Monday, 14 April 2008

confused and confusing,,2273469,00.html

This is a strange sort of article because it is hard to put a finger on what leaves such a bad taste in the mouth. It almost seems to exude reasonableness, backed up by an air of authority. And that's where the main problem lies. But there are quite a lot of other problems too. I don't like to quote big chunks of articles here and replying point-by-point is boring, so I'll try to keep all that to a minimum.

The article has an unbelievably tenuous premise. It begins with the news that Richard Dawkins is to appear in Dr. Who and then somehow moves on to say that Christianity in the UK has been useful and worthwhile for various reasons and will continue to be so. I really mean 'somehow' as this is one of the many blink-and-you'll-miss-it non-sequiturs you'll find in the document. The point is that Christianity is an important part of British culture. I happen to agree entirely and so does Dawkins, which forces the question of why he is mentioned in the first place, other than, perhaps, for reasons of publicity.

But I'll come back to that. The supposed bridge between the otherwise unconnected subjects of Dr Who and Christian culture is this:
On Outpost Gallifrey, the definitive Doctor Who website, I read that Russell T Davies, the show's executive producer, and all the crew were delighted to see Dawkins. "People were falling at his feet," says Davies. "We've had Kylie Minogue on that set, but it was Dawkins that people were worshipping."

It's a great tribute to our age that a scientist can still be greeted with more adulation than a pop princess. But I can't help noting the irony of the imagery that Dawkins' reception has conjured up. Falling at his feet? Worshipping? It all seems oddly reminiscent of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem in the days before his Passion; a strange resonance for the scientist who has declared himself the champion of secularism in a world where, he claims, the delusions of faith are gaining an increasing stranglehold.
I cannot imagine what point the author thinks he is making here. First, I doubt very much that anybody literally fell at Dawkins' feet. Second, supposing they did, what of it? Analogies are all very well, but the trick is not to take them too far. Admiration of Dawkins has no connection with the worship of any god other than the hyperbole used to describe it. The suggestion that Dawkins has 'declared himself the champion of secularism' is also baldly disingenuous. He wrote a book. He started a foundation. He cares about the subject. But I don't think he would claim to be it's 'champion'.

I digress, but so does the article. It is actually quite hard to find the central point, let alone a coherent argument in its favour. So forgive me for ditching the article's chronology and jumping forward:
The Bible - as literature, if nothing else - should be an essential part of every child's experience. And children should study the great Christian art of the past, too.
Here we certainly agree. It is difficult to understand much of English literature without understanding something of the Christian Bible. Dawkins agrees. In The God Delusion he lists numerous examples of English phrases that come directly from the bible. He also quotes - in that book and many times elsewhere - verses from the Bible that he finds beautiful. I agree with this also: as works of literature, the English translations of the Bible I'm used to leave much to be desired for the most part, but there are some very spectacular passages. Both Dawkins and I agree that the Bible be taught to children as a work of literature for two reasons: that some of it is of great literary value and because it is important in understanding much of the rest of English literature.

The author goes on to cite great works of art, music, literature, poetry and theatre that are religiously-themed. Again, neither Dawkins or I are in disagreement: certainly artists of all kinds have created great things. They may or may not have achieved this because they were religious - it would be rather difficult to tell - but I think the important point is that even if they were inspired entirely by religion and the works would have been impossible without that religion (a proposition I find unlikely), that would have no bearing whatsoever on whether the religion is actually true. But then the author writes:
But we like to tell ourselves that their creators were covert humanists, who wanted to make art and had no choice other than to make it within the confines of a church that held all the power and money.

This idea that all artists are essentially humanists is a comforting myth for an agnostic age. There is little evidence to support it. It is, if you like, the agnostic's delusion - because the very opposite is true. The greatest artists, from Matthias Grünewald in the 15th century to Benjamin Britten in the 20th, had a genuine Christian faith: complicated, questioning, agonised at times, as any intelligent faith should be, but a very real faith all the same.

This preposterous statement is where we part company. I for one have no reason to doubt the sincerity of anyone's religious beliefs, other than perhaps through their actions. The argument I think the author is alluding to is actually quite different. The religious sometimes argue that religion is superior to atheism because of the great works of art that are in one way or another due to religion. The counter to that argument is twofold:

