Tuesday, February 28, 2012

d) nun of the above

Good job I was only about 15 minutes late getting to work yesterday morning, as Start The Week with Andrew Marr on Radio 4 was shaping up to be possibly the most annoying programme ever broadcast. The title "Faith and Doubt" set the alarm bells ringing even before the guests were announced - "doubt" being a code-word usually used to make the religious sound reasonable and open to new evidence, prepared to adjust their belief system if required, that sort of thing, as well as maybe just a little bit tortured and interesting. It differs from "scepticism" in that it's clearly understood that the doubt will be resolved by a re-affirmation of faith, or at least an undertaking to try harder at it, rather than the abandonment of it.

If that hadn't been enough of a red flag, the name of the first guest, Karen Armstrong, would have given the game away. Armstrong is the former Roman Catholic nun who, after her decision to give up the nunning game (hardest game in the world, the old nunning game), has gone on to forge a lucrative career as a writer of articles and books on religion. These aren't especially in keeping with her Roman Catholic upbringing, though, being more in the wishy-washy hand-waving vein familiar to anyone who's ever stumbled across Terry Eagleton's writings.

Clearly they couldn't risk having an actual rationalist on the show being a spoilsport and not playing by the rules (though I was hoping to be proved wrong and find they'd saved the fourth chair for AC Grayling) - instead they wheeled out a couple of writers of broadly sympathetic views and Richard Holloway, a former bishop whose career seems to have followed a similar trajectory to Armstrong's, i.e. from orthodoxy to a sort of vague hand-waving hello clouds hello sky metaphorical mystical transcendence bullshit.

Just to sidetrack for a minute, I had the idea in my head that the early-90s Kristin Scott Thomas ITV series Body And Soul was a loose adaptation of Armstrong's book Through The Narrow Gate, dealing as it does with a young woman's transition from being a nun to, well, not being a nun any more, with just a little bit of low-key soft-core partial nudity (stockings and the like) to draw the punters in (this is presumably why it stuck in my mind). Anyhoo, it turns out that the two are completely unrelated apart from the coincidental plot similarities - the TV series being based on a novel by Marcelle Bernstein.

Back to the main topic: what you need to pull this sort of thing off successfully is a set of tactics very similar to the accommodationists - a lofty disdain for the "extremists" at both ends of the spectrum (flying commercial jetliners into buildings and writing harsh and sarcastic articles on the internet being broadly equivalent in terms of unacceptable rudeness, apparently), a steadfast refusal ever to define clearly what any of the terms you bandy around (like, for instance, "God") actually mean, and a sort of chuckly patronising dismissal of those who attempt to challenge or tie you down on what you mean and what you actually believe.

Again, this is religion as metaphor without the moral courage or clarity of thought to come out and say OK, but the supernatural water/wine loaves/fishes stuff is all bollocks, though. You have to master the Janus-like ability to say to the mass of 99% of religious people - who totally believe Jesus was a real live white guy with nice hair and lovely white teeth and a beard who just happened to live in the Middle East - yes, we're defending your core beliefs against those nasty shrill scientists who really just want to herd your grannies into the gas chambers, and simultaneously to engage in "respectable", "intellectual" debate on Radio 4 where you do a lot of "could it not be said" and "might we say" and "in a sense" without ever making any testable claim about any aspect of reality. Throw in a bit of conflation of religion (carefully left undefined) and morality and some guff about charity and the kiddies, plus the obligatory Dawkins-bashing, and you're done.

Dawkins-bashing is a pastime where interest never flags completely, but fluctuates in proportion to how much he's been in the news lately. Just at the moment he's been popping up in various places - I caught a bit of Nicky Campbell's The Big Questions (better title: Big Questions To Which The Answer Is No) the other day, but I expect there were others - to publicise the poll on religious belief that his foundation commissioned from Ipsos-MORI recently, and which has some interesting, though hardly very surprising, things to say about the reality of religious belief and observance in the UK, the gist of it being that most people are bovinely unreflective about the whole thing and just rock up to church every Sunday out of habit and social convention, or possibly for the cakes, rather than out of any sort of evangelical fervour, or because they're quite lidderally bonkers about Jesus or anything like that.

Anyway, this fairly uncontroversial stuff has provoked an astonishing upspewing of vitriol from the conservative press - most absurdly the episode a week or so ago where a journalist rang Dawkins up to have a pop at him for one of his ancestors having owned some slaves. To be fair even some of the commenters at the Daily Mail felt this was crossing the line into ridiculousness, which tells you something.

Possibly as part of the same publicity round Dawkins popped up in a debate with the cuddly old Archbishop of Canterbury this week about the whole God thing. I must confess I find Rowan Williams quite fascinating, and it's not just the mesmerising eyebrows, it's the fact that he's a clearly highly intelligent man who believes some patently ridiculous stuff. The interior of his brain must resemble some sort of partially-cleared minefield, with all sorts of barbed wire and giant red signs with skull & crossbones logos on them to mark places where trains of thought must not trespass, lest they unleash an explosion of cognitive dissonance.

As you might expect the debate was all quite donnish and mutually respectful, so in the absence of any "shrillness" to complain about the Mail were left with having to jump on Dawkins' referring to himself at one point as an "agnostic" and claim it as some big AHA! moment. As I said before I think "agnostic" is a term to be avoided, partly because it grants a sort of respect to these particular ridiculous claims that we don't grant to similar ones about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and partly because it's meaningless, since we're technically agnostic about virtually everything that isn't just true by definition ("all bachelors are unmarried" and the like). Anyone who doesn't get this is respectfully requested to wash down their portion of Flying Spaghetti Monster with a nice cuppa from Russell's Teapot, or alternatively to consider whether the Archbish might admit to a 0.1% (or 0.01% or 0.00001%, whatever) smidgen of doubt about the whole God thing. I suspect he would, so you have to ask the question: does that make him an agnostic? Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander, innit.


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