Slowly but surely, Julian Baggini is moving closer to the New Atheist position, one he’s strongly derided in the past. His conversion is taking the form of very strong critiques of religion, including the newest at the Guardian, ” ‘You don’t understand my religion’ is not good enough.” It has a deep resonance with me because of my debate with John Haught, who maintains that his faith is above criticism by those who haven’t been grasped or “personally transformed” by it. As Baggini notes, that kind of “in-group” thinking, designed to render faith immune to criticism, is bogus:
Most obviously, it cannot be the case that the views of someone who is most immersed in or knows most about a religion always trump those of a relatively uninformed outsider. People who live and breathe a faith know more about it than those who do not – but this quantitative advantage does not guarantee better qualitative judgements. If it did, by the same logic, we should take the word of the earnest astrologer of 40 years’ standing over the clear evidence that it’s all baloney. Indeed, being deeply immersed may be a positive disadvantage, in that it might make it impossible to take a clear-sighted, impartial view. . .
But embracing this mystery comes at a price. If, like the archbishop of Canterbury, your faith is a kind of “silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark”, then think very carefully before you open your mouth. Too often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively. Believers constantly attribute all sorts of qualities to their gods and have a list of doctrines as long as your arm. It is only when the questions get tough that, suddenly, their God disappears in a puff of mystery. Ineffability becomes a kind of invisibility cloak, only worn when there is a need to get out of a bit of philosophical bother.
Baggini promises more articles on the “religion debate” in the next few weeks, and I’ll be interested to see where he’s going.
I was going to post on Baggini’s piece (he is a bit sympathetic to this kind of obscurantism), but over at Choice in Dying Eric MacDonald just put up a long analysis, “Julian Baggini on mystification.”
Here’s just a snippet:
Baggini says that “[t]oo often I find that faith is mysterious only selectively.” But if, at the heart of faith, there is something that passes understanding, then there is nothing more to be said. The thing that distinguishes religious belief from a kind of pure, meditative spirituality, is that it is about something, and even if, with Tillich, we want to say that that something is not really a “thing” at all, but something beyond existence, if belief is to be belief that something is true, then it must have some ontological status, however that status is described. But if it does really disappear into mystery, then even saying as much as Tillich does about the “Being beyond Being” becomes meaningless twaddle. And what would a religion, at least an institutional religion, be, if it had no beliefs? But if those beliefs are to be based on something that disappears into mystery, then how are we to distinguish beliefs which are worthy of belief from those which are not?
I await with interest the coming articles in Baggini’s series on the new heathenism, but it seems to me that this is what the new atheists have been saying all along. So far as I can tell, people like Dawkins, Harris, Coyne, Hitchens, Dennett, Myers, and so on, have been demanding clarity from the religious. What is it that you believe? On what do you base your belief? Why should we believe what you believe on this basis, when others (say, Jews, Muslims and Hindus — since so far the new atheist challenge has been directed mainly towards Christianity) believe quite different things on arguably a similar basis?
In the end, it’s all about evidence, and whether one has good reasons for holding one’s beliefs. A constant demand for those reasons is the hallmark of New Atheism, which in the past Baggini has excoriated. But now he’s by our side, criticizing the lack of good reasons for believing that God has certain traits, or even exists.
And, as Eric points out, if your God, like Haught’s, is so ineffable that you can’t say anything about it, then you have no reason to accept the tenets of your faith. That’s especially true for Haught’s Catholicism, which has many official positions on the soul, marriage, Jesus, heaven, divorce, homosexuality, and so on. I would love to ask Haught which of those positions he agrees with, and why. Does being “grasped by your faith” give you the answer? If so, why do Catholics differ so much in their answers?