Folk religion

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41), continued

[F]or the vast majority of people, ‘religion’ implies ‘supernatural’ (p.40).

Don’t worry, I’m nearly at the end of Ch.1, §1 now: there’s just this post, one on ‘praying to the law of gravity’, and a summary to come. And I’ll start speeding up, after that. Promise.

Suppose belief in God were the same kind of thing as scientific belief. I mean, suppose that it made sense to regard belief in God as being a scientific hypothesis, subject to fundamentally the same kinds of analysis and judgment as scientific claims. How then would we handle what ‘the vast majority of people’ believe?

Consider a scientific theory like quantum mechanics. For ‘the vast majority of people’, ‘quantum mechanics’ has something to do with stuff being random, indeterministic, imprecise, and woolly at the edges; it has to do with cats being alive and dead at the same time; it has to do, perhaps, with atoms or whatever being kind of smeared out and wavy. Clearly to launch into a critique of the theory as I found it in this popular form, and think that I was actually critiquing quantum mechanics, would be a mistake. Rather, if I wished to critique quantum mechanics, I would go to the experts; I would find the best accounts. And, instead of a whole load of vaguely New Age waffle, I would find a mathematical model of great power and complexity, the applicability of which to physical world has been confirmed experimentally to extraordinary levels of precision.

If belief in God were that kind of thing, if it were something like a scientific theory, my response to Dawkins at this point would be easy. Who cares what ‘the vast majority of people’ believe, I might say; let’s look to the experts. Let’s look at the people who present the most subtle, the most complex, the most sophisticated accounts of the God hypothesis. Let’s look to Spinoza, Maimonides, Ibn Sina, Aquinas. Only if you have wrestled with the complexity and subtlety of their thought can you claim to have tested the God hypothesis, rather than its popular distortions.

That won’t quite do, though, will it? On the one hand, Dawkins’ target is most of all the kind of popular religious belief that shapes all of our social and political lives. Of course, he also thinks that the critique of that popular belief also captures most of the more sophisticated versions (since he thinks he has zeroed in on essential features that popular and sophisticated accounts share). Any sophisticated versions that his comments do not capture are, he seems to think, so different from popular belief they have no business describing themselves with a theological vocabulary that has been so strongly claimed and defined by popular belief. After all, most people who talk about quantum mechanics in popular contexts acknowledge that that language has its real home in labs and lecture halls: they acknowledge that ownership of the language lies elsewhere. But most people who talk about God in popular contexts seem to claim that the home of the language is in their unsophisticated churches and holy books – and if they think about sophisticated interpreters at all, they are likely to think of them as at best irrelevant and at worst traitorous.

On the other hand, the account of theology that I have already given (in answer to Dawkins ‘fairyologist’ accusation) is one that ties itself quite closely to ordinary religious believing. ‘What the theologian-botanist thinks he has in his jars, or the theologian-physicist thinks she has in her particle accelerator’, I said, ‘is not God, but what Christians say and believe about God.’ The Quantum Mechanics analogy does not really hold up, here.

So, instead of a response to Dawkins that simply says, ‘Ignore popular belief, look at more sophisticated accounts’, I’m going to need something a little more subtle. And the best way to get at what I want to say is to start with a fairly bold claim. Christianity is not best thought of as a set of ideas, or as a group of people who assent to a particular set of ideas. Christianity is not a belief system. Christianity is a way of life (or set of ways of life); Christianity is a people (or set of peoples): a folk.

And yes, it is full of stories, statements, claims, declarations, ideas, and opinions, and the play of them shapes this people, this way of life, holding it together, dictating much of how it develops and splits and reacts and evolves and coheres. Faced with this kind of reality, one can, of course, take the claims out of this social mess, treat them as simple, contextless declarations of fact (which is, most of the time, what Dawkins does). If you do so, you will find support in the fact that, in many ways, Christians do bandy the claims about in such a way as to ask for this kind of treatment. But you could also look at the role that those ideas, claims, stories and statements play in forming Christian life, individually and socially, and then ask what claims that life as a whole makes: what needs to be true for that life as a whole to be a meaningful, truthful way of living in the world; what needs to be the case for this way of life to be possible without delusion. And it is this latter turning that much ‘sophisticated’ theology takes.

