It’s painful but ultimately rewarding to read Julian Baggini’s continuing series of essays on religion that appear in the Guardian. For a long time we’ve known him as a fierce critic of New Atheism, but now he seems to be discovering that many contentions of the Gnus are right after all. If he’s intellectually honest, it’s only a matter of time before he becomes one of us.
His latest piece, “The myth that religion is more about practice than belief,” takes up the anti-Gnu criticism that religious people don’t really believe the official doctrines of their faith—they just go to church to socialize, engage in communal works, or enjoy the potted lilies and stained glass. To suss this out, Baggini did an informal verbal survey of 141 churchgoers in Bristol and combined that with an online survey of 767 more (he’s summarized the results at another site). He fully realizes that this isn’t a proper random sample, even of churchgoers.
Nevertheless, he found some results that surprised him. The biggest one?
So what is the headline finding? It is that whatever some might say about religion being more about practice than belief, more praxis than dogma, more about the moral insight of mythos than the factual claims of logos, the vast majority of churchgoing Christians appear to believe orthodox doctrine at pretty much face value. They believe that Jesus is divine, not simply an exceptional human being; that his resurrection was a real, bodily one; that he performed miracles no human being ever could; that he needed to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven; and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. On many of these issues, a significant minority are uncertain but in all cases it is only a small minority who actively disagree, or even just tend to disagree. As for the main reason they go to church, it is not for reflection, spiritual guidance or to be part of a community, but overwhelmingly in order to worship God.
To his credit, he uses this finding to defend the Gnus, and defend them strongly:
This is, I think, a firm riposte to those who dismiss atheists, especially the “new” variety, as being fixated on the literal beliefs associated with religion rather than ethos or practice. It suggests that they are not attacking straw men when they criticise religion for promoting superstitious and supernatural beliefs. Yes, I know you can define “supernatural” in such a way that turning water into wine isn’t supernatural after all, but when atheists use this word, their argument is not based on an unjustified linguistic or metaphysical stipulation. They are simply pointing out that religions maintain that things happen which cannot be explained simply in terms of physical laws and human agency, and on this it appears most churchgoers agree. . .
It seems to me that these results, if truly indicative of what people actually believe, are highly significant for the present debate about religion. The challenge to the likes of Karen Armstrong – which I’d love to hear her response to – is to accept that when they claim religion isn’t really about literal belief, they are advocating a view about how religion ought to be in its best form which just doesn’t describe the reality on the ground. They are defending an ideal of religion, a possibility that is not the normal actuality.
I’m surprised that Baggini is surprised. For at least in America, even the merest acquaintance with the average churchgoer—as opposed to religious intellectuals and academics, who are almost atheists anyway—shows that there are certain bedrock doctrines that are non-negotiable. Even smart dudes like Andrew Sullivan can’t help but believe in the divinity of Jesus. But maybe this is more of a surprise in the UK. Baggini’s results, which have been replicated by more systematic surveys in the US (e.g., here and here) show that “sophisticated” theologians by no means express the beliefs of other adherents to their faith.
Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald has a deeper take on Baggini’s results. His title is (for Eric), a tad snarky: “I could have told him that”, but the content is enriched by MacDonald’s own years as an Anglican priest.
I have said it often enough already, but this is how, in my experience, most Christians understand faith. My own attempts to move away from this into more liberal, indeed, more radical revisions of faith in order to make sense of faith in the modern world, while to some degree successful, and actually more attractive to some people’s more radical understandings of faith, the place of the Bible in determining faith, and the obvious marginalisation of some “believers” because of their inability to accept orthodox ways of understanding both Bible and creed, was of central importance to the core membership of the parish in which I worked. One of these put it quite succinctly when she said that I would not be there forever, and she was prepared to tolerate my radical take on faith, but she knew what she believed, and was quite confident that the next Rector would be more on her side than on mine . . .
Atheists like Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, to take only the Four Horsemen, who take religion as centring in belief, not in practice and metaphor, are spot on the money for most religious believers. Academic theology, as I have reason to know, having for years tried to convince people that they didn’t need to believe that the Bible is the unspotted word of God, or that things like the resurrection or the other miracles of Jesus must be taken as supernatural events, simply has no purchase at the level of the ordinary believer.
And he gets in a few licks at those infuriating theologians like John Haught:
The point might be put a bit clearer. Academic theologians, to be at all credible in the academic community, cannot speak or write about their subject as ordinary, simple believers. Theology, as an academic discipline, must at least be intelligible to others in the academy. That it fails even in this is neither here nor there. People like John Haught and Keith Ward are trying very hard to place their “discipline” in the context of other academic disciplines, and so they must adhere to some, at least, of the canons of scholarship.
Academic imperatives, however, have no locus standi at the level of ordinary belief, which is why so many who emerge from theological schools find their own understanding of faith at complete variance with the understanding of the people they go out into the parishes to serve. They either adapt to that circumstance, and learn to temper their academic learning with the faith as the people they serve understand it, or they try to introduce new ways of looking at faith to the people. The latter is often the path not taken, because it requires a deftness and a fairly quick reason that many people simply do not possess, and if you cannot make it seem as though, with all the revisions you are proposing, there is still something recognisable as the faith of old, you will get nowhere, and will end up in conflict with the very people on whose goodwill you depend for your daily bread.
Or daily wafer. That’s a simple statement, but it’s absolutely true. Theologians will object simply because obfuscation and rationalization is their way of life, but not for a minute should we think that academic theology has any substance. I’ve read more than my share now, and it’s all just fancy words without content, much like having a meringue when you’re expecting a meal. Eric ends with a ringing paragraph:
The gnu atheists are right to continue to drive their wedges between belief and practice, for, while moral practice — concern for justice and the relief of suffering — can stand on its own, belief is now, with all the challenges of science and the obvious benefits of secularity, an orphan, with no visible means of support.
Maybe it’s time for us to start really believing those Christians, Jews, and Muslims who tell us what they believe. And we should demand of theologians some evidence that their interpretation of scripture is both correct and representative of their coreligionists.
h/t: Grania Spingies