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Festival of Ideas

Julian Baggini, John Cottingham, Lois Lee and Raymond Tallis Religion and Atheism

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Arguments between those who hold religious beliefs and those who do not have been at fever pitch.

They have also reached an impasse, with equally entrenched views held by believer and atheist – and even agnostic – alike. How can we move beyond this deadlock?

Julian Baggini (pictured), John Cottingham, Lois Lee and Raymond Tallis address major areas that cut across the debate between the two sides: the origin of knowledge, objectivity and meaning; moral values and the nature of the human person and the good life; and the challenge of how to promote honest and fruitful dialogue in the light of the wide diversity of beliefs, religious and otherwise.

Photo: Antonia Macaro

Audience Member Review

Written by Hugh D Reynolds

There are a number of routes we could travel beyond the divide between religion and atheism. Do we ignore division and talk about what unifies? Do we shine a spotlight on what is doing the dividing so we each understand where we should be standing? Do we throw out the notion of a single big division altogether and put-up many more divisions in its stead?

The Festival of Ideas panellists at Religion and Atheism: Beyond the Divide – all of whom have contributed essays to a book of the same title (Routledge, 2016) – gave us rich glimpses of the views we would see if we journeyed along these roads; all of which are far less travelled than they could be.

In a US election week where bile-filled media and political discourse (sic) reached screeching point, this event at At-Bristol – where differing views were challenged and debated in a congenial and reasoned way – was a true godsend, whether or not you believe She is there to send anything to us.

As philosopher-journalist Julian Baggini, contributing chair for the evening, reminded us, events like this are necessarily unrepresentative to the extent that those not ripe for reconciliation – those unwilling to reach across divides – never make it to the room. And whist he also noted that ‘Interfaith dialogue doesn’t change anyone’s mind‘, the discussion he facilitated gave much scope for revising perceptions, agreeing terms and finding useful overlaps between differently centred world-views. Baggini was careful not to let the evening succumb to either of his two ‘pathologies of common ground‘: that we share no ground in common is as wrong headed an assumption (or conclusion) as the one that we are all already standing on it.

For sociologist Lois Lee terms like atheism – being without belief in God(s) – are inadequate because they suggest there are no interesting stories to tell about the beliefs and behaviours of huge swathes of society. Similarly – as an audience member at the event observed – the non-religious are pigeon-holed in terms of what they are not.

Raymond Tallis, de- or perhaps re-holing his pigeon, has abandoned the term atheist (‘It’s a very thin thing to be a not-ist‘) for one that expresses his outlook in more positive terms: secular humanist.

John Cottingham, a practising Catholic (‘once you’ve chosen your vehicle, you’ve got to stick with it‘) is no pigeon-hole-fancier either. Whilst he admits there is a widespread indifference to doctrinal issues, there is, he says, huge interest in ‘ultimate questions‘, something captured by the oft-heard slogan ‘I’m not religious but I’m spiritual‘. (If you are celebrating Xmas/Christmas and want to get Baggini a gift, he says he would love a T-shirt saying ‘I’m not spiritual but I’m religious‘, perhaps because, like so many devout heathens, he is fascinated by questions of theology.)

To be human, is to realise finitude‘, says Cottingham, a renowned Descartes scholar, ‘and this finitude leads to an awe for the infinite.‘ Could this, what Emmanuel Lévinas called an encounter with the absolute Other, motivate our quests for ultimate value? Raymond Tallis disputes the need to invoke a god in all this awesome wonder.

One of Tallis’ books is the collection In Defence of Wonder (Acumen, 2012). He has had a fêted career in medical research, teaching and practice, but he decries scientism and brands of reductionism that would have us sum up the world in a few equations. ‘To move from a supernaturalist view to a naturalist view is just escaping one prison into another.

Tallis is giving us permission to be in awe of ourselves and the everyday. This is evident in works like Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life (Atlantic Books, 2015) (which he presented at a previous Festival of Ideas event). He conveys the fleshy-mess of human existence with precise insight, both scientific and poetic. In Cottingham’s observation that religious texts are as much about human existential crises, as about transcendence beyond the everyday – Tallis spots a link to Søren Kierkegaard who ‘tethered his worldview to critical moments’. (In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard works through his own lost love in a study of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, under instruction from God.) For Tallis such accounts ‘fail to deliver‘; they do not capture the everyday wonders of our workaday world.

Whilst Lois Lee recognised some common ground between her book chapter and John Cottingham’s (in terms of a shared interest in experience and the existential) her research has much to say about asymmetries that exist between the ‘secular and non-religious‘ on the one hand and recognised religious denominations on the other. As examples, Lee cited those recognised denominations having slots on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day; or getting reserved seats on bioethics committees.

