Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Degree number three, as the long gap indicates, is rather a time consuming process...

So, much as I love the idea of being able to muse about this and that, I haven't really managed to get around to contributing to this Blog with enough regularly. But with so much to talk about it is time to try again. Typing here should be the substitute for wasting my time at the Secular Web's discussion boards. Anyway, onwards and upwards.

I turned up at this debate on science and religion on Tuesday, dragging along my girlfriend with the promise of an academic bun fight. Alas, it was not to be. Peter Atkins was as odious as ever and deserved to be eviscerate by either Keith Ward or Peter Lipton, but both these guys are far too nice to do the deed. One poor girl had her long question dismissed by Atkins with "That's nonsense". It may have been, but he should be politer. He also had some heavy metal tee-shirt wearing groupies (ie science students) who clapped hard at every gem that dropped from the lips of their hero.

Ward is an occasionally interesting liberal theologian who looks like William Lane Craig. His presentation was to dilute 'religion' to a sort of meaningless 'contemplation of the highest good' which makes it so unthreatening, not even Atkins can be keen on its 'elimination' (Atkin's word, not mine). Like David Hope, Archbishop of York, I do worry about theologians whose reaction to the modern world is to jettison everything mysterious and interesting about religion in the hope of not offending anyone.

Only Peter Lipton had something interesting to say, although I must admit that I have a slight interest here as he is my Head of Department at Cambridge. I've also heard this particular idea from him before and now feel more confident about why he is wrong. Essentially, he argued for an instrumentalist approach to religion. Professor Lipton is Jewish and thinks this is a good thing he wants to celebrate. Consequently he uses his inherited religious tradition as a way to assert his culture. But he does not actually believe that it is a reflection of 'reality' and remains an atheist. This idea has been defended my many politically conservative thinkers and journalists like Roger Scruton, AN Wilson and Peter Jenkins who all are non-believers who see the church (the Church of England to these English nationalists) as a valuable cultural resource.

The problem is that Professor Lipton insists that we take the religious texts literally before we decide we are not going to believe them. In other words, he has almost erected a strawman argument that claims you have to be a fundamentalist or you can't be a proper religious realist. Rejecting two thousand years of Jewish and Christian scholarship, he refuses to countenance a metaphorical reading that would allow someone to claim the text was 'true' at some level. His argument for this is that we don't take novels metaphorically to get their meaning but literally and we know they are fiction. This argument fails firstly because the Bible is not a novel and second because Gulliver's Travels (where the main messages are metaphorical rather than literal) is.

It seems to me that for religion to be anything other than a museum, we must takes its claims as having a reality, even if we need to think carefully about what those claims actually are. Furthermore, the value that Professor Lipton rightly sees in Judaism probably would not be there if most Jews had not been realists.

In all, a disappointing debate and certainly not worth leaving the cricket at Lords early for.

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