Friday, July 23, 2010

Faith Against Faith

But I was going to write about faith.

I picked David Fergusson's Faith and Its Critics: A Conversation (Oxford, 2009) off the new arrivals shelves at the university library. It looked like a short, easy read, a response to the New Atheists in the form of the Gifford Lectures for 2008, but the subtitle was troublesome. Giving a lecture, writing a book, is not a conversation; it may be "an invitation to engage in a rich dialogue" as the book's publisher claims, but it's still just an extended monologue.

So I wasn't expecting much, but Faith and Its Critics was still something of a disappointment. Whatever my differences with the New Atheists, they have succeeded in putting theists on the defensive. The traditional "proofs" or arguments for the existence of gods have largely been abandoned, even by theists; reactionary fundamentalism embarrasses nice, respectable believers; and the New Atheists are so negative, so harsh. So it's not surprising that many theists are trying to reach out to more moderate atheists, presenting themselves as voices of reason and moderation. Fergusson, for example, singles out

Edward O. Wilson, a leading exponent of sociobiology, [who] claims that we do not know enough to pronounce on the truth claims of religion but we can at least recognize that it has its articulate and decent defenders. Describing himself as on the diplomatic rather than militant wing of secularism, he searches for common ground with religion.

In what follows, my claim is that a conversation needs to be established between those occupying the middle ground of skepticism and faith, where each side recognizes that it has something to learn from the other whether that is about the persistence of faith or its many pathological expressions in the world. This, moreover, may be a moral imperative in today’s world where international cooperation and cross-faith alliances are increasingly needed [12].
"Articulate and decent defenders"! "The middle ground of skepticism and faith"! I'm not much for the middle ground, since any position can occupy the middle ground if you get to define the extremes. As Ellen Willis once defined it satirically, “For example, the feminist bias is that women are equal to men and the male chauvinist bias is that women are inferior to men. The unbiased view is that the truth lies somewhere in between.” (“Glossary for the Eighties,” reprinted in Beginning to See the Light, [Knopf 1981], p. 146)

Even the New Atheists agree that religion and atheism share "common ground." That's just what has their pants in a bunch: religion claims certain realms of human thought and action for its turf, notably morality, and the New Atheists don't want to let them have it. They want Science and Rationality to rule, though Science and Rationality have done no better on that turf than Religion has. Here I'd throw down the gauntlet of the Presumption of Atheism: the burden of proof lies on the person who claims that there is are gods and that they have opinions that I should take seriously. But I don't think that believers are wholly Other -- that, if anything, is what bothers them. They can't appeal to their gods' authority, because, first, I don't recognize that their gods have any authority; second, because the burden of proof is on them to show that they know their gods' opinions reliably.

I'm the first to admit that there are articulate and decent Christians, though I don't see why I should judge Christianity by them any more than I should judge Christianity by the inarticulate and indecent Christians. I presume that Fergusson takes for granted that he's one of the articulate and decent, but if so, he doesn't do a very good job of articulating a position I can have a conversation with.

For example, he keeps playing games with the word faith. "In the west, atheism has come to be associated with the rejection of the God of the Christian faith, or the God of Judeo-Christian theism, or still more broadly the God of the three Abrahamic faiths" (17). In these ecumenical, diverse and multicultural times, it is bad form to badmouth what used to be called paganism, but it soon becomes clear that by "faith" Fergusson doesn't mean to include worship of the old Greek, Roman, Norse or other non-Yahwist gods. That's the kindest construction I can put on such statements as

Like Socrates and Jesus before him, Justin [Martyr] is martyred for his faith [15].
Those who martyred Socrates, Jesus, and Justin also had faith, remember. But their faith seems not to count; perhaps it was what Fergusson conveniently calls "pathological expressions" -- all things are possible for him who gets to diagnose pathology. And while it's probably fair to say that Justin was executed for his "faith," which required him to reject the dominant faiths of the Roman Empire in his day, it's not nearly so clear that Socrates and Jesus died because of their "faith." Socrates got into political trouble, and chose to accept execution by poisoning rather than change his conduct or political beliefs, or even to leave Athens. Going by his example, just about anyone who's ever been killed by other human beings could be said to have died for his or her "faith": Trotsky, say, or John Wilkes Booth. Fergusson's invocation of pathology is a reminder that willingness to die for one's "faith" is no warrant of that faith's validity, but he offers no criteria for telling healthy faith from pathological faith.

