Thursday, 21 February 2013

Civilised Dialogue about Atheism : the Preferred Option

Philip Harvey 
The public atheist debate of recent years is a necessary expression of individual beliefs in our free, open society.  Books, articles, blogs, and posts are easy to find that lay out any and every atheist opinion, there seems no end to it. Certain one-liners come back with clockwork regularity. Certain of the secular ‘saints’ of atheism are quoted as though they were not only the last word on the subject, but the only word. The names Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are the most common, not Karl Marx or Voltaire, reflecting the nowness of the internetting dispute. . For those who treat ultimate subjects like God with the seriousness they deserve however, the debate has had some most disappointing and unfortunate aspects.

Many of these atheists are concerned less with God than with religion, which seems to be the real target of their displeasure. Serious discussion about God or Not God is not common and few contributors seem bent on going through the various Proofs of traditional Philosophy of Religion. It is religion, it often appears, that is the actual object of hostility. Dismissive jokes, spectacular sarcasm, and sweeping rejections are just some of the devices employed by online atheists. Or perhaps they are not atheists, but a vast subset of anti-religionists. We read that some of them even attend conferences where they can continue this form of one-way discourse, which must be entertaining for them, if no-one else.

The net result of all this activity seems to be more heat than light. A typical human response to hostility is to withdraw and not engage further. A typical human response to being ridiculed is either to mount defensive counter-measures, to laugh it off as pathetic ignorance, or again to stop engaging with people who can only be rude and are fixed in their positions. Fundamentalist in their attitudes, sometimes. This is probably why the atheist debate appears so one-sided, because one side cannot be bothered engaging. But the God Side, as it were, has also been coming out with some heavy duty demolition jobs on atheist positions recently. All of this is unedifying really for those who take the subject seriously; there are many people (atheists and non-atheists alike) who expect more, who in fact demand more. What these people want is intelligent and informed dialogue.

Which is why this book is a welcome addition to the debate. ‘Beloved Father, Beloved Son :  a Conversation about Faith between a Bishop and his Atheist Son’ (Mosaic Press, 2013, ISBN 978-174324-019-9) is a dialogue, a careful charting of knowledge and experience that came about when Jonathan Rutherford, youngest son of Anglican Bishop Graeme Rutherford, found he had lost his faith. The results are a fascinating to and fro, where each man talks with respect and thoughtfulness to the other, bringing out their treasures of learning and achieved ideas, but also acknowledging what they don’t know and how much more there is to learn. No puerile putdowns here, no attempts to assert fundamentalist finalities. Both know that deeply valued positions are being put to the test, both have long experience inside rather than outside the living practice of Christianity. The Rutherfords thus demonstrate how much more is achieved through dialogue, however hard at times, than through standoffs and odd angry shots.

It was a typical challenging moment during Bishop Graeme Rutherford’s Easter sermon. After preaching on the text and the matter of faith, he introduced the fact that he himself was having to think about faith after his youngest son had declared that he was now an atheist and had sent Graeme an 86 page letter outlining his positions. The congregation at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, ever attentive to surprises and main arguments in a sermon, did its best to absorb the latest news from inside the Rutherford family. Although some may say you shouldn’t bring your family troubles into a sermon, this was the sort of direct living-in-the-moment kind of revelation that people expect when listening to Bishop Graeme. One parishioner was heard to say after the service, oh dear who would have children, while others wondered what would come next.

We didn’t have to wait long. Those studying the Trinity College Diploma in Theology at St Peter’s were soon hearing Bishop Graeme’s responses to Jonathan’s many arguments for an atheist worldview. These were always appropriate to the subject of the class, and it was as though we were in on some creative exploration of differing views. The class itself became the testing ground for new ideas as we were drawn in to the discussion. It only slowly dawned on us that this was more than an intensive  Socratic dialogue, it was the groundwork for the book now under review. One was struck by the fact that Graeme did not deny what was happening or try to hide the “awful truth” of an atheist in the family from the congregation. Quite the opposite, it seemed typical of him to choose to engage in discussion, to meet the newfound challenge head on, to go the extra mile. The rewards for everyone, Jonathan and Graeme included, are in ‘Beloved Father, Beloved Son’.

