Sunday, 19 September 2010

Doing 'God' - A Debate

Some Sunday fare: Do you believe in God?

Before you answer, don't.

It's the original old chestnut - it's a political question designed to manipulate you according to the questioner's assumed terms of definition.

And different people both make different assumptions and have different terms of definition.

The term 'God' is therefore a perfectly opaque term which can have many different uses.

Atheists criticise the existential truths they see it as embodying, but many believers argue it represents a more conceptual truth about the universe.

And consequently the twain shall never mix.

Where I've lived the variety and range of beliefs at large is a matter of constant and consistent surprise - not least for the confidence with which people seem to carry them. In a two mile stretch I once counted the establishments of 23 different Christian denominations alone, and in the course of one week I successfully managed to get approached by Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, National Spiritualists, Seventh Day Adventists, Salvation Army and several others.

It struck me that it was impossible for them all to be unique bearers of the truth unless they all believed exactly the same thing, so I began to respond to their opening gambit by asking them "what do you mean by 'God'?"

And the range of responses was truly enlightening.

In particular the young missionaries from Utah look mystified and said, "well, everyone knows what it means," before proceeding with their personal outlook. I suggested to them that they should perhaps visit one of the other churches to understand the differences in doctrine.

And this is what causes the dismay at large among the public.

We're not really all that bothered with all the various theological debates and disputes which have been behind so many schisms and magnified into so many wars. The general public, it seems to me, is more concerned that there is a level of agreement which allows for enough social stability to enable us to live our lives free from overarching imposition which may arise as a reaction to any such disputes and controversy (particularly the terrible violent scenes filling our media and the knock-on impact in our pockets).

And this also carries over into the political sphere too.

Gladstone famously (or notoriously, depending on your perspective) intoned a strong religious conviction, but religion has been a consistent and remarkable thread all the way through to Margaret Thatcher's strict religious upbringing when she went to church three-times on Sundays, and Gordon Brown's Presbyterian minister father who passed his views on to his pious son. Yet each of their conspicuous religioneering is somehow overlooked when it comes to consideration of their political choices.

This notably includes Tony Blair whose (damascene?) conversion to Roman Catholicism was a decision ostensibly brushed under the carpet by his then press secretary Alistair Campbell, saying "We don't do God."

It is simply inescapable that the beliefs of each of our former political leaders contributed to the decisions they made for which history judges them so harshly, if justifiably.

So the current Papal visit by Benedict XVI is significant for publicly presenting a challenge to many of our preconceptions about the place of belief in society.

Prominent atheists such as Prof Richard Dawkins have been continuously priming the pump for this debate, provocatively arguing that religion has no place in public life since 'religion is the only thing which causes good people to commit evil.'

But the principle motive of the visit, that being for the Pope to be present as he promotes the late Cardinal Newman on the road to sainthood, is a symbolic event addressing multiple pressing questions of secularism (text of Hyde Park speech).

Other than Iran, Britain remains the only nation where religious leaders have seats reserved for them in the national Parliament and for centuries the Churches of England, Scotland and Wales were (and to some extent still are) pillars of national identity: adherence to the national church as an expression of patriotism.

Cardinal Newman is held in such high esteem largely for rejecting this view, but also as an advocate of Christian unity in the face of increasing 'Liberalism', as he saw it, according to the relativism of the late 1800's (though I'm sure his contemporary, the aforementioned Gladstone, will have had a lengthy pre-prepared sermon on that subject if he'd asked).

There is something delightfully paradoxic in this, since for me the freedom of conscience (of which Newman is both an archetypal defender and beneficiary) is the absolute underpinning of English social and political liberty which also refuses to censure polemical academics and instead rewards them with book deals and series of tedious TV documentaries demonstrating the exact same skill of deceitful manipulation as they deride in others to inflate their egos and win them scores of acolytes.


So what place does 'God' deserve in public life?

This can be broken down into constituent questions:

- The political question:
With the forthcoming referendum on electoral reform and the moves to increase legitimacy through public elections should Bishops retain their seats in the House of Lords?

As I see it a 'flat' democracy of uniform universal public elections is unrepresentative of the diversity of society and unable to fully represent the range of communalities, so we must ask what additional structures and reforms are necessary to provide compensatory benefits to fill any gaps that would be created - could an enhanced multi-faith Synod with a statutory advisory role on certain issues provide an adequate replacement?

But there's also a policy challenge equal to the legislative challenge and the desire to reform our institutions.

The 'unity' theme of the papal visit chimes with much of the recently announced coalition policy to enable faith groups to take on a greater role in service provision - and given the current government's cuts agenda some are arguing this is a political move either or both convenient and necessary.

- The practical question:
Is there a way to reconcile the divergent motivations and aims of a secular society?

With so many of our public figures and representatives fortified by their personal systems of understanding I think this is a question which is long past overdue asking - because it is, frankly, impossible to consider public figures without starting to dissect who they are, what made them and how they got there.

In effect this relates mainly to the schooling we offer, the principles society wishes to promote and a more overt expression of the cultural tradition in which they originated. How strongly is it possible to emphasise the past without detracting from the present?

- The philosophical question:
If all truths are relative, then how is it possible to maintain public order through any rule of law?

This third part of the whole is potentially the most difficult. The Blairite wish for greater inclusivity and Cameronesque 'Big Society' appear on the face of it to oppose the papal wish for at least some absolute fixed certainties: should issues of personal, social and national identity be indoctrinated, or discovered?

Even the pop icons and sports figures which Pope Benedict railed against for the sometimes contradictory values they imbue as role models to today's youth do, in my opinion, still deserve the position we give them as the best in (and on) their respective fields. After all, each discipline has it's own independent measure which is not a matter of dispute.


This general debate appears to be the main umbrella theme which society will have to grapple with over the course of the next parliament, if not decade or longer, and the way we reunderstand the issues will do much to shape the ways in which we reform our institutions.

Just as the past decade since 9/11 was about the challenge of intra- and extra-parliamentary terrorism and the campaign to defeat the attacks on personal and civic liberty, so the next will be about how we can define what our liberties mean to us in a more concrete form in order to defend against the risk of future attacks and financial or legal incoherence.

...all of which brings me back to the beginning... and the middle of this ramble.

Do I believe in 'God'?

Well, I guess from reading this post again it should be clear that my answer must be 'it depends'.

Ok, so that's a typical fence-sitting kind of answer which regular readers might expect from me, but I do think it does depend on what you mean by the term.

The most common synonym I found people used to explain this term was 'The Creator', and when I probed deeper on a variety of lines (including the devil's advocate 'flying spaghetti monster' standard) the best response I got was that the term could best be replaced with 'The Future'.

And I'll readily admit the papal emphasis on children as the future of the Roman church (or perhaps any church) does tickle.

Of course anyone with an interest in public affairs must believe in the future and have hope and determination to make it better; that reforms will be improvements.

Equally, therefore, we must finally escape the renaissance view, represented so vividly in Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel, of a 'God' made in our own image - which is surely an inversion of the biblical teachings still prevalent.

If modern European secular Liberalism is to survive (and within that I include the LibDem party which has expeditiously attached itself to a coalition government) then it must also escape the dogmatic view that there isn't a balance to be struck between opposing perspectives - absolute truths must be married with the relative truths we see around us, and we must learn how to draw the line and distinguish between them: cabinet LibDems must be able to draw a clear line between themselves and their senior Conservative partners or risk being swallowed up by them (either actually or in the public perception).

The 'new' politics spoken of throughout the general election campaign must be accompanied by a change in old assumptions about what beliefs are, where they come from and to what ends they can be put.

To carry a political cross we must acknowledge we inherit the legacy of religion, and whether we go to church, regularly, occasionally or never, we may not deny there is a different political legitimacy to spiritual knowledge even where this contradicts more concrete fact - the flame of liberty must be kept alive to ever burn brighter.