Such theology is not, as it were, expert knowledge of God as opposed to popular knowledge of God. It is not the real knowledge gained by people who have proper access to God in their labs, as opposed to the distored knowledge that trickles down from the experts to the hoi polloi. If theologians have expertise, it is in the interpretation and testing of the claims about God implied in the whole way of life of Christians, which will certainly be closely related to, but will not simply be identical to, the stories, statements, claims, declarations, ideas, and opinions explicitly present in that way of life.

Let me give you an example. Take popular statements about Jesus of Nazareth being the incarnation of God. If you look at popular stories, statements, claims, declarations, ideas, and opinions about this, you might come up with a picture suggesting that, at a particular point in time, some part of God came down from heaven, and turned into a human being. Taken at face value, as something like a literal description of a state of affairs, it is hard to take this story seriously for very long, because it is very hard to make any sense of it that doesn’t slip away the moment you press it, and very hard to see how it coheres with some of the other things Christians tend to say about God. Press people on their understanding of this, ask them to explain or justify it, or to respond to criticisms, and you’re likely to discover a confusing, implausible mish-mash of ideas.

  1. But those stories, statements, claims, declarations, ideas, and opinions help to underwrite and shape a way of life in which people relate to the stories of Jesus in certain ways, construct their lives individually and communally in relation to Jesus in various ways, see the world through Jesus-coloured spectacles in various ways, and so on.
  2. And, it turns out that if you look carefully at the history of incarnational belief, and at sophisticated contemporary discussion of it, incarnational doctrine makes considerably more sense as an account of what is claimed or assumed or implied by that whole way of life – what that life implies about the world, about God, and about Jesus of Nazareth.
  3. Nevertheless, the more sophisticated account helps one see that the popular ideas do not simply play a functional role, but are pictorial, partial ways of making some of the claims that sophisticated versions of the doctrine make, so that there is something a little analogous to the relationship between popular Quantum Mechanics and real Quantum Mechanics going on, even if it is not the main part of what is going on, and even if the link between the two is more complex in this case.

I haven’t given you any content to that example: I’m not trying to explain or justify the doctrine of the Incarnation at this point; I’m simply trying to help you understand how I see the relationship between sophisticated, philosophically complex discussions of theology and what ‘the vast majority of people’ believe.

All this leaves me with a ragbag of further comments to make.

  1. All this gives a little more content to the comment I made about ‘generous interpretation’ when I was asking whether theology was a subject. ‘Generous interpretation’ involves the attempt to do justice to the whole weave of Christian life, and to give as careful account as possible of what is really claimed by that life as a whole.
  2. There is an interesting complication to all this. Many Christians acknowledge that their own ideas are but partial and inadequate grasps of something they don’t know how to talk about with precision – and, in this view of things, that is not an admission of any kind of failure on their part: being a Christian is not primarily about understanding a set of claims well. However, some Christians do not make any acknowledgment like this, explicitly or implicitly: they do behave exactly as if their ideas were literal, accurate and fully graspable pictures of what is going on. And some of those who do treat their ideas as gestures in the direction of something they do not grasp may think that theologians achieve greater clarity and precision about what they themselves grasp only dimly, but some will not. None of that stops me interpreting what all these Christians do and say – but it does make the whole thing a bit messier.
  3. The pusillanimous quote from the president of a New Jersey historical society that Dawkins gives on p.38 fits right in here. (a) The writer is clearly not convinced that his doubts, his attempts to think through and clarify his beliefs about God, are worth very much – which is the same as his assuming he doesn’t really know how his convictions work. And (b) he clearly has more of a concern with how what he says is going to affect people (shape their lives, rock their boat) than with his ability to argue for or against his conclusions. I am not saying he has drawn the right conclusions, or understood what honesty and integrity require of him, still less that his saying this about himself gives him ground from which to criticise Einstein. I’m simply noting that I think more complex things are going on than is seen by Dawkins (who simply says ‘What a devastatingly revealing letter! Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice.’)
  4. One last comment. I do not claim at all to have shown the connection between ordinary Christian life and the kind of theological tradition (Aquinas, Maimonides, Spinoza, et al) I have begun to sketch – which isn’t to say that I don’t think the connection is there, or that I’m not going to end up droning on about it ad nauseam at some point soon.

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