Squaring up over religion


So it’s official. ‘Religion’ has lost. Or so it was announced at the end of a much-publicized Intelligence Squared debate held last week at NYU, to which a friend alerted me a few days ago. The case for and against the motion ‘the world would be better off without religion’ had just been argued by the atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling and Darwin’s great-great-grandson Matthew Chapman on one side  and on the other by renowned Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza and America’s ‘n.1 pulpit Rabbi’ David Wolpe. It has to be said that prior to the debate, a poll had already established that 52% of the audience were in favour of the motion and 26% against, so the voters were hardly neutral to begin with, but by the end these figures had moved to 59% and 31% respectively. According to Intelligence Squared‘s rules, this 7% increase in support on the side of the atheists as against 5% for their opponents meant victory for Grayling and Chapman as an affirmation that their case had been made more persuasively (whether my compatriots’ apparent success should be put down to their British accents is a question that I won’t even attempt to tackle here!).

I found watching the debate (which can be viewed on http://www.fora.tv) instructive and frustrating in equal measure. Although in general both sides tried to preserve a measure of decorum in their presentations, the British secular humanists’ picture of religion was very much the New Atheist caricature, characterizing persons of faith as superstitious, anti-scientific obscurantists manipulated by their parents and other authority figures into espousing all kinds of violent, misogynistic and homophobic beliefs legitimated by ancient sacred texts. Somewhat depressingly, against the notion that they were simply attacking fundamentalism rather than religion per se , Grayling and Chapman contended that it is the fanatics who are the true religious believers, whereas their more moderate counterparts are merely hypocritical ‘cherry-pickers’ who are dishonest towards their foundational texts (here D’Souza’s important point that a non-literal reading of the Mosaic Law was already integral to the practice of the early Church and therefore internal to the Biblical text seems to have fallen on deaf ears).


AC Grayling at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention

Against this D’Souza’s and Wolpe’s chief argument, namely that a fair appraisal of the habits of religious practitioners reveals them to be among the more generous, altruistic and compassionate members of society proved to be of no avail. Neither did the theists cut much ice with their assertion that atheism has at least as inglorious a record as theism when it comes to crimes against humanity, particularly when it comes to the twentieth century. In effect, Grayling’s and Chapman’s description of the essence of religious practice in our world carried the day. Indeed, I would have to say that if I accepted their terms of reference in defining faith (which I don’t, of course, as otherwise there would be no reason for me to be involved with Soli Deo Gloria) I would probably have voted with them. After all, if that is what religion is all about – i.e. oppressive ideology, by which standard dogmatic atheism or political totalitarianisms of Right and Left certainly must count as ‘religions’, then perhaps the question should rather be: ‘Would Faith be better off without Religion?’ To which advocates of Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’ such as Peter Rollins or those who like Jacques Ellul (La subversion du christianisme) Harvey Cox (The Future of Faith), Gianni Vattimo (After Christianity) or René Girard see Christian faith as concerned with unmasking ‘religion’ in the negative sense would surely answer with a resounding ‘yes’, and they would to a great extent have my sympathy.

In thinking of whether D’Souza and Wolpe could have done anything more to sway opinions in the auditorium, I find myself having mixed feelings. On one hand they made an admirable attempt to distance themselves from fundamentalism and religious particularism (D’Souza for example acknowledging the Islamic contribution to world civilization and Rabbi Wolpe being extremely gracious in holding the Christian relief organization World Vision up as a paragon of humanitarian engagement). On the other hand, I am not so sure of the tactical wisdom of a primarily ‘utilitarian’ defense of religion as making better citizens than secular humanism; here I had the impression that the atheists had a case in contending that the non-religious are just as capable of empathy and service of neighbour as their religious counterparts, and was left feeling less than satisfied by the two sides’ wrangling over sociological statistics. I was also made rather nervous by D’Souza’s efforts – not unlike those found in his What’s so great about Christianity – to relativize the behaviour of the Church in episodes such as the Salem witchtrials (reports of which were greatly exaggerated, he argued) and even more so the rôle of Christians in the Third Reich. His assertion that Hitler ultimately had a radically anti-Christian agenda is certainly correct, but his contention that the Church refused the notion of an Aryan Christ is not borne out by the sad facts of the 1930s, as anyone familiar with the work not only of Jewish scholars such as Susannah Heschel but also the accounts of Christians such as Eberhard Bethge (in his massive biography of  Bonhoeffer) will attest. There is no getting away from the unpalatable truths that i) the official Deutsche Christen allied to the Nazi State represented the majority option within Protestantism, particularly in the early years of the Third Reich ii) that Hitlerian anti-Semitism built quite deliberately on the rabid anti-Jewish polemics of Luther’s late writings such as Von schem Hamphoras and iii) that most of those who actually implemented the Final Solution had been baptized as Christians. In this context, a better defence of Christianity is surely offered by gestures of repentance and acknowledgement of moral responsibility than any attempt to relativize the evidence of history, especially when the historiography employed is less than watertight.

