Friday, November 03, 2006

He doesn't know, does he?

Archbishop of Canterbury 'a bit crap', shock.


Andrew Stevens said...

I read this blog primarily because I think you, Mr. Rilstone, are the best commentator on C.S. Lewis I have ever read. I certainly don't want to tell you what to write since I'll read anything you post and enjoy it (and I'm an old school Doctor Who fan as well), but I dearly love when you write on theology and religion. This post then is a bit of a disappointment since I would have loved to see the "long version," your thoughts on what the Archbishop had to say.

Personally, I think I became an atheist because I read cogent arguments for atheism before my adolescence and only read C.S. Lewis (aside from Narnia, of course) after I had been converted to atheism. If Lewis had gotten to me first, things might have been much different. But instead when I was questioning Christianity (and, by extension, all religion), I was surrounded by blathering fools like the Archbishop - good people, kindly people, even scholarly people and intellectuals, but people without a lot of respect or use for logic or reason. To paraphrase Lewis, people who supported Christianity because they thought it was comforting or helpful or good for you in some sense, but not because they thought it was true. In fact, I'm pretty sure all of them secretly believed it was false. When I debate religion with my mother-in-law, I think she thinks that I want to convert her to atheism. On the contrary, what I dearly wish is to convert her to Christianity because her confused "this is true for them, this is true for you, and this is true for me" religion is the most ridiculous nonsense I've ever heard. (And my mother-in-law is a C.S. Lewis fan, having read all of his works, though obviously having understood none of them.) Muscular Christianity, a Christianity which believes itself to be true and is unafraid of asserting that, is not ridiculous and I have nothing but respect for the people who believe it. It is rather sad, though hardly surprising, that the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn't appear to be one of them.

"Protestantism, in its corresponding decay, becomes a vague mist of ethical platitudes." - C.S. Lewis

John M. said...

Mr. Stevens,

Your comment on muscular Christianity is spot-on. If only you were on our side.

I wish more Christians would concentrate on arguing that their belief is plausible, reasonable, and true, rather than just comforting. In fact, it's not always comforting, and as a believer, it scares the hell out of me sometimes! How can I, a poor sinner, ever come before the living God? But while it's scary, I think it makes more sense than anything else in this world, so I accept it and try to live my life accordingly.

Phil Masters said...

I wish more Christians would concentrate on arguing that their belief is plausible, reasonable, and true, rather than just comforting.

Your problem there is probably that the idea that Christianity contains much in the way of factual truth has been on the run for two or three centuries, and every time it tries to stand and fight, it gets chopped off at the knees. That fight was most likely lost the moment some wimp of a pope allowed any kind of serious biblical criticism through the door, never mind Voltaire or Darwin being allowed to publish.

Oh, I'm sure there are chunks of identifiable historical truth in the gospels. But if you're going to insist that religion is really about verifiable historical truths, you're fighting on Richard Dawkins' territory, and he will have enormous fun trashing you. And I'll be cheering.

Whereas people still need comfort, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. It's really your best chance if what you want is numbers of followers, I'm afraid, unless you're prepared to go for the old screaming fundamentalist, denial of the evidence, brainwashing strategy. "It's tough and scary and painful" will get you a hard core of quasi-masochistic devotees (or can be built into the brainwashing strategy), but it's a hopeless line for the leader of a broad, established church in a pluralist society. And I suspect that the Archbishop knows that at heart.

Andrew Stevens said...


The thing is that with the fundamentalists, the evidence seems to be against them and so they're probably wrong. But the Archbishop's position appears to be entirely inconsistent, so it must be wrong.

And I think John M. is right about Christianity being a scary proposition and anyone who thinks otherwise hasn't properly considered it. The idea that there is an all-knowing God who knows your every thought and action should be terrifying to any adult. People who find it comforting are only thinking about God being there when they want him to be there, like when they're fearful or in grief, and not at the times when they're doing things they know to be wrong. The fact that God loves them and wants only what is best for them doesn't make it better; it makes it worse.

I've seen Dawkins go toe-to-toe with a couple of fundamentalists and every time I've screamed in frustration at how feeble he was. (It doesn't help that he usually starts out by casually throwing out some gratuitous insults, thus losing sympathy before he even begins his argument.) Once science gave up the claim that it could arrive at the truth, it chopped itself off at the knees and the fundamentalists have never been shy about rubbing that in Dawkins's face. I suspect that Dawkins secretly sides with me and those other realists left in the world, but the modern scientific establishment is still in the hands of the instrumentalists. This will change eventually since it's nothing more than a mid-twentieth century intellectual fad. Logical positivism has, I believe, not a single living defender, but it has left behind a number of children like instrumentalism which just refuse to die.

