Sunday, 24 April 2011

Chris Patten: "terrified of doubt"

Here's a rather strange statement by Chris Patten:


It makes people think I'm peculiar and lack intellectual fibres because I don't have any doubts about my faith, but I'd be terrified to have doubts.


Now, I have some sympathy with Patten's frustration. There is nothing intellectually sophisticated about atheism, and it is wrong and more than a little smug of some atheists to pretend that there is - by calling themselves "brights", for example. Committed atheists may be over-represented at the top end of the IQ spectrum, but so are committed believers. If anything, the mental flexibility required to be a serious religious believer in the modern scientific, secular-focused world is much greater than that needed to justify atheism. And I'm not just talking about subtle liberal quasi-believers who write for the Guardian. The world is not short of highly intelligent, if staggeringly blinkered, creationists, who are well aware of the strength of evidence for evolution and who, far from ignoring it, are convinced that they can easily refute it. The ingenuity of such people is as much a product of their intelligence as it is of their commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible.

Being an atheist, by contrast, really is a doddle. All it requires is to accept the scientific understanding of the world at face value. To a first approximation, the universe appears to be a material place. There are no obviously supernatural events occurring on a regular basis. In former centuries, when the prevailing interpretation of the world was a religious one, to be an atheist required both courage and intellectual independence - for it seemed plain that the complex and ordered cosmos required a God to set it in being. When William Paley combined the "design" of an eye to the design of a watch he was making a common-sense argument. It was Darwin who was the revolutionary. When Richard Dawkins sets out the argument for natural selection being true, he is Paley's heir more than he is Darwin's, using logic, rhetoric and appeals to common sense to support a proposition that has the whole weight of informed opinion on its side.

Where Chris Patten comes unstuck is in his admission that he'd "be terrified to have doubts". If he really is too scared to confront the arguments against his faith, then he does indeed lack "intellectual fibres" - or at least intellectual moral fibres. It seems to me that being too terrified to confront possible doubts is not a sound basis for religious faith. What is he afraid of, that he might find the doubt all too plausible? It sounds almost like an admission of tacit atheism: "I don't want to go there, just in case I discover something I don't like, or can't easily dismiss. So I'll just sit here in my religious comfort-zone and stick my fingers in my ears." It's not an intelligent remark for any publicly prominent believer to make, though it is, perhaps, an honest one.