Bishops gone wild: special Equality Bill edition PLUS “Why men don’t go to church”

As a toxic neo-atheist fundamentalist neo-rationalist sceptic, it was difficult to know what to hope for in all the kerfuffle about the Equality Bill: is it better that the government narrows the scope for discrimination against homosexuals by religious organisations, or better that the church publicly admits it’s so important for it to discriminate that it’ll use the votes of the bishops in the House of Lords to accomplish it? Which will bring in the Kingdom of Dawkins sooner? It’s so hard to tell.

The only winning move is not to play

The story so far: the Government wanted to specify the scope of the religious exemption from the Bill’s provisions, after the European Commission said the existing exemptions were too broad and might result in legal action from the EU. The Government told the churches that their somewhat cosy position would not change and that the new wording was merely clarifying it, but the churches weren’t taken in: there were petitions organised by charming characters, everyone got terribly excited, and there was an amendment proposed in the House of Lords to strike out the more specific language. As Andrew Brown’s blog posting has it “Eight serving bishops and Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, voted for the decisive amendment which was carried by five votes”. Eight bishops and five votes, you say?

Brown says this may be a pyrrhic victory for the church, as its actions have shown it’s out of touch with Radio 4 listeners and other worthy types. If you were Rowan Williams (you remember, Rowan Williams), you’d probably be wondering how long the forces of antidisestablishmentarianism will be able to hold out against the floccinaucinihilipilification of the Christian heritage of this country.

Decorate the church with swords, or pictures of knights, or flaming torches

It’s not just Radio 4 listeners the church has to worry about. Over at the Times, Ruth Gledhill wonders why men don’t go to church. She quotes from this painfully awful advice from a Christian charity on how to make the church attractive to men: “Men appreciate ‘professionalism’… things done well. For instance, if you use a drama make sure it is good, otherwise men will find it embarrassing” (women are, of course, undiscriminating); “does the church always need to be decorated with flowers? … How would it go down to decorate with swords, or pictures of knights, or flaming torches?” How would it go down, readers?

Gledhill has a serious point, which is that the church is undergoing the evaporative cooling of group beliefs: society is getting more socially liberal, and those left in the church less so, because those who do have liberal beliefs cannot stand to stay in the church. Though Gledhill has some anecdotes about thriving liberal churches, she doesn’t back this up with data.

Luckily, someone else has gathered a whole load of data. According to the Guardian, the 2008 British Social Attitudes survey by the National Centre for Social Research showed that “36% of people thought sexual relations between two adults of the same sex were ‘always or mostly’ wrong, down from 62% in 1983” (detailed numbers are here, if anyone wants to play with them). Gledhill links to the chapter on religion from the survey, which makes interesting reading: between 1983 and 2008, the percentage of the sample describing themselves some sort of Christian fell from 66% to 50%. “No religion” rose from 31% to 43%. The percentage describing themselves as “Church of England” fell from 40% to 23%. In 2008, 62% said they never attended religious services.

We’ll nae be fooled again

As Brown says, there’s a tension between the government’s role in promoting libertarian freedom and promoting social goods. There is an argument for freedom of association, but the question is where to draw the line. My preference would be to allow the exceptions the church wants, on the condition that organisations making use of them will not receive public money or tax exemptions (such as charitable status). The church is dwindling, and out of step with society: the rest of us should not have to pay for it.

Anyone for another petition?

Ruth Gledhill on Camp Quest: atheist camp?

Ruth Gledhill has written about Camp Quest UK, which describes itself as “the first residential summer camp for the children of atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and all those who embrace a naturalistic rather than supernatural world view”. She doesn’t seem to approve, and spends much of the article telling us how good Christian summer camps are, before giving way to Celestine Heaton-Armstrong, a theology student who writes excitedly but a bit incoherently about the evils of Dawkins and his involvement in the camp. Dawkins! Can anything good come from there?

When I was a Christian (although, of course, not a real one), I used to help out on a LiveWires, a Scripture Union holiday for teenage Christian geeks, and good fun it was too. If you’ve seen Jesus Camp, you might come away with a terrible impression of such places. I, like many Christians, would object to a camp which used psychological manipulation or put the fear of Hell into children, but thankfully that was not my experience. It was a lot of hard work for the leaders, but very rewarding too. But for the deficiency in my current beliefs, I’d probably still be helping out. It’s nice that someone has started a camp for the rest of us, though.

So I’m not quite sure what Gledhill and Heaton-Armstrong’s objection to Camp Quest is. It seems to be that the organisers pretend to be neutral but are in fact anti-religion. The evidence for this is that the UK organiser, Samantha Stein, is “in stark contrast” to the camp’s stated policy of accepting people of any faith (I’m not sure what it means for a person to be in stark contrast to a policy, but never mind); that Stein read about the American version of Camp Quest in a footnote in The God Delusion; that the camp will teach children that religion and science are incompatible; and, worst of all, that Dawkins, a neo-strident fundamentalist atheist neo-sceptical rationalist, is involved (although not that involved, as it turns out).

