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How Religion is Misunderstood

Saturday 13th October 2007

A lecture given at Swansea University, focusing on some of the main misconceptions about religion put about by popular atheist commentators and writers, such as Richard Dawkins.

Thank you very much for the invitation and for the welcome, to be here at home again. And thank you all for sacrificing a precious Saturday afternoon for this.

I want to begin with an episode in Dostoevsky's novel 'The Idiot', where the central character Prince Mishkin says to a friend 'Atheists always seem to be talking about something else'. And he goes on to illustrate what he means by telling a short series of anecdotes about different kinds of religious behaviour. Some of these episodes are about bad religion and some of them are about what you might call good religion. But the point that he's making throughout this little series of stories is that there is something here which is not easily recognizable as the kind of thing that the argumentative atheist is talking about.

Now I think that Prince Mishkin's response is one that a great many of religious believers are likely to feel when they pick up the works of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or any of those prominent critics of religious faith in our own day. We may feel as we turn the pages that 'this is not it' whatever the religion is being attacked here it's not actually what I believe in. And along with that instinctive response of not recognizing, there may also be a touch of, let's say, resentment at somebody trying to tell us what we really mean. (Because as we all know there are few things more annoying than somebody else saying 'I know what you mean'!)

More seriously, that is one of those features of a certain kind of exercise of power which is itself open to moral challenge. When we go to another person or another community and say with confidence 'I will tell you what your real agenda is' the other person or community may very well say 'This is simply a bid for control. You are telling me that my world is smaller than yours, that yours can contain and reduce mine'. And that's not just an intellectual but a political question, in the widest sense.

Well, these are what I've called instinctive responses to the Dawkins/ Hitchens etc agenda. But what I want to do this afternoon is to ask what are the specific areas of mis-match between what a Richard Dawkins may write about, and what religious people themselves think they're doing. We need to state that mis-match as carefully and as fully as we can if our response is not just to be at the instinctive level. And because the (broadly speaking) Dawkins-related attitude to religion is gaining ground in, for example, journalistic perception and therefore public perception in our own day, it's of some practical significance that those who hold religious belief should be able to spell out their dissatisfaction with the critical strategies they're faced with. But, if I may make just one more observation by way of introduction, I would say that this is not simply a matter of religious believers defending themselves (though it is that, and as you will have noticed, I am a religious believer and I have some investment in this!) but it's also about the character of intellectual debate, about the politics, the power struggles of intellectual debate, about the need to understand as fully as possible what it is you think you are disagreeing with. And I don't think I need to spell out in a university context that that is one of the basic principles of academic ethics.

Richard Dawkins is invariably a wonderfully lively and attractive writer. But to begin with I'm going to quote not Dawkins, but a kind of digest of some of Richard Dawkins' ideas which appeared in a rather remarkable play by Mick Gordon and A C Grayling entitled 'On Religion'. Part of a series put on by On Theatre, a group concerned to produce and introduce new drama dealing with very broad intellectual questions. So there have been other examples on ego, on love and on death. This very remarkable and dramatically very successful play pivots around a family problem. Grace is a senior scientist and a passionate Dawkins-style atheist. She's married to a lapsed Jew, Tony. And they have a son who to everyone's horror has converted to Christianity and decides to become a priest. He, Tom the son, is engaged to Ruth who is a much more hesitant unbeliever. Prepared to take religion seriously because she takes Tom seriously and therefore attacked by almost everybody else in the play. But Grace is not only a distinguished scientist, she is also a distinguished anti-religious apologist with a public platform, very much a Dawkins character. And here is Grace delivering a lecture.

'There are four kinds of answer usually given to the questions of why religions exist: one, they offer explanations, answers to the basic questions about the origins of the Universe, why it exists, what purpose its existence serves, why apparently inexplicable things happen in it, and why it includes suffering and death. Two, religions provide comfort, giving hope of life after death and providing reassurance in a hostile world, also that they offer through prayer and sacrifice and good behaviour, to get a better deal in this world. Three, religions make for social cohesion; they bind families together (Tony chuckles) consolidate communities and countries and bring a useful sense of order. Four, religions are born of humankind's natural ignorance and superstitiousness. So: explanation, comfort, cohesion and superstition.'

