics and evangelicals than I have with some fellow atheists. Our allies should be all those who don’t just proclaim the virtues of reasonableness, but live by them, whether atheist or agnostic – or any stripe of religion.
The question I have to ask is this: “Allies in what?” Baggini never answers that.