Friday, 10 April 2009

Blogging Bishop Spong

I’ve decided that I ought to write a blog analysing and exploring A New Christianity for a New World. In a way, I am perhaps an unusual person to do so - I am an atheist, a member of the “Church Alumni Association” which Bishop Spong refers to in the first chapter of his book, and so am not a member of the specific audience whom he was aiming to address.

There have been plenty of discussions between theists and atheists. I have participated in quite a few of them myself and have written several articles published in the Belief section of the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website. But as Spong correctly points out, the debate is mostly pretty sterile. In my view this is largely because the two groups not only think differently but often find it hard to comprehend the extent to which the other side operates according to entirely different principles. It is perhaps worth pointing out some of those differences.

Those who take the side of what they regard as traditional religion, particularly in its modern fundamentalist form, assume that atheists and scientists think as they themselves do. In other words, they think that atheists regard their atheism as a religion just like their own but operating in competition with it, with atheists treating Darwin as their God and The Origin Of Species as their sacred text, and engaging in holy war against all other religions.

However, they notice that science has gained a great deal of prestige among the public, and they also realise that scientists bang on a good deal about evidence. Seeing that the public is impressed by evidence, they go about gathering their own, inventing scientific-sounding theories like “Intelligent Design” and carefully cherry picking and if necessary distorting the available data so that it can be made to appear to support their ideas. I’m sure that in some cases, they genuinely believe that this is what real scientists also do.

Of course, they fail to recognise that scientists go about their business in an almost diametrically opposite way. Scientists actually mean it when they talk about basing their theories on evidence - not merely the convenient bits that behave as expected, but especially the inconvenient and unexpected results. It is through looking as and accepting the inconvenient and unexpected results that science has made its greatest advances.

Unfortunately, those of a scientific persuasion often misjudge the religious almost as comprehensively as they are themselves misjudged by the religious. Once you have been trained in a scientific evidence-based way of thinking, it becomes hard to imagine that people can function effectively while using profoundly unscientific thought-processes. They therefore assume, quite incorrectly, that if the scientific facts are explained using sufficiently short words and simple phrases, that the religious will “get it” eventually. They find it hard to understand that since fundamentalists didn’t get into their position by examining evidence, providing further evidence is not going to get them out of it.

In most cases, the overall result is a dialogue of the deaf, with the religious regarding the non-religious as hostile, and the non-religious concluding that the religious are stupid. I want to get beyond all that. I realise that the religious are not stupid, but are simply thinking in a different way.

I claim to represent nobody but myself. If others decide they agree with me or are persuaded by my views, then that is entirely their business. Like all people, I am wrong sometimes, and fail to recognise that I am wrong until somebody else points out the error of my ways. But I like to be right as much as possible, and I can only learn to be right more often by deliberately seeking out opposing and different views, so that my errors can be shown to me. If by expressing my views I can also help others occasionally to discover their own previously unrealised errors, then so much the better.

I also feel that it is worthwhile opening up a dialogue between the strain of Christianity represented by Bishop Spong and at least some small corner of the secular world. At least it will be a different conversation from those I have experienced when engaging with traditional theists.

I have no authority and claim none. The motto of the Royal Society (Britain’s equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences) is nullius in verba “On the word of no one”. This represents the idea that nobody should be regarded as an authority - what matters is whether what they say can be shown to be true. Darwin is regarded as a great scientist not because people simply decided to accord him that status, it is because he went to the trouble of gathering a very great deal of evidence - 20 years’ worth - and publishing it in order to describe the reasons he advanced his theory of evolution by natural selection. By publishing the evidence along with the theory, he made it possible for others to check his methods and see whether they obtained the same results. He was only recognised as a great scientist once others had done so. What he said what not taken on trust I expect nobody to agree with me simply because of who I am - I’m a nobody who has a bit of a way with words. If you decide to agree with me, do so because the evidence supports what I say, and if you disagree, do so because you have better evidence to hand, and tell me what it is.

I don’t know whether anybody has done anything quite like this with one of Spong’s books before, I’m certainly not aware of any atheist having done so. I’m not in the least bit interested in proving Spong either right or wrong on any subject. Although I started out this post by identifying myself as an atheist, you may understand me better if I describe myself as being more fundamentally a sceptic. I don’t really like to believe anything unless there’s a reasonable degree of evidence for it, and if in the course of writing this blog and reading any comments on it, I find evidence for God that I was previously unaware of, then I’ll quite happily cease to be an atheist. All I want to do is add another perspective to the debate, and hope that in doing so, we can all inch our way a little closer to the truth - wherever it might eventually be shown to reside.

1 comment:

  1. Good luck, if you are as open-minded as you would like to be I suspect you may be in for a few surprises.