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  /  Resources   /  Faith and Its Critics

Faith and Its Critics with David Fergusson

In this interview, Dr. Fergusson talks with Gary Deddo about his Gifford Lecture series and the resulting publication Faith and Its Critics: A Conversation. They discuss his thoughts on New Atheist’s critical views of religion. 26:40.

Gary Deddo: I’d like to focus our time together on the issues that you addressed in your Gifford Lectures and published as Faith and Its Critics. The Gifford lectures have a certain purpose and parameters, but why did you chose that topic?

David Fergusson: The Gifford lectures are public lectures on the theme of natural theology, although that theme has been interpreted in a very latitudinarian way over the years. I was originally intending to lecture on the subject of providence. As I worked on that project, it seem to me more like a work within Christian doctrine than a study that could belong within natural theology.

I was also conscious of the onslaught upon religion taking place in the works of the so-called new atheists, and I was receiving a number of invitations from church groups to engage with this literature, and to offer an informed Christian response. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that that was an appropriate, and topical theme for the Gifford lectures in 2008 (more than this other project on providence, which I’m continuing to work on), so it came about that I did six lectures in response to the new atheists in the 2008 Gifford.

GD: It certainly is a current topic. One thing that came up in the book and carried throughout is that addressing critics of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, you suggest benefits of all parties involved, rather than being a problem. You note along the way that dismissing criticism (and even sometimes attacks), or passing over them too quickly, is not a good way to go. What benefits do you see coming from this more serious engagement with critics by believing Christians?

DF: We can reach a deeper and more informed understanding of our faith; we should not be afraid of criticism. We have to respond robustly to some of it. But there are other criticisms of faith that are not altogether invalid, and I think we can learn and move on from these. So I’m interested in promoting a conversation between people of faith and their critics, rather than continuing what has, to some extent, been a shouting match involving people of very different positions who get involved in these sort of gladiatorial, winner-takes-all contests. I’m not interested in participating in that, so I’m looking for a more dialogical approach. There are ways in which faith can be chastened and deepened and enriched by engaging in a conversation with its critics in the contemporary world.

GD: In various debates I’ve witnessed, the idea is often to win the debate. But you state that your goal was not to necessarily win the debate or convince the critics of the truth or superiority of the Christian faith (either over other religions or even over atheism). You’re concerned that certain approaches to apologetics are misguided and even ineffective, and I think you’re trying to correct for that in how you go about it.

DF: Yes. My task was initially the more modest one of showing that Christian faith remains credible and an intellectually defensible option within the modern world. I was not attempting to, as it were, “clear the field” of all rival positions. I don’t think that is possible; I’m not sure that it’s the province of theological reason to do that. My intention was to defend Christian faith in the face of the attacks – but without seeking to provide a conclusive refutation of all other possibilities. I think that that’s an unrealistic strategy in our pluralistic context.

GD: Would you go on to say, though, that there are times and places in which it would be appropriate for Christians to attempt to make a very strong and positive case of the truth of the Christian gospel?

DF: Yes; it is always incumbent upon us to make the best case possible for the gospel. We’re enjoined by the New Testament to offer a reasoned defense for the hope that is within us. So if in the course of defending the faith, we are successful in persuading people of its credibility, then so much the better. I’m pleased about that, but on the whole, people do not come to faith as the result of a philosophical or other argument. Part of my defense of faith was to point out that faith is much more than a commitment to a set of beliefs that one can itemize in propositional form.

GD: Right. So, you were clearing the ground…

DF: Yes, it was, at least at first. Towards the end of the final lecture, I try to say that that this had been a ground-clearing exercise, and that if I were advocating or promoting the Christian form of faith, then I would be speaking more confessionally – for example, about the transforming power of Jesus and the gospel and so on – but this project was of a different sort.

GD: In your lectures and the book that resulted from that, you spend a good deal of time addressing the critiques of the new atheists, especially Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens. They see religion of any sort as dangerous, wrong and misleading. They claim they’re harmful to humanity, and they bring in science to bolster their case. Is there a common line of argument that runs through them that we need to understand?

DF: There’s a family resemblance of arguments. Dawkins is more inclined than the others to enlist science in the criticism of religion. You will find more philosophical arguments in Dennett against the reason­ableness of faith, whereas Hitchens is particularly preoccupied with showing the pernicious forms that religion tends to take in the modern world. He has this mantra, “religion poisons everything” that runs throughout the book God Is Not Great. Hitchens is more focused on the practical effects of religion than perhaps the others are, although there are elements of that in Dawkins, too.