Grace's little speech sums up very elegantly the Dawkins case. Here in the human world we have a variegated, widespread, long-lived phenomenon called religion. It is an irrational phenomenon. It rests on no basis of evidence. Its effects are both beneficial in some areas and fantastically destructive in others. It's not obviously a strategy for survival, so what's it doing here? How did it get here onto the human scene? And why is it still around? And given all that, what do we do to guarantee that it will stop being around?

Now, the question as posed takes a number of things for granted, as Grace's explanations suggest. And both in Grace's world and in Richard Dawkins' writings there is one very interesting factor affecting the whole discussion and that is the assumption that, loosely speaking, Darwinian Theory is a theory of everything. It's not just a theory about biology; it's a theory about history and culture. It's a theory which explains the history of ideas. Every feature of culture like every feature of biology requires an explanation in Darwinian terms: that is in terms of survival strategies. Darwin's system is extraordinarily comprehensive and successful in dealing with biology. It allows every aspect of the history of organisms to be understood in terms of a clearly defined process. But Dawkins assumes (as indeed do many others) that a theory which works so successfully in biology must be a theory whose potential extends across the whole of human culture. Every feature of culture must be in come sense a survival strategy.

It's worth noting that assumption, that you can carry over from biology to the study of culture without too many questions asked. But if this is more than trivially true; (true in that very general and un-technical sense) that things survive because they have survivability – ideas included – then the idea that biology carries over into everything does have a number of implications for rationality itself, never mind morality. Reasoning practices in any area are there because they have survival capacity. They are successful strategies for getting through. And that, as countless of critics have pointed out, is something which always in danger of undermining the whole idea of rational explanation, including biological explanation.

Religion is, among other things, a phenomenon of culture. It's to do with the transmission of practices and ideas, structures of images, styles of behaviour, ways of talking. It's a cultural thing. But as with other areas of culture, the Darwinian explanation is not capable of settling very much decisively about it. In order to make a Darwinian scheme work, with religion and indeed with other cultural or intellectual phenomena, you have to assume some more rather questionable things. And the most dramatic example is the hypothesis originally advanced by Dawkins, almost 'off the cuff', (but taken rather seriously by some of his followers) that there actually is a measurable, identifiable process of the transmission of cultural ideas, that's like genetics. Dawkins and others have called it 'memetics'. The meme the unit of culture is like a gene in biology. The meme carries information from person to person and generation to generation, just as a gene encodes the information that allows replication to occur. That allows other things to be generated that are in some important sense structurally the same.

But of the many works dealing with the meme, the unit of cultural explanation, none of them has yet managed either to identify definitively what exactly such a unit is, let alone what is the mechanism by which it is transmitted other than language and relationship. Which is not quite enough to get a scientific theory off the ground. One distinguished scientist writing about the state of nuclear physics earlier in the century remarked that when he realized that the possible definitions of the terms he was using in some of his theories was as widely variegated as the phenomena he was trying to describe, he noted that there must be something wrong.

When an explanatory move – like this appeal to the cultural unit of transmission – becomes so vague that it lacks any predictive possibility, any definition of its processes, you can quite reasonably ask whether it is a theory at all, or whether indeed it's a myth. At least as much of a myth as religious language is. And as far as I'm concerned, one of the most abidingly difficult and problematic aspects of Richard Dawkins' approach to religion, remains this attempt to transfer biology into culture, to suppose that there is a science of cultural transmission exactly like genetics only with different material. I find this, I have to say, philosophically crass, undeveloped at best, simply contradictory and empty at worst. And there are many ways in which one can point out the actual tensions with real genetic theory here, but I'll spare you some of those details. In other words, if we are to regard all cultural phenomena as strategies of survival, which are worked by cultural units, memes, with self-replicating powers like those of the gene, we end up with on the one hand a seriously inadequate and indefinite theory, and on the other with the requirement that we exclude from our study of culture everything that is not about survival, or we try to read every aspect of culture as if it were about survival. And whether we're talking about music, sport, architecture, or theology it ought to be clear that the reduction to survival strategies obliges us to ignore a very large area of what is in view. And once again there is an issue of fundamental academic ethics and explanatory theories that oblige us to ignore what is in front of our eyes.

