(recycled from the now defunct blog section in the Village magazine website -- first published on 18 July 2007)
Knowing what John Cooney has achieved in the past writing against ultra-conservatism in Irish religion, it’s a little sad how dismissive he was of Christopher Hitchens on 30 June in his review of his book “God is not Great” in the Irish Independent.
Also disturbing is his characterisation of the current run of books by atheists on the subject of religion as “trendy” and a “fad”. This attitude betrays a lack of generosity of the sort that liberal Christians like him claim a special access to, but it also betrays a lack of historical perspective and a wilful inattention to contemporary world politics.
For one thing, the fact is that such “fashionable” arguments about religion were quite impossible to have right up until the very recent past, at least in Ireland. Cooney forgets this despite his own participation in breaking the taboo against criticism of the institutional church in Ireland (not least via his devastating biography of John Charles McQuaid).
So it’s an irony and a pity that he is so dismissive of Hitchens’ views as those of a “secularist ranter”. He’s actually using the same sort of language in his argumentum ad hominem that was thrown at Church critics (including him) in the past. The taboo against criticism of religion no longer precludes pointing out abuses by Church institutions, but what seems at least shakily still in force is the ban on pointing out holes in the philosophies and theologies underlying religious belief. As usual in Ireland, it is foreigners like Hitchens and his allies that are (albeit only incidentally) beginning to break this taboo. Long may they prosper, say I.
Besides, this “fad” for anti-religious argumentation is anything but confined to Ireland; it is a worldwide phenomenon that has popped up independently is several places. Two recent events that have nothing at all to do with the vagaries of fashion – the 9/11 bombing and the rise of creationism (aka intelligent design) – are far more likely explanations for such arguments. There is a very close relationship between religion and said events, to such an extent that it would be surprising if a fair amount of political opposition to religion (described by Cooney as “God bashing”) would not have emerged in their wake. That God has a prima facie case to answer in both areas is obvious. Cooney’s dismissal of Hitchens’ book as a fashion accessory for this year’s summer on the beach, apart from being irrelevant, is therefore unfair, shortsighted and maybe even a little disingenuous.
An even greater pity about Cooney’s review is that he largely misses the opportunity to present his case against Hitchens’ atheism. As I mentioned on a previous blog, Hitchens’ own book possibly loses points for not really addressing the sort of moderate religion that Cooney would presumably defend, but Cooney fails to gain the same points because he effectively fails to argue at all, limiting himself to doling out a fair amount of relatively harmless bile and … well, not much else of substance.
Where is his case against Hitchens and in favour of God? Surely not in his petulant expression of distaste for Hitchens’ arguments (including a cringe-inducing comment that Hitchens’ attack on the Crusades and the Inquisition constitutes a “sneer”. Nor does he seem to make any defence contra Hitchens for the existence of God other than a rather strange argument from authority: that the great Hans Küng once countersigned Cooney’s copy of his book “Is there a God? An Answer for Today” with the word “Yes”.
Obviously, Cooney can’t accept Hitchens’ nasty God of the Bible as the God he worships, and indeed his fairly innocuous denial of this God indeed takes up a fair bit of his review. But the trouble is that Cooney doesn’t even give us a hint what sort of supreme being he does in fact believe in, except maybe the hint that it might be something along the lines of Küng’s vision of God. But, if you take the trouble to do a bit research, I think you’ll find Küng’s own vision turns out to be pretty foggy too. And when you finally manage to shine a light through the mist on the sort of being Küng has in mind when arguing for his/her/its existence, you’ll end up with rather less in your hand than Küng’s sonorous prose seems to promise. (At least in the English translation it’s pretty sonorous – check out the atmo conjured by this pretty typical example: “[belief in God] has a basis in the experience of uncertain reality itself, which raises the first and last questions of the condition of its possibility”.)
