Monday, 2 January 2012

Rhyme or Reason?

Richard Dawkins suggests that Rowan Williams and other sophisticated theologians are being poetic about their beliefs - perhaps that they are metaphorical. I'm pretty sure that Williams thinks, however poetic he gets, that there is an underlying real truth behind what he says. And this is surely true of most senior Anglicans, despite the suspicion some have (or had, like Julian Baggini?) that they don't really believe in the unlikely things they say they believe in. Consider this, from Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, in the Daily Telegraph:
The proper relation of religion to science is also vital. Young people must be taught to appreciate both the experimental methods of science and the ultimate values which religion offers. Such a conversation must take place in the classroom if we are not to continue being divided by “scientistic” and religious fundamentalists.
Mr Cameron reminded us that inalienable human dignity is founded on the biblical idea that we are made in the image of God. But to whom does this extend? And are there circumstances when a person might lose such dignity?
Nazir-Ali implies that we have sources of reliable knowledge other than science, with his false opposition between scientism and fundamentalism, then notes that human dignity is based on 'the biblical idea that we are made in the image of God'. This is very debatable, of course, but, further, is 'made in the image of God' a literal truth or a poetic metaphor? Science shows that we are inextricably a part of the animal kingdom with no need for such a notion, so should we not conclude a contradiction between science and religion here? I think we should, but liberal theists might say that I am being too scientistic and literal in my interpretation of the teaching; lacking poetry, perhaps? 

As an aside, read Russell Blackford's discussion of scientism, and other things, here, which explains well how the charge of scientism lacks teeth - anyone who appeals to a worldview based on reason and evidence  (practically everyone, I should think) is automatically not scientistic; but that does not allow anyone to claim truths in opposition to science.

Nevertheless, Nazir-Ali clearly wants public policy based on this 'idea', linking it to the 'special nature of the human embryo' which suggests he, at least, thinks it's a literal truth that we are created in the image of God, in opposition to the huge weight of scientific evidence:
It was for these reasons that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act recognised the special nature of the human embryo and established an authority to regulate scientific work involving embryos. I support the Coalition’s desire to trim the quangos, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is not perfect. But we need a body, perhaps modelled on the US President’s Council, that can consider the moral implications of developments in bioethics.
If he doesn't think it's a literal truth, should we base such decisions on ancient metaphors? I think metaphors could be useful if they highlighted an underlying truth revealed by our explorations of reality, but the image of God and the special nature of the human embryo would need to be connected by something more than a biblical idea, since biblical ideas have a wretched record in the marketplace of ideas and, in any case, they should not be grounds for public policy in a secular, multi-cultural world, unless they can be supported by secular, multi-cultural arguments and evidence. Even good poetic reasons would not suffice, in my opinion.

The moral implications of developments in bioethics should be considered, but, like all morality, they should be considered by us all, in a mature group negotiation that considers all the facts as we understand them, in concert with mutually acceptable values.

Bizarrely, Nazir-Ali also says:
As Mr Cameron reminded us, the value of equality comes from the biblical teaching, confirmed by science, of the common origin of all humans.
He appears to blind himself to the evolutionary view which shows our common origin with other animals, and to ignore biblical teachings such as descent from Adam and Eve and the massacre of the Canaanites, which suggest that some humans are more equal than others.

The Commission on Assisted Dying will be reporting this week, and it has taken on board evidence from Robin Gill, an advisor to the Archbishop of Canterbury, that the current status quo should be maintained, preferring to limit patient choice to a denial of treatment, with all the potential for pain and suffering that that entails. This stems from another supposed truth (poetic or otherwise) that human life is a gift from God and thus not our own:
10. The sanctity of human life: This principle is crucial to Christians. It encapsulates their belief that life is in and of itself sacred because it is given by God. Life has an inherent value, not just a conditional one. The principle is enshrined in law in the form of an absolute prohibition on the intentional killing of innocent human beings. It is not normally taken to mean that any life ought to be preserved at all costs. But it does ‘protect each one of us impartially, embodying the belief that all are equal’ (quoted by the Archbishop and the Cardinal from the 1994 Select Committee’s report, included in Appendix I).
11. For a Christian, this principle also encapsulates the simple belief that God owns my life, not I, and I have, therefore, no right to end it.
(from the Church of England briefing paper to the Lords Select Committee on Assisted Dying)
The consequence of such literal beliefs is Anglican opposition to humane measures which recognise each individual's autonomy. But, it's a logical corollary to the view that our lives are not our own. Let us hope that the Commission recognises the evil nature of such warping ideas, poetic metaphor or not, since these beliefs have neither rhyme nor reason to my ears.


  • Steve Zara says:
    2 January 2012 at 09:51

    "But to whom does this extend? And are there circumstances when a person might lose such dignity?"

    I find this rather ominous. Who partitions the world into godlike and non-godlike people?

  • Mark Jones says:
    2 January 2012 at 14:20

    Good point Steve. I don't like the dehumanising assumption behind the phrase; as if human dignity is only tied to being god-like. Why should it not be tied to being human-like?

    That phrase seems to point more to the end-of-life debate; and the Bishops are at the forefront of denying dignity to those who want autonomy at that time.

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