What is the largest blind spot shared by intellectuals and talking heads of both Left and Right in America and Western Europe? The answer—a contempt for religion in general and Christianity in particular—ought to be obvious but isn’t.
I’ve recently written a book, God Is No Thing, doubling up as a reply to the New Atheists and defense of the creed. Aware of both distortions peddled by the anti-God squad and a more general air of scorn among secularists, I set out to explain in a hundred pages how a person can be philosophically and scientifically literate, yet still believe the creed with confidence.
A few random examples of the climate confirm a broader impression. The British comedian Frank Skinner, who returned to the Church a few years ago, has quipped that to succeed in his trade you need to “wear skinny jeans, have hair like a chrysanthemum, and be an atheist.” In a BBC interview, the painter and printmaker Anthony Green declared that a focus on religious themes can be the kiss of death for an artist’s career. Discussing Marilynne Robinson’s acclaimed novels Gilead, Home, and Lila, the journalist Bryan Appleyard has written that these works will seem curious to a large number of readers, “because what is going on here is religion.” He went on to argue that “many, probably most … people—artists, writers, audiences—will find this exotic because to them, religion has been embarrassed out of existence.”
Brian Cox’s high reputations as a physicist and broadcaster are secure. But in suggesting an equivalence between reflecting on the existence of God and that of witches, he strayed well beyond his spheres of competence. Robinson stands out as a considerable Christian thinker, as well as a novelist. By contrast, an ample company of established writers have little or nothing to say about transcendence. When religion is broached in their works, it is regularly in terms of a simplistic opposition between faith and reason. Genuine rationality can become the first casualty of this attitude.
Anti-Christian bias is equally evident across a large belt of academia. For another snapshot of the times, consider the example of Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist, literary critic, and intellectual historian of distinction. In 2009, he published his magnum opus, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The book is partly a work of neuroscience exploring left- and right-brained perspectives on the world. Put very simply, McGilchrist’s thesis is that our valuing of left-brained capacities—problem-solving, for instance—tends to come at the expense of an appreciation for the right brain’s more elusive but equally important grasp of the big picture. McGilchrist admitted in private that his text is heavily religious in inspiration. Yet if this were highlighted, he warned, many scholars would not bother to read it.
Why does all this matter? Many answers focus on practicalities. Almost three-quarters of humanity practices a religious faith; that figure is projected to reach the 80 per cent mark by 2050. Secularization has gone into reverse in recent decades. As a framework for explaining and predicting the course of global politics, it is increasingly unsound. Modernization, democratization and globalization have only made religion stronger.
But like all forms of kinship bond, faith can obviously be put to bad as well as good use. So, too, can many other phenomena, from sex to science, for that matter. The corollary of this is plain. If the major spiritual traditions are not part of the solution to the world’s ills, they may well be part of the problem. And when a faith group is healthy, it forms part of the “ecology of freedom,” in Jonathan Sacks’s expression,
because it supports families, communities, charities, voluntary associations, active citizenship and concern for the common good. It is a key contributor to civil society, which is what holds us together without the coercive power of law. Without it, we will depend entirely on the State, and when that happens, we risk what J. L. Talmon called a totalitarian democracy, which is what revolutionary France eventually became.
But championing religious faith on the basis of social capital doesn’t take us to the heart of the matter. If theism is intellectually incoherent it deserves to be exposed, whatever its positive byproducts. But a creed such as Christianity is not incoherent at all—just widely misinterpreted by skeptics reliant on straw men. One of the core points overlooked by unbelievers is that human understanding is not exhausted by mapping the world of nature. We don’t just investigate the world at a scientific level: We also seek to give meaning to our lives, and to connect our own small narratives with the larger narratives of the world around us.
How does God fit in? There are two sound answers to this—one philosophical, the other spiritual. The philosophical reply is that it is not possible, in the terms naturalism allows, to say how anything can exist at all. Among Richard Dawkins’s chief intellectual buttresses is the American physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing (2012). Only gradually does it become clear in this book that Krauss assumes the existence of a quantum vacuum, which is far from being nothing. On the contrary, it is an entity within a structured cosmos. There is no such thing as pure potentiality: As St. Thomas Aquinas emphasized eight centuries ago, x is potentially y because x already exists. Science explains the relationship between phenomena. It cannot answer the ultimate question of why there is something rather than nothing.
Atheists also face a major challenge over what philosophers term “normativity”—the principle that moral values don’t just inform us of facts, but require us to behave in particular ways. Compassion and cruelty are cases in point. The goodness of the former and wrongness of the latter are clear to all right-minded people, whether they like it or not. Thinkers of different stripes have noted an important change in the intellectual landscape over recent decades. Two or three generations ago, many practitioners were subjectivists who saw moral beliefs as no more than a matter of projection. The discrediting of subjectivism opens up a question about where the source of moral value really lies. The theist is entitled to argue that belief in God provides a much more secure home for our impulses than the idea that moral truths somehow float around in a Platonic limbo.
The spiritual reason—even more important, because belief does not require intellectual erudition—is that faith is not first and foremost a scientific proposition, nor an abstract term like “liberty.” Whatever view you take of my theme, it cannot be divorced from the personal commitment that gives it its meaning. Like some of the ancient philosophical schools, religion is a path of understanding that can say little to those who have not set out on the journey. Disengaged study misses the point: It is like analyzing a poem in terms of the chemistry of the ink on the page.
In other words, you don’t think your way into a new way of living, but live your way into a new way of thinking. Being a Christian should not entail assenting to six impossible propositions before breakfast, but doing things that change you. The practical witness of believers may be their most eloquent statement of faith. G. K. Chesterton got right to the point when he described his creed as “less of a theory and more of a love affair.” Now consider the contrast between all this and much English-language philosophy, which tends to neglect the big picture. I would rather follow the lights of earlier thinkers, including Cicero—especially his belief that the only fulfilling model for life rests on altruistic endeavor—and later figures who Christianized some of the noblest strands in pagan thought by adding the vital precepts on love of God and neighbor.
My book includes a tribute to an unconventional novelist: Nicholas Mosley, whose non-fictional output helped focus my thoughts some years ago. Like many a balanced observer, Mosley sees that there is space for grown-up Christianity between skepticism and fundamentalism. His outlook is expressed with a humility reflected in a use of parentheses: “the world has meaning, is tragic: man can alter it (redeem). This is the point (it is done for him) in religion.” Mosley shares a sense that Christianity offers the solidest foundation for values such as love, hope, truth, and freedom, though this need not in any way preclude an open-handed attitude towards secularists and other faith groups. Some will still see an intellectual land-grab in this claim. In my eyes, the claim rests on a search for a fundamental and inclusive context of meaning. To the goods just listed, I would add the impulse to solidarity, and with it a grasp of symbols. When a fascist paints a swastika on a synagogue, the wrong done goes beyond the cost of cleaning up and repainting. Understanding the symbolic and communicative dimensions of existence takes us beyond the world of cause-and-effect. What is the alternative to this vision? For Mosley, it is the prospect that “everything might be ridiculous.”
I hope that these arguments will not be misinterpreted. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Christians cannot know for sure that their creed is true in every particular; all serious religious practice ought to involve healthy doses of self-criticism; your conscience is in any case the final arbiter in this debate. But Mosley’s warning is a variation on the theme spelled out with greatest force in the modern era by Nietzsche. The father of modern atheism was at least right about the height of the stakes. Yet he was at root profoundly mistaken. So, too, are many of his successors in postmodernity’s hollow hall of mirrors.
Rupert Shortt is religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement and author of God Is No Thing: Coherent Christianity.