NickPheas said...

If one judges a man by his enemies then surely Dr Williams can't be all that bad. The loathesome wing of the Anglican Communion have no time for his, so surely we should all be on his side.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I don't think that the Chief Druid was offering ethical platitudes, or comfort, or saying that Christianity was good for you. I don't think that he was saying anything at all. To describe his answers as waffle would be a gross insult to batter cakes every where. He had nothing to say about Jesus; and the terms "sin", "devil", and "hell" were not mentioned once. (How can you discuss the problem of evil without at least mentioning The Fall of Man in passing?) Oh, and he appeared to have read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and not got the joke. Humpheries got staight to the point when he said "That is almost impossible to disagree with, because it's so vague."

Andrew Stevens said...

Rowan Williams's first words in the interview were "I don't know that there is God or a God in the simple sense that I can tick that off as an item I'm familiar with." This was not a promising beginning. To be fair to Dr. Williams, John Humphrys's question was a terrible one. "I want to know if he believes there is a God or knows there is a God." I think Mr. Humphrys intended this to be an exclusive or. However, you can't know something unless you believe it. Knowledge is defined as true justified belief. I suspect Mr. Humphrys is using a definition of belief which means "to believe without evidence" or something of the sort. Somebody will now object that I am engaging in "mere semantics." If you cross off the mere, I agree with you, but semantics is very important. If we do not define our terms precisely, all sorts of errors and equivocations will creep into our thoughts. It is vitally important not to say silly things like "that's your truth" or "this is my truth" when you mean "that's your belief" or "this is my belief" or else you will eventually wind up very confused about what truth is.

Dr. Williams also suggested it might not be a bad idea to get religion out of geopolitics. This can only be the statement of a man who does not really believe his faith or who secretly suspects it is false. You will never hear such a statement from either of the last two Popes or from most Muslim ayatollahs or true believer Christian fundamentalists, because they genuinely believe. If you actually believe, it is a nonsensical thing to say. Everything you do must be informed by your faith. The existence of God makes an enormous difference. Dr. Williams readily caved on the Crusades and conceded that religion and geopolitics are an explosive mix. When I read the transcript, Dr. Williams struck me as being rather like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome who has come to believe all the calumnies about his own people his captors have been telling him. "Yes, yes, I know we religious folks are hopelessly evil, but we're trying really hard to change that." This isn't to say that one can't concede that there are times when evil men have misused or misunderstood your religion.

Perhaps, as Phil Masters seemed to imply in his post, the Archbishop tries to be as inoffensive as humanly possible because he thinks that's the best way to lead the Church of England in its current situation. Say nothing remotely controversial, be as "pluralist" as possible, take no stand unless 85% of the population already agrees with it. Well, perhaps that's right. I have no interest and no respect for such a religion, but it's entirely possible, likely even, that I'm in the minority.

However, I realize now that, as a foreigner, I was not being entirely fair to Dr. Williams (and I'm probably still not). I hadn't really thought about the fact that he leads a Church which is an established state religion in a democracy. This must be an incredibly difficult position, particularly if the majority of the population are atheists. You folks in the U.K. can correct me if I'm wrong about that. I define atheist as a person who doesn't believe in a god or gods, not as someone who believes that the existence of a god is logically impossible (in which case there would be perhaps half a dozen atheists in the entire world). The word "agnostic" ought to mean someone who believes God is unknown or unknowable and is compatible both with theism and atheism. I dislike using the word agnostic as a hedge word to avoid calling oneself an atheist because I honestly don't care if people are offended by what I believe. I hope that they aren't, but if they are, that's their problem.

Anyway, it is my sense that, unlike in America, the U.K. now has an atheist majority. If I'm right, then Dr. Williams is likely quite hamstrung in what he can and cannot say. The mistake, of course, is in having an established state religion. It's bad for the state and bad for the religion. For much the same reason, this was American fundamentalist Cal Thomas's argument in Blinded by Might in which he argued that the political actions of the religious right in America are corrupting their religion and they should go back to actions that actually have more impact, like saving souls and performing Christian charity. (However, this is not to agree that religious politicians should not be informed by their faith, as is often suggested. John Kerry said during a 2004 debate that his faith and his politics were entirely separate. I suspect most atheists cheered, but I winced. That is the comment of a man with not a jot of intellectual integrity. Never trust a man who can believe two contradictory things at once and know that he is doing it. This is the beginning of all rationalization and rationalization is the root of all evil.)

Pete said...

I found the whole transcript infinitely enriched by reading it in the voices of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore.

Pete Darby
Druid (reformed Denbighshire branch)