GD: Why do you think they latch onto that? It seems to me that over the last 20, 30 years, that’s a bit of shift, that the critiques of Christianity didn’t use to come from that angle, they weren’t quite as vehement. Do you have any insights about that shifting? Am I right about that?

DF: I think you’re right. It is in some ways a post-9/11 phenomenon. When I was a student in the 1970s I was taught by many secular intellectuals. They tended to regard religion as quaint and harmless. It was to wither on the vine. It was completely unappealing – but it was not dangerous, and they weren’t angry about it. They were skeptical and dismissive, but not aggressive in the way in they dismissed it. There was a degree of condescension at times, but not the anger that we have in the new atheism.

Partly, it’s borne of the realization that religion, when considered globally, is not withering on the vine – it’s resurgent throughout much of the world. We see some secularization here in Western Europe. But religion is a potent force in other parts of the world. This is particularly evident in militant Islam, which is a target within the writings of the new atheists. So I see them as working in something of a post-9/11 context.

Some of them have written specifically about 9/11 and have seen this as a watershed in our life as a society. It calls for a much more radical attack on religion. They’re concerned about the soft-centered pluralist nature of our Western democracies. It’s time to come out and to take on religion, to subject it to rational inspection and criticism – hence the title of Dennett’s book: Breaking the Spell – a spell over the criticism of religion that we have to break. I sense (and you know more about this than I do) that there is perhaps some greater difficulty in coming out as an atheist in the United States than there is in Europe. Part of the campaigning tenor of the literature is with a view to persuading people to come out and to self-identify as atheist or agnostic. There are some signs from the recent opinion polls that they have been successful in doing that.

GD: It’s interesting how much 9/11 has affected our lives in many ways.

DF: Some writers have suggested that the new atheism is Islamophobic in particular. Its most extreme invective is directed towards Islam (that’s certainly true of some of Harris’ writings). There is a case to be made for Islam as perhaps the primary target.

GD: Professor Fergusson, I think you made a very interesting and important observation in your lectures about the nature of religion, including Christianity, in which you distinguish between religion, and beliefs or belief systems. Sometimes that’s all mushed together. Would you explain to us about that distinction between religion and beliefs, and why that’s important?

DF: Much of the new atheist literature suggests that religion involves a set of beliefs in supernatural objects. It’s about that and only that. If you are to read Richard Dawkins or some of the recent literature in the cognitive psychology of religion, you might get that impression, that that is the sum total of religion.

My argument in this book is that, while faith does involve some cognitive elements, it’s not possible to strip belief from out of faith. That is only one element or set of elements within faith. It involves a wide-ranging set of practical commitments, emotional commitments, dispositions to behave in particular ways, belonging to a faith community and embracing its traditions and practices of worship and typical habits. In faith, we often find a commitment to particular diets or forms of clothing or observance of holidays and rituals, and these are important in shaping the self and in facilitating faith.

These more practical affective and communal dimensions of religion are seriously neglected in the literature, to the extent of distorting what is involved in coming to faith and then practicing faith. Part of what I had to say was to stress this more contextual communal, existential dimension of faith and its commitment. It’s not like Bertrand Russell’s “celestial teapot” – believing in one more object up there in the skies to add to our cognitive stock. That is seriously to misrepresent what is involved in faith.

GD: What has that done to rearrange the argument, or address the critique?

DF: It re-situates the critique insofar as it directs it towards practice (although belief is not irrelevant; there are belief commitments involved in faith); it directs the discussion more towards the significance of belonging to a faith community, of participating in its rituals and ethical practices, of getting an insider’s perspective on what it is like to be a person of faith, rather than this more externalist approach that is adopted by the critics.

GD: So, to attack the rationality of a belief, or to charge an irrationality, is too narrow a view of what religion is. If they’re going to evaluate what a religion is, they have to account for much more of what’s going on…

DF: Yes, they have to look at what people do, how they behave, how they experience the world, the lives they lead, in a much more holistic context, rather than just asking them what they believe before breakfast each day. That is to distort the nature of faith.

GD: As you defend religion and the Christian faith, it seems to me that you have two major elements involved. First, you want to demonstrate that empirical or scientific descriptions of reality that come from neo-Darwinism (or out of a naturalistic framework) don’t negate or rule out the need for a religion or theological understanding. Second, you show how such scientific views can’t adequately account for human endeavors such as morality, art and religion. Could you say more about those two angles on your argument to defend the Christian faith?