So that's my first area of discontent with the Dawkins approach. Or indeed the approach of Grace in the play I mentioned. The Dawkins view assumes that all culture is about survival, that if something like religion appears to survive when in many ways it apparently shouldn't, there must be an under-the-surface explanation revealing those aspects of religion which initially in some unknown pre-history made for survival even if they don't do so any longer. But I don't think that it's much use reducing religion to a survival strategy unless you can be a bit clearer about how it's supposed to attain its aims. So the first great misunderstanding is 'religion as a strategy of survival'. Against such a view, the religious believer can note both the inadequacies of the explanatory model offered by Dawkins and his followers, but can and should also underline those aspects of religious behaviour which are not so readily reduced to any kind of survival strategy. And the believer might say that it is at least an interesting fact that for all classical religions – if you think of religion as a survival strategy, as a way of keeping yourself safe or making yourself successful – that religious tradition will tell you you are not really showing faith. The person who follows a religious pattern of behaviour and uses religious language, simply as a means of securing themselves or their own position is (whether they are Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Muslin, whatever) such a person is regarded as not having seen the point of being religious. Every tradition makes great play of the fact that religious faith projects you onto a level where you are constrained to do many things that are apparently against your obvious interest. Where you are constrained to let go of ideas that appear to be about survival or success. Every religious tradition of any seriousness tells you – in short – that you have to grow up into disinterestedness, into a proper kind of detachment. This reality is there and it's true and it's worth believing in because it's there and it's true.

If, en route you should discover that it makes you happy, well and good, but woe betide you if you approach as part of a programme for attaining happiness.

An undergraduate friend of mine who's now I'm happy to say a distinguished fellow of the British Academy and Professor of Political Science once said to me in exasperation when we were both undergraduates 'the trouble with you is that you believe religion is true but not useful and I believe it's useful but not true'. And while I suspect we might both protest a little at that characterization of our intellectual opposition there is something in that which carries at least some central aspects of what religious people think their faith is about. Whether it's the Buddhist saying that the purpose of religious exercise is dissolving the illusions that imprison the ego; or indeed the illusion of the ego itself; whether it's the Hindu saying you must learn to act in detachment from where that action will lead simply because your action must coincide with eternal law; whether it's the Christian speaking about bearing the Cross with Christ or enduring the dark night of the spirit.

Whatever this is it's not language which can be in one stroke reduced to strategies of survival. If you want to talk about evolutionary advantage in such language of behaviour or attitude, you can only do it in the most paradoxical sense. What if the entire environment in which we live is one to which the appropriate response is letting go of yourself and your safety? What if that is the appropriate response because the universe is like that? Well, you can call that an evolutionary advantage if you wish, but I think it's in a somewhat strained and extended sense. For the Christian, such language is grounded in the idea that the ultimate reality with which we have to do, is a God who can be described as emptying himself in the work of incarnation and indeed in creation itself. But that's material for a good many more lectures! The point I'm seeking to underline is simply that we need to press on this first area of misunderstanding in relation to what religious leaders say of themselves and what religious language says about itself. Yes, this is an appropriate response to the way thing are but an appropriate response which in the short term guarantees you nothing. And there are those, particularly in 17th century French Catholicism for example, who underline to an almost exaggerated extent the idea that the pure love of God required you quite simply to stop thinking about any consequences whatsoever. You could only be said to love God when you were perfectly aware that you might get nothing out of it.

My God I love thee not because I hope for Heaven thereby/nor yet because who love thee not are lost eternally (as the hymn says).