Jesus is even harder to evaluate, because Christians have never been able to make up their minds why he was executed. Though it's pretty certain that he was killed by the Romans, and the gospels agree that he was crucified as "King of the Jews," the gospels don't show clearly how this charge came to be brought against him. He never claims that title in the gospels, and it has no importance in Christian doctrine. The gospels are more clear that Jesus' death resulted from conflict between Jesus and other Jews (who also had faith and a tradition of martyrdom), but no plausible charge is raised against him -- claiming to be the Messiah is not a crime under Jewish law, for example. "False witnesses" claimed that Jesus had made some sort of threat against the Jerusalem Temple, but these accusations seem not to have determined his death either. According to Christian dogma, Jesus died as a sacrifice for the sins of humanity, so his execution was not due to a conflict between faiths but was the will of Yahweh; Jesus' enemies were unknowing pawns in the Father's game. We don't even know that, as Fergusson claims, "Jesus goes to his death willingly but passively" (129). The writers of the gospels probably had no better information about how Jesus faced his death than they did about why he died, so they probably depicted him acting as a faithful martyr should act. [P.S. But at the same time, the Gospel of John shows Jesus marching quite actively to his martyrdom, and the others should also be read in the light of the belief, accurate or not, that Jesus expected and sought his death.]

Most of Faith and Its Critics consists of rambling discussions of modern science and modern faith, how they don't have to conflict but can be reconciled. He devotes a fair amount of time to rebutting Richard Dawkins, not very effectively. For example:

… for example, the grisly stories recounted by Dawkins of children being subjected to movies about the likely conditions of hell in order to constrain their behaviour. However, once again the pathological examples that are adduced do not confirm the hypothesis that religious nurture amounts to brainwashing, let alone abuse. The forms of Christian education with which we are familiar in our churches and schools often enable youngsters to develop skills of discernment and interpretation. They are given freedom and encouragement to make responsible decisions for themselves as they reach adulthood.

If there is any brainwashing in our culture then it is surely the sort that derives from peer-group pressure and the media. These function far more powerfully in the consciousness of children and teenagers than do the strictures of their Sunday School teachers [143-4].
I wonder which "forms of Christian education" Fergusson is familiar with, but he seems to be whitewashing the problem. Once again, he brushes aside inconvenient "faith" behavior as "pathological." Teaching children -- or adults, for that matter -- about Hell is hardly marginal in Christianity, having its roots in Jesus' teachings and continuing through the centuries. If Sunday School teachers nowadays aren't all that influential on young people's consciousness, it is precisely because faith isn't as powerful as it used to be, the very situation Fergusson deplores. In this respect he's like many liberal Christians and even ex-Christians I've talked to, who don't recall hearing much about Hell at church during their childhoods: this means they have not been educated accurately about historical Christianity. [P.S. Or that they've forgotten what they were taught, which I think is equally likely.] They certainly don't show any sign of having been taught "skills of discernment and interpretation."

Fergusson evades the difficulties of biblical material by invoking non-literal interpretation.
Non-literal, symbolic readings are not the invention of recent critics influenced by secular trends [157].
Heavens! Does Dawkins believe so? According to Fergusson, "All we are told [by Dawkins] is that a symbolic reading of difficult passages is a ‘favourite trick’ of religious leaders" (152; citing The God Delusion, 247). Then Dawkins is even stupider than I thought. Of course non-literal readings of high-status texts are nothing new, and the kind Fergusson has in mind are the special province of fundamentalism; they certainly aren't automatically correct.
One distinct advantage offered by this account of the layered meaning of the Scriptural text was that it could accommodate a critical attitude towards those passages that were adjudged morally unacceptable. Where they departed from the teaching and example of Christ, a meaning other than the literal had to be sought [158].
But what if Jesus' teaching and example are morally unacceptable? This seems to be unthinkable for Fergusson, but an atheist, even the moderate sort he imagines himself to be addressing, needn't agree. Since the gospels are virtually the only source of information we have about Jesus' teaching and example, problematic passages can't be disposed of that easily.

