Thursday, 30 August 2012

Why is a secular magazine interested in what believers think?

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On occasion, as regulars readers will know, New Humanist publishes articles criticising atheism, humanism or secularism. Sometimes these are written by people who believe in god. In the past I have commissioned articles from philosopher Roger Scruton, a practising Anglican, on why children a should get religious instruction, and philosopher Mary Midgely, a part-time churchgoer, on why humanism is futile. In the current issue we have the writer Francis Spufford, author of the new book Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything Christianity Can Still Make Suprising Emotional Sense, on what the faithful and the faithless have in common, and how atheism is undermined by its own self-righteousness.

But why would a magazine dedicated to science, evidence, humanism and secularism be publishing such things? Surely, you might ask, New Humanist should be a faith free zone? I don't think so. I have always believed that it's important to hear all views – we misuse or undervalue reason if we don't test it against all the arguments, the best we can find, and I think that, though religion in my view fails the reason test, the real enemy is dogma and complacency, something of which atheists and humanists can be just as guilty as anyone else. Of course there is also something of the calculated provocation behind these editorial decisions – we want to stir it up and prod our readers to action, and in this respect Spufford's piece has hit the mark. We've already had many letters about it (to be published next issue) and it is already being widely discussed online – the evolutionary biologist and atheist Jerry Coyne took the time to refute Spufford's argument in some detail on his blog.

I found much to disagree with in Spufford's piece, but also much that to my mind raised important questions, and some very nice writing too. When he challenges atheists, for example, to be more upfront about the emotional content of their atheism, and charges that for many the point of their non-belief seems to be "a live and hostile relationship with  believers" which permits a "delicious self-righteous anger", I think he makes a valid point which needs careful defending.

This evidently does not apply to all atheists – as many responses have argued – but a brief survey of secular comment threads or Twitter revels that it certainly applies in some cases. We professional atheists know this as well as anyone, and to deny it is dishonest. We should be ready to acknowledge that non-belief can become dogmatic and self-righteous, and when it does it fails the reason test and should be challenged.

Maybe you think I've gone soft on religion. Perhaps even more so when I tell you then I was at the Christian festival Greenbelt this past weekend, giving a talk on the sources of secular hope (based on this). After the talk one of the questioners said that he thought I was clearly on the path to Christian faith and bet me £20 that in a few years I'd come over to their side. Bloody cheek. I replied that there was no chance of that, because I didn't consider that I lacked something that he had, it was more like he, and all believers, have something that I find an utter mystery, like a beige sofa.

It was quite a fascinating event. Twenty thousand Christians in wellies (it rained biblically the day before), very nice, very, very earnest. I overhead many conversations about Jesus, and eavesdropped while two 18-ish girls talked in some depth about how they had misunderstood the true meaning of God's love and how their new understanding would help inform "their ministry". Weird! Despite the familiar Glastonbury-style trappings – lots of do-gooding causes and ethnic tat – it was clearly a very different kind of festival from the norm. I was shocked to see that there was only one place you could buy a beer and none of the young people were on drugs. (Read Robin Ince's views from the Greenbelt here). There were clearly all kinds of Christians there, and atheists too, and to dismiss them all as deluded fools would be wrong as well as boringly predictable. My conversations with many of them were genuinely interesting (of course Greenbelt represents the most liberal enlightened wing of faith), good natured and, well, terribly nice.

Put simply I am an implacable opponent of religious institutions which seek to gain or retain an unjustified foothold in our public culture, law, education or political system. But in terms of personal faith its not my business to tell people what to believe and I find it interesting – and often mysterious, and sometime, yes, plain old ridiculous – what they believe and why. Which is why we have interviewed the Rev Richard Coles and Bishop Richard Holloway and Terry Eagleton. And why I published Spufford, so do read it, have an honest think about what he says and let us know your thoughts in the comments.
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