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Press: Atheists and Christians can both deny reality

09 July 2021

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HOW very odd the New Atheists were, if anyone remembers them. The biologist Jerry Coyne, who was always a reliable contender for the sneeringest and jeeringest of all the commenters on religion and creationism, cropped up this week with a reminiscence of his mentor, Richard Lewontin, a wonderful scientist, and one of the last survivors of the Marxist school of evolutionary biologists. It’s humane, loving, and full of admiration for the man and for his work. Yet the very next day, he posts, approvingly, a video of Richard Dawkins being asked “if there are ways of knowing other than science. Do different groups have different methods for apprehending truth?”

“The answer, of course,” Coyne continues, “is a dismissive no’ (he’s right),” — and I wonder once again what it is about these illogical positivists which makes them cling to the wholly unscientific claim that only scientific statements can be true. There is a turning away from the experience of life quite as pathological as anything they accuse the “Faithheads” of.

 

NOT that faith is itself any guarantee of a willingness to embrace reality. Gabriella Swerling, in the Telegraph, was the only journalist to get anything in about the Church’s new strategy document (News, 2 July), which is odd. You’d have thought that the Established Church publishing a suicide note was a bit more of a story than that. But this indifference on the part of the mainstream is itself part of the blend of despair and hallucinatory optimism that soaks through the briefing paper.

There is a stage in advanced hypothermia where the victim, frozen almost all the way to death, will tear off all their clothes in the middle of the blizzard, convinced that they are far too warm. Just so the briefing paper proposes that the Church tear off its buildings and its priests, and rush stark naked into a world that couldn’t care less.

I know that this has been drawn up by intelligent, well-meaning, and thoughtful people. I can only conclude that they are screaming underneath.

I have been reading a really excellent book on bilingualism — Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds — about the immense amount of living it takes for a second language to become a part of your life, and for your life to become inexplicable without recourse to the new language.

The analogy with evangelism is obvious. Christianity, and perhaps any other religion, is best understood as a language: a web of concepts, associations, and experiences through which we find ourselves and other people. And Christianity is a language that most people in England today no longer speak. For the past century, the most common Evangelical response has simply been to repeat “Jesus” louder and more slowly, as if everyone around were simply faking their incomprehension. Meaning is usage, and every time Christian language is used to bully, to hector, or to claim contested privilege, that’s what it comes to mean to the hearers.

On a smaller scale, the language that the national church bodies use, starting with Renewal and Reform, is understood by everyone outside those circles to mean something very different. The Telegraph, for instance, linked in its online coverage the words “Vision and Strategy” to an earlier story headlined “Church fury as Archbishop of York seeks £90k-a-year chief of staff while ‘dismantling’ parishes”.

 

THE ATLANTIC magazine had a long, illuminating podcast (with transcript) about Ralph Reed, the man who founded the Christian Coalition in the 1980s, and who may have been as responsible as any other figure for getting Donald Trump into the White House.

It was his judgement that getting a man of Trump’s character elected was the best thing for American Christianity that swayed a lot of other Evangelical leaders who were otherwise sceptical. But he himself said that there were three factors that really helped him.

The first was the then vacancy on the Supreme Court: “Either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was going to fill it. You had to figure you had a 50-50 chance of getting it right with Trump. And you had to figure you had a zero percent chance of getting somebody who was pro-life with Hillary. So that was a critical inflection point,” Reed told The Atlantic.

Then there was the selection of the extremely conservative Roman Catholic Mike Pence as his vice-president. Finally — and this is where the story comes home to English politics — there was something that Hillary Clinton said, as Reed explains: “Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ comment, which was the line that really, really resonated in the evangelical world.

“She said, ‘They are irredeemable.’ And I think, at that point, I think a lot of even the last remaining evangelical Christians who had a lot of reticence and resistance to Trump went, ‘Well, gosh. I mean, if that’s where she’s coming from, I’m gonna vote for Trump’.”

Because, of course, “irredeemable” means something entirely different in Democratic circles in New York than among people who believe in the reality of hell. Hillary was right. It’s not just clergy who have to be careful with how words sound in another language.

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