Below is the text of the article I wrote for the Radio Times recently. Not surprisingly, it provoked a lot of comment and objection, mostly ignoring the central thrust of the article and picking up on the dismissal of Richard Dawkins as a ‘thinker’. The criticisms were fair and it was unwise of me to edit in a shorthand comment that needed more precision, clearer elaboration and a different context – none of which were possible in an 800 word commissioned article.
The deluge of comments (also by mail and email) was a little difficult to keep up with, given that (a) I have a rather busy day job and (b) it was Holy Week. But, apart from the reasonable criticisms levelled at me, there was some interesting discussion. Because it is spread over several threads (readers came in to the blog on different days and at different stages of posting), it is not easy to follow as a single conversation. However, I make the following observations before moving on to other areas of interest – after all, this is a personal blog and not an internet forum on a single theme:
1. I should be more careful before writing throw-aways without explaining them. Fair cop. (Richard Dawkins is obviously not an ‘awful thinker’ when it comes to some things, but is very vulnerable when it comes to religion, philosophy and that sort of thinking.)
2. Atheists derive their atheism from different origins and can’t be lumped together.
3. Some atheists are remarkably sensitive to any criticism of Richard Dawkins et al – and sometimes betray what comes over as a rather uncritical reading of him. This is odd when one of their criticisms of Christians/theists is their uncritical assumptions about the world.
4. Science explores and explains the mechanics of how the world works, but says nothing about ‘human meaning’. This is something that Philip Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury agree on. As ethicists put it, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. This is where people like Pullman take over from Dawkins in grappling with morality and meaning, taking a different starting point and proving much more interesting (in my view).
5. ‘Proof’ is a slippery word, often used as if it were monovalent. As I wrote in response to an email yesterday (and this is concisely illustrative, so not intended to be a knock-down argument):
I prove that a table is a table by looking at it, measuring it, testing it (does it do what we expect a table to do?), using it and checking whether or not it conforms to what we usually mean by ‘table’. I prove that Hitler existed by looking at documentary evidence, historical evidence (what has happened to the shape of Europe, for example), literary evidence and personal record. I prove that my children (or friends) love me by the way they behave towards me. But, I don’t write off the existence of Hitler because I can’t do to him what I do to a table or because I have no relationship with him. Nor do I reject my family’s love on the grounds that I might be deceived and cannot provide incontrovertible ‘proof’ that that love is real.
In other words, we accept different ways of experiencing and validating reality. I can’t put God in a box and measure him. I can’t find a birth certificate for him. But I might want to explore the history of humanity, the search for meaning and morality, my/our experience of love (and what makes me think that my life and death matter at all).
6. I am grateful to all those who engaged in this matter and hope it leads to a more mutually respectful conversation along the lines I intended to open up in the article itself – before inserting the notorious distraction.
Here’s the text (which appeared under the title Why I am an E-vangelist – not a title I chose…):
Over a cup of tea, a woman in the garden of a church in Surrey asked me a question that nearly made me choke. Where was my chauffeur? She was clearly surprised to find that the world has moved on, that (most) bishops don’t live in huge palaces and that we usually drive ourselves to wherever we’re going. I dread to think how she would cope with some of the more radical social changes in British society in the past six decades.
For example, the demise of deference. There was a time when bishops and clergy were given automatic respect because of the offices they held. No longer. Respect has to be earned, and people feel free to argue with whatever you dare to say about anything. There are no longer any protective pedestals from which to preach, and dialogue is replacing monologue as the dominant medium of communication. Get out of the safety of the church and it’s a jungle out there.
Yes, there are still people around who will listen uncritically to whatever they hear from a pulpit – especially if it ticks the “right” boxes and confirms their view of God, the world and us. There are Christians around who mourn the passing of the old world and fear the loss of a privileged place for Christian culture in the public square. I don’t mourn the passing of deference, but I do think that what has taken its place isn’t very impressive. Richard Dawkins isn’t alone in excelling in one field – such as biology – while being awful in another – such as “thinking”. Some commentators have a shockingly misplaced confidence in demolishing religious straw men that even I don’t believe in.
This is evident also in the blogosphere. I have been blogging since the end of 2008 – normally five times a week and I have had more than 5,000 views a day – but I am still amazed that so many people engage online with the things that interest me. When I started blogging, I decided that it was pointless to play it safe or simply propagate the usual stuff to the usual suspects. A number of bishops blog, but mainly for their church audience. I wanted to be “out there”, engaging in public debates about the world, politics, the arts, the media, ethics and theology.
My starting point is an insatiable curiosity about the world and about people, and why both are the way they are. At the heart of Christianity is the understanding that God has opted in to the world and not exempted himself from it: that Christian living means engaging at every level with and for that world. This means I’ve had to grow a thick skin. The glory and agony of blogging – which I see as the first word in a conversation, not the final word of judgement – is that anyone is free to argue with me, question me, ridicule me or be abusive. But what I have found is that my own thinking is changed by the light other contributors throw on a subject. The holes in my own perceptions are exposed as my prejudices and ideologies become open to scrutiny. That has got to be a good thing.
It’s an interesting exercise. I don’t know most of the people who comment on my blog – some I hope never to know, others I might like to befriend. But, whether they are critical or complimentary, they make me think. And I don’t regard it as a bad thing for any leader to think openly, change his mind when appropriate, apologise when he gets it wrong (in substance or in tone), or to be unafraid to be thought inadequate. We live in a culture in which politicians and others feel compelled to appear watertight in their consistency and always incontrovertibly “right”, but I think there is a place for a different model of “learning leadership”. Christian leaders should be unafraid to offer an alternative model of what I often call a “confident humility”.
An area of challenge relates to the atheists in the blogosphere, particularly those who represent perfectly what their prejudices tell them is the preserve of religious people: fundamentalism and an unswayable confidence in their own unargued-for assumptions about the world and human meaning.
This frequently leads to clashes, but the robustness of these is – if not always enlightening – usually entertaining. The blogosphere isn’t for the fainthearted. But what’s the point in simply talking to those who agree with you, when you could be arguing your way to a better understanding of God, the world and people (as well as yourself ) “out there” in the rough new world of instant media?
I think Christian faith is big enough to stand confidently in the public square. The worst they can do is crucify us. But then, Easter tells me even that isn’t the end of the story.