At this point of the discussion I felt more urgent disparities might have been touched upon that were not. For example, the partition imposed on our children. Whilst recognised denominations set-up their own schools, do we risk reinforcing a divisive faith-based apartheid? For this event attendee, what is even more important than addressing divisions in grown-up discussion is raising our children to talk beyond them; we should make this as easy as it is to chat across a low primary school desk.

Lee went on to talk of agnostics – often dismissed as the ‘wishy-washy‘ middle – and how such perception of agnosticism demeans the thinking and practice of those that, whilst they may have no strong view on issues-transcendent, want and deserve to be taken far more seriously in their life-choices (whether and how to marry; what to do with a dead body).

Decentralisation of religion makes cultures harder to recognise, and to address such issues, Lee suggests, ‘we need to denominationalise‘, and to do this for the non-religious masses too. I was left wondering whether the construction of more or different categories is not just a pigeon-reshuffle, a re-fashioning of accommodation, which does little to improve welfare.

Lee made a strong case that, more than just understanding the ways beliefs differ, it is important to understand when those differences actually matter. (Tallis: ‘No-one is a Roman Catholic when they’re running for a bus.‘). Lee reports that though it seems to matter to people that their life-partner shares their religion or lack of it, they are ambivalent to whether or not their line-manager shares it. Generating a more textured and inter-woven account of belief and its impact came across as a strong and laudable aim for her research.

A question towards the end of the evening challenged the panel to explain how being religious differs from being any old (or young at heart) philosophising human: encountering the world, asking questions of it, giving oneself answers.

Julian Baggini cautioned us against a dangerous dichotomy which pitches the god-fearing against those for science and reason. ‘We mustn’t exclude the religious from the community of reason‘. In his new book Edge of Reason (Yale University Press, 2016) Baggini puts forth a case for us all to engage within these communities of reason as rational sceptics. Part of his recommendation (as I read it) involves not merely applying brute logic, cold analyses, to inform our reasoning, but to recognise that emotions, passions, can also play a role in the formation and choice of reasoned judgements.

John Cottingham’s response stressed both the sense of a Being beyond ourselves and the importance of the ‘panoply of praxis observed by the religious‘. Raymond Tallis was in agreement; he’s quite content not to have such things in his life.

Two or three times in the evening, emphasis was put on the need to research praxis as distinct from beliefs. Cottingham seemed to be suggesting we would make more progress across divides by investigating these ‘forms of life‘ (to coin a term after Ludwig Wittgenstein) rather than spend more time trying to resolve interminable questions of theology. Questions like whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son, or just from the Father (the Filioque case, which, not being well versed in ecclesiastical Latin, my notes record as Phil Oakey).

How do we set about this setting aside of forms of belief, to meet each other, instead, in forms of life?

Filioque (not the frontman of the Human League, who remains blameless in all this) still divides the Eastern and Western branches of the church after fifteen hundred years of often bloody Christian history. Theocratic hierarchies uphold power differentials: between those at the top in charge of what is orthodox, and those who – however divergent their inner beliefs – are constrained in their outer actions. Trapped in vehicles they may or may not have chosen. Would it be, is it, any different for denominations of the non-religious, once leaders presume to think and speak on their behalf? As Tallis admits: ‘we don’t know that it would have been any better without religion; we can’t run the tape twice.’

With another pair of their responses, this time to a question on whether the fact of consciousness should lead to a belief in God, Cottingham and Tallis seemed in-tune, at least in discerning discordant elements of their belief.

I took Cottingham to have no issue with consciousness being something purely endogenous – internal to ourselves. Might we lesser beings have evolved a sense of ourselves independent of a Supreme Being?

For Tallis, to say consciousness emerges from the interaction of neurones may be a step too far; a condescension or too small a concession made by the reductionists who still claim the laws that belie us. (I think I am with Baggini on this one: I have more hope in complex systems research to suggest how consciousness could evolve. We might accept emergence without a collapse into full-on reductionism and what Tallis terms an ‘exsanguinated‘ account of ourselves.)

Though he refuses to be taken quietly into the ‘prison of naturalism‘, for Tallis there is no super-natural entity beyond the self, only extra-natural ones that impinge upon it. Both the religious and non-religious are, says Tallis ‘Groping in a comparable dark‘, and they should all listen to Jerry Fodor (a heavyweight in the philosophy of mind) when he suggests that, to get to the bottom of consciousness, we will need to set aside our most cherished values.

Raymond Tallis and John Cottingham, from their different standpoints on religion, demonstrated the value in going beyond simplistic binaries, finding nuance and agreement-in-difference across their broad intellectual borderlands. In wholly apt closing remarks, Julian Baggini quoted a line from Lois Lee, that ‘whilst dialogue requires two parties, it doesn’t require two poles‘.

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