I’m one of those people who records TV programmes in order to fast forward through the advertising. It would be hypocritical therefore not to issue a health warning that this post is somewhat of an advertorial for Faith in the Age of Science. (Incidentally, there’s a Goodreads giveaway going on at the moment!) The main drift of what I have to say, though, is in the title of this post.
Since writing the book I have been surprised at responses to it and the discussions that have arisen. Here are a few conclusions.
First, I would say the greatest division is not between atheists and theists. It is between atheists for whom atheism is a presupposition, and those who believe that atheism is the ‘best fit’ given the evidence. The former seem to be most keen to fly the ‘new atheist’ banner, while the latter find that sort of thing embarrassing. It is impossible to have a useful discussion about a presupposition, but eminently possible to discuss evidence.
Second, a major reason that atheists reject the existence of God is a bias against believing in God on the grounds of suffering. This is, of course, a discussion as old as civilisation, which anyone with any humanity would acknowledge. It is, however, given a particular spin by more dogmatic atheists when they interpret the history of the Church (in particular) as a story of unrelenting oppression. The benefits of religion are ignored, as are the twentieth-century genocides which were mainly inspired by atheist thinking. I dealt with this in the early chapters of the book, but I now see this as a determined atheist blind spot.
Third, the final chapter of my book on Significance seems to me increasingly important. It is a short chapter because, to be frank, I didn’t know where to take it. But the more I pick up from writers and commentators – particularly those who hover on the boundary between scientific prediction and science fiction – the more I feel this is a burning issue in our culture. After all, if humanity is not particularly significant (lost in the vastness of time and space and so on), why should we care about anything? Humanism ought to be working with this big time, but I am not sure it is. It seems to be more interested in attacking religion.
Fourth, there is a huge fault line within the arena of religion between those who lean towards deism – the God who starts off the universe and then leaves it alone for 14 billion years – and those who believe that God is a real presence (using those words in a general sense!) who may be experienced and related to. After all, do the majority of people actually care about the ontological argument, or are they more concerned with getting through life? The question of whether and how God reveals himself to us is not much debated in a reasoned way, leaving a gaping hole to be filled by unreason.
It seems to me, then, that there is much need to develop what one might call a ‘progressive faith’. But this cannot be done, in my opinion, in the old liberal style of religion, taking the least common denominator of beliefs, or at least giving up on anything too distinctive or challenging. At least within the Christian sphere this never really achieved a great active following. Why? Because it ignored the precise points that I have mentioned: evidence, suffering, significance and revelation. It gave too much weight to contemporary presuppositions, despair, helplessness and arrogance.
This sort of thing may be progressive, but it hardly seems to be faith. We need rational belief, perhaps another term for progressive faith, not only to come to terms with the religion of the past (good and bad) but also to meet the cultural challenges of the present. I feel another book coming on, but meanwhile will explore these themes in the blogoshpere. They are matters of life and death.