‘Reason is the guardian of love’

Via Butterflies and Wheels, the Independent carries a piece on the debate between religion and secularism.

You don’t have to click this link. You can guess what the article will conclude.

The danger is that between the strident secularists and the fanatical fundamentalists some important middle ground is being squeezed out. ‘[Richard] Dawkins sees religion as credulous, superstitious and prejudiced but mature religious traditions teach people to challenge all that,’ says Tina Beattie. ‘Science will never offer an answer to the parents of Madeleine McCann. Nor will it ever be irrational to go to a Mozart concert, though science can never explain the genius of his music. The new atheism completely misunderstands the way that human beings experience the poetry and narrative of life.’

Perhaps the conflict is not between science and religion but between good and bad ways of doing both. In all of us there will always be a struggle between the craving for certainty, purity and closure and the acceptance of mystery, brokenness and provisionality. At their best, both scientists and people of faith are in a permanent state of awe-struck humility before the wonder and strangeness and messiness of things. At their worst, they are arrogant, dogmatic, and incurious. There’s a bit of both in all of us, of course.

There are some good points in the article. Everyone says that fundamentalist Christians are the tiny minority, but in this country they are a minority in charge. Our supposedly liberal Angelican church still gets itself into vicious wrangles over basic questions of gender and sexual equality. Its leader advocates sharia law for Britain. Faith groups are better organised with more influence in government, getting more public funds and more responsibilities for delivering public services. Meanwhile, as Dr Evan Harris points out, vital measures to fight disease are obstructed on religious grounds. Harris reminds us that all of Thatcher’s nasty rightwing Tories voted for embryo research. Most of Dave Cameron’s groovy, liberal New Conservatives voted against.

Criticising religion has become more difficult in recent years. I’m more and more reminded of Octave Mirbeau’s line from The Torture Garden: ‘You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd.’ Maybe that’s why the New Atheists get so much flak – they are bad mannered.

Meanwhile… according to Oliver Kamm, Melanie Phillips says that ‘the financial crisis is attributable to militant atheism.’ Erm… sorry about that, Mel.

I’ve just got a copy of Tina Beattie’s critique of the New Atheists and will review it on here, or maybe B + W. The first point to make is that people who defend religion, don’t normally do so on empirical grounds. Although historically churches have taught that the claims made in the holy books are true -and that is literally true, not metaphorically – you will not find a religious apologist on CiF or Face to Faith arguing that the world is really six thousand years old. Instead they fall back on neo-Straussian claims: religion gives consolation, it holds communities together – and they do so much for cheridee.

The Independent piece is a good example of binary thinking. On the one hand it places science: representing rationality, functionality, unbelief. On the other it places religion: representing the metaphysical, the intangible, ‘the poetry and narrative of life.’

Now, the idea that the New Atheists don’t discuss the metaphysical wonder of life is completely false. In the lyrical closing chapters to The End of Faith, Sam Harris discusses what he calls ‘a science of good and evil,’ an attempt to explore metaphysical questions without religion. The results aren’t always convincing, or even comprehensible, but Harris is not just attacking theism – he has a positive ideal of his own. And his ruminations contain the beautiful line: ‘Reason is the guardian of love.’

Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion and in his documentaries, constantly stresses the beauty of the mortal sphere. He claims that ‘a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically – and inadequately – usurped.’

But the tone of the Independent piece suggests that, to have any kind of contact with the metaphysical, you must at least be open to religious dogma. You don’t have to be a fully fledged believer but you need to denounce passionate atheism and keep an open mind to the possibility that there is some Force out there.

My view is that we don’t need religion to connect with the beauty of the universe. There are more wonders in a square yard of the natural world than in all the creation myths put together. Falling in love, the play of light on smoke, the summer that seems to last forever – these things would still endure if faith disappeared from the planet tomorrow. Indeed, I’d argue that religion is actually an obstacle to true spiritual appreciation, since it straightjackets humanity’s spiritual needs into a rigid set of ideas.

But the idea that we need religion to experience beauty and wonder is a useful one for faith’s apologists, who can say, in effect: ‘Okay, you guys may be right about the dinosaurs, but I am on a higher intellectual and spiritual plain where being right doesn’t matter. I have opened my mind and so have a rich inner life such as your shrivelled atheist soul could never dream of.’ Surely it’s time to reject this as the self-serving fantasy it blatantly is.

Science cannot find Madeliene McCann. But can the Pope? Yet how do we access the metaphysical if not through religion?

The answer – in fact, one of many – is literature. Christopher Hitchens, too, writes that:

We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books.

I don’t see why literature could not replace faith as our representative of the metaphysical. Literature has been around for at least as long as religion. Instead of reading just one book, we could read loads and loads. Fiction and poetry is a gateway to not just an appreciation of the stars and sunset, but to the complexity and wonder of the mortal sphere.


3 Responses to “‘Reason is the guardian of love’”

  1. Nadim Says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful, well-constructed piece.

    Tolstoy once referred to the Baha’i Faith as “the highest and purest form of religious teaching.” I encourage you to examine religion a little more closely, particularly the concept of progressive revelation as explained by Baha’u’llah, and it in it you will find a remarkable convergence of the metaphysical, rational and practical.


  2. Sarah Franco Says:

    “””Science will never offer an answer to the parents of Madeleine McCann.”””

    They don’t need science neither god because it’s highly probable that they themselves know the answer. What an unfortunate example.

    Science did find very compromising evidences that could have contributed to provide an answer, had the investigation not been systematically obstructed.

    As for the Pope, Madeleine does not figure on his website anymore.

  3. Sarah Franco Says:

    well, this reveals a tendency to separate reason and emotion…

    it happens that Science is proving that such separation is wrong. Reason and emotion work together.

    Antonio and Hannah Damasio and their team have been working on this for years.

    The best example, for me is the concept of justice. It is a rational concept, but also a intuitive idea modelled by our emotions.

    Solidarity is another one.

    As for religion, the fact is that the faith of many people is the result of the idea that they will get a compensation for their good actions or their suffering after they die. So there is a reasoning behind that. They are ‘bribed’ into believing.

    I am a believer myself, but I cannot accept that a person behaves in a moral way because he hopes to get a compensation, while in fact it is his duty towards others to abstain from harming others as much as he can.

    another issue, I am getting worried to realize that public european money is being spent on researches that intend to present secularists as a mirror of religious fundamentalists. I met a researcher that is working on this and it is scaring.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: