God after atheism – what the word ‘God’ fails to mean

‘The word “God” does not function as a philosophical concept….
Even if one is tempted to say…that “God” is the religious name for being, still the word “God” says more: it presupposes the total context constituted by the whole space of gravitation of stories, prophecies, laws, hymns, and so forth.
To understand the word “God” is to follow the direction of the meaning of the word. By the direction of the meaning I mean its double power to gather all the significations that issue from the partial discourses and to open up a horizon that escapes from the closure of discourse….
The God-referent is at once the coordinator of these various discourses and the index of their incompleteness, the point at which something escapes them.’
Paul Ricoeur, 1995:45-6.

I’d be interested to know what people reading this think it means. It’s a quotation from French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Leave a comment below. Thanks!


Post-Secular Artist? Nine Reflections on the Art of Patrick Heron

The last few years have seen a deep questioning of the central tenets of the theory of secularisation. Far from growing less religious, as the prophets of the post-war period supposed to be our destiny, the world has become more infused with religious attitudes than ever. It is now intellectually respectable, if not yet fully intelligible,  to talk and write about a ‘post-secular’ age. At the same time it is possible to re-examine the high points of the supposedly nonreligious era we have now passed beyond, and see it anew as the site and source of an intense and distinctive spirituality.  It is strange for an art collection like the Methodist Church’s Collection of Modern Christian Art to have almost no abstract works in the collection, as though properly religious art could only ever be representational. Yet until recently abstract art was regarded by many religious people as at the vanguard of a world without form, without meaning, and  – ultimately – without God. If non-representational art was somehow non-traditional then it was also, so it was feared, non-religious. It is possible now, however to reappraise this view.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Patrick Heron produced a large number of canvases and silkscreen prints on paper, based on bright, interlocking abstract shapes. As though to forestall the possibility of overlooking the artist’s obsession with colour, they had titles such as ‘Blue and deep violet with orange brown and green’.
The following reflections were inspired by a screenprint of Patrick Heron’s at the Tate, which is typical of his work at that time. Perhaps to emphasise its abstract qualities it is titled January 1973:14.

Patrick Heron, ‘January 1973: 14’ 1973

Continue reading “Post-Secular Artist? Nine Reflections on the Art of Patrick Heron”

Michael Reiss – a witch hunt for the 21st Century

I find it amazing that the words of Prof Michael Reiss, taken out of context and wilfully misunderstood by people who ought to know better (Richard Roberts and Harry Kroto) have resulted in his resignation as Director of Education at the Royal Society.

It seems he resigned in spite of the fact he was doing no more than stating Royal Society and Government policy.

The letter sent by Roberts and Kroto is substantively little more than an accusation that Reiss is a member of the clergy.

This amounts to a witch hunt of the utmost intolerance. It is not reasonable or helpful for people to behave as though the best way to teach science is to avoid talking about certain issues. This approach will clearly only lend fuel to creationists who will no doubt say “see, their arguments don’t stack up so they just won’t talk about it!”

Much better is the approach supported by the Royal Society itself and restated by Michael Reiss, which is, as I understand it, to use student questions about creationism as an oportunity to discuss the science underlying current views of the origins of the universe.

“If a young person raises creationism in a science class, teachers should be in a position to explain why evolution is a sound scientific theory and why creationism is not.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Lord Winston, who said:

“This is not a good day for the reputation of science or scientists. This individual was arguing that we should engage with and address public misconceptions about science – something that the Royal Society should applaud.”

Continue reading “Michael Reiss – a witch hunt for the 21st Century”

How to teach science and religion in schools

Michael Reiss, clergyman and director of education at the Royal Society, a leading science organisation, has been misquoted as saying creationism should be taught in schools. This is what he actually said .

Audio of Prof Michael Reiss

His main point seems to be that creationism is not really a simple error that can be corrected in a 50 minute science lesson. Rather, it’s part of a bigger worldview that can only really be challenged by being engaged with.

The closest Reiss comes to suggesting creationism should be taught is the following:
‘If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.’

In other words, he’s really not advocating the teaching of creationism, but discussing it rather than ignoring it.
Continue reading “How to teach science and religion in schools”

How important is ‘belief’? Three questions and a tentative answer

A while back Rabbi Jonathan Romain wrote thoughtfully on some Jewish approaches to the existence or non-existence of God.

The heading of this article is ‘Jews don’t have to believe – if they do what he says’. And clearly this needs a little unpacking.

It may make a certain sort of sense to ‘do what he says’ if you believe in the kind of God who expects obedience. But what if you don’t? If there is no ‘he’ what is the justification for keeping his law? Three questions arise in particular.

First, It’s fairly obvious that if you insist on obeying the commandments of a deity whose existence you deny, and have no considered reasons for doing so, you are in an untenable position in the long-term. So could there be good and sustainable reasons for this behaviour?

Second, there is an aporia in Romain’s piece – a question going begging. At the start he writes as though a decline in synagogue attendance is some kind of problem to be lamented and he identifies Jewish atheism or agnosticism as the culprit.

‘No wonder they do not come back to pray to a God they reckon is absent.’

But by the end, he seems to be excusing the non-attenders on the grounds that Judaism isn’t consensually about belief in any case. The lingering question, then, is whether it matters that synagogues are reportedly emptying. And if it does, would a return to dogmatic belief be any kind of solution, or just promote further alienation?

Third (or eighth and ninth if you’re actually counting), the tradition itself does seem to have an ongoing debate about the significance of attitudes to rules, which Romain seems to skip over rather lightly. This was why the Christian Reformers critiqued what they saw as the ‘legalism’ of the Roman Catholic Church. As they read the Bible for themselves, especially the Prophets, they became exposed to a strand of religious thought that prioritised disposition over practice, epitomised by the rather ungainly but significant metaphor of the law written in the heart. This debate continues into the present. Is it enough merely to keep the letter of the law? Don’t you also need at least a little respect for its spirit?

One partial resolution of these questions might be to see religious observance as a kind of game to be played.

Like any game it’s more fun if you have a set of rules, and almost impossible to continue if you don’t. It’s interesting that almost no one claims a supernatural being invented the rules of games, and yet game-playing is massively and enduringly popular. Conversely, the experience of being coerced into playing a rule-based game, as in a million school sports lessons in the rain, is usually very negative; it’s only when we freely consent to the rules, without authoritarianism, that the game becomes enjoyable. As anyone who has played games will tell you, the rules look fixed but really they’re contestable, and the evolving debate about the rules is a significant part of what makes the game socially worthwhile. Finally, and perhaps more than anything else, it’s a social thing: if you won’t play along, you’re missing out on all the fun.

Perhaps if synagogues and churches were more like that – more ludic in their disposition – they’d have more punters.

In case it is supposed that the analogy between religious practice and a game is frivolous, it should be remembered that games, as well as religious practice, can be very serious things.

The forthcoming TV drama God on Trial gives an example of a seriously playful approach to the problem of evil.

Objectors might argue that a really significant difference between a religion and a game has been overlooked: the difference being the divinity itself. After all, who ever heard of people getting together to behave as though fictional beings really existed? Actually, this is the main premise of fantasy role-playing games. These have taken the Internet and what used to be called ‘the younger generation’ by storm and may well point towards a viable future for religious practice. A concern would be that these ‘massively multiplayer games’ seem to encourage, to put it mildly, a certain lack of ethical seriousness. But hasn’t this always been the dilemma of religionists in an ethically frivolous world? And in any case, with a few notable exceptions this concern probably mistakes form for substance. Beneath the pixie dust and hidden deep in the alien bases lies a far-reaching ongoing experiment in character formation (a phrase the fans of Ignatius Loyola and Gary Gygax would be equally comfortable with). Far from denigrating ethics, games and their rules can actually establish an environment in which ethical behaviour is modelled, learned, and even mastered. In realising this aspiration the games known as religions can and should play an important part.

Would we be better off without religion?

I’m planning to attend a public debate on religion, organised by Intelligence Squared. The motion is ‘We’d be better off without religion’, and the speakers include Victor Stenger, who wrote God, the Failed Hypothesis – How Science Shows that God does not Exist. I checked this out recently.

The blurb about Professor Stenger says:

Stenger maintains that plausible natural explanations exist for for all observable phenomena and there is strong scientific evidence against anything mystical or supernatural in the universe.

The book claims:

Not only does the universe show no evidence for God, it looks exactly as it would be expected to look if there is no God.

I would frame this slightly differently and suggest that the evidence in favour of the existence of God is exactly the same as the evidence against the existence of God. It may seem like a small difference but I think it’s important. Here’s why. Continue reading “Would we be better off without religion?”

Can atheism make a new type of religion possible?

The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote:

Paul Ricoeur [US Library of Congress]

‘Atheism is not limited in meaning to the mere negation and destruction of religion, but …rather, it opens up the horizon for something else, for a type of faith that might be called …a postreligious faith or a faith for a postreligious age. …it looks back toward what it denies and forward toward what it makes possible.’ (Ricoeur, P. 1974 The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 440).

It is interesting to see what kind of opening up the populist atheism of writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins is leading to.