Chalk and cheese…

Charles Cowling


Posted by Richard Rawlinson 


…Venus and Mars and all that: relations between those with and those without faith can get prickly, something which inevitably affects discussion of funeral ritual and belief in the afterlife.

Two small pleasures of posting here are occasional positive feedback, and amicable sparring when there’s polite disagreement. A more shameful pleasure is gleened from niggling an intemperate minority who would prefer it everyone spelt God and Christian without the capital G and C.

This situation is clearly a microcosm of the wider debate about religion. Yes, crackpot Creationists get up people’s noses. Yes, some atheists are militant, too. But there’s plenty of common ground to be explored between the moderate majority.

The gist of a typical argument now is:

A: ‘Only a brain-washed idiot could fail to realise that God is a delusion.’

B: ‘Well, I believe in God, and I don’t consider myself a brain-washed idiot, so I don’t think I can agree with you there.’

A: ‘See, I said you were brain-washed’.

Inane stuff, eh? The root of the problem is mutual suspicion that we’re trying to change each other’s attitudes. Of course we debate because we want others to understand our world view, but we’re also realistic enough not to expect to change minds. But does this mean a debate that transcends name-calling is not worthwhile?

For an example of a reasonably good-natured and illuminating discussion between an atheist and believer, check out the below link to BeliefNet. Hats off to Sam Harris for choosing to debate not with a loony literalist but with a thoughtful Christian like Andrew Sullivan.

23 thoughts on “Chalk and cheese…

  1. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    A busy week so a belated return to earlier comments from GM and Jenny about the secular state. GM says secularism controls the fundamental excesses of religion, adding that if Cameron’s talk of our Christian country refers merely to our historical legacy, fine, but it risks alienating others in pluralist Britain from Hindus to agnostics.

    Jenny suspects Cameron is setting his face against the secularisation of society, and suggests that only in a secular society can religious freedom prosper.

    I’m glad we live in a secular society that allows freedom of religion. The few theocracies and atheist communist regimes remaining in the world tend not to respect liberty. I’m also glad our secular democracy is defined by our nation’s Christian heritage, a legacy of decency and compassion that lives on.

    The complex challenge of Government legislation is knowing what religious freedom to allow and what to restrict. When adoption agencies run by those with religious beliefs were told they would be breaking the law if they passed over same-sex couples in favour of husband and wife couples, they simply closed down as they could no longer operate without going against their beliefs. These agencies happened to be among the most successful in the country, providing a valuable placement service for unwanted children and couples longing to be parents. Just because one personally has no problem with same-sex parents, should one force this view on those who cannot agree?

    Cameron, far from setting his face against the secularisation of society recently triggered the same-sex marriage debate, seemingly without any significant public demand other than to placate a few Lib Dems in the Coalition. While many would welcome the justice of same-sex civil partnerships, the latest initiative could herald the start of forcing all houses of God to marry same-sex couples. If they refuse on religious grounds, will they have to close down? Resistance from Christian churches would be nothing compared to refusal from those running our nation’s mosques. So much for secularism not alienating multi-cultural Britain.

    Then we have the dilemma of faith schools. Many Christian schools have high academic standards due to a degree of selection. But with the level playing fields of secular even-handedness, anyone who supports a Christian faith school must also support Muslim schools, some of which have been known to teach hatred of infidels and have therefore done few favours to any promotion of harmonious national community. Is the answer that all faiths schools have to be taken over by homogenised secular schools, depriving some families of an education that keeps their faith and customs alive.

    A secular state is, of course, right to act firmly and swiftly against the hate crimes of any fundamentalist preachers who incite verbal or physical violence against others.

    A secular state and legal system that has stemmed from a Christian heritage is also right to defend our culture in other ways. We are not a multi-cultural society in the sense that all cultures are equal. We are a pluralist society that tries to respect diversity but the historic national identity is pre-eminent, first among equals.

    This might mean we oppose allowing certain communities from being governed by sharia laws, which go against our own constitution’s laws regarding equal opportunities for men and women. Laws are for the many, not the few. Sometimes minorities ‘suffer’. But because some Hindus, for example, might wish Britain allowed more options for cremation sites (a floating pyre on the Thames?) does this mean we should oblige?

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Evelyn, well put!

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Jenny, I’m sure the blessed carninal would like nothing more than to join you in debate on this.

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    I do take issue with your quote from Newman. We do not choose what to beleive…trust, me, I’ve tried!

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    RR ah well it depends who I’m talking to….Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God….or is it whosoever will be an enemy of the world is a friend of God? (Whosoever is such a good word)

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Vale, you make a good point about faiths being so firm about their rightness that ecumenical dialogue in search of possible compromise can seem futile.

    But there can still be respect even when X faith believes it is the guardian of the truth, and therefore believes Y’s protestations are wrong. Clear parting of ways might be healthier than the muddle of relativism.

