The audience reaction to a debate on the topic “Religious or spiritual or neither?”, writes the English lawyer Peter Smith, made him think. It apparently wasn’t what he expected.
Audience questions challenged the contention of Andrew Copson, the chief executive of the British Humanist Association and a leading anti-religion campaign, that there was no external thing beyond this experiential, natural universe. I sat with puzzlement as it became clear that this was considered the least likely conjecture by the audience, who preferred even muddle-headed agnosticism and Anglicanism-lite to absolute belief in nothing. There was, it seemed, a ‘God-shaped hole’ in our lives, and a simplistic materialism was not going to fill it.
In a later debate on the culture wars Smith attended, the Catholic philosopher John Haldane — whose A Tale of Two Thomases appeared in the December issue — suggested “that the fundamental cultural debate is between one collection of ideas, called ‘the anti-realists’, and another, those of ‘the realists’, and that this cultural tension is manifest in political and social policy.”
Real ideas (by which I think he also meant realistic) contained at their core the notion that the universe is natural, objectively ‘out there’, knowable but distinct, and informing views on sexuality, sex, marriage, death, etc. Anti-realist ideas, by contrast, consider everything as human constructs, plastic and malleable, which can be bended and altered but which inherently are unknowable. Realism and anti-realism contain fundamentally different understandings about what is knowable and what is not, what can be change and what cannot, and mankind’s place in creation.
This seems to me true, though I suspect the anti-realists aren’t completely consistent because man has a desire for moral and metaphysical certainties, which comes out when hurt badly enough. As C. S. Lewis suggested in the opening to Mere Christianity, everyone (though there may be a few exceptions) is a realist when dealing with their own interests. At some point everyone is going to say “But that’s right!” or “But that’s wrong!” Even if I’m right about the limits of the practice of anti-realism, Haldane has correctly identified the basic ideological divide.
Thanks to Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith for the lead.