A man of faith with a firm grip on reality
Rowan Williams has deftly punctured the New Atheists’ accusation that religious belief is at odds with reason
By Rupert Shortt. August 23, 2014. Reposted from The Telegraph.
AS I researched Rowan Williams’ biography, it became ever clearer that the former Archbishop is the foremost Christian apologist in the English-speaking world. Partly because of his gentle nature, however, the force of his arguments against Richard Dawkins, A C Grayling and the other so-called New Atheists was widely missed.
Two especially dubious assumptions stand out among current attacks on belief in God – that religious faith is all about assenting to dodgy propositions; and that atheism must represent the default stance for a reasonable, “objective” person.
From a Christian or Jewish or Muslim point of view, the response to the first of these assumptions is that religion is a path of understanding (akin to some of the ancient philosophical schools) that can say little to those who have not set out on the journey. Dr Williams was fond of pointing out that disengaged study misses the point: it is like analysing a piece of music in terms of the decibels in its constituent bars.
But this is certainly not to suggest that Christians and others should ignore reason as they seek to elucidate their creeds. On the contrary, Williams added, it is the second assumption that looks especially wobbly from a believer’s point of view.
Anyone out of short theological trousers should know that God is understood in the monotheistic traditions to possess being in itself, and that therefore God is not any part of reality as we understand it. You can’t add up God and the universe and make two. One of Dawkins’s odder refrains is that any creator of the world would need to be complex, that this complexity would need to arise from natural selection, and that there is no evidence that any being more complex than humanity has evolved so far.
The god pictured by Dawkins is therefore a product of nature, as well as its creator. The mind boggles in the face of such elementary confusion.
Dawkins’s intellectual fig leaf is provided by the physicist Lawrence Krauss, whose book A Universe from Nothing is coy in acknowledging that a “self-explaining” cosmos is dependent on the prior existence of a quantum vacuum, out of which the Big Bang can emerge. But a quantum vacuum is not “nothing”, or even a static medium. It is marked by a series of chaotic fluctuations in which particles appear and reappear in a manner consistent with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
The uncomfortable reality for an atheist is that it’s impossible, in the terms naturalism allows, to say how anything could exist at all.
So the grounds for maintaining that the universe was created are more robust than sniffier unbelievers allow. Resistance to this sort of argument is indirectly linked to a more solidly based worry among secularists: the misuse of religion as a vehicle for repression and authoritarianism in parts of the Muslim and Christian worlds. Faith is like fire, to cite a sobering analogy. It warms; but it can also burn. No fair-minded observer can deny that religion has sometimes been put to deeply corrupt use. But it is a mistake to infer from this that spirituality must thereby be swept to the sidelines. The desire to muzzle faith communities can reflect an equal and opposite form of secular intolerance.
As my work unfolded, I regularly encountered not only a series of convincing protests against the New Atheism, but also a critical distinction made by Williams between good and bad models of secularism: the “procedural” and the “programmatic”. Procedural secularism grants no special privileges to any particular religious grouping, but denies that faith is merely a matter of private conviction. “Larger commitments and visions” should be allowed to nourish the public conversation.
The former Archbishop views so-called programmatic secularism in a far less positive light, because it insists on a “neutral” public arena and hives religion off into a purely private domain. Far from resolving clashes of world view, Williams warns, procedural secularism risks inflaming social conflict. His recipe for harmony is “interactive pluralism”, which encourages robust dialogue among faith communities and between them and the state. No one has received the whole truth “as God sees it”, so all have something to learn. Such an engagement is held to contrast with the relativism implied by multiculturalist attitudes: “tolerance of diversity” can conceal a multitude of sins. During all the fury over Williams’ ill-advised comments on sharia law in 2008, his broader argument was obscured.
Sane religious voices matter more than ever for two reasons. Firstly, because secularism has gone into reverse. Three-quarters of humanity now professes a religious faith; that figure is projected to reach 80 per cent by 2050. Secondly, because despite religion’s status as the pre-eminent source of social capital on earth, the destabilising effects of religious fanaticism are nevertheless plain to see far from Iraq and Syria.
In his own defence of theism, Williams appeals to the imagination as putting human life in a fresh perspective. This narrative is at once bold and reserved. Bold in seeing a potent pointer to God in this worldly existence. Bold about the resources good religion offers for addressing love and loss, transgression and redemption. Reserved in warning about the risks of saying too much too dogmatically. And Williams can still write of the Communion he led from 2002 to 2012 as a trusty home for visions of this kind. As he put it recently, Anglicanism at its best has tried to evince the Benedictine values of courtesy, hospitality, generosity and a reflective, practical faith. This vision forms a pearl of great price.
The new edition of Rowan’s Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop, by Rupert Shortt, is published by Hodder