Julian Baggini's articles of faith are a nonstarter

If debate is to be opened up between believers and atheists, it's back to the drawing board for these 'articles of 21st-century faith'

November 25, 2011 - Jonathan Chaplin

Religious believers are in debt to Julian Baggini for his refreshingly open-minded series seeking to establish common discursive ground between them and atheists. His desire to open respectful lines of communication, his cautions against both dogmatism and "dogmataphobia" on all sides, his critique of religious "conceptual claustrophobia", his debunking of the inflated claims of scientific knowledge – all these help clear the ground for constructive dialogue. So in explaining why I think his articles of 21st century faith are a complete nonstarter I do so with the hope that a more successful starting point might yet emerge.

Baggini's strategy faces problems both of procedure and substance. Procedurally, it operates with an attempt to press upon religious believers a supposedly stark, logical choice between simply agreeing or disagreeing in toto with the precise wording of his own four articles. But this hustling move will not encourage the kind of dialogue in which each side might be open to learning something new through having their own view of the terms of the debate challenged. It isn't enough that, as Baggini rightly argued earlier, we be "open to a revision of belief". We also have to be open to a much more challenging reframing of our very questions.

Take Baggini's second article of faith, that "religious belief does not, and should not, require the belief that any supernatural events have occurred here on Earth". Baggini acknowledges the complication that religious believers might operate with different readings of the term supernatural, but then brushes this aside as secondary. It isn't. For as he understands the term, it already seems to harbour a prejudicial philosophical dualism in which that which is defined as "natural" – and thereby supposedly amenable to rational, empirical investigation through the methods of the natural sciences – is pitted against that which somehow floats above the natural and is thereby necessarily a matter of speculative, unreasoning faith. But most religious believers could not accept such an understanding of the supernatural.

Even more problematically, his understanding of the natural is, contrary to what he has implied earlier, itself a contestable philosophical presupposition that cannot be proved either by science or reason. So while I would certainly claim that my Christian faith requires me to believe that God brings about certain events on earth – including what he calls the spooky ones like the bodily resurrection of Jesus – I won't accept as a starting point for discussion Baggini's insistence that these be described as supernatural.

The same preemptively prejudicial wording infects his article 3, which insists that religion "should make no claims about the physical nature, origin or structure of the natural universe". I agree that religious texts (at least the Hebrew and Christian ones I know) do not pretend to present scientific accounts of the nature or structure of the natural universe. They don't contain information of the kind yielded by astrophysics, meteorology or genetics. But the term "origin" is fatally ambiguous between ascertainable physical causes and the ultimate condition of existence of the universe. Christianity, at least, makes the monumentally important claim that the whole of reality – not just the natural universe but also human capacities such as reason itself – finds it ultimate source and continuing foundation in God. Of course, no discussion between atheists and believers could get started if Christians were to insist that their belief in God as creator must serve as common ground. But equally it is not admissible that atheists insist that such a belief in God as creator be ruled out in advance.

Consider now an issue of substance. Baggini's article 1 requires those occupying his putative common ground to affirm that "to be religious is primarily to assent to a set of values, and/or practise a way of life, and/or belong to a community that shares these values and/or practices" and that "creeds" are secondary at best. But no one who wishes in any way to stand within historic Christianity could possibly assent to that reductionist assertion. Admittedly, Christians have sometimes been overly preoccupied with defending creedal assertions at the expense of communal practice. But to imply that an insistence that creeds are essential to religion is to be "hanging on to outmoded doctrines" is crassly pre-emptive. It will simply ensure that the "believers" who huddle together with Baggini on his supposed common ground are all rather like the theologian Don Cupitt, who ended up not believing in anything resembling a Christian God, and whom the atheist philosopher AJ Ayer, in a famous television debate invited (I paraphrase) to "come clean and admit you are on our side".

Baggini wants a form of religion that is the "benign, unsuperstitious thing that liberals and agnostics have said it is all along". He will have no problem finding adherents to such a form, though they are a diminishing minority. But let's not kid ourselves that the ensuing debate would be of any interest at all to the vast majority of intelligent religious believers today.

The first article of common ground I'd like to suggest to him is this: "We acknowledge that both atheistic and theistic beliefs can legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant and therefore proceed in debate on the basis of an attitude of mutual intellectual respect for each other's convictions." If he can accept that, then perhaps we can begin to work on article 2. If he can't well, what the heck, let's just start talking anyway.


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Originally Published

date: November 25, 2011
publisher: The Guardian