Friday, April 10, 2009

the swift collapse of britains major belief system

Guardian | Thoughtful sceptics warn that we should fear the consequences of the swift collapse of Britain's major belief system. The decline of religious faith has left behind a real and widespread need for wisdom and insight; the media offers only a "cruel sentimentality" and gives little space to the most difficult of our life experiences, such as failure, death or envy, nor does it offer ways to deal with them. The author Mark Vernon teaches on some School of Life courses. A former priest and atheist, he now advocates a principled agnosticism rooted in an understanding of the limits of human knowledge. He argues that the most interesting conversations about faith are among those just outside religious traditions and those just inside - along the borders of belief, if you like.

It's a perspective that Gray shares. Describing himself as a sceptic, he looks to another border of belief for deeper insight into the nature of faith: the dialogue between the theistic and non-theistic. Intriguingly, where Gray, Armstrong and Vernon all end up is with the apophatic tradition of theology. Apophatic is a word no longer even in my dictionary, but it's a major tradition of Christian thought, and central to the thinking of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: it is the idea that God is ineffable and beyond powers of description. S/he can be experienced by religious practice, but as Armstrong puts it: "In the past, people knew we could say nothing about God. Certain forms of knowledge only come with practice." It makes the boundary between belief in God and agnosticism much more porous than commonly assumed.

But the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe. He was turned into an old man in the sky with a long white beard or promoted as a cuddly friend named Jesus. Arguing about the existence of such human creations is akin to the medieval pastime of calculating how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.

So the media has been promoting the wrong argument, while the bigger question of how, in a post-religious society, people find the myths they need to sustain meaning, purpose and goodness in their lives go unexplored. What worries Gray is that we forget at our peril that all systems of thought rely on myth. By junking the Christian myths, the danger is that the replacements are "cruder, less tested, less instructive". At times of crisis - such as the economic recession - the brittleness of a value system built on wealth and a particular conception of autonomy becomes all too apparent, leaving people without the sustaining reserves of a faith to fall back on. The consequences of that will certainly not be cause for celebration, he warns.