Whatever Darwinian explanation you can produce of this language is going to be – to put it modestly – a little strained. And if Darwinian explanations work only as I said before by reducing the actual phenomena that you're dealing with, and discounting the accounts gives by those actually inside the scheme, what legitimacy does it have?

A hint here on how perhaps we ought to talk about these things. Religion as survival strategy I've said seems to me to be an intellectually muddled notion. But there is in more than one of the classical religious traditions the notion of developing skill, not strategy, but skill. Skill has a habit of thought and action that is adapted to the truth. What the Buddhists mean by 'skilful means'; those habits of meditation, self-inspection which gradually teach you to regard as natural the sidestepping of selfish craving and the openness to what is.

Well, having talked a little about misunderstanding religion as survival strategy, I want to move on to a related question touched on by Grace in her speech in the play, which is going back to why some of these Darwinian explanations for culture are there in the first place.

One of the puzzles for Dawkins and others is of course is why bad explanations outlive good explanations. That is 'religion is a bad explanation of the universe'. Muddled, inconclusive, finally irrational - there are perfectly good and obvious explanations around, scientific explanations. Why doesn't religion retire gracefully from the field and say 'this is a better explanation'. Now, when religion obstinately refuses to behave as some scientists would like it to, you need an evolutionary theory to explain why irrationality might sometimes be good for you. That's how you get into the tangle of my first area. But again a question is being begged here. Is religion explanation? Well, Grace clearly seems to think it is in her speech. All kinds of answers are usually given to the question of why religions exist: one is – they offer explanations.

Now Dawkins is very concerned in his recent big book 'The God Delusion' to talk about how arguments for the existence of God need to be deconstructed because they're bad explanations. As if, everyone is confronted with the question 'where does the universe come from', religious people say 'God created it' and that is explanation number one. Over the centuries along come a number of scientific intellectuals who say 'we have a better answer'. And Dawkins consistently assumes (and he has said in so many words) that he treats religion as an explanatory hypothesis; a very bad one. He says 'I do it the courtesy of treating it as an explanatory hypothesis'. But is that actually how talk about the existence of God works? Or indeed about creation or about any of those other things about which Dawkins is so worried?

Explanatory hypotheses are things that we put up to see if they can be knocked down. Here's a thesis, here's the sort of thing that might confirm it, here are some of the things that might dis-confirm it. Let's give it a try and see. I think it's rather obvious to say that whatever belief in God has entailed across the centuries, it has not entailed that kind of conditionality. 'I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven, subject to further investigation' is not a creed that I'm aware has prevailed for very long in any part of the Christian world. I grant that some religious believers do speak occasionally in unguarded terms as if God's existence were simply that; a theory which explains why the world is here. But the fact is that to speak in such terms would never be to ground or justify those characteristic religious activities such as worship and contemplation. You don't on the whole approach theories with contemplation or awe or adoration or indeed, to use a word I've deliberately avoided so far but can't avoid indefinitely, love. For the worshipper God is supremely real, and real before the worshipper is on the scene. And that is the very opposite of the idea of a theory awaiting confirmation, the believer who worships assumes absolutely that God is there and is worth attending to.

Now, in the history of Christian thinking and philosophy there have been many attempts to elucidate the idea of God by showing in what sense the universe can be said to depend upon God. St Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages of course produced his five arguments for God's existence many other people have produced arguments for God's existence. But what we have to remember is that St Thomas Aquinas and others who've developed such arguments are not doing the ordinary work of a scientist advancing a hypothesis. A scientist moves from the more certain to the less certain, from the facts in front of him or her to the imagined structure that might hold or contain or make sense of what's there. And that imagined structure is up for readjustment redefinition almost indefinitely. Whatever St Thomas Aquinas is doing in his five ways to God he's not moving from the more certain to the less. He is trying to cast light on how the intelligibility the rationality and coherence of the world might be related to a reality that is not the world, the universe. Aquinas is connecting God to the project of making sense of the universe as a whole, and that's a slightly more complicated exercise than just looking for an explanatory theory.