In the book Küng signed for Cooney, he talks of a “trustful” relationship with reality as being essential to leading an ethical life. Whatever he means by this, he admits (with enormous generosity) that some atheists could have such trust, and are thus capable of leading moral lives. What God is, according to the great theologian, is the justification for this trust – so to speak the practical backup that provides grounds for our ethical behaviour. And, em … when you’ve finished clearing away the undergrowth, that’s it. Atheism leads ineludibly to nihilism because, though atheists can indeed behave ethically, their “trusting” relationship with reality (upon which their ethical attitudes are based) is unfounded, and they are therefore ever prone to having the rug pulled out from under them. This “trusting” relationship must therefore have a foundation. And that foundation is what Küng calls God.
Küng seems basically in agreement with many a Nietzschean post-modernist that for morality (or ethics) to have a secure foundation, there must be a God – and that without a God, ethics (or morality) will therefore sooner or later end up going out the window. Where he differs with Nietzsche, is that he doesn’t think God has actually expired yet. The trouble is that his reasons for this belief require him to redefine God as simply the underlying reason that people believe it’s both necessary and desirable to behave ethically – stripping him (her/it) of all traditional attributes. The white beard, the disposition to sadism with Job and Abraham and the maleness (of course) are all gone, along with any personality traits whatsoever.
Now if all of this seems to you to be so much eyewash, then join me in the clubhouse. If I were to ask what causes the rain and were told that it was God what done it, and then asked what this thing called God was, only to be told that God was what caused the rain, I’d probably feel a bit short-changed (at least I would if I weren’t overawed by the reverberating tone in which the questions were answered).
And so it is here. Whatever it is that explains and justifies ethical values is God, and this God turns out to be defined as whatever it is that justifies ethical values. The thing that’s eating all the red rocks turns out to be the red rock eater, so to speak. Explanatory power, nil.
Where it gets even more confusing is that Küng admits that his case is very much dependent on there being no other way of explaining or justifying ethical behaviour other than God. As we’ve seen, Küng makes it clear that his intention is to save us from nihilism (for him, and for much of post-modern thought, the eventual consequence of atheism). But there are a number of explanations of ethical behaviour that have recently come out of the (mainly biological and anthropological) sciences and scientifically inclined philosophy, and none of them look much like what anyone would be inclined to call God. They are all, of course, the subject of much debate, and there is not yet any clear consensus on where and how the debate is going, but to argue with Küng that such natural, rather than supernatural, explanations are either a priori impossible or irrelevant is both ill-informed and unargued.
It is fairly unsurprising that Cooney doesn’t even try to give a summary of Küng’s God argument, limiting himself, as I say, to an appeal to Küng’s authority as a famous theologian of the right sort (i.e. those progressive types who tend to get into trouble with the conservative Christian establishment). Potting up Küng’s thinking into words likely to get past the editor of the Independent would seem to run the risk of exposing his argument for what it surely is: an old-fashioned empty tautology.
Incidentally, Cooney’s reluctance to actually put his case is a common tactic amongst defenders of religion in Ireland: For example, Brendan Purcell, Marian Finucane’s philosopher if not in residence then just across the road, does a fairly similar trick more or less every time he gets on the radio: when faced with an argument against religion he doesn’t wish to handle, he makes some vague mention of Heidegger’s “discoveries” about “being”, and/or throws in the non-question, “why is there something rather than nothing”. This invariably happens at the end of the program, so that no one gets the chance to ask what it actually was that Heidegger found out about being, or what it would mean to answer his non-question. One suspects that the answer in both cases is “not much”.
Well-dressed nonsense though all this may be, Küng’s (and presumably Cooney’s) vision of God as the only possible foundation of ethics, which goes back at least to Nietzsche for its origin, is very much still around amongst other thinkers. Richard Dawkins’ late opponent, the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould (in “Rocks of Ages” – not, by the way, his best book) talked of religion as a “magisterium” or “domain of competence” dealing with human ethical values parallel to the separate magisterium of science, with which it did not overlap. Philosopher Mary Midgley, a Dawkins opponent who’s very much still with us, sees religion in a similar way, as a sector concerned with values as opposed to facts, though she thinks the two magisteria certainly do overlap, the world of science being much affected by the world of ethics and vice versa.