    The Catholic Church is often deemed the enemy of fashions when it points out that some new ideas are simply old mistakes. However, it is responsible for many new ideas through the ages that seemed radical at the time. It’s been continually thinking about thinking for two thousand years, covering nearly all experiences; and especially errors.

    The result is a map of the mind consisting of both areas of joyous liberty, areas that remain undecided, and areas marked as dangerous or leading nowhere. For believers, this is a useful guide.

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Gloria Mundi

    Interesting point about the USA, Jenny,, but I guess there’s a big difference between a secular society and one that merely doesn’t have an established faith linked to governance. We have an established church, but we seem to me to be a much more secular society than the USA.

    From Richard’s quotes above, I’d like to agree with R Davies, it seems satisfyingly true in general, but how doubting are the psychopaths who slaughter innocents in the name of a religion, whether in London or Norway?

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    “I believe; help my unbelief.”

    “Faith isn’t believing without proof, it’s trusting without reservation.” William Sloane Coffin (great name!)

    “For those with faith, no explanation is necessary. For those without, no explanation is possible.” Thomas Aquinas

    “Fanaticism is overcompensation for doubt”. Robertson Davies

    “Man is what he believes”. Anton Chekhov

    “We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe”. John Henry Newman

    “The point of having an open mind, like having an open mouth, is to close it on something solid”. G.K. Chesterton

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    I suspect that he is actually setting his face against the ‘secularisation of society’, although I suspect that it is only in a truly secular society that religious freedom can prosper. Having said that, America is a secular society. ’nuff said.)

    I have heard (I believe it was in ‘How God made the English’) that the Church of England is best placed to encourage interfaith dialogue and tolerance. Whilst I have great respect for Rowan Williamson, I seriously doubt this to be true. If Mr Cameron is suggesting that Christianity somehow reflects or epitomises ‘Englishness’ then we may well be in trouble.

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Gloria Mundi

    Much of the time, I think, we make belief-enemies because we seek to strengthen and defend our own beliefs- avoiding our own doubts, perhaps. If Vale is right (and aspects of recent middle-Eastern history support his view) then we need a tolerant secular culture to hold the ring. If that weakens, then maybe firmer opposition becomes essential. As it happens, I find myself increasingly with Jenny’s middle ground, and I’m getting increasingly tired of Mr Cameron telling us it’s a Christian country. It is also a Hindu, Muslim, agnostic etc etc country, to state the bleedin’ obvious yet again. If Mr C merely means that some aspects of Christian culture and historical legacy need celebrating and protecting, fine. If he means something else, he’s running the risk of enhancing the creation of belief-enemies, which is dangerous game, just at the moment in particular.

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    Actually, to the best of my knowledge, it is generally only Christians and Muslims who claim to be exclusively ‘right’. Even there, amongst those who engage in inter-faith dialogue there tends to be a pluralism that allows genuine understanding and tolerance without loosing ones own beliefs.

    Again, I suggest that there is a position that is neither believer nor non-believer (and not ‘don’t-give-a-damn-er’) In fact I know there is, because I’m in it! The problem comes in debates between what for want of a better term could be called ‘extremists’ on both sides.In that area, I suspect, genuine ‘debate’ (rather than repeated re-stateing of a position) is immpossible.

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling

    It’s a good question Richard. It seems so uncivilised to start talking about enemies in the context of this civilised debate. But I’m not at all sure it isn’t the right word.

    When I see sceptic and believer in discussion or – even more so – look at the chummy ecumenism that is so often presented I do wonder about the strength and value of the beliefs of those involved – and worry that there may be some (self) deception about the whole business.

    Most faiths are founded in the belief that they are right. This is usually a non-negotiable position and that people who don’t believe are misguided while they live and doomed after death. So, on what basis is the friendship of ecumenism extended? What accommodations are being made? What isn’t being said?

    The same is true of the debates between the religious and the non-believer. Outside of philosophising though, there are real oppositions here – look at the debate in America at the moment between liberal non-belief and the religious conservatism.

    I suspect that in a secular society where non-religious values hold the ring between the different schools of belief we are friends (well, maybe frenemies), but if the balance is lost then I’m guessing real opposition and even enmity would quickly emerge.

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Who is the enemy, Evelyn?

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling

    I gave up ‘debate’ with the enemy long ago – it’s like trying to explain ‘blue’ or ‘sky’ or ‘thinking’ to a blind man… no wait, he should be able to understand thinking…

    The other less erudite thought I had was concerning Hare’s bliks – which immediately transmogrified into Herr Flick from ‘Allo ‘Allo it must have been the Madonna that did it. Apologies to those who like a serious discussion, just trotting through…….

    Charles Cowling
  15. Charles Cowling
    Belinda Forbes

    We have a very entertaining discussion of our own. I’m not familiar with RC practices so I was completely taken in by the trotting of children at confession. Still chuckling!

    Charles Cowling
  16. Charles Cowling
    Richard Rawlinson

    Good points all and I hope you enjoyed the Harris/Sullivan debate – long but pretty civilised.