You might almost say that somebody like Aquinas is saying 'why do we ask for explanations at all? Why do we assume that the universe hangs together? Why do we assume that behaviour of physical realities throughout the universe is uniform? Why do we assume that cause and effect are absolutely reliable? And for St Thomas the answer is that we assume those things simply by locating the entire system of the universe with all its interlocking causes to one unsurpassable reality which sustains us in being.

Now, once again Dawkins comes at this in a slightly crab-wise manner. Dawkins has picked up the fact that theologians and philosophers like to talk about God as a simple explanation for the world, or a simple ground for the world. And Dawkins says 'yes indeed we move from simplicity to complexity. But the simplicity is that of primal organisms, primal reality, the elements of the big bang. And they gradually over time become complex. But if God is there before the big bang, God must in fact be complex. Only a highly complex mind could do that. QED. So it's no good appealing to God as a simple explanation.

I think the mistake here is that Dawkins has confused the notion of a movement in time from the simple to the complex with the idea that there is a necessary logical priority to complex regularities and properties which ensure that when that simple organism begins to develop, it develops coherently, consistently, that cause and effect will operate from the beginning. And the question is not where that primitive organism or that physical reality comes from in terms of time. The question is about where the whole notion of explanation, regularity and intelligibility comes from. You don't have to ask that question, you can say it's just there. But if you do, the answer is God. God not as an explanation within the system of this bit or that bit or that bit of the picture that you can't really get your mind around; but the explanation of why we look for explanations. The explanation of rationality itself which is a very eccentric kind of explanation, not readily to be reduced to what we usually mean by that. We're asking about the entire system of interlocking causes and interlocking explanations. And to appeal to God here is to say that whatever does ground or justify that aspect of our relationship to the world can't itself be the product of a process, a combination of pre-existing realities, a fusion of prior items and forces. It is what it is, it simply grounds the fact that we assume we can make sense.

That's the kind of thing which of course annoys Dawkins very much because he regards it as an evasion of the real issue. But I'm not sure that it is. As I've said, what we're saying as religious people, is not that God is the explanation of this or that bit of the universe which we can't otherwise explain; even the very beginning of the universe. We are saying that the nature of our relationship with the universe, a relation of understanding, thinking and exploring, rational expectation, that that very structure requires some comprehensive energy at another level that sustains it as what it is. And because that comprehensive energy at another level is not the product of other things, doesn't have a history, isn't the result of processes going on; it's perhaps an appropriate object for contemplation, given that we are not going to find successful or comprehensive words for it, but can only gaze into what is undoubtedly mysterious, but not mysterious in a way which simply says this is a puzzle somebody one day might solve.

So there's my second worry about Dawkins. You can misunderstand religion as a survival strategy; you can misunderstand religion as a form of explanation. And staying within that second issue for a moment: it's not a question about bad scientific explanations and good scientific explanations. Scientific explanation always looks for specific causes inside the universe. That's what science is. Theological language, religious language asks if there is a ground for the very idea of a regular world of which you can make sense. And religious language perhaps appropriately therefore at the very least reminds the scientist that in every intelligible act there is an act of faith. I'm not suggesting that when the scientist goes into the laboratory every morning, he or she renews consciously with a little recitation of creed and canticles, a belief that what's going to go on during the day will make sense.

Yet the act of faith which says we can communicate with each other in consistent and coherent ways is a real act of faith. Even at the most trivial level, when we speak to each other we make a great many rather remarkable assumptions. (You have, I hope come here this afternoon confident that you will I hope hear something you understand - I hope I shan't disappoint that expectation too severely!) But my point is that whenever we communicate we assume there is something we can trust in language which will allow us to move forward, to explore, to listen, to argue, even. And without that act of faith we wouldn't begin any process of explanation or theory in any area whatsoever.

I've suggested two really good, successful and resourceful ways of misunderstanding religion: survival strategy and explanation. But in the time left to me I want to broaden that out just a little bit, to underline the fact that both of these mistakes obscure certain fundamental facts about religion.

