Poor shivering baby

I think I can do a little to clarify what Julian has in mind (because I did a little background re-reading). I think it’s more interesting than these two recent articles might suggest (just as Russell said in comments).

I re-read the end of Atheism a VSI, because I did a comment on it in January 2007 and some of the issues are the same. My attention was snagged by a passage about Don Cupitt, who ‘finds himself under fire from Christians and atheists, who both think he is actually an atheist after all and should just admit it, but I think his attempt to save something distinctive from the wreckage of religious belief is admirable…’ Ah, thought I, so perhaps via Don Cupitt I can better pin down what Julian means by ‘what of value is left of religion once its crude superstitions are swept away.’ So I plucked my copy of What Philosophers Think from the shelf and found the interview with Don Cupitt and read it. He’s a non-realist about God, so one inevitably wonders well why bother then (and Julian did press him on that point) – but he did say some interesting things. The interview is in the archive, in case you have access.

‘I sometimes quote there the contrast between Sartre’s atheism and the reli gious attitude of a British philosopher like Ernest Gellner, who was certainly no theist and no religious believer. But he did tell me, “I have a religious attitude to life”. He wondered at life, he felt there was something there that deserved our respect and acknowledgement, just in the flow of life itself. He didn’t like either the Marxist or the atheist existentialist view of the individual human being as a purely sovereign positer of values and organiser of the world. One needs to have a sort of to-and-fro, a dialectic between the self and life. I have suggested that in today’s thinking the word “life” has taken on much of the religious significance that the word God used to have.’

When you strip away from religion all the excess baggage Cupitt believes needs removing, this seems to be at the core of what remains. Cupitt describes this attitude as ‘love of life, a kind of moral responsiveness to existence, no more than that, trying to get away from a rather aggressively masculine, Sartrean imperialism of the will.’

I wouldn’t call that religious, and I don’t think religion has a monopoly on it – but I can at least see what Cupitt is getting at. ‘A kind of moral responsiveness’ – that does describe something (in my view) even if I don’t agree that the something is religious.

I wondered in what sense religion could still be a source of values if we accept that all values are human-made…’We don’t just think up our values and impose them on experience. Rather our thinking is always prompted by things out there, persons who think for us. It’s no accident that celebrity endorsement and celebrity opinion is nowadays needed for English people to take any idea at all seriously. We do things by various kinds of proxies, symbols and ideas. Very few people are purely sovereign and autonomous creative thinkers in a post-Cartesian individualist way. Most of us work through myths, through other people, through values derived from religion.’

Okay – now that I get. I have said here, some time in the past, that I can see the value of the idea of God as an externalization of the idea of goodness or of being good. Thinking of God not with fear as a punisher but with love and emulation as someone who simply wants humans to be good – kind, generous, forgiving, helpful – that I can understand. All the more so of course if it’s a non-realist God.

The trouble of course is that so many believers think of God’s idea of goodness as something horribly different from kindness – but that’s another story.

‘So I want to say,’ he continues, ‘religion supplies us with poetry and myths to live by and human beings need stories to live by. Because our existence is temporal we’ve always got to construct some kind of story of our lives and that story, to my mind, needs to have a religious quality. So I don’t think any religious beliefs are literally true, but I think they’re all existentially or morally useful, or a great many of them are.’

Religion without doctrine, religion without creed, religion without belief in another, spiritual world, distinct from the world we live in – that is what Cupitt is striving for. Is religion without all these things still religion? The question bothered me more before meeting Cupitt than after. Whether you call it religion or not, Cupitt is trying to show us the precious baby sitting in the now rather dirty bath water of traditional religion. What we call it is neither here nor there; what matters is whether or not we should be saving it.

Well there you go. (That’s the final paragraph of the interview.) That’s exactly it. It’s a nice baby, but alas it’s not the only baby, and we’re not sure that the only way to get at the baby is through the dirty bath water, and so on. Julian himself doesn’t seem all that convinced. I’m not at all convinced but I can at least see what Cupitt is getting at. That’s something.

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