    Interesting what you say about bliks, Jenny, and what you say about common purpose, GM. I even liked the jokes about Catholic paedo vampires. Well they sounded friendly anyway!

    Hope you all had a blessed Easter. Pax vobiscum!

    Charles Cowling
  17. Charles Cowling
    Ru Callender

    Vatican organised, whip-point trotting races for toddlers. Finally, a sport I can get behind.

    Charles Cowling
  18. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Ah, a like-minded soul (er, metaphorically speaking..) Jenny! vide your last full para above.

    Perhaps the Sullivan vs Harris frame of argument might be tempered or avoided by acknowledging, if possible, that your point about assumptions is key. If:

    It is valid to say that human need to create meanings to feel comfortable – at home – in the vast and vastly complex universe around them. That universe is impossible, ultimately, to be absolutely certain about. We share meanings, up to a certain point or level. But if A’s way of creating meanings is largely and basically different from B’s, then:

    there is probably going to be a much lower level of agreement about the meanings A and B can share.

    If: B’s way of creating meanings starts off from an omnipotent force called God, and A’s from what I’ll loosely call reason-derived physics, then beyond a certain level, they won’t get much agreement. They might both agree, for example, that “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters – ” they both agree that we need to use reason to avoid pain, cruelty and suffering; but they will never reach agreement on God, because A’s tool of reason rules Him out, and B’s theism tells A he’s using the wrong tool.

    But they can at least discuss ontological matters in a civilised and hopefully useful manner. And they can work together. Up to a point.

    Charles Cowling
  19. Charles Cowling
    Jenny Uzzell

    GM makes an excellent point that the more useful discussion is, perhaps on how best to make the world a better place. A basic concept on which I believe most, if not all non-pychopathic people are agreed regardless of their perspective on religion and spirituality.

    Which is not to say that discussions between theists and atheists are not interesting. Personally, much of my life has centered around them in one way or another. I am doubtful that anyone has ever been converted to a religion through reasoned discussion…it tends not to happen like that although it can, of course, be a part of the process.

    The problem is that the different parties are opperating with what philosophers of language would call different bliks. A blik is a set of assumptions though which you interpret the world and which, therefore, affect the way you use language. It is often the case that there are not enough shared assumptions between a theist and an atheist who are discussiong religion to have a genuinely meaningful conversation. When there is no shared assumption about something so basic as whether there is a purpose or meaning to life there is a limit to how far a discussion can go. A religion is not merely a set of beliefs, it is a whole way of seeing and interpreting the world. In effect the most you can achieve is the ‘Boo/Huray’ discussion that R M Hare suggests is all there is to ethics.

    It does annoy me, though, that there is an unspoken assumption that the only two tenable positions are classical theism of the type represented by the Abramic religions or materialistic atheism. As someone who rejects both of those positions (having occupied both of them at some point or another) I find this unhelpful!

    Ah, a good debate does liven up the first day back at work, though. Thank you!

    Charles Cowling
  20. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    That should of course be “torturing, in my carefully thought-through and well-typed comment, not “trotting.” I believe your trotting races for toddlers at whip-point were outlawed in Vatican XXXVIIIZZZZzzzzzz.

    Hell fire and damnation on auto-correct, or whatever the Satanic invention is called! (H’m, your lot does supply occasionally useful invective…)

    Charles Cowling
  21. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    You see, there you go with your calm and good-natured approach, when we all know that your lot seize small children and, if you can’t brain-wash them at your horrid secret midnight “mass” orgies, after trotting them at “confession,” you drink their blood whilst cursing Abraham as a wimp and chanting “Isaac had it coming?”

    It’s an excellent exchange, thanks, but a lengthy one I have to go at bit by bit. After a while I tend to fall off the exchanges about faith between atheists and Christians, I suspect because I’m actually more interested in what can be done together by people of good faith (in the colloquial sense) to make the world a better place.

    So I prefer arguments/discussions about how to do things, what should be done, etc, between people who can agree on a modus operandi. Though of course basic differences over faith will surface in such work, and high-octane discussions such as that between Harris and Sullivan can make us all all think.

    Or maybe I fall off such discussions because I’m getting lazy, and I’m highly allergic to scoffing, sneering and general bad manners, which almost inevitably surface sooner or later, especially with e.g. someone who has a high profile as a “leading atheist?” As for bad manners, I mean, do your lot even say Grace before you drink the blood of innocents?

    (H’m, it is possible I need to do a bit more research on all this…)

    Charles Cowling
  22. Charles Cowling

    Of course there’s the what could be considered equally inane discussion that starts

    C. Do you know where you’re going when you die?

    D. Err, in an urn?

    C. Well, the Bible suggests that you are going to Hell if you don’t believe in the Lord Jesus.

    Where C = Christian
    and D. = Doubter

    Charles Cowling
  23. Charles Cowling

    I’m up to page 3….it’s hotting up …

    Charles Cowling

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