26 November 2005
This article by a certain Nicholas Buxton in The Guardian, Face to Faith column, Saturday November 19, 2005, I found so totally annoying that I just had to respond to it line by line:
It is a secularist article of faith to maintain that religion will soon be eliminated as a by-product of "progress".
* We can live in hope, and a report by the Church of England itself suggests it may not be long for this world, but there is no sign of religions in general succumbing.
Since there is no reason to suppose that life has some overarching meaning, the notion of a benevolent God who intervenes in history on our behalf is basically nonsense and should be abandoned.
Atheists complain that religion proposes unprovable accounts of life and death. But this is uninteresting.
* I would say they weave fantasies around life and death, such as tales of life after death, reincarnation, karma, ghosts, resurrection and judgemnt, etc, etc.
Death is obviously a fact, but how we make sense of that fact is not the sort of question that could be subject to "proof" any more than a painting could be judged "wrong".
* It depends what you mean by "making sense of". Religions generally seem to want to deny the finality of death, and offer various alternative scenarios of life after death.
Insights into human nature derived from the plays of Shakespeare may be equally "unprovable", but that doesn't mean they're not meaningful, useful or true.
* I'm sure there are insights into human nature derived from Shakespeare's writings in a perfectly 'provable' or at least 'arguable' manner. In fact a number of secularists have written extensively about Shakespeare's works, G. W. Foote and J. M. Robertson among them.
The atheist's first mistake, then, like the fundamentalists they often object to, is that they completely miss the point. Faith has nothing to do with certainty: it is not a set of closed answers, but rather a series of open questions with which to engage.
* Well this may be so for Mr Buxton, but it is not so for most religious believers.
As it happens, I acknowledge the possibility that the universe may be meaningless and human life pointless. But this leads me to draw quite the opposite conclusion regarding religion. Rather than rejecting it - on the basis that it must be manifestly untrue for claiming that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, life does in fact have a meaning and a purpose after all - I recognise that life's potential for meaninglessness requires us to give it a meaning it would not otherwise have.
* Well, this is the standard secularist position. It is up to each of us to try to give meaning to our lives.
This is the function of religion.
* This is just redefining 'religion' to mean what I would call 'philosophy'.
Indeed, even at a mundane everyday level, everything we do is done for a supposed reason, and fits into a story about what we are doing and why we are doing it.
* Well, I for one don't always have a clear reason for everything I do. That would make me a sort of automaton. It's part of the human condition to be often in a state of uncertainty.
In short, we cannot just "do" or "be", like sheep wandering aimlessly across a field with no sense of where they are going or why.
* I quite like just doing or being sometimes. "What is life if full of care, We have no time to stand and stare".
To be self-aware is to be intentional, it is to attribute significance to our actions; and that implies explanation, the notion of a reason or a purpose to account for the experience of that awareness.
* I would say that being intentional is more than just being self-aware. It is being in control and directing our actions, having a conscious purpose or plan worked out.
The alternative is nihilism. If we truly believed that life was meaningless, we would have no reason to get up in the morning
* Probably true, we would have no reason to do, or not to do, anything.
- ultimately, the most rational thing to do would be to jump over the edge of a cliff.
* That doesn't follow at all! The rational thing to do, if we felt the need of it, would be to try to find a meaning or purpose, or a substitute for it.
In other words, religion is our way of making sense out of nonsense, necessary precisely because life, in and of itself, may well be meaningless. To be religious is simply our way of expressing what it means to be human; we could no more cease being religious than cease being artistic or political.
* This again is redefining 'religious', this time as 'being human'. On the contrary, my impression is that religion is our way of making nonsense out of sense!
The second mistake secularists make is that they fail to acknowledge the foundational assumptions - "dogmas" by any other name - underpinning their own worldview.
* Secularism of itself is not a complete 'worldview'. It is a framework within which many different world-views can exist.
As John Gray has argued in Heresies, many secular ideologies, such as Marxism and liberal humanism, are essentially theological narratives in structure and function, though arguably less coherent. Marxist notions of historical inevitability, or the assumption that democracy is a universal norm, are just forms of Christian soteriology dressed in secular clothing.
* I had to look up 'soteriology'. Apparently it is theology-speak for the 'doctrine of salvation'. Marxists will have to speak for themselves, but in my experience humanists favour democracy not as a matter of principle but because democratic forms of government (and there are many forms) have been shown, on the whole, to work better than others.
When it comes to ethics, secularists are forced to assert that we behave morally and responsibly because it is "human nature" to do so.
* Here again he is telling secularists what they think, and very few are as naive as this! There are many serious ethical problems that require hard thought, but just being kind to people we meet when possible is a useful rule for deciding many ethical questions of everyday life, and most humans who have had an untraumatic upbringing probably do this instinctively.
But what do they mean by human nature? This abstract notion is no different from a religious absolute, and performs exactly the same role in the sentences in which it is used as "God" does in the sentences in which He features.
* What is the difficulty in defining 'human nature'? Isn't it what is studied in medicine, psychology, anthropology, and such sciences?
Secularism has a more worrying implication, however. Without religion's insight that human beings are essentially flawed, we lose all checks on our hubristic pride, and risk making a false god of our own scientific genius, even though there is no evidence to support the belief that society advances in tandem with science.
* No secularist I know would claim to be perfect. In fact "to be human is to err". But equally no secularist would subscribe to the notion that human beings are "essentially flawed" either, unless it be that we are somehow excessively gullible to religion and charismatic leaders.
While I don't deny the reality of religiously motivated violence, the fact is that for much of the last century, atheist regimes pursuing enlightenment ideals inflicted massive suffering on their own people.
* For secularists, 'enlightenment ideals' are exemplified by Tom Paine's Rights of Man, and very few of these were practiced by the 'atheist regimes' in communist Russia and China. What Stalin and Mao, and Pol Pot in Cambodia, pursued was totalitarian control. They may have been anti-theist, but they were also anti-humanist. The Nazis in Germany were certainly not atheists, most were overtly christians, with for some an attraction for the type of paganism represented by the Norse gods. The 'ideals' behind Nazi Germany were ones of 'racial purity' and territorial expansion, hardly enlightened.
Perhaps we'd actually be better off if we were all a bit more, rather than less, religious.
* Well if being religious just means being philosophical and being human, that is probably true, but it isn't what most religions mean in practice.
I find that Ophelia Benson has also done a demolition job on it in Butterflies and Wheels.