The Atheist and the Archbishop

As a confirmed atheist, I was about to do some research on the coincidences of atheist philosophers converting to catholicism in later life (Wittgenstein ? McLuhan ? and a couple of others ?), basically wondering if there was an intellectual elitst attraction with the hierarchy in said church. That’ll have to wait.

I stumbled across the BBC’s John Humphrys’ “In Search of God“, in an extended discussion with Anglican Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams.

Apparently Humphrys was a believer, but lost the faith in recent years. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Beslan schoolchildren’s massacre. He is challenging multi-denominational faith leaders to re-convert him.

I’m no great fan of Humphrys, but I’ve noted before that the Archbishop does seem to speak sense in public life.

Williams was painfully honest in trying to address questions, about what is the God he believes in and why. I made a lot of notes, but here are just a few.

He believes in a God, which at some level of abstraction is the root of causality, first cause, but not in any literal direct (interventional) cause of any specific events. The setter of the framework of the processes in the physical world, the only set of processes the world can have, even a god created world. God’s “omnipotence” limited by that physical framework “he” created. Ditto prayer, “somehow” a channel of “hope” for such influence, but no identifiable or explicable causal effect. He pretty freely used love and bliss as almost synomyms for God.

Since the true nature of that abstract God is unknowable, crude anthropomorphic metaphors – the bearded wise omnipotent old man – were actually preferable to any more sophisticated abstractions, because they may have the illusion of being closer to a real picture of God, whereas they cannot really be. At least with the crude metaphor, you are unlikely to forget “he’s” only a metaphor.

(A fair bit of stuff about “free-will” and “eternal afterlife”.)

Here is the main point, if I can articulate it. “Faith” in that God, and that description of the divine creation, underlies a belief in the observable facts that the world (governed by “his” physical framework) comprises uncertainty, contingency, complexity, risk & probability and arising (emergence) of unwillable outcomes, unwillable even by God.

Significantly, the Archbishop didn’t draw on any arguments of authority, biblical quotations, or historical weight of numbers to support any of his answers. (Compare the christian non-theologian response to Sue Blackmore on “A Good Read”

Ultimately he appeared to see faith as “sense-making intellect”, and god as that “sense” ? Some significant silences, in trying to distinguish mysticism from theistic faith. Apart from “historical doctrine” only “holistic consistency” distinguished religious faith.

Even Dawkins might struggle to find anything to disagree with there, if he could get past the choice of word and metaphor.

8 thoughts on “The Atheist and the Archbishop”

  1. have to say – despite being a fan of the abc as a whole – i think he missed a trick or three in this interview – too much of a commitment to academic theorising which (through being apathistic) necessarily excludes all questions of meaning, which was supposed to be the subject

    i think i would have made the point that northwestern europe a) gave birth to science in a particularly (and legitimately) anti-religious way – because all the religious people were killing each other, and b) it’s the only place which now doesn’t accept a religious perspective as having any legitimacy. these things are linked, and any right understanding of religious belief cannot be disentangled from a right understanding of science (ie one that doesn’t make more of it than it is)

  2. (Ah yes, apathistic, I never did follow up.)

    Even with your additional points Sam, I’d say there was very little there for an atheist to disagree with. (I’d be interested in how much you’ve simplified that for my benefit, and whether you have more subtle but relevant theological points that I’m missing ?)

    Anyway, you know my view is that science tends to forget its own belief system … faith in a sense making intellect, faith in its “sense-making tools” (scientific method) and faith in a consilient wholeness to the world. If to a sophisticated theist “God” is a word for the “sense” of that whole, then it’s as good a word as any, like say quality.

    The real problem to an atheist is when moderate (or extreme) unsophisticated theists, treat their anthropomorphic (sentient, teleological, omnipotent being) metaphor as a dead one. When a metaphor is dead, (a) people have forgotten it is a metaphor, and assume the label (God) maps one-to-one with some (stable) objective fact, and (b) forget that the metaphorical relationship between the “thing in question” and the label is dynamic, say contingent.

    The biggest issue I’m struggling with at the moment is the implied necessity for an intellectual elite in all this. (Though J S Mill seemed to have no qualms concluding that.)

  3. so the only thing which keeps religious language honest is a rigorous mysticism – we’re really not that far apart ;O)

    as for elites – i suspect they’re unavoidable – the choice is whether they choose service or reject, Nietzche-like, anything which restricts their Ubermensch function

  4. I’ve never doubted we were pretty close, for quite some time. My problem is finding language to talk to others less inclined to look for the synthesis between aparent opposites, and less comforable with the intellectual effort needed.

    Which brings us to that elitism again. How does an elite get “the masses” to understand the need to understand the limitations of popular “god” metaphors, as an alternative to the pejorative, even offensive, “opiate” for the mass of social mediocrity.

    Interesting reading Mill, his references to growing mass communication and travel (in his Victorian age) leading to a flattening, a uniformity, of received wisdoms that demands even greater efforts to accentuate the deviant views, and even greater risks of the “difficult to accept” being wiped out. Scary. I can see Mill’s limitations but for his context he seems amazingly enlightened.

  5. Hi Sam, read that link.

    Obviously I support the “Normative” agenda to achieve middle-ground between extremes of (absolute, pomo) relativism and faith-based fundamentalisms.

    But I don’t see what he is actually proposing ? Other than the existence of a middle ground … the argument all seems to be histotical anecdotes. Clearly he doesn’t see middle-ground as compromise – no argument there (I’m Mary Parker-Follett’s second biggest fan) – but I cannot see how he does characterise it ?

    I can see he disapproves of the “denial of objectivism”, but you know my line is that objectivism is not all it’s cracked up to be, and just as dangerous kind of fundamentalism if mis-applied.

    Any clues ?

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