Religious practice (you might say) is learning how to occupy a certain role, a position in the universe, a position of recognized dependence. People who speak religiously have at least these in common, that they recognize the dependence of their own existence and that of the entire universe. They recognize in a rather more loaded theological language that they are recipients of what might be called a gift. And in recognizing their dependence they relativise their own reality in some ways. I'm not the centre of things, I'm not everything , I exist not because I wanted to or because I was able to manage it, I exist because I have received. And that place in the world is also a place where, because of that relativising of the self there is also a directness of mind and heart towards the other. A recognition that the other, whether it's another person, whether it's the physical universe itself, is not there first for me, but in itself. I recognize that the person I confront, the physical reality I confront, the world in which I live, exists in relation to God before it relates to me. So that some of the reverence with which I approach God is also involved in my relations with other persons, and with the material of the world. There is something prior to my ego, my interests, and my agenda. To occupy the place of religious belief is then to develop that contemplative skill which turns me silently and expectantly to a reality greater than myself. It also involves a sense of trust in communication and relationship.

Now these are things which, I think it would be agreed even by the Dawkinses of this world are, common to religious practice along with a great deal else, less obviously attractive. (Let's grant the Dawkins point there.) But at least that is going on. And one of the points which some contemporary critics like Dawkins miss is that these aspects of religious belief are the aspects which allow religion to be self-critical.

Dawkins tells several times (as does Grace in the play) the story of the scientist who has devoted nearly two decades to a particular hypothesis and attends the lecture in which that hypothesis is comprehensively demolished by another scientist. The first scientist goes up to the second and shakes his hand saying 'my dear fellow, I'm so grateful'. Can you imagine a religious person doing that? (Says Dawkins/Grace). Well I'm sorry to disappoint the critic but actually I can. Because one of the aspects of religious belief which these critics have not weighed as perhaps they might, is that every religious practice involves some very deep levels of self-questioning and self-criticism. When religions talk in their various languages about humility, they re not in fact simply commending passivity; a kind of dead and apathetic putting-down of oneself before a superior power. They are rather saying that one of the habits you require is the habit of reminding yourself that you have almost certainly not understood what is to be understood. It's no accident, I think, that the earliest of the gospels Mark, portrays the disciples of Jesus as people with a rare and highly developed instinct for getting things wrong. As if St Mark is telling future generations of believers 'expect not yet to have understood Jesus'.

Now that self-critical dimension is perhaps one of those areas in which religion of all sorts feeds most constructively into the rest of the intellectual and imaginative world. The injunction to humility – if it is not as I said simply a recommendation to be passive and apathetic - is an injunction which the creative artist, the scientist, the scholar, the ordinary worker needs to hear. That which is before me is not yet mine; and never will be completely mine; I approach every enterprise with that provisionality, that awareness that because I am dependent (I did not make myself and I did not make my world) because of that one of the most basic aspects of our relationship with reality should be that openness. And the doctrinal patterns of the great religions, however much they may have been misunderstood and distorted in religious practice (and that has to be granted), are not attempts to give a comprehensive map of reality but to suggest what needs to be said in order to hold the insights for another generation. What's the least you have to say in order to pass on the wisdom you believe you have received? That I think is a basic principle in the language of doctrine and again there's more that could be said about that. The point that is relevant to the whole religion and science debate here is that the self-critical energy of religion, when it's doing its job, models something that all areas of human language need. That habit of self-inspection, self-scrutiny, never exhausted or satisfied. And for the religious believer, certainly within the Western Semitic religious traditions, for the religious believer that habit of humility of self-inspection, of admitting your relative status, is made possible by a fundamental act of trust in the character towards which you're looking. Trust that is in Christian terms in the love of God.