In the introduction Graeme Rutherford is described as “intense and introspective,” which is true, though we also find him here humourous, discursive, interested and always listening. His son has a similar temperament, indeed one of the characteristics of the dialogue is the similarity of their personalities and conversation, despite the patent differences over such essential matters as God. Both are men of ideas, as they concede themselves, people who won’t settle for throwaway answers. The older man draws on a lifetime of incredible credible knowledge; the younger man is starting out, in a way, caught up in the excitement and challenge of new directions. But in no way is one simply trying to trump the other. Arguments are set up and put out there with forthrightness, but also care. Any conclusions are never conclusive, but places where each individual has arrived for now.

Chapters are dedicated to several of the familiar atheist disputes: God’s existence, how the universe began, suffering and evil, Scripture, the Resurrection, morality, the spiritual life, and the search for meaning. Other areas could have been entered, but I think it is important that the arguments are not more extensive and keep within the frame of their personal interaction. I think this is because Jonathan is being accommodated, it is his views that are being given focus. There is case and rejoinder on both sides, but the focus is kept beautifully on the polemic, with the apologetic as a counterpoint, even at times a harmony. Graeme could say considerably more than he does, but the dialogue is built upon what he is saying directly to Jonathan and in response to him. As some of us know from his sermons and classes, if we let Bishop Graeme say everything he could say we would be here until Christmas. All of this results in a book that goes against the fractious norm that we witness in the current public debate. This is because Graeme and Jonathan are respectful. They show that civilised debate is better than uncivilised namecalling, that dialogue is better than just making noises or broadcasting your own views to the exclusion or ridicule or rejection of the other. I will address just three subjects in the book where this comes alive for the reader.

One subject that illuminated each personality was the discussion about the Resurrection, where Jonathan has come to adopt a very hardline Humean position and is unhappy with the accounts in the New Testament. Graeme maintains an open mind about both the event itself and its meaning to humans ever since. He is impressed by Richard Bauckham’s recent work on eyewitness testimony, but also sees the Resurrection as not only plausible but liveable. Both men know that evidence is crucial, only how they understand and interpret that evidence differs.

Perhaps one of the most revealing chapters is on biblical authority, if we are looking at the evolution of their thinking. Jonathan forwards the post-modern atheist view that the Bible is completely a human construct, full of outdated myths and beliefs, and rife with internal contradictions. He also wants to see the whole Bible as just One Big Thumping Book. It becomes apparent that his disillusion with the Bible is based in part on his exposure to modern biblical criticism that addresses the inconsistencies and borrowings of the texts. His old certainty about undisputed revelation has been upturned. Graeme meanwhile is not perturbed at all by the structure and variations of the different books, having moved beyond the strict attitude that the Bible is unquestioned authority. For him, the Bible is to be interpreted, there to teach and guide and one of the ways of making this happen is by an appreciation of the genres of the books. Another is via the practice of lectio divina, where engagement with the words is about our own lived experience, as individuals and together. We seem to be seeing parallel lives here, each with their own relationship to Scripture.

But it is in Jonathan’s presentation of his central philosophy of the Simple Life that we find them in close accord. Clearly Jonathan has learned much from his Christian upbringing about the value of simplicity. At the personal level he wants to live a simpler existence, free of the trappings and greed of consumer society, and he also sees simplicity as a solution to the major problems facing our world, such as poverty, ecological crisis, conflict, and social breakdown. Graeme commends this outlook and is quick to see it as Franciscan in spirit. For him, as for his son, belief and conduct on this matter must be in line with attitude. Their agreement on a holistic spirituality that is about ‘right heartedness’ is, for me and probably other readers, the real conclusion of the book. For even though they say that the discussion must go on, and that they have to keep each other honest, it is the moment of common recognition amidst all of this difference that makes one see they are being fair dinkum. People can disagree, but even better is when they can agree about where it is they agree.

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