Perhaps the most compelling case for the defence was made in Rabbi Wolpe’s eloquent summing-up, during which he appealed to the explicitly religious hope which keeps countless thousands alive in the midst of seemingly unalterable circumstances which might otherwise cause them to despair. Had the debate continued, I am fairly sure that this would have been countered by the philosophers as merely further evidence of the accuracy of the Marxist analysis of religion as the ‘opium of the people’; it is interesting to wonder whether D’Souza and Wolpe might have rebutted this with appeals to empirically verifiable, this-worldly examples of the transformative power of hope, where faith has clearly acted as anything but a narcotic (Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Heschel in the Civil Rights movement, perhaps, or the Solidarity Trade Union in Poland?). Although the voters were evidently unimpressed by this appeal to hope, one person who thought otherwise seems to have been the moderator, ABC newsman John Donvan. In a remark to Slate commentator Elizabeth Weingarten, he registered his surprise at the outcome, feeling that ‘Wolpe and D’Souza’s arguments had more blood, sweat and sinew in them’. ‘They were are arguing that it would be a bleaker world’, he noted, ‘and to some degree, I did feel like I was hearing about a bleaker world from the side that won.'[1]

What was surprisingly missing from the theistic arguments – although I admit that it is doubtful whether it could have been accommodated within the limited timeframe of the debate – was any attempt to make a coherent argument for religious belief on the grounds of its truth, regardless of how badly that truth may have been embodied by the world’s religions throughout history. It may have been emphasized at the outset that the motion did not primarily concern the existence of God, but given that Matthew Chapman was quite forthright in putting forward the view that religion arises from ‘superstitious fear and delusion’, some effort to show that belief in a Deity is not necessarily false would surely have been legitimate self-defence, even in an intellectual climate which is (understandably) somewhat hostile to propositional apologetics. Here if anywhere would have been the place to raise the issue of a ‘depth dimension’ of human existence which cannot be explained away by genetics and sociobiology – of the irreducibility of ‘mind’ to ‘brain’, the experience of moral freedom, of value and beauty which many of us cannot simply dismiss as groundless. A transcendent dimension which humans have intuited in their encounter with death ever since the cave paintings of Lascaux.

And here we transition to the realm of aesthetics, on which the debate only touched tangentially when Grayling and D’Souza briefly skirmished about the Church’s patronage of the arts. The British philosopher seemed generally appreciative of the great architecture of the Middle Ages, but asserted that the real breakthrough for human culture came with the Renaissance’s revival of pagan antiquity (obscured, obviously in this narrative, by the Church’s wilful obscurantism during the millenium following the demise of Rome), as this led to a new and liberating affirmation of the integrity of the purely human.

Much could of course be written at this point in terms of a corrective to this simplistic narrative, but what is regrettable is the clear ‘either-or’ dichotomy in Grayling’s mind between transcendence and immanence, which assumes that the affirmation of the former requires the denial of the latter (and vice versa). The idea of a genuine Judeo-Christian humanism seems not to occur to him as a possibility. Yet it is here that the tradition of Western sacred art-music tells a wholly different story. What of the incarnational fusion of intensely human expression and worship of the divine that we find in Monteverdi’s Vespers, the elevation toccatas of Frescobaldi, Handel’s He shall feed his flock or Mozart’s Et incarnatus est, Bruckner’s Christus factus est, Messiaen’s Trois Petites Liturgies or Arvo Pärt’s La Sindone? I would like to think that I am not the only one to suspect that the Intelligence Squared debate might have turned out rather differently had the opposers of the motion simply stopped arguing and instead ended by playing Bach’s Erbarme dich from the St Matthew Passion. Would the world be better off without religion? It all depends what you mean. Without the rampaging worshippers of Odin, the Ku Klux Klan and the Lord’s Resistance Army? Yes, absolutely. But without this music?


Manuscript ending of the aria ‘Geduld’ in J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion

[1] http://intelligencesquaredus.org/wp-content/uploads/slate-111611.pdf

One thought on “Squaring up over religion

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