While religion does have a place in society, and although this place may not take quite the prominence it has been used to, we do still need to create a political structure which respects the constructive contribution religion can make to the overall whole: religion remains one of the principle estates of any national polity and will continue to do so whether we like it or not.


Tim Trent said...

"we do still need to create a political structure which respects the constructive contribution religion can make to the overall whole:"



In West Reading in days gone by we often got the Carey Church possee arriving on our doorstep asking if we had experienced the miracle of God this week?

One day I asked "like what?" He shuffled and said "everything around you is a product of God". I assured him that the bricks had been made in Tilehurst and the building paid for by George and Samuel Palmer of the biscuit fame.

He recommended that I read Mark, Chapter whatever, verse x - I suggested that he read Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. They never returned.

Religion is a crutch and the New Testiment a book of ideal moral standards - it is however just a belief and long may it remain so.

Oranjepan said...

'why?' is an excellent question which science is designed to ignore, so if it is to be answered then society needs a political structure which accounts for all the groups of people who ask that question.

The current party structure is designed to answer 'what?', 'where?', 'who?' and 'how?' (the 'when?' is generally now) - consequently it can leave a lot to be desired.

I mean, listen to disenfranchised and disillusioned groups (such as those who don't vote, don't work, don't go to school or fulfill their potential, don't abide by the law or generally behave with respect for themselves or those around them) and the question they all ask is 'why?'.

So if the question 'why?' can't be asked in public then efforts to reduce inequality and suffering will be wasted.

How do you break down the stubborn resistance of persistent offending, or truancy or drug addiction or violent abuse and other negative behaviours? By getting those individuals to understand the reasons for their misfortune and unhappiness - they must look at their actions and understand the reasons why what they do causes harm.

If society won't set an example then individuals can't be expected to integrate themselves into a productive social order.

Intervention only goes so far and there are serious issues around when the state or other agents can take the decision to intervene - it is much more effective and reliable in the long run (and more efficient too) for each of us to be self-reliant.

Oranjepan said...

I agree - religion is a crutch, but that's not a bad thing in itself, or necessarily so.

There are many situations where people need reassurance and if their beliefs give them a foundation where they'd otherwise lack it, then good for them.

The trouble which complicates the issue of belief is when it is used as an unreliable justification for unjust conclusions.

I like Mark Twain - he's a good example of a person who found his feet through his ability to commune spiritually with his environment and the people he encountered. The rare and impressive thing about him was that he found an engaging and witty voice in which to express himself and enabled him to reach so many other people.

Its a shame so few people can match his ability.


Hello Oranj - good to see you back.

'Life on the Mississippi' is possibly the best book I have ever read. Please buy it and read it - if you don't like it I'll refund the money.

Tim Trent said...

Over the past few days I have looked at religion, notably pseudo-christianity, and the huge harm it has done, directly or indirectly to six kids in the USA who have been bullied, hounded, to death by the new christian taliban that is rearing its head there.

If you do not conform then you are worthless and must die, ideally by your own hand.

That is the message of hate in US high schools and in the mouths of at least one preacher, one Charles Carter who has a foul video on youtube that you can see, if they have not taken it down, on my blog.

And children are choosing death because they cannot stand it any more.

Oranjepan said...

Hi Tim,
I'm not sure quite how to respond to that.

Of course bullying is always misguided - if someone can't convince without resorting to foul methods then it only underlines the questions they wish to settle.

But I have to ask why should one 'pseudo-religion' be taken as representative of all religions when you're making a case against conformity?

Anyway, I wanted to add that my riposte would be to undermine the appearance of conformism - if groups like that demand strictness then it's worth questioning how far they go... are they also into uniformity?

(and I don't mean Max Moseley-type gestapo spanking sessions, hmm, or maybe I do...)

Tim Trent said...

I agree with you.