DF: A central part of my thesis is this idea of the complementarity of discourses. I see science and religion as not in competition with each other, as not inhabiting the same terrain – but as offering different descriptions and forms of understanding. Once we establish the essentially comple­mentary nature of that relationship, then we can, as people of faith, stop worrying about the incursion of science upon the domain occupied by religion. They occupy different types of terrain, and they offer different descriptions, and therefore this isn’t a zero-sum game where the more that science explains, the less there is for religion to explain. The forms of understanding represented are layered rather than clashing on the same level. That was my fundamental take on the relationship between science and religion.

That’s not to say there aren’t, historically, points of tension or conflict, or that there isn’t a possibility of creative dialogue between science and religion. But they are attempting to address different types of questions and to offer different forms of understanding. Added to that is a farther view that science and religion don’t exhaust all the possibilities. In addition to religion, we have social-scientific, historical, ethical and aesthetic ways of describing the world and our experience, and these, too, are useful, and they complement what we have in science and religion.

I reject the kind of scientistic reductionism that we find in Dawkins and others by making common cause with other disciplines and forms of understanding and arguing that we need all of these. It is a mistake to see only one form of discourse as having a total explanation of everything. Science can’t explain everything – that’s basically my take on this. I find that many scientists share that view. Scientism is not an ideology that one finds amongst very many scientists, in my experience.

GD: Some of these critics seem to inhabit that orientation – scientism…

DF: Right, and there’s a danger: a popular perception of the power of science is that it excludes religion. As science has advanced, so religion has had to retreat in what it can seek to explain and understand. That is a category mistake. We are dealing with different forms of understanding, responses to different types of questions.

GD: So that religion has just as much to do with the natural world, with morality and art especially. You bring those out.

DF: Religion does relate closely to the types of explanation that we find in ethics, on the arts. I’m arguing in the book for a kind of a realist explanation of ethics and the arts – they point towards truths that are not of our own making, truths that we discover in our ethical activity and our artistic appreciation. These seem to be similar to what is happening in religion. It’s not simply a matter of self-expression or self-projection. We are encountering truths, dimensions of reality that are not of our making. These are disclosing themselves to us in our activity, in our apprehension of whatever the object of study is.

GD: Can you give an example of that in the arts?

DF: In the arts, we often have awakened within us a sense of beauty that points towards the transcendent. We find it difficult to explain that. We have recourse to symbolic language, but it’s a form of appreciation that constrains our understanding. As Iris Murdoch says, in going round the art gallery, the experience we have is not that of shopping in a supermarket, where we select whatever gives us pleasure. We are taken out of ourselves and drawn into another dimension. That’s slippery language, of course.

For many people today, it’s in the experience of beauty or some other disclosure that comes through a poem or painting, or piece of music, that takes them out of themselves and evokes a sense of the transcendent. To that extent, the world of the arts is close to that of religion, although it’s not the same.

GD: A strictly materialistic or scientistic description would not have much to say about why this is or how this is…

DF: Right. A neo-Darwinian account might explain how it is that our brains are wired in such a way that we are capable of artistic appreciation, and how we have evolved as creatures with aesthetic sensibilities. But that does not explain what it is we experience in that domain.

GD: Near the end of the book, you argue for at least maintaining or even increasing education on religion and theology in our schools and universities. What’s at stake here? Why do you think that’s crucial?

DF: Religion is fundamental to human culture. A study of the world today would suggest that. It’s important therefore that our children have an informed understanding of religion – what it is and what it is not. We need to contest the notion that religion is somehow under attack from science. That doesn’t serve science very well, either. The kind of attack that Dawkins launches upon religion is likely to dissuade many young people of faith from pursuing a career in science. It is in the interest both of science and faith that we have an informed understanding of these and of their relationship. That’s a challenge for our schools and universities.

GD: We have tended to marginalize the study of religion.

DF: In our educational system here, we do well at primary school. But then it tends to get left behind as students are more absorbed with other subjects in the curriculum – although we’re now seeing students taking certificate studies in religion, theology and philosophy, which is producing much better work, I would say, in science and religion.

The flip side of the Dawkins attack on religion is creation science, where we have a religious attack on certain scientific nostrums. I think that is equally misguided, for the kind of reasons that I have been advancing earlier. I would like to see more attention given to that, and to the reasons why it’s misguided, in our educational curriculum.

GD: Thank you so much. I appreciate your time.

About David Fergusson

Professor of Divinity and Principal at New College in the University of Edinburgh.