Doubting Giles

Giles Fraser is getting bored.

Perhaps it’s time for a new sort of conversation about religion. The old one is getting really very tired, as in some overblown boxing match between two bruisers who just won’t topple. They slug it out. Land huge blows. Declare victory. Only for the opponent to rise again (no resurrection reference intended) and for the whole sorry circus to wind itself up for a rematch.

Well could that be because one side refuses to admit that it’s making it up as it goes along? It does tend to keep futile brawls going when people refuse to admit that. I know it’s what I always do when I don’t have any evidence or argument – I just keep talking. I don’t mind; I don’t have to be anywhere else just at the moment.

For a more interesting discourse about religion would also have to involve the reclamation of agnosticism, of the ability simply to admit that one doesn’t know.

Well, that would be an idea, but surely Giles Fraser knows that many believers don’t do that, but on the contrary insist that they do know, because they have ‘faith’ (or because they read it in the [translated] Bible or the Koran). But those people (suprise surprise) aren’t Giles Fraser’s main prey.

For the Bible constantly refuses to give God a definite shape and size. That’s what the Hebrew Scriptures call idolatry and what Marxists, following on, came to call reification. It’s turning God into a golden calf. Kant was right when he argued in the Critique of Judgement that it is the second commandment, the refusal to allow human beings a fixed view of God, which offers the most significant protection against religious fanaticism.

All right, but then if that’s true, human beings who believe in this unfixed God have no basis on which to tell everyone else what to do – except the same human secular earthy basis that everyone else has.

And those who work out their faith in a certain doubt and confusion are, in fact, the true believers. Walking by faith and not by sight, as St Paul puts it.

Fine, but then you don’t get to tell us what to do. You have no special authority, or even special insight (except whatever insight comes from the sources that are naturally available to all humans – a habit of thinking about moral questions, for instance). You’re on the same footing as everyone else. So that spells an end to clerics appearing on panels as clerics, as if that gave them some sort of expertise or inside dope. You don’t get to do both. You don’t get to insist that ‘faith’ is all doubt and uncertainty, and still pretend you have special knowledge.

Some atheists are threatened by non-fundamentalist faith. They reckon it a liberal alibi for fundamentalism, offering a more superficially plausible account of God which serves only to shelter fanatics from the sort of criticism that would put them out of business…A contrasting approach would be to work on the assumption that the most effective way to attack bad religion is with an alliance that includes good religion.

Yes – I can see that, up to a point. (Up to a point because I wouldn’t want to join such an alliance on all issues; I would always want to reserve the right to ignore god and all its works on the grounds of extreme improbability and lack of corroborating evidence.) But there seems to be so little ‘good religion’ of the kind you describe around the place – religion that is genuinely doubting and uncertain. The endless valorization of ‘faith’ may be one reason for that dearth. At any rate the god-botherers who keep haranguing us incoherently about the virtues of faith don’t motivate me to make an alliance with them. Thanks for the invitation though.

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