Muddled Madeleine

An article by Madeleine Bunting for Comment is Free taking issue with the "New Atheism" of Richard Dawkins and his ilk has now attracted getting on for 1200 comments, a feat made more impressive by the confused and, indeed, incomprehensible nature of her remarks. Noting that in a recent poll only 22% of those questioned "knew" what Easter was about (correct answer - it "celebrates the resurrection of Jesus") she wondered "what other system of belief has collapsed at such spectacular speed as British Christianity?" An interesting question, to be sure, but not one which she proceeds to answer (Soviet communism after 1989, perhaps?) preferring instead to blame it all - or some of it - on "the evangelical fervour and certainty of the New Atheists".

I suppose some degree of confusion is inevitable from someone who manages to be simultaneously a Roman Catholic and a Buddhist. I'm not entirely sure, even now, what Bunting was driving at, although Caspar Melville of the New Humanist made an excellent attempt at elucidation in a response put up today. Two main thoughts can be distilled from her argument. Firstly, she contrasts what she sees as the simplistic assault on religion by the "new atheists" with the subtlety evinced by a Karen Armstrong, an AN Wilson or a John Gray. Secondly, she hints that without the benefit of the "myths" derived from a living religious tradition human life becomes hard to cope with. As well as Gray, she draws from the work of the agnostic philosopher/novelist Alain de Botton who "argues that the decline of religious faith has left behind a real and widespread need for wisdom and insight". This is a much richer, more interesting line of enquiry but she hardly begins to pursue it, preferring to go after Dawkins instead.

Bunting evinces "a distaste for the polemics of the New Atheist debate and its foghorn volume". She pins part of the blame on the media's desire for easily-assimilable, yah-boo debates in which God-botherers and those bothered by God talk over each other entertainingly for a few minutes. The media:

has been promoting the wrong argument, while the bigger question of how, in a post-religious society, people find the myths they need to sustain meaning, purpose and goodness in their lives go unexplored.

Do people actually need "myths" to sustain meaning and purpose in their lives? More to the point, can myths fulfil such a function for people who do not believe in their truth? Such a question would seem to be of little concern for a sophisticate like Bunting. For her, indeed, (taking her cue from Karen Armstrong's dubious claims about intellectual history) the main problem with the New Atheists is that they have too great an enthusiasm for certainty and truth:

Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths. What "belief" used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of "love", "commitment", "loyalty": saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles. Faith is something you do, and you learn by practice not by studying a manual, argues Armstrong.

Armstrong appears to deny that religions make any truth claims at all, at least in the sense that most modern people would understand it. Gray, for his part, is even more Nihilistic, claiming that "we forget at our peril that all systems of thought rely on myth". Like the myth of gravity, for example. As the American physicist (and bete noire of the postmodernists) Alan Sokal once put it, "anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the window of my apartment. I live on the 21st floor."

Like Gray, Armstrong, we learn, no longer accepts invitations to debate with atheists who, she thinks, display "egotism and arrogance". I can't say I'm particularly surprised. Her basic argument, that people in former centuries were not interested in the "truth" of religious doctrines, is self-evident nonsense and begs the obvious question of what (for example) the early Christian martyrs imagined they were dying for. The ineffability of the divine? Yet she states her case in so emphatic a manner, and with such an appearance of intellectual sophistication, that she has managed to erect an entire career upon it. It helps, I suppose, that she is so politically correct - not for nothing did Damian Thompson dub her "Koran Armstrong".

The Armstrong combination of waffle with good natured wishful thinking would hardly last more than a couple of rounds with the likes of a Dawkins or a Hitchens. That is not just because the arguments of the atheists are easier to follow than Armstrong's subtleties but rather because they have a much clearer understanding than Armstrong or her acolytes of what religion actually involves. In a Guardian podcast last year, Dawkins was pitted against Bunting in a discussion that turned out to be horribly one-sided. Bunting was unable to answer the question of whether Jesus had a human father, preferring to say that "there's some truth here that is not about evidence", and that "I'm not sure what belief is". Yet as Dawkins pointed out repeatedly, whether or not Christ was born of a virgin must be at least in some sense a question of fact. The vast majority of Christians throughout history would surely have concurred.

Of course religion involves practice as well as belief. But if religion is merely about "doing", then even atheists who "do" the things approved of by Armstrong are by definition religious. Perhaps that is what she really does believe. She has said that "All the great traditions are saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences". And what is the same thing that they are saying? That we should have "compassion". She is currently going around the world persuading religious leaders to sign up to her "Charter of compassion". But this begs a rather huge question: if religion is about compassion, how come whenever religion has found itself in a position of political power it has shown itself to be anything other than compassionate?

Wars have been fought in the name of religion - but of course that's not real religion, Armstrong wants us to think, but rather its antithesis. Women have been oppressed by men (and other women) quoting holy texts: is that simply because they didn't (don't) understand true religion as well as Karen Armstrong? Presumably. The fact that religious conviction has inspired great acts of self-sacrifice and compassion cannot excuse religion responsibility for the great evils that have also been perpetrated in its name.

In fact, the "golden rule" which Armstrong claims lies at the core of all true religion predates not only religion but humanity itself. Even vampire bats give spare blood to other, less fortunate, bats. Reciprocity emerges naturally from modern game theory. As a guide to behaviour, the principle that one should do unto others as you would have them do unto you is not even especially moral; the truly selfless person would act with a generosity it would be unreasonable to expect in return. Of course it is not the best that religion has to offer; it's telling, though, that the only principle Armstrong is able to get all religions to agree on is one that has nothing whatever to do with God, and would be assented to by agnostic and atheist moralists with equal enthusiasm.

It need hardly be said that the type of compassionate religion espoused by Karen Armstrong, for all its intellectual shoddiness, is not any sort of threat. If all religious believers behaved in the manner she thinks they should, then there would be far less negative coverage of religion in the world's media. It's unlikely that there would be any "new atheists" at all: there would be people who didn't find any particular reason to believe in the existence of a Supreme Being, but books like The God Delusion wouldn't become bestsellers. It is not the mere persistence of religion that has given Richard Dawkins his worldwide fame. The new atheism is a reaction to the resurgence of religion in the public arena.

And that means two things in particular: the American Christian fundamentalism that gives Dawkins et al their easiest targets (unless one includes crystal healing and Ufology) - but that is rather old hat now; and the modern, aggressive and politically-engaged version of Islam. Among the new atheists, only Sam Harris has been entirely upfront about the danger that radical Islam poses - especially in Muslim countries, many of which were until a few decades ago well advanced along the road to secular modernity. It is here that Armstrong's intellectual duplicity and faux sophistication ceases to be merely irritating and becomes dangerous. By glossing over the downside of religion in general and Islamic fundamentalism in particular she implicitly excuses the human rights abuses carried out in its name. For all her championing of compassion, she happily plays postmodernist games with other people's lives and freedoms. Here she is in February this year, for example, writing in the Times about the Iranian revolution:

Thirty years ago Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, man of the people and hero of Shia Islam, brought down the cruel and tyrannical regime of the Shah of Iran. This was not how we viewed the Iranian Revolution in the West. That mutual misunderstanding has led to 30 years of animosity, which once again threatens to boil over...

Far from being the rabid conservative depicted in the Western press, Khomeini was a revolutionary in Shia terms for suggesting that, in these dark times, a Muslim jurist should be head of state. Accustomed to the crowd-pleasing bonhomie of their own politicians, Westerners found Khomeini's inward-looking, unsmiling demeanour repellent, but Iranians recognised the traditional marks of a “sober” mystic, who had brought all his faculties under control.

You couldn't, as they say, make it up.


valdemar said…
The amazing thing about these supposedly educated people - especially Armstrong - is how thick they seem. They are like Big Brother contestants loudly demanding 'respect' while they babble egotistical drivel. Bunting seems to be just a woolly-minded agnostic who likes a few of the trimmings of religion and hasn't got the brains to consider anything else. The amount of column space given to such people is one (very good) reason why the paper media, especially 'quality' newspapers, are in decline.
McDuff said…
Grah. I hate taking issue with posts this good, but...

American Fundamentalism is only "old hat" if you don't live in America. The fatwah envy felt by these people is strong, and while their political power base is on the wane it is doing so very slowly from an immensely strong position. The radical Christian power bases are linked all the way up the US chain of command and continue to parachute people who are, frankly, nutjobs in positions of high power with the express purpose of undermining the liberal nature of the state. This is not to mention the increasing risk of further radicalisation at the other end of the scale as the Christianist Nativists in the South and Mountain West perceive themselves to be losing the battle at the ballot box and retreat to the more violent tactics that have only been simmering under the surface for the last decade or so.

Also, can I just mention that our own brand of Christian extremist terrorism recently made headlines again in Ireland? If violence rises in this country as the economy slumps more, it's not going to just be the Imams preaching it. And, of course, the stunningly accelerated erosion of rights in the USA and UK has taken place not just under the nose but at the insistence of devout Christians - a protestant in the one case and a catholic in the other.

It's not that radical Islam isn't "a threat" - rather it's that, frankly, it's not as much of a threat to us as it is to the people in the countries ruled by radical Islam. Islamic terrorists don't really ever manage to kill that many westerners - the numbers killed by Islamic terrorists this decade shrink in comparison to the numbers killed by jealous spouses, and are comparable to the numbers killed by Ford and GM through avoidable bad design. Of course, in a truly humanitarian metric we would see that the number of people in the Middle East killed by avoidable wars of aggression waged by Christians far outweighed anything lobbed back our way via terrorist tactics.

I don't think that there is a cause for abandoning people under oppressive regimes to their fate, but as odious as the Muslim Fundamentalists in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia are I think it's important to keep the situation in perspective, especially since our own capability to simply go in and impose some arbitary sense of "better" on countries in the region must, surely, by now, be known to be incredibly limited. From a pure foreign policy perspective Iran is the third-most belligerent actor in the USA-Iran-Israel axis. Meanwhile the majority of corrupt fundamentalist regimes in the oil-bearing states rely for their power on the patronage of the West and the most powerful power in the west and the world is still controlled by Christians - your own views about Obama's secret atheism, of course, accepted.

We should not be complacent about radical Islam, but more that we should attend to the far more serious planks in our own eye. Our political Christians may not all be as radically crazy as the worst of the Islamists, but they are significantly more powerful and capable of killing far more people, which more than makes up for it in my opinion. And in the backwoods of Alabama, well, a patriarch is a patriarch no matter what God they beat their daughters in the name of.

I simply worry that our familiarity with Christians and unfamiliarity with Muslims can cause us to underestimate the danger of the former and overestimate the dangers of the latter, and posts such as this (which is otherwise, I feel, very much on the ball) are a reflection of that complacency through familiarity.
Edwin Moore said…
It was a desperately poor piece. That Times article is extraordinary also - thanks for that.
Heresiarch said…
McDuff: It's not that radical Islam isn't "a threat" - rather it's that, frankly, it's not as much of a threat to us as it is to the people in the countries ruled by radical Islam.

Isn't that precisely what I said? Isn't that what I have consistently said? Where in this article did I even mention the word "terrorism"?
McDuff said…
Apologies, it was more a reaction to the description of Christianity as "old hat" which got my goat. It's the final paragraph of the comment which sums up my views - the threats posed by Christianity aren't "old hat", we're just inured to them. Christianity is a far more dangerous doctrine to us than Islam is, both in terms of promoting illiberalism and violence, and wheras Islam is only really dangerous to people in Islamic countries, Christianity is a significant danger to people in Islamic countries too.

It wasn't your characterisation of Islam in this post that was the problem as much as your characterisation of Christianity. I apologise for being unclear.
McDuff said…
And, also, to reiterate (because I feel I am merely a naysayer on this blog and never come in to say "good post, Heresiarch!"), it was only that bit at the end that spurred my negativity into action. The rest of the post is fabulous.
WeepingCross said…
Thinking about the initial assertion of Ms Bunting's article, I'm not sure what it means. There has certainly been a dramatic decline in Christian ritual observance since the middle of the 1960s, which is obviously nothing to do with Professor Dawkins; statistically, it went through its most sudden drop then and has only slowed somewhat since. You might think that would have accompanied an equally dramatic shift in what people believe, but the two don't necessarily match up at all. I would guess - and despite looking I've still never seen it confirmed - that levels of vague and formless theism are not much different from what they ever were, whereas before the mid-1960s this worldview expressed itself predominately in participation in Christian ritual forms, and now it doesn't. I know this is no more than an assertion, but as I say I've never seen the work done and it probably is beyond doing this far after the fact. I suspect the key factors are prosperity, mobility, and the awareness of change and difference between people.

Meanwhile, despite what Christians think, I find the outlines of the Christian story as familiar to people as they ever were. My assembly class of 120 5 and 6-year olds the other week were au fait with the details of the Passion and Resurrection to a degree that surprised me. I do enjoy these polls. I'm sure I heard of one recently that found 25% of British people were Creationists, and as I only know one I'm slightly sceptical.

(I felt I should say something more than just, 'Yes Heresiarch, you are quite right')
Anonymous said…
I thought Karen Armstrong was in fine fettle in her The Battle for God, and she is, let's not forget, a person who has journeyed out of the iron grip of Christian monasticism into thoughtful independence, but I have since learned, from a sojourn in Dubai, that the barb about Koran Armstrong is probably not misplaced. I have her book about Muhammad, which I haven't read, because I am entirely hostile to Islam, but I noticed that the damn thing was sold approvingly, and briskly, in the small number of bookshops in the wretched UAE, and from my experience of the place I knew that was an ill omen. But, since I haven't read it, I can only speak from prejudice.

I'm more troubled by your contention that myths are of little account. Perhaps I'm too steeped in Graves, Jung, Erich Neumann and Joseph Campbell. So I like myths. I mean, I like them in an abstract way, because I don't believe in them, or believe in anything else that requires belief, come to that, but I'm not troubled by that because I put myself four-square with my fellow humans, knowing that we aren't the rational creatures we suppose we are: we live a kind of subterranean existence moved higher and thither by forces we don't understand, driven by passions, visions and revelations from antiquity held out to us as the word of our ancestors, or the unseen masters, archons, principalities and powers, the Great Architect of the Universe, any bloody thing except the common sense muttered by the excitable bloke you met last night in the pub. Who could well know what he's talking about, but since he's your next-door neighbour he's given short shrift. Same goes for you, Heresiarch, sorry to say. A prophet in his own country and all that.

I've tried to stave off the loneliness I feel in this life by holding fast to myths, which I think of as "that which stands behind" -- perennial, beautiful, worthy of contemplation and elusive; dissolving into nothing as soon as reductionists turn their attention to them. They don't have to be formal myths -- I'm not liable to go gaga about Deucaleon's flood or some such -- it could be anything. A line from an Incredible String Band song, say, "where the moss grows green", or the bit in Douglas Traherne Harding: "You'll never enjoy the world aright
Till the sea itself floweth
In your veins till you are clothed
With the heavens and crowned with the stars."

To answer your question: "Do people actually need 'myths' to sustain meaning and purpose in their lives? More to the point, can myths fulfil such a function for people who do not believe in their truth?"

Yes. Belief isn't necessary. There's a way of meeting life that is at once embracing and distancing: you hold things at 45°. You balance, you hold it dear, you let it go. There's really, in the end, no ownership of the vast procession of life; each of us is just a spark, a light in the night that is kindled and put out.
Robin Edgar said…
"The amazing thing about these supposedly educated people - especially Armstrong - is how thick they seem."

I could say pretty much the same thing about Richard Dawkins and other less than bright "Brights".

And do. . .

That is a just one example by the way. The well-educated but less than brilliant Richard Dawkins and other less than bright Brights can be, and definitely are, "thick" in various other ways.
valdemar said…
Can I ask what may a stupid question? Around the time the King James Bible was produced, didn't the CofE conduct a survey, of sorts, on what ordinary English plebs thought about Christianity? And didn't this survey discover that they thought little of it and knew less?

Or was that just a dream I had after reading The God Delusion while consuming half a bottle of Glenfiddich?

Hugely OT, I have just been diagnosed with a detached retina and may be undergoing NHS-type surgery as early as tomorrow morning. Wish me luck.
WeepingCross said…
It's not a stupid question at all, and the answer, if I knew it, would be very apposite. I'll have to hunt a bit. I think we can conclude that general levels of Biblical and theological awareness were reasonably high by the mid-17th-century given the role religious debate played in the politics of the day on a very popular level (and not just religion as a tribal identifier, which it usually is, but actual disagreement over ideas), but John Wesley, who knew more about these things than most people, found great ignorance a century later. I don't think much changed thereafter.

For some reason, Valdemar, your eyes have been on my mind lately. Yes, good luck for tomorrow, or whenever the treatment turns out to be.
Edwin Moore said…
Valdemar, not sure about that survey, but Danziger and Gillingham's 1215 (p. 212) records the view of a prior c. 1200 that 'many' people do not believe in God or the soul and hold that the universe developed by chance rather than providence - would guess it has always been thus!

Good luck with retina buddy think it's a straightforward op. I had a cataract removed in January - can see great now.

Heresiarch said…
Sorry to hear about your renewed eye trouble, Valdemar. Hope it goes well with the operation.

@Father WC: Your intuition certainly feels right to me. For many people, fairly standard Christian beliefs about Jesus etc often seem to coexist alongside vaguer "spiritual" ideas, superstitions etc, none of which probably have much influence on how people live their lives or relate to others. The proportion of out and out atheists probably hasn't changed much either.

As for the decline in churchgoing, it may relate to the loss of deference to institutional forms of authority in general. It also parallels a huge fall-off in membership of political parties, which may or may not be connected.

@ Martin Hayes.

You raise some interesting points. I have no objection to myths or mythic thinking per se - and of course many people, myself included, draw great resources from the products of art and literature. Myths contain insights about the human condition, even those which aren't "true". Indeed, the truth or otherwise of the events described in the myth is pretty irrelevant, understood as a myth: the story of the Titanic, for example, is no less mythic for being true, nor is the story of Frankenstein any less meaningful for having been made up by Mary Shelley rather than set down in some Holy Book. Myths are tremendously relevant as a source of inspiration.

But where religion, specifically, is concerned, myths are supposed to be more than simply myths, at least for the majority of believers (though presumably not for sophisticates like KA, Maddy or possibly, given his latest ruminations, Tony Blair). My suggestion here is that religious myths are somewhat analagous to a placebo, in that their effectiveness depends on their being believed; and were the time to come when they were acknowledged as purely mythic the result would be a crisis of faith, just as a placebo doesn't work for people who know it's just a sugar pill.
sarka said…
Never heard of any early 17th-century English survey of religious attitudes. On the other hand, I have read interesting regional studies of ecclesiastical court records in the earlier 16th century. Quite a number of ordinary people were hauled up for blasphemy, which seems often to have involved what one author calls "village atheism". Some of this, like calling holy water a load of "piss" or making rude remarks about the alleged virginity of Christ's mother, might just be interpreted as pub bravado, but I've always thought that the idea that everyone, especially the common people, fully believed in Christianity, is a bit of retrospective myth. In any case, low education and literacy meant that even believers didn't have much intellectual grasp of Christian theology, and whatever they learned in church was obviously mixed up with all kinds of superstition, magical beliefs not necessarily involving God, or quite possible private scepticism as well...
Neuroskeptic said…
Secondly, she hints that without the benefit of the "myths" derived from a living religious tradition human life becomes hard to cope with. As well as Gray, she draws from the work of the agnostic philosopher/novelist Alain de Botton who "argues that the decline of religious faith has left behind a real and widespread need for wisdom and insight". This is a much richer, more interesting line of enquiry but she hardly begins to pursue it, preferring to go after Dawkins instead.

No-one ever does, really, though. I've heard the claim that religion adds something to life a hundred times. I've had Voltaire's remark about inventing God quoted a hundred times. I've rarely seen anyone go further and sincerely, seriously ask what it is that religion is supposed to add to life and whether it might be had without religion.

It's almost as if saying "...but actually, we need religion!" has become something a certain kind of atheist has to say in order to avoid being associated too closely with the "bad" atheists (i.e. Dawkins). It's rarely the product of serious thought.
WeepingCross said…
Yes. As I've said before, I'm a former atheist and now a Christian. From this side of the 'conversion event', I think my life, and my attitude to life, is inestimably richer and deeper that it was before, and were I to change my mind again it would, I feel, amount to going mad. Removing Christianity would rip out with it everything I love and value in life. However, that comes from believing certain religious statements about the nature of things, not from a contentless belief that 'religion is valuable', and I'm sure the sort of 'moderate' atheist who complains of other atheists being rude about religion doesn't mean what I mean. In fact, I'm not sure what they do mean. Having said that, the instinct not to be rude is an admirable one: I don't like people being rude, either.
McDuff said…
I've rarely seen anyone go further and sincerely, seriously ask what it is that religion is supposed to add to life and whether it might be had without religion.
Well, it's hard to nail down what religion *is* in the first place, I find, which doesn't help.

Having said that, I tend to think that religion is just a sub-group of generic human behaviours, a combination of metaphors which fit in with the way we interpret the world. We're not scientific creatures, we're creatures of instinct, imagination, flawed biology and a big batch of delusion. We like narratives and we impose meaning on the world. We're also social creatures and feel much more comfortable fitting into some kind of social hierarchy. Religions are easily gained, pre-packaged social constructs that fulfil all those needs in one swoop. You get social status and inner meaning, it's a twofer.

Which is not to say that you can't get that from other sources. It's just a bit more complicated. Nationalisms and other forms of group/identity politics can do the same job too. But beyond that, you're left with making your own custom social and metaphysical narrative, which is a higher investment of time and energy.

So, basically, I think what religions give you, at least if you're a westerner, is a way of "understanding" the world sufficient for survival and comfort, leaving you plenty of time to earn money or have sex. There are probably differences in exactly what it gives people from other cultures, but that's what makes sense to me. When looked at that way, you can understand both why people could say "religion provides something for people that nothing else can" but also why people would believe the gaps could be filled with non-religious thought. Both sides are technically "right" but they're looking at it from different perspectives.

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