It’s tough being an agnostic. You exist constantly caught between those vast, angry pillars of religious fundamentalism and new atheism, where every other conversation about faith descends into a polemical rant about the evils of organised religion or the depravity of today’s godless society. And where the combatants are just as likely to bite your head off than concede some ground in the battle for all of our immortal souls. So forgetting the Richard Dawkins’ and the Ted Haggard’s of this world I’ve gone in search of some genuinely measured debate. And if I can’t find that as a fresher at Cambridge, then I’ll just have to resign myself to sitting on the fence of their contempt for the foreseeable future.
My first port of call was the Reverend Dr. John Hughes of Jesus College. Over twenty minutes, a cup of tea and a packet of minstrels he took me through one of the most potent challenges put to religious believers. The perceived conflict between faith and reason. “Proof operates best at small-scale and in a sense not so existentially significant things” he suggests. While a scientific worldview may have a lot to tell us about the world, when it comes to “life and death and morality and reasons for existence” we reach an impasse in which rational proofs are no longer useful. I was intrigued by an idea that already that opens up faith far beyond the creationist caricature we’re so often peddled with.
Wittgenstein famously said “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. But John’s view of faith provides a fascinating alternative. That faith can be the voice that fills the silence. Where conventional reason finds itself out of depth, the believer turns to other forms of rationality for their answers. So if not logic and reason, what compels a believer to their belief? “A sense of awe and beauty at the universe. The example of someone living a life of purpose and value that we ourselves want to lead.” Such answers would no doubt be abhorrent to the kind of atheist that sees them as devoid of a rational basis, mindless poetry and not real argument. Yet there is something inherently attractive about a faith that can engage with these massive issues of meaning and purpose and existence rather than simply ignore them. As much as organised religion is plagued with problems there have been times where I’ve seen friends who believe plough everything they have into a good cause and dedicate themselves to living out their faith. They see it as their duty to be the ‘salt and light’ to bring out what’s positive in the world and if I am being completely honest with myself, it’s hard not to desire that kind of certainty.
It struck me this is how religious dialogue should work. Calm and measured without an inflated sense of intellectual arrogance or exaggerated claims of certainty. John himself was keen to explain how the medieval church began to turn genuine religious arguments into “crude, pseudo-scientific proofs”, the exact arguments that the new atheists find it all to easy to dispel. The whole core of the debate that’s going on seems ravaged by misunderstanding on both sides and fuelled by hostility that prevents useful dialogue from happening in so many cases. How can this be rectified? For John the key lies in the ‘history of ideas’ as a tool for identifying the ‘false trajectories’ of both scientism and religious fundamentalism and how they “mutually construct each other.” This definitely comes across as sound reasoning. We need to start developing an understanding of how what we believe to be self-evident concepts have been shaped and created by thinkers throughout history. Only then will we be able to truly understand each other and have some chance at grasping at the truth.