April 30, 2008

In the latest issue of the periodical formerly known as The Times Higher Education Supplement (it now calls itself simply “Times Higher Education”), the philosopher Simon Blackburn takes a stab at what he sees as the top ten “modern myths”. For those blessed enough to be ignorant of Mr. Blackburn, he is an atheist academic at the University of Cambridge and Vice-President of the British Humanist Association “€” that’s “humanists” as in people who simply cannot conceive of anything greater than themselves, most definitely not “humanists” as in More and Erasmus.

Near the top of Mr. Blackburn’s list is “The myth of religious belief”:

This is delicate ground because lots of people believe themselves to have religious belief, and some can even get quite huffy about it. But David Hume, who was usually right about these things, said that nature “suffers not the obscure, glimmering light, afforded in those shadowy regions, to equal the strong impressions, made by common sense and by experience. The usual course of men’s conduct belies their words, and shows that their assent in these matters is some unaccountable operation of the mind between disbelief and conviction, but approaching much nearer to the former than to the latter.”

According to Mr. Blackburn, religious believers aren’t really believers, you see, because they quite often fail to live up to their beliefs.

People say they believe in life after death but still grieve when people die. Christians try to get rich and Muslims gamble.

Begging Mr. Blackburn’s pardon, but I fail to see the contradiction here. With regard to his second point, no orthodox Christians believe there is anything wrong with “trying to get rich” so long as it is not at the expense of the salvation of one’s soul or those of others. (We will leave to the thinkers of Islam his example of Muslim gamblers.) With regards to grief, there are several reasons for the living to grieve when people die. Firstly, there is the most obvious factor of the separation suddenly enforced between the living and the dying. Even an atheist should be able to appreciate such an obvious human factor.

Then, for Christians, there is the rather uncomfortable matter that not all life after death is heavenly. For many, perhaps even most, of the just, there are first the sufferings of the purgatory fires by which the soul is further cleansed in preparation to enter more fully into the beatific vision. And then, woefully, there are those who have so willfully and obstinately separated themselves from God that they will never enjoy the beatific vision and are dragged down to the infernal kingdom by its ruler. It is of course quite easy to see why an atheist would disagree with such thinking, but one would at least hope, considering the history of the West, that he would seek to understand such thinking.

Returning to “the myth of religious belief”, Mr. Blackburn, alas, only offers us only more denigration:

The state of mind here is unaccountable in the same way as that of the child who pretends that the tree stump is a bear and then becomes genuinely frightened of it, while knowing all the time that it is a tree stump. Like the child’s game, the grown-up one deserves no special respect, but provided it keeps away from the serious side of life it can remain harmless enough. Unfortunately, it is apt to break out, giving bearded men in skirts an amplifier with which to spread one or another arbitrary set of attitudes and demands.

With respect, this state of mind which Mr. Blackburn decries as child-like has produced Augustine, Aquinas, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Erasmus, Montaigne, Pascal, Bach, Wagner, Cervantes, Chesterton, and so forth. Atheism has produced little more than some top-notch genocides and such interesting characters as Messrs. Lenin, Stalin, Mao & co.

This is not to make the egregious error of falsely accusing Mr. Blackburn of tarrying (even if only on an intellectual level) with genocidal maniacs. (No doubt one can also summon up from history some dodgy Christians in that category). But if we were to presuppose that God did not exist, then I would nonetheless much prefer the fruits of false theism to those of truthful atheism. At the very least, I would not haughtily chide that which has produced such great works of beauty and such great acts of charity as Christianity has as a mere child-like state of mind that is worthy of no special respect.

Putting these explanations aside, there is a simple failure on Mr. Blackburn’s part to take into account that most unaccountable of things: human nature. For example, in his very next myth, “The myth of British values”, he writes that “fair play is supposed to be an essentially British value, although our school bullying is the worst in any country with indoor plumbing.” Again, to Mr. Blackburn, the failure to live up to an ideal is a failure on the part of the ideal, not the human.

As it is, Christianity happens to be true, and people really do believe in it “€” though, because they are human, they often fail to live as they believe. Whether he seeks to understand it and incorporate it into his worldview or not, human nature is one of those basic thing that Mr. Blackburn (and the rest of mankind) will just have to live with. Throughout modern history, it is that splendidly mysterious human element which has wreaked havoc with even the best-laid plans.


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