Saturday, June 16, 2007


Since I co-run a think tank (and in the process write, comment, speak and occasionally broadcast on issues of religion in society), some people readily assume that I must "enjoy the cut and thrust of debate". Well, I don't mind a good argument, and I'm happy to participate in serious (and enjoyable) conversation about things that matter to me and others. But actually, much of the bruhaha about religion right now - both from 'religious' and 'non-religious' sources - strikes me as bad (rather than good) argument, and a great deal of it is faintly depressing... not because of the validity or otherwise of what is being said, but because of the way it proceeds.

The level of anger, disrespect and sheer inattention to the fabric of argument and what makes people different can be truly numbing. Remarking on the trail of insults that invariably follows any attempt to talk about religion in any register whatsover on The Guardian Comment-is-Free (hmmnn, haven't written anything in my column on there for a bit), a friend of mine, no believer herself, remarked: "Well, any idea that if you call yourself a rationalist you must be rational looks to me to be just as incredible as the idea that if you call yourself religious it makes you spiritual. The evidence suggests it is often otherwise."

It was that thought (thanks, Jane), together with some reflections earlier on this blog, that lead me to write my latest Ekklesia column, Religion, anti-religion and the perils of being right.

That and the encouraging advent of The O Project, which "champions the contributions that humanists and other atheists make to wider society and encourages good relations between atheists and religious people." If they'll forgive me, I say "amen" to that, and not just because they are kind enough to quote me.

It is a true sign of humanism (which can be both a religious and non-religious virtue, and which doesn't, incidentally, have to sink into anthropomorphism or speciesism) that we value the humanity of those we disagree with above the actual disagreement -- either because we believe that humanity is in the end all we've got, or, in my case, because we see the gift that makes us human as precisely that (a gift, and therefore a pointer to a 'giving' that transcends our capacity to imprison gifts in networks of assertion and reinforcing interest).

Reason (the ability to recognise and act on the coherence that holds our living and thinking together), like faith (which is essentially trusting that 'the good' is neither ephemeral nor pointless - and therefore to be lived), is a distinctly human capacity. That means it proceeds not just by abstract rational construction, but by feeling, experience, relationship, instinct, embodiment and sensate response. To "be rational" is to learn, in conversation with others, to sustain the relationship between all these things -- not to reject or suppress one at the expense of the other. And for that you need people who are different to you, who see things at variance, and who can point you to new experiences, analyses and possibilities.

That's what makes a good argument - one that enhances the good, rather than one which ensures 'victory'. Sadly, this isn't what is widely perceived as making "a good story" in the media. For that you need warring parties asserting incommensurable claims, apparently. So, lo and behold, that's what you get! The bridge-builders are often written out of the script or accused of being vacillating or "over-complicated". To which the only response should be: tough, you destroy and see where that gets you (and the rest of us). We'll go on building, thank you.

It's called hope. And if you are a Christian it resides in the fact that the Word comes to us through flesh, not stone.

[See also: John Milbank, “Can a Gift Be Given? Prolegomena To a Future Trinitarian Metaphysic,” Modern Theology 11, January 1995. Picture: Goya's The Sleep of Reason]

No comments: