Bishops lurking in bushes

Varieties of Unbelief
December 8, 2000

Among the senior churchmen of recent years, John Habgood stands out for consistently keeping open the lines of communication with the secular world. In lectures and meetings and through his writings, he has brought the insights of Christian theology to bear upon the concerns of commerce, industry, politics and education. Now, in his Bampton lectures, he uses the theologian's experience of faith in all its complexity to analyse the world's "varieties of unbelief". The lectures have been printed more or less as delivered, and the book retains the freshness and fluency of an accomplished public speaker.

His title's echo of William James's celebrated The Varieties of Religious Experience is deliberate, because Habgood's aim is "not so much to argue with unbelief as to understand it" and his approach is psychological, "an analysis of different styles of believing and not believing".

The book opens by sketching the familiar situation today, where disciplined religious belief has largely given way to a range of vaguely therapeutic manifestations of spirituality. Even in traditional churches, where the impression may be given that belief is a matter of signing up to the truth of certain propositions, Habgood points out that, in practice, traditional creeds and doctrines function more like public rallying points than statements of what individual Christians may have decided is true.

Drawing on the work of Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Habgood suggests that we get closer to actual beliefs when we think of them as "clusters of perceptual and behavioural tendencies". What he never does - in spite of the book's title - is to explore openly the changed meaning of unbelief once this radical shift has been made in our appreciation of belief itself. That is the book's great weakness.

As he works through the familiar arguments advanced against religious belief, such as philosophy, science and the existence of evil, there emerges an asymmetry in his handling of unbelief. When considering those who regard themselves as unbelievers, he shows a tendency to explain away unbelief, and so by implication draw into the religious camp those who have no wish to be there. By contrast, some who profess and call themselves Christians are excluded by the bishop from his community of faith for failing to sign up to its predetermined understanding of religious truth.

Jonathan Miller, a "devout sceptic", has complained about bishops who metaphorically lurk behind bushes ready to pounce and claim for their own anyone who admits to any sense of the transcendent. Habgood is playing a variation of this role. For instance, he considers the charge made by "healthy minded unbelievers" among scientists and philosophers - Richard Feynman is the quoted example - that the "familiar religious stories told to explain our place in the world are too simple, too contradictory and too provincial". Habgood's response to this complaint is that it mistakes the nature of symbolic language that religion employs. The implication is that only a misunderstanding keeps such people as unbelievers.

Still on the theme of science and religion, Habgood sets about deconstructing two landmark events in "the popular mythology of unbelief". Galileo's dispute with Cardinal Bellarmine and T. H. Huxley's defence of Darwin against the bishop of Oxford are commonly trumpeted as victories of enlightened inquiry over superstitious authority. Yet, under objective historical examination, says Habgood, that claim simply dissolves away. Instead, there is shown to exist a "provisional and dynamic relation" between any given scientific explanation and wider human understanding (including the religious) that renders meaningless the alleged conflict between science and religious faith.

For many sensitive unbelievers, it is the moral case against religious belief that proves decisive. Habgood meets this problem by claiming that believing in God as the ground of all goodness (as he presumably does himself) is not at all the same thing as accepting a series of imposed external moral commands: "The religious aspiration after goodness is a thirst for God himself, God as the ultimate fulfilment of all hopes and desires, and God as the summation of all values."

Amen to that. But a few pages further on Habgood finds unacceptable my almost identical description of God as "the sum of all values and ideals in life". This highlights Habgood's double standard. When trying to woo confessed unbelievers he is willing to deploy language that he denounces when used by fellow Christians who have embraced multiculturalism, relativism and postmodernism. The former are encouraged to appreciate the subtlety of Habgood's own symbolic religious language. The latter are discounted as offering "no more than a life-enhancing mythology".

Believers of a more conservative stripe than the bishop might similarly accuse him of offering "no more than a symbol". There is an answer to that. Paul Tillich, in a book quoted by Habgood, taught us never to say "only a symbol" but rather "not less than a symbol". But what is sauce for the symbolic goose is sauce for the mythical gander; and if non-realist faith is "not less than" a life-enhancing mythology then it will not be so easily dismissed as Habgood thinks.

There is a knock-down argument against all relativistic views, deployed by Roger Scruton and others, to the effect that they relativise themselves and are thereby disqualified as serious philosophical positions. Although Habgood does not openly use the argument, it is implied in his decision to classify non-realist faith negatively as a variety of unbelief rather than positively as a contemporary way of believing. This is unfortunate, since that argument has been carefully and persuasively countered by Herrnstein Smith in the very book to which Habgood has already acknowledged his debt.

Although its author never says it in so many words, I felt that the thrust of his book was leading to the conclusion that "unbelief" has ceased to be a useful category. It would be much healthier to concentrate on what a person does believe - and to explore the strengths and weaknesses of that particular "cluster of perceptual and behavioural tendencies" - than to define people by what they do not believe, whatever that now means.

The Revd Anthony Freeman is managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies .

Varieties of Unbelief

Author - John Habgood
ISBN - 0 232 52320 7
Publisher - Darton, Longman and Todd
Price - £8.95
Pages - 148

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