The closest Fergusson comes to making clear what he means by pathological expressions of faith is when he touches on terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists.

In the case of recent predatory martyrdom, this is usually an indiscriminate attack on anyone in the target area, whether these are soldiers, civilians, children, sick or disabled persons [132].
The chief difference between this and US and British practice is that we kill the innocent without risking ourselves. Fergusson has nothing to say about secular, let alone Christian homicide bombing, which has killed many more innocent people than suicide bombers have.

Contrast this with the ideology of Al-Qaeda and its brand of global terrorism, which renders any Western city a potential target whether New York, Madrid, London, or Glasgow. Here there is no overriding commitment to a single political collective or local cause. It is a movement that rejects the spread of a global culture – its cities are rootless and godless places in which to live; its political might has oppressed the heartlands of Islam in the middle east; and its client state Israel, a small nation, has humiliated its larger neighbours and displaced its indigenous Muslim population. Moreover, the terror of this movement is largely nihilistic [133].
Fergusson gives no cites for this claim, but the word "nihilistic" suggests he's read Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism.

On the other hand one can also find a corresponding contribution of religion to the flourishing of civilizations, their cultural achievements, and the peaceful co-existence of peoples of different race, language, and religion [137]. ...

At the same time, it should be remembered that the vast bulk of the adherents of all the world’s religions make civil and law-abiding neighbors. By their own testimony, their faith makes them more peaceable than they would otherwise be. … A fair hearing was what the early exponents of Christian faith requested of their pagan audiences and this ought still to be accorded people of good faith everywhere [140].
It's not always a good thing to be "civil and law-abiding neighbors," of course: think of the good Germans who peacefully stood by while their German Jewish neighbors were taken away. (The history of Christian anti-Semitism, while no doubt "pathological" in Fergusson's scorebook, gets short shrift here.) Think of American Christians who opposed the abolition of slavery, and who maintained racist social structures well into the second half of the twentieth century. Think of the American Christian right, who "by their own testimony" are peaceful citizens and only request a fair hearing. The early exponents of Christian faith were disingenuous: far from being peaceable, they spent a lot of energy squabbling with each other, often to the point of violence, and as soon as they dared they extended that violence to Jews and to "pagans."

Fergusson sweeps a lot of Yahwist history under the rug, and gets wrong a lot of what he does mention.

A willingness to die in the service of God and the keeping of one’s faith is evident through much of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was a way of honouring God and maintaining the cause of God’s people, as in the examples of Daniel and the three men in the fiery furnace. In the inter-testamental period, the example of the Maccabean martyrs extends this further [128].
A willingness to kill in the service of God is even more evident in the Hebrew Scriptures, much more than martyrdom. Whether against non-Hebrews, as in the conquest of Canaan, or within the nation, as in the "reforms" which enforced monotheism, the Hebrew Bible is hardly a model of pacifistic tolerance. Ditto for Jesus, whose preaching is suffused with threats of eternal torture, a theme that the early churches elaborated with gusto. When he acknowledges contemporary cases -- Serbia, Rwanda, Israel / Palestine, Northern Ireland -- he blames it all on 'sectarianism' (124), which is to say, faith.

I myself don't blame religion for human violence, because I regard religion as a human invention. To blame atrocities on religion is to take religion at its own estimation as an autonomous, superhuman (or other-than-human) force; I blame them on human beings projecting their own attitudes onto their gods and getting them back endowed with authority. This also means, however, that the good things about human beings are also our doing. I think we can do better, but I'm not sure I have much faith in that possibility. One way to advance in that direction, I think, is for human beings to own all our actions, instead of crediting gods for them for better or worse.