Monday, March 05, 2007

We Didn't Start the Fire.....

One of Billy Joel's better songs, but a sentiment I cannot wholly agree with! Over the last year or so there has been a distinct fire raging at the heart of British cultural life - a fire that at times seems all consuming, and at others barely relevant or noticeable. It is a fire that our cousins across The Pond have called the "Culture Wars", but here have manifested in a different form. However, they all seem to come from the same starting point - the clash between a secular modernity that feels it should have long ago won the argument about the validity of all forms of religious expression in the public (and increasingly the private) sphere, against religious convictions of various kinds that not only do not agree that the argument is over, but question the validity of the argument in the first place.

This has lead to a war of words in the public square between the hostile atheistic fundamentalism of Dawkins and Hitchens, up against the various forms of religion, fundamentalist, literalist, traditional and liberal. Increasingly hostile and being fought out in spheres of equal opportunities, and human rights legislation, this conflict at times sheds more heat than light.

At the heart of it seems to be a fundamental mismatch of world views. Not only are they incompatible with one another, they actually do not intersect most of the time.

Rationalistic atheism and secularism assume that all truth is capable of reductionist analysis. Religious world views tend to believe that truth is apprehended experientially, whether through scripture, ritual or mystical experience. The one assumes that anything that cannot be measured and observed is not true, or cannot be subjected to enough scrutiny to verify its truth one way or the other. The other assumes that experiential truth leads one to a greater understanding of oneself, one's place in the Universe and how one should live.

Evangelical Christianity has accommodated the modernist, rationalist mindset the most, and has framed the Christian faith in terms of analogical and propositional truths and doctrines, and so most often clashes with secularism. Catholic and pentecostal Christianity are less in love with modernity, and feel less need to engage with these debates except where they force a clash of values in the public sphere.

Which is where the other difference arises - secularism holds that faith, if it must exist, has to be kept to the private sphere, and not affect any other part of life. Meanwhile faith has always seen itself involved with all of life. Secularism is largely confined to a Cartesian dualism, faith (possibly apart from Evangelicalism in its most academic forms) is concerned with the whole of life as lived in embodied, phenomenolgical experience. Needless to say that the latter is older, more widely practised human thought pattern.

Sadly, I fear the likes of Dawkins, who are nice, middle class white European male children of the Enlightenment have little real engagement with the rest of the human race, and thus no real understanding of religion, or indeed post-modernity which is largely suspicious of the overarching truth claims of any religion - including scientific atheism.

But it is the ferocity of these clashes that bemuses me. The fear, on both sides, that the other is a real danger to the future of the human race. I find this sad - I have many good friends who hold themselves as committed atheists and agnostics (the latter in the sense of subjecting all truth claims, including those of scientific atheism to serious and sceptical scrutiny). I respect their positions, and they respect mine.

Dawkins (or Hitchens) I fear is a man who I might like in person and find I could talk to about most subjects, but once we come on to religion, his bigotry and fanatical hatred of all things religious would make any attempt at dialogue pointless.

There is no point in trying to debate with the wild eyed, fanatical convert who is convinced his truth is the only one. Faith, in the very real sense, is about a journey of discovery - doctrine may not be irrelevant, but is only a starting point - if one cannot learn, and have one's beliefs subject to regular scrutiny, then what you have is not faith, but a blind clinging to certainty out of a fear that one might be wrong. Dawkins is, I fear, as much guilty of that kind of red-eyed fanaticism as any religious fundamentalist that he rails against. Less nice, middle class people than he who hold similar views could use them to some very unpleasant ends, and indeed the likes of Enver Hoxha and Joseph Dzhugashvili have shown us that this is not a false fear.

No comments: