Anda di halaman 1dari 4

What do atheists mean when they talk about religion?

Rowan Williams ABC Religion and Ethics 13 Apr 2012

Atheists in the present discussion have wrongly identified what they are talking about when they talk about "religion," because they ignore the self-description of religious believers.

See also

Related Story: When the wall becomes a window: Living the Easter faith Rowan Williams 9 Apr 2012 Related Story: Paradoxical faith in a post- optimistic world Tomas Halik 1 Feb 2012 Related Story: Why religion is too important to be left to the religious Alain de Botton 16 Feb 2012 Related Story: Religion cannot be so easily dismissed by illiterate atheism John Gray 27 Feb 2012 Related Story: After Rowan: The Coherence and Future of Anglicanism John Milbank 4 Apr 2012 Related Story: The problem with Rowan Williams Benjamin Myers 20 Mar 2012 Related Story: Rowan Williams and the politics of the empty tomb Benjamin Myers 6 Apr 2012

Comments (39) In Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot, the tormented and indeterminate hero - or rather, anti-hero Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin is asked at one point whether he believes in god or not, and his reply is characteristically inconclusive. But, he says, what troubles him is that the atheist always seems to be talking about "something else." "The essence of religious feeling does not fall under the province of any reasoning, or any crimes and misdemeanours, or any atheist doctrines; there's something else here, and it will always be something else, there is something that atheist doctrines will eternally glide over and they will eternally be speaking of 'something else'." I want to try here to identify what that "something else" is that atheists seem to be talking about. In other words, what do they think it is that they are talking about when they talk about

religious belief and practice? Because I don't think it is very much use carrying on with the current discussion unless we have clarified what they think they mean. Let me suggest that there are two things that atheists think they are talking about, and two ways in which they construe the notion of religious belief and practice. The first is that religion is a kind of strategy; the second is that religion is a kind of explanation. First, religion as a kind of strategy. This refers to the way certain kinds of "neo-Darwinian" views on science and its decisive place in intellectual discussion would say that every intellectual position is a strategy - that is, a way of coping with the circumstances in which one lives. It is about the survival benefits entailed in what we say we believe; what enables us to maximize our chances of getting through a complex and rather threatening world. Now, there may be a trivial sense in which our intellectual systems and responses are strategies for coping; we have to think about the world we're in, in order to navigate from one place to another. But there is obviously a question, not just about religious belief, but about belief in general. If we say all intellectual activity is strategy and no more, then such beliefs have nothing very much to do with truth, because what changes our belief can't be different beliefs about what is true, but only different beliefs about what is advantageous. The second thing, religion as explanation, assumes that religious belief is meant to explain the strange things that happen in the world. And, of course, religion has proven to be a very bad explanation of strange things that happen in the world, for now we have much better ways of explaining what happens in the world. So religious belief ought not to be possible, precisely because it is a bad explanation that has been superseded. Now, both of these ways of understanding religion are complicated by the fact that religious belief does not show a great deal of evidence of fading away, even when people tell it just how bad its explanations are. Therefore, it sounds rather oddly as if religious belief, despite being a bad explanation, remains rather a good strategy in some people's eyes. But without elaborating too much on those points, let me say why I think both of these understandings are "something else" than what the religious person is actually talking about. Let me deal first with strategy. Obviously, it could be said that religious belief is a way of coping, in the sense that every statement we make about the world is a means of finding our way around in it without bumping into too many things. We learn our way around and construct imaginative worlds as we go because, you might say, of the bruises we have from bumping into things. And that sense of trying to come to terms with what is there - never mind what we would like to be there - is part of the intellectual effort for most people. So religion is a strategy, yes, but perhaps only in a very thin sense. But then, of course, in many religious traditions, there is the rather curious element in religious belief and language that seems to cut against survival benefits.

What about those kinds of religious language that are about openness to gratuity, receptivity to the overflowing pointlessness of things - which is the source of wonder - or about risk undertaken for the sake of truth? What about those kinds of religious language that are about coping with darkness and meaninglessness, or even inviting darkness, entering into the night - as some of the writers say - of contemplation, in order not to allow any strategies, any images, any fantasies to arise between yourself and the truth? I put it in those rather broad terms because a good deal of such language applies not only to Christianity but also to traditions such as Buddhism. Something is going on here about the need, in order to allow the truth to be present to you, to let go of the security of the ego. So, just what kind of "strategy" are we talking about when this is how some of the self-aware and sophisticated exponents of religious language see it? Surely this suggests that there is "something else" going on. As to explanation, there is a widespread view that the doctrine of creation is an explanation. Just as the explanation of why a kettle is boiling is a mixture of my putting it on and the electrical system that keeps it going, so somehow belief in God is like believing in somebody throwing the switch and letting the current flow. But explanations are always things that go on within the system of the world. An explanatory hypothesis is about how one thing leads to another. And of course, in classical theological language, God is not one thing, nor is the universe another. It's not that you have one thing called the universe and you wonder where it came from, so you postulate this other thing that threw the switch. What the doctrine of creation says is that there is a relationship between everything, every set of circumstances, every phenomenon, and what we can only call a fundamental act that sustains everything. It's not an explanation - it's more like a location of what we're talking about in another context. One doesn't need to believe there was a first moment; all one needs to say for the doctrine of creation to work is that what is depends, that it is not simply there of its own action. "Creation" is thus not an explanation, nor a puzzle, nor a loose end to tie up - but something else. Let me suggest that these are two things about religious language and practice that seem to point to something else, something other than what the atheists are talking about when they talk about religion. There are, as I've pointed out, aspects of the language of religion that sit rather oddly with talk of survival strategies. And while religion is not an explanation, because it is not setting itself up as a rival way of identifying the things that make other things happen, it certainly does make a bold bid for locating the universe entirely in relation to an unconditional act, a gift or initiative. But that act or gift is not just another part of the story, one thing among others.

To say that atheists in the present discussion have wrongly identified what they are talking about when they talk about "religion" does not mean that atheism is nonsense, any more than my alternative explanation represents a definitive response. But I hope we can at least clarify our terms a bit by asking how the self-description and selfunderstanding of the religious believer comes into any argument about the validity of religious language. And by becoming aware of just how susceptible we are to the fundamentally political temptation to gain power in an argument by defining for somebody else how they really are. Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Source: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/04/13/3476269.htm