I suppose that Camp Quest might be anti-religion, in the same sense that a Christian camp is anti-atheism. Looking at their web site, I’m not sure Camp Quest do pretend neutrality. That does not seem to contradict a policy of welcoming people of faith, in the sense of, say, allowing them to attend, being courteous to the when they get there, being willing to discuss things with them, and so on. I hope that Camp Quest would extend the same courtesy to theists as LiveWires did to the non-Christian teenagers who attended.

What if Camp Quest does teach that, say (so as not to use a vague term like “religion”), Christianity and science are incompatible? In one sense, they’d be wrong, but in another, where “science” is extended (perhaps over-extended) to cover good cartography, they’d be correct. Let’s have no more of this non-overlapping magisteria nonsense: Christians shouldn’t believe it, and neither should the rest of us.

What’s Dawkins’s motivation for giving a donation, if it isn’t to ensure that the kids on the camp will be forced to participate in The God Delusion study groups nightly before bed? Camp Quest’s organisers say they want to teach children how to think rather than what to think. Perhaps Dawkins, arch-enemy of religion, is confident that if people were to think critically, they’d be less likely to be religious. That was true in my case.

Your pragma ran over my dogma

Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the Times, has discovered that Richard Dawkins is actually a liberal Anglican (see her blog post for more).

Meanwhile, Andrew Rilstone has been writing his Sceptic’s Guide to Richard Dawkins, a lengthy series of articles which, among other things, re-iterates other reviewers’ arguments that Dawkins is not addressing the sort of God that Christians actually believe in (by the way, The Valve and respectable astrophysicist Sean Caroll both have good responses to Eagleton’s review).

I think that this argument is one of Rilstone’s weaker ones (he’s on much stronger ground pointing out Dawkins’s gaffes when talking about the details of religion). Dawkins responds to critics who say he only speaks about unsophisticated verisons of Christianity by saying that understated religion is numerically negligible. I agree, but my perception may be influenced by the circles I moved in when I was a Christian. As an evangelical, I believed in a personal, supernatural (in the sense of “beyond or outside nature”) God who created the universe (using evolution as a tool, admittedly, as I’d not entirely taken leave of my senses). That’s just the sort of God that Dawkins has in his sights. While there are lots of Christians who aren’t evangelicals, my perception was and is that most of them believe similar sorts of things. Yet Rilstone says he and many Christians believe something else, something more subtle.

Adherents.com isn’t very helpful in determining who’s right, since it’s hard to link denominational affiliation to a place on the spectrum between “God is the existential ground of our being” (or Gledhill’s bizarre “God is String Theory”) and “God is a white-bearded daddy in the sky”. I’d be interested to know of any other surveys which could help out here.

You could argue that it doesn’t matter how many people believe in the “existential ground of our being” version of God, because if that’s the strongest version, that’s the one an atheist has to beat. However, Dawkins is not writing philosophy, but polemic. If you want to change the world, you’d better aim at where most believers are starting from. If you don’t make them atheists but do move them towards more understated religion, that’s at least some sort of progress (although if you’re a true New Atheist, you want them to abandon religion entirely, of course).

I must confess that I have very little idea about what this moderate religion actually asserts, or how one would practice it while knowing that you’re basically making it up as you go along. Rilstone argues that God is more like an author than a fellow character in our universe, but this does not seem to excuse God from titles like “creator” or “person”, which puts you right back in the path of Dawkins’s argument that such a creator is itself complex enough to require further explanation.

Gledhill has a different sort of moderation. When she gets excited about Dawkins’s concession that there might be a gigantic intelligence in the 11th dimension (my layman’s understanding of string theory is that it’d actually have to be a very small intelligence, but never mind), she’s so keen to hear Dawkins talk in those terms that she misses his statement that such an intelligence would need some explanation like evolution, and that such an intelligence is a very long way from the Christian conception of God, whether it’s my old one or Rilstone’s author. Whatever they are, they walk near Sigma 957, and they must walk there alone.

I think Rilstone gets closer to the heart of moderate Christianity when he says that Dawkins thinks religion is all about belief, when it’s really about practice, or cultus as Rilstone puts it (gjm11‘s response to that is worth reading). Rilstone writes of Dawkins’s eulogy addressed directly to Douglas Adams in The God Delusion as the sort of religious practice that Dawkins fails to understand in the rest of the book.

When Dawkins writes to his dead friend, or Feynman to his dead wife (“Please excuse my not mailing this – but I don’t know your new address”), you’d need a heart of stone to be unmoved, or to berate these scientists for their departure from rationality.

But suppose that they continued to build a practice around writing to their lost friends, an edifice of thought to explain how their friends could read the letters, and a society they could go along to every week to meet with other people who also write letters to the dead. We might regard that as a little odd, and question them about the evidence for the dead reading their letters. Suppose some of them responded that, on reflection, they weren’t really sure their letters were really read by their intended recipients, but they were carrying on with the society anyway. That’s where the religious moderates lose me, because I do not understand on what basis they continue. God is dead. Best to move on, I think.