Let me turn again to Gordon Grayling's play. Here is Tom speaking to his mother about some of this:

I'm not trying to pretend it's not dangerous, sometimes. I think that's absolutely the case. I just think that one of the things to do in terms of a strategy (and I'm being realistic and pragmatic here OK?) because we have to ask ourselves: what sort of strategy for dealing with nutters are we going to adopt? Do we want an all out culture war between your pure enlightenment thinking and bad religion? Or is there a value, is there ...let me put it another way; is the answer to bad religion no religion or better religion? Who's more likely to defeat bad religion, good religion or atheism? That's a question, a real question. So stop attacking me, Mum, because I'm your hope. You're never going to turn the world's religious into atheists. If that's what your battle is, if that's what you're trying to do you're going to lose and so are we all. The best you can hope for is to turn bad violent religion into better religion, that's what I'm trying to do. So no, I'm not providing cover for the nutters. By wasting your time attacking me, it's your absurd purism which is letting them off the hook. 'Cause you're never going to win that battle.

I think what Tom is saying there is that a religion which fully understands its own roots: independence, humility, and self-questioning is the most effective response to the religion which distorts the given-ness of God's grace into a weapon against the other. Bad religion is driven out by good, not by no religion.

Well, finally, what do we say to the critics of religion, to the misunderstanders? (I haven't even started on Christopher Hitchens!) We have no obvious knock-down arguments. But we say to the critic 'look at how the focal practices of religion – not seen as survival strategy or explanation - as they actually exist. Look at how they work to create self-questioning and trust. That self-questioning and trust may be going forward on a truthful basis or not. No external force is going to settle that for us. But before writing off the religious enterprise watch, watch what happens as persons of faith grow in these habits of self-questioning and trust. In the understanding of what the Christian would undoubtedly call justification by faith.

Self-questioning and trust are not peculiar to religious people. Just as impressive moral integrity is not – God knows – the preserve of religious people. But for the secularist, for the systematic critic of religion, moral integrity, self-inspection, fundamental trust must either be reduced to a personal option (I do this because I choose to do this) or it must be reduced to another form of survival strategy. And some of the problems with that, I've already touched upon. The religious believer says in contrast, that moral integrity, self-inspection, honesty, openness and trust are styles of living which communicate the character of an eternal and free agency, the agency that most religions call God. Agree or disagree, is what I would want to say to our contemporary critics, but at least grasp that that is what is being claimed and talked about. Don't distract us from the real arguments by assuming that religion is an eccentric survival strategy or an irrational form of explanation. Look, what does it look like? What are the processes by which the self-questioning, self-understanding of religious persons actually grow and develop in time, for individuals and for communities? That's why it's no accident perhaps that this debate has been carried on not only on websites and through large volumes of difficult philosophy and scientific reasoning, but also through drama.

Sometimes – and here I go right back to the beginning – the most helpful thing to do when we're arguing about religion, is to say 'let me give you a case, let me tell you a story'. The atheist seems to be talking about something else, said Prince Mishkin. But here are the things that perhaps the atheist and the religious believer ought to be talking about. This it what it looks like:

Here is a story (says Prince Mishkin) of two peasants. One of them murders the other because he wants to steal his watch and before he murders the other he crosses himself, groans and says 'Lord, forgive me'.
And here is a story about a woman crossing herself as her baby child smiles up at her. 'Because whenever a child smiles God is affirmed' she says to those who ask why.

Two people crossing themselves, both performing religious actions; that's what religion looks like, bad and good. Tell the stories; look at the extreme oddity of religious behaviour and religious persons; and then have the argument. But don't go first for the categories that fit into an over-ambitious, rather wobbly pseudo-scientific enterprise.

In conclusion, just one word because I'm here in this University. One of the most significant intellectual influences on me over many, many years was the late Professor Dewi Phillips. We had our disagreements; we had our agreements as well. We had our happy alliances against certain sorts of philosophical and religious nonsense and some of my happiest academic memories are of being with him at conferences and seeing him in full 'non-prisoner-taking' mode! Many of you will remember that as well. But I would want to say that many of the insights about first looking at what religious people are actually doing, I derived from listening to Dewi over many decades. And I think it's appropriate to say that much of what I have said this afternoon has been in his memory and in his honour, with considerable gratitude. Thank you for your patience.

© Rowan Williams 2007

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