Holiness and argument

Ch.1, §2: ‘Undeserved Respect’ (pp.41–50).

Dawkins quotes the late, great Douglas Adams:

Religion … has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, “Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it […] But on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘I respect that’.

The idea that nobody gets aggrieved by political discussion is interesting, but not as interesting as the example Adams gives. He is, I presume, referring to Jewish laws about the Sabbath. And it is an unfortunate example for Adams to pick, because if there is one thing that has characterised the Jewish legal tradition, it is argument. Sabbath regulations are, in that tradition, pervasively and constantly argued over. Yes, that tradition speaks of the law as holy, or as sacred, but that absolutely has not meant an absence of discussion.

There is more here, though, than an unfortunate choice of example. Turning back to the Christian tradition, I find it hard to think of anything that has not been discussed at great length, with real differences of opinion, within that tradition. As Alasdair MacIntyre aptly said, a living tradition ‘is an historically extended, socially embodied argument’.

Nevertheless, there is something to Adams’ statement, because he is not talking about argument within a tradition, but argument between those who inhabit a tradition and those who stand outside it. And such argument is fraught with problems.

(1) In the first place, argument between different intellectual traditions too often takes place on a ‘darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night’. Differences in background assumption, in styles of argument, and in acceptable warrant, all too often mean that what sounds on one side like a plausible argument sounds on the other like ignorant shouting. So, someone might approach the orthodox Jewish upholder of the Sabbath and say, ‘Surely it’s ridiculous to believe that a benevolent God like the one you claim to believe in wants you to sit in darkness on the Sabbath, or that it is somehow unholy to use electricity. In any case, electricity wasn’t even invented when the law was written!’ The Jewish respondent might well find themselves at a loss to know how to answer, not because the criticism was so damning, but because it engaged so little with Jewish understanding of, and reasons for, sabbath observance.

I don’t mean to suggest a strong version of incommensurability, and say that conversation between traditions is impossible. However, a prerequisite for meaningful conversation is an effort at understanding. You can only produce interesting criticisms of Jewish sabbath observance if you understand what that observance means in the context of Jewish life. You will need to understand something of the stories that Jews tell about themselves, about God, about the law, about the Sabbath; you will need to understand something of the way in which law-observance actually functions in Jewish life. It’s not that you need to be ‘sensitive’ in some fluffy ‘please tread softly when walking on my dreams’ kind of way, but you need to understand what you are talking about in order to make sense, in order to land your punches on a real rather than an imaginary target, in order not to talk nonsense.

And if one does look for this kind of understanding one will, as I said last time, discover that one is not simply discussing the appropriate way of treating light switches on a Saturday, but is talking about the way of life of a people, that people’s history, their sense of identity. And whilst that certainly does not mean that one cannot argue about it, it does mean that one should handle the debate with appropriate sensitivity if one actually wants to have a real conversation. And ‘respect’ might be one name for that sensitivity, I suppose.

(2) In the second place, there is the fact that many of the religious people with whom one might wish to have this argument will not thought through for themselves the meaning of and reasons for the religious practice or belief that you wish to criticise. So, to keep up with the Jewish example, you may well find yourself talking to an observant Jew who behaves this way on the sabbath because she has been brought up this way, because it is what her people do, because it is part of being a member of this culture. She may rely on the fact that there are others in the community who have thought it through, who are the ones who engage in argument about it.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – until one reaches a situation where the connection between this ordinary believer and the members of the community who do engage in serious argument becomes attenuated, or breaks altogether. Confidence in the ability of the community as a whole to respond to criticisms that one cannot meet as an individual gives way to anxiety about one’s own ability to respond – and the anxious individual believer may well end up playing the ‘private’ card (that’s my personal faith, who are you to criticise it) or the ‘sacred’ card (how dare you treat these things as matters that can be argued about!). Adams is right, that does indeed happen – but it is arguably more a breakdown within religion than a necessary facet of religion.

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