More from Edinburgh on the future of religion, and some thoughts on accommodation and accommodationism
Update: Keith and I will be discussing this with the Edinburgh Humanists, 7:30 pm, Monday 3rd June; Mercure Hotel (formerly Mount Royal Hotel), Skyline suite on 7th floor (there’s a lift), 53 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2DG (East End of Princes Street, between M&S and Jenners Department Store)
I have already posted my own introductory remarks at the Edinburgh International Science Festival discussion. Here are my summaries of those from Keith Gilmour (of Unintelligent Design fame, convener of Glasgow Brights, and Religious Moral and Philosophical Education teacher), and the Rev Andrew Frater, of the Thinking Allowed critical theology lecture series, and my own reflections on these. Keith looks forward to the coming together of rationalists with liberal-minded believers, I, in contrast, think that we are looking out some unbridgeable divides, on topics that matter greatly to the believers, but wonder how much they should be allowed to matter to the rest of us.
Keith: To quote Niels Bohr, prediction is always difficult, especially regarding the future. Who in 1988 would have foretold the incredible drop in crime, divorce, and teen pregnancies, the legalisation of gay marriage, the smoking ban, the resignation of a pope, or Martin McGuiness shaking hands with the Queen?
The obvious prediction for the Church is ongoing decline. I think of it more like an alcoholic, heading for rock bottom, at which point it might either go under, or make a comeback. Going under would mean continuing with the suicidal policies of gender inequality, and obsession with sexual guilt. A comeback would mean some major changes, leading towards a future with general acceptance of gay marriage and gay adoption, a Catholic church purged of paedophilia, a Christianity free from literalist mythology, gender discrimination, “God of the gaps” reasoning and similar nonsense, and, in time, an Islam that has also freed itself from obscurantist nastiness.
In any case, religion will never disappear as long as we retain our fear of death, the dark and the unknown, and our tendency to wishful thinking.
The big questions of life, death, and meaningfulness will not go away, nor should they. And so religion will not die out. Faith, perhaps, yes, but not hope or charity, awe, wonder or mystery. If Dawkins can quote Psalm 19 with approval, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament show us his handiwork”, there may even be room for a grand coalition between non-dogmatic religion, and the rationalist’s sense of wonder.
Or, to put it another way: You say God is love, we’ll say Love is god, and let’s split the difference!
Andrew had walked that day in the steps of Thomas Aikenhead, executed for heresy in 1696, and to whom the General Assembly should now make a public apology. Jesus didn’t die as a sacrifice; he was killed. He was killed for being a protester by the power structure, of the rabbinical power structure who recognized him as a challenge, and the power structure of Rome who understood the threat posed by his message of love and common humanity. Aikenhead’s crime was to question biblical literalism, to suggest that Eden was a myth, and to attempt to bring the Church of Scotland of his day in line with the emerging Enlightenment.
Andrew’s hope is that some of the spirit of Aikenhead will survive. For him, Christianity is not a matter of accepting this or that belief, but of following in the footsteps of the Man on the donkey. The Church is not a hierarchy but a body of people, and its ministry is to serve people. The claim that same-sex marriage is a threat to Christian marriage is absurd, because there is no such thing as Christian marriage, only human marriage. When religion defines dogmas, develops structures, and limits enquiry, it is doing the very opposite of everything that Jesus stood for. The Church has already hit rock bottom. It hit rock bottom under the Emperor Constantine, when it allowed itself to be established as an official religion, and needs to redeem itself from this. As for the factual claims made by religion, these are simply beside the point. The message of love and self-worth does not depend on whether or not strange things actually happened in a particular tomb some 2000 years ago.
Andrew is as close a partner as Keith could hope for among believers, and yet I see the gap between them as unbridgeable. For Andrew, the universe has a purpose, even if we do not know what it is, the Gospel story has a special mystical significance, and some very precious part of a person survives physical death. For Keith, as for me, purpose is something we must each create for ourselves in an indifferent and unmotivated universe, the Gospels are an incoherent palimpsest, and the mind can no more exist without the body than a computer program can run without hardware. These are differences that cannot be “split”.
But how much does this matter? Keith and I totally disagree, whereas I suspect that Andrew and I generally agree, on questions of politics and economics. I see Keith’s acceptance of 21st century capitalism as an ideological delusion, whereas he sees the primacy I give to social concerns as soft-minded evasion. These also are differences that cannot be “split”. But they do not stop me from embracing Keith as an ally in the fight (it is a fight) against the infiltration of education by creationists and other religious obscurantists. And I do not see my differences with Andrew as reason not to embrace him in the same cause. Indeed, I value him particularly highly, as I value allies like Dennis Venema, because they can argue the case from within the tent of religion, as I can not.
And if this makes me an “accommodationist”, so be it.