Julian Baggini’s Quest for Common Ground


In his Heathen’s Progress blog on November 25, Baggini noted the “complaint that ‘new atheist’ criticisms of the supernatural aspects of religion miss the point. If that’s true, then it should be possible both to set the atheists straight and establish the credibility of religion by clearly stating what faith without silly, primitive beliefs looks like.”

I’m glad Baggini is addressing this topic. I have found it extremely puzzling to read statements such as these:

“Typically, the god unbelievers are rejecting is one found nowhere within the living religions.” — James P. Carse, The Religious Case Against Belief, p. 31 (For more comments on this book see my postings on October 25, November 18, and November 21, 2011.)

Similarly, philosopher Mark Johnston scoffs at Dawkins and his allies, referring to them as “undergraduate atheists.” In Saving God, p. 39, he writes, “The ‘undergraduate’ atheists, if we may call them that without reflecting adversely on actual undergraduates, uncritically share a defective premise with their secret fundamentalist allies, namely, that religion is essentially supernaturalist . . . (Did they meet in a back room with the fundamentalists, long ago, to agree to collaborate in the task of obscuring real religion?)”

Importantly, Johnson says most churches are peddling idolatrous superstition. But since he knows that few churchgoers would agree with his theology, he could actually make common cause with atheists, applauding their critique of popular religion.

“[T]he worry,” writes Julian, “is that people who do not at all represent real, existing religion are defending it by appealing to characteristics it doesn’t actually have.” Indeed, and I also appreciate his suggestion that it may be better to focus on agreed-upon values rather than on theories about what Douglas Adams called Life, the Universe, and Everything.

In his October 12 post Baggini affirms “the sacred trinity of open dialogue, mutual respect and finding common ground.” Even though I’m a Unitarian, that’s a trinity I can revere.

In the same essay he critiques Jonathan Chaplain’s proposed basis for theist-atheist dialogue: “We acknowledge that both atheistic and theistic beliefs can legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant and therefore proceed in debate on the basis of an attitude of mutual intellectual respect for each other’s convictions.”

“Of course I do not think that theistic beliefs can ‘legitimately claim reasonable epistemic warrant’”, Baggini replies. “It is precisely because I think belief in God lacks sufficient (and so reasonable) epistemic warrant that I don’t believe in him.”

He goes on to say that “I also keep channels of communication open out of disrespect to my own intelligence. When you look out into the world and see that it’s insane, you have to accept the likelihood that you probably have your little pockets of insanity too.”

Exactly! So here’s a common-ground proposal that may get at what Chaplain is driving at:

“We acknowledge that both atheistic and theistic beliefs can be held by sincere, intelligent and knowledgeable individuals. We therefore enter into dialogue on the basis of mutual respect for each other’s search for truth.”

What do you think? If we truly believe this statement, is it a sound basis for fruitful conversation?

Roger Schriner

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3 thoughts on “Julian Baggini’s Quest for Common Ground

  1. I have a good friend, a Catholic teacher of theology, who makes much the same complaint about Robert Heinlein’s treatment of religion in Stranger In A Strange Land. What they both overlook is that the criticism is of religion as it is performed and believed in practice and not as it is taught by theologians.

    • Right, and here’s another example: In The Case for God Karen Armstrong charges atheists with having “an extremely literalist notion of God. For Dawkins, religious faith rests on the idea that ‘there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it.'” She maintains that this concept is woefully out of date. But she also says that contemporary theology has “rarely reached the pews.”

  2. I am reading In God we doubt by John Humphrys at the moment and I agree with more or less everything he says. Even the very intelligent theologians he meets don’t have very convincing arguments for belief in God. Everything is possible but nothing seems very likely. It seems that there are only emotional reasons that take the intelligent people from possibility to commitment.

    I agree with Armstrong. Most Christians believe that God created and is in control of the universe and is still intervening in it, despite the irrationality and inconsistency of these beliefs. So if I am to have a dialogue I will want to pull apart the beliefs from a rational point of view, and from experience you always end up with the Christian admitting non-rational reasons for his/her religious commitment. So I am not sure that I can have that mutual respect, if the Christian is not open to changing his/her mind. (I am completely on the fence, willing to be persuaded either way!) If given the choice between God and truth, I choose truth. But the conventional Christian won’t even allow the question. I would like to see a written rather than a spoken dialogue, so there is less possibility of emotions and defensiveness. I often have such dialogues with myself, in fact!

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