  1. We don't know whether the artists were sincerely religious or not. Artists have to work for a living the same as everyone else and since the church has traditionally been the organisation with all the money, it is hardly surprising that artists looked to the church for patronage. It seems unlikely that the Catholic church would have been pleased with a non-religious theme for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, for example. We don't know what the same artists would have produced if churches weren't the major sources for art funding for centuries.
  2. It doesn't matter in the slightest whether the greatest artists of history were religious or even just inspired by religion or whether they were not. Great art is great art and I for one (and Dawkins for another, as it happens) are hardly going to argue otherwise, solely because of a religious theme. The reason it doesn't matter is simple: it has absolutely no impact whatsoever on whether the beliefs of that religion are true. Or on whether the art is great. I personally find Bach to be among the most joyful music I could imagine. And I think we have to be clear: a lot of that joy seems to come from simple showing off. A master delighting in his abilities. Well, that's my interpretation: I couldn't care less whether I'm right or wrong, providing I still get to listen to Bach.
A comforting myth for an agnostic age? Nonsense: I can't imagine why an atheist would care whether a great work of art was produced by someone who was religious or not, or whether it had a religious theme. I can't imagine a single atheist being comforted by the notion (real or otherwise) that particular bits of great art were produced by atheists. We just don't care. In general, we are quite sure that some people derive enormous comfort or inspiration from one god or another. We just don't accept that those gods exist.

The author then writes about what he says is the church's beneficial role in 'the arts ecology of Britain', explaining that it maintains church architecture. I agree with him that the country would be all the poorer if it lost some of this architecture. But we are moving toward one of my major concerns about the article and I need to shoot back up the document to quote this:
Christianity is a myth. But it's a myth that has helped us - and continues to help us - ask searching moral and philosophical questions.
I dispute this claim (that it helps re morals etc.) but that isn't my point. The author recognises that Christianity is a myth, but appears to advocate that we teach it to children anyway because it will 'help us' in some entirely undefined way. What else are we to draw from this odd statement? For Christianity to exist, we have to keep on passing it to future generations. We have to keep telling children that it is real. Even if we think it isn't.

I'm going to say this again: The author doesn't believe that Christianity is true, but advocates that we teach children (presumably other people's children) that it is true anyway. So that the author, personally, can continue to enjoy buildings which surely would not be allowed to decay even under a secular government at the expense of other people's children, who will lead a miserable life, wracked by guilt.

I don't really believe that the author is advocating this, of course. I believe that he hasn't given an instant's thought to what he has written. More on that later. He has many more blithering things to say yet. For example:
Ours is an age in which a lack of belief, at least in secular Europe, is prized. Before, having one overarching belief was central to life, guiding our choices. But now we're all supposed to travel light, be supple, so that we can swap jobs, partners or political allegiances at a moment's notice.
Another one of those blinding non-sequiturs. Not having an 'overarching belief' (whatever that means) implies that we are destined (no, doomed!) to swap jobs often and that this is somehow equivalent to swapping partners (!) and so on. And that any or all of this is automatically bad.

But this perpetual state of agnosticism, this lack of commitment, must surely be corrosive. Those who are able to locate, and to explore intelligently, a system of belief, be that religious or political, are surely making a valuable contribution to our times. We may not share their beliefs, but we should treasure them.

Why should agnosticism constitute a lack of commitment? Commitment to what? Carl Sagan was famously pressed to give his 'gut feeling' on whether or not aliens exist. He answered "But I try not to think with my gut" and went on to say that it really is OK to be agnostic about a proposition if you don't have evidence. Dawkins makes this point very well in The God Delusion, where he distinguishes between the type of agnosticism that could be characterised as fence-sitting and the kind that can be characterised by saying "well, I don't know yet".

Why should agnosticism be 'corrosive' in the author's sense? Why can't he think of it as enhancing....well...whatever it is that he claimed it corroded? Why should 'belief' get a free pass and be automatically treasured whereas refusal to believe without evidence is dismissed as detrimental?
We should celebrate the Christian legacy in western art and society - and stop the Dawkins army from denying us the possibility of drawing inspiration from faith to create the art of the future.
We should celebrate the Christian legacy - but not because it is Christian. We should celebrate it because it is our legacy. I think this is true regardless of religious belief. I don't know anyone who thinks otherwise, including Dawkins, who doesn't have an army.

This brings me to my main concern about this article. It seems to be written from a perspective I find wearisome: a kind of bland acceptance of beliefs of all kind as more-or-less equivalent; a conviction that some kind of sky fairy exists, even if you don't believe in a particular one, and the implication that morality will certainly suffer if religion (even if it isn't true) is sidelined.

This kind of bland assumption that religion ought to be respected solely because it is religion could not be more repugnant. The silly assumption that atheists cannot properly appreciate religious art or all assume that religious art is created by secret secularists is just juvenile. The connection of Richard Dawkins to this article is entirely arbitrary. It will take you five minutes with google to find out what is true. are you waiting for? Do you want me to tell you what to type into google?

Despite initial appearances, this article isn't reasonable: can anyone detect any reason in there? And it isn't authoritative: the various assertions it makes are extraordinarily dubious. But people like the author who don't want to seem to think too hard about things probably feel that none of this matters. You decide.

[Edit: see for yourself what Dawkins wrote:,2469,Religious-education-as-a-part-of-literary-culture,Richard-Dawkins-The-God-Delusion]

No comments: