The Anglican atheist
To be honest, I already suspected that Philip Pullman, literary darling of militant atheists (no doubt to his chagrin), is more religious than me, a feeble weak-tea religious apologist. But it is nice to have that confirmed in the New Statesman. Actually, ‘religious’ is not the right word, since Pullman is indeed (like me) an atheist. I had thought that ‘religiose’ would do it, but it does not – it means excessively and sentimentally religious, which Pullman emphatically isn’t. The word I want would mean ‘inclined to a religious sensibility’. Any candidates?
Pullman is writing is response to a request from Rowan Williams to explain what he means in calling himself a ‘Church of England atheist’. Pullman does so splendidly. Religion was clearly a formative part of his upbringing, and he considers that he cannot simply abandon that – he is attached to what Martin Rees has called the customs of his tribe, that being the C of E. But Pullman is an atheist because he sees no sign of God in the world. He admits that he can’t be sure about this, in which case he should strictly call himself an agnostic. But I’ve always been unhappy with that view of agnosticism, even though it is why Jim Lovelock considers atheism logically untenable (nobody really knows!). To me, atheism is an expression of belief, or if you like, disbelief, not a claim to have hard evidence to back it up. (I’m not sure what such evidence would even look like…)
What makes Pullman so thoughtful and unusual among atheists (and clearly this is why Rowan Williams feels an affinity with him) is that he is interested in religion: “Religion is something that human beings do and human activity is fascinating.” I agree totally, and that is one reason why I wrote Universe of Stone: I found it interesting how religious thought influenced and even motivated other modes of thought, particularly philosophical enquiry about the world. And this is what is so bleak about the view of people like Sam Harris and Harry Kroto, both of whom have essentially told me that they are utterly uninterested in why and how people are religious. They just wish people weren’t. They see religion as a collection of erroneous or unsupported beliefs about the physical world, and have no apparent interest in the human sensibilities that sometimes find expression in religious terms. This is a barren view, yes, but also a dangerous one, because it seems to instil a lack of interest in how religions arise and function in society. For Harris, it seems, there would be peace in the Middle East if there were no religion in the world. I am afraid I can find that view nothing other than childish, and it puzzles me the Richard Dawkins, who I think shares some of Pullman’s ‘in spite of himself’ attraction to religion and has a more nuanced position, is happy to keep company with such views.
Pullman is wonderfully forthright in condemning the stupidities and bigotries that exist in the Anglican Church – its sexism and no doubt (though he doesn’t mention it) its homophobia. “These demented barbarians”, he says, “driven by their single idea that God is obsessed by sex as they are themselves, are doing their best to destroy what used to be one of the great characteristics of the Church of England, namely a sort of humane liberal tolerance.” Well yes, though one might argue that this was a sadly brief phase. And of course, for the idea that God is as obsessed with sex as we are, one must ultimately go back to St Augustine, whose loathing of the body was a strong factor in his more or less single-handed erection (sorry) of original sin at the centre of the Christian faith. But according to some religious readers of Universe of Stone, I lack the religious sensibility to appreciate what Augustine and his imitators, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, were trying to express with their bigotry.
Elsewhere in the same issue of New Statesman, Terry Eagleton implies that it is wrong to harp on about such things because religion (well, Christianity) must be judged on the basis of its most sophisticated theology rather than on how it is practised. Eagleton would doubtless consider Pullman’s vision of a God who might be usurped and exiled, or gone to focus on another corner of the universe, or old and senile, theologically laughable. For God is not some bloke with a cosmic crown and a wand, wandering around the galaxies. I’m in the middle here (again?). Certainly, insisting as Harris does that you are only going to pick fights with the religious literalists who take the Bible as a set of rules and a description of cosmic history, and have never given a moment’s thought to the kind of theology Rowan Williams reads, is the easy option. But so, in a way, is insisting that religion can’t be blamed for the masses who practise a debased form of it. That would be my criticism of Karen Armstrong too, who presents a reasonable and benign, indeed even a wise view of Christianity that probably the majority of its adherents wouldn’t recognize as their own belief system. Religion must be judged by what it does, not just what it says. But the same is true, I fear, of science.
Oh dear, and you know, I was being so good in keeping silent as Sam Harris’s book was getting resoundingly trashed all over the place.