Now it’s hard to argue with the separateness of the magisteria of science on the one hand and of ethics on the other, and the extent to which the two disciplines might or might not have a legitimate influence on each other is an extremely interesting subject, but what seems to walk on air is the assumption both Gould and Midgley make, but neither of them seem to think it necessary to argue for: ie, that the subject of religion and the magisterium of ethics belong in the same pigeonhole. In his own way, and with rather more sleight of hand, Küng is essentially doing the same thing. His argument for the existence of God is not too far from simply taking the term “ethics” and telling us (if “telling us” is the right expression, given all the theological obfustication surrounding his argument) that it is essentially synonymous with the word “God”.
It is hard not to believe that there is politics somewhere behind this tendency to conflate religion with ethics. The reason that people like Midgley and Gould don’t mind conflating the two terms is presumably that neither of them sees anything particularly wrong with organised religion becoming the main centres around which discipline of ethics is discussed. People like Dawkins and Hitchens (and, for what it’s worth, me) have objections to the English language being treated in such a cavalier way as to redefine the word “God” so that it means roughly “what the good guys do”. However, the main reason for opposing this unlikely conflation would be on the ground that the contemporary institutions of religion probably couldn’t be a worse set of bodies to entrust with decisions on what the rest of us should consider right and wrong. Perhaps the recently deceased pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty had a point when he described his opposition to religion as being based more what he saw as a well-founded “anti-clericalism” than a disbelief in any argument about God (whatever that turns out to be).
While most atheists will readily acknowledge that there are excellent people practicing all sorts of religions whose views on ethics are as worthy of consideration as anyone else’s, the idea that religion should have any sort of special role in this area is pretty frightening to some of us at least (though it didn’t seem to bother Gould, despite his agnosticism).
Even John Cooney will admit that there are good reasons for our objections. Our “sneering” at the Crusades and the Inquisition are only side issues, as are our objections to the behaviour of the Biblical God towards Job, Lot’s wife and the rest of them (up to and including his own son). Much more important, for example, is the much more recent behaviour of the Catholic Church in relation to child abuse or contraception, the extraordinary moral impotence, turpitude and illiteracy displayed by Islamic “scholars” in the face of Muslim extremism, the ignorance and grotesque intellectual dishonesty of mainstream American Christianity in response to the science of evolution, as well as the slightly less shocking absurdities of the Anglican Church while discussing the participation of women and/or gay people in their priesthood.
This not to say that everyone involved in religion is a fool or a potential tyrant, but it does suggest that modern religious organisations are anything but competent in guiding humanity on the difference between right and wrong.
Cooney and Küng are both welcome to use whatever vocabulary they are most comfortable with, but if they do insist, for example, on using the classical term “God” with the unorthodox sense roughly outlined above, it would be useful if they could make a little clearer that their meaning is nowhere near the standard usage.
Of course, the suspicion is that they will never give this clarity, for the very good reason that they mess around with these terms precisely to create unclarity – to erect a smokescreen to disguise from their alleged co-religionaries, from us and perhaps even from themselves that their views on religion are basically incompatible with the beliefs demanded by the institutional church they are both still obviously at least emotionally attached to, as well as contradictory to beliefs that they had set out in the first place to reassure themselves of.
While we are going about breaking religious taboos in the Irish media, one we could add to our to-do list is the one that prevents eminent progressive theologians from being subjected to any sort of criticism in print. This is not just an Irish taboo. Even Dawkins and Hitchens have so far respected it, by not engaging direct attacks on anything but the most old-fashioned, non-right-on and most obvious theological nonsense. The taboo is reinforced by the difficulty in talking about the subject intelligibly in the media (a task not helped by sometimes wilful obfustication), but this is surely not the only explanation for the absence of atheist voices on religion worldwide. To see that the taboo is still at least partially in place, just remember the equivocal response in the media to the infamous Danish cartoons of Mohammed.
It’s time the media started trying to get a hold of the sort of slippery philosophy/theology that Küng (for example) writes and Cooney admires. Taking the term “political” in its broadest sense, the topic is of huge political importance. On it depends nothing less than how and by whom the subject of ethics is studied, and how and by whom the results of such study are broadcast and (if the arbiters judge it necessary) enforced.