Thursday, June 23, 2005

Is religion just a form of artistic expression?

I’ve just read an interesting article by Dylan Evans (The 21st century atheist) and a, just as interesting, rejoinder by Salman Rushdie (Just give me that old-time atheism!) Both articles appear on Evanswebpage and are very much worthy of looking at and thinking about. Reading them I came to the conclusion that the two authors are speaking at cross purposes so that, while they apparently disagree, I actually agree with both of them.

Evans claims that atheism is traditionally characterised by being “virulently anti-religious, passionately pro-science and artistically illiterate”. The atheism that Evans sees himself as a representative of “values religion; treats science as simply a means to an end; and finds the meaning of life in art.” By valuing religion, Evans means valuing its “depiction of the longing for transcendent meaning which lies in man’s heart”, a longing to which scientific theories have never done justice. According to Evans religious stories ought to be thought of as metaphors that “represent human aspirations for transcendence.” As a result, Evans claims, opposing religion on the grounds that what it is saying is false is just as “unsophisticated” as believing in religion.

Rushdie, for his part, calls for some of that virulent anti-religiosity that Evans derides. He sees Evans as calling for a truce between the religious and the theists – a truce that can never come to be, due to the intransigent nature of attacks from the God corner. According to Rushdie, the position “rather sweetly” proposed by Evans can only seem viable when religion is no longer threatening, once it is “a set of polite rituals.”

Rushdie and Evans are really answering two different questions. Evans wants to understand why it is that religious stories have such a visceral pull on the imagination while Rushdie is concerned about the effect that religious institutions have in the real world. Some of this can be seen in how Rushdie thinks that Evans is calling for a truce – he does nothing of the sort, not having explicitly dealt with the issue. In fact, I think it is clear that Evans would agree that those who do believe in God would reject his views as anathema. In fact, and this is at best implicit, Evans seems to suggest that the religious are not to be opposed as given therapy to cure them of their childish belief in Bible stories and the like.

Of course, quite apart from his elegant use of adjectives, Rushdie is right to say that Evans’ view is made by England, with its atmosphere of genteel religiosity. Such views are too delicate to stand much chance of survival faced with religious fanaticism such as is now common in the Middle East and in the United States. Still, that does not make them wrong. Indeed, and here I think lies much of what is critically right about what Evans writes, it is in facing down fanatical religion that it becomes most important to be able to see what religion has to offer. Otherwise one becomes a caricature of the thing one opposes – the very thing that Evans suggests some atheists have become – an assessment I can not entirely disagree with.

At this point what I am saying might sound a bit too much like “Hate the sinner – love their sin” but, obviously, that’s not what I mean. The key, it seems to me, is for ‘atheists’ as Evans calls them or those who, in Rushdie’s devilish phrase, like to indulge in “secularism, humanism, relativism, hedonism, liberalism and all manner of permissive improprieties” but still believe themselves to be ethical beings to understand and present themselves in their own terms, rather than in constant opposition to religiosity, theism and such like.

Understanding what is valuable in religion and being able to take that aboard is a start. It shows an openness that ‘transcends’ religion rather than opposing it. So, I am happy to read William Blake’s The Tiger or sing his Jerusalem, and not just Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold. But that is just a start. Where Evans is wrong is the harsh way in which he rejects science as a means of transcendence. Of course, no scientific theory has done justice to our longing for transcendence, but then that’s not their job. However, since Evans is a scientist, I am quite sure that some of the moments when he was closest to satisfying that feeling were while he was doing science. Paul Dirac understood this well, as well as understanding the connection to religion, when he called God a mathematician. It isn’t by reading science that one can achieve the transcendent feeling Evans talks about, but by doing it. And not just science – we transcend our position by coming to understand our position. And in seeking understanding we have to be prepared to rely upon many various sources, given the complex world we live in.


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