Critical realists

During the Edinburgh Festival season I went to hear Richard Holloway give a talk on religion and modern society.

He remarked humorously, and in beautiful Scottish intonations, that “religion’s a very shouty thing”. Because of course, we don’t need to shout about things we can be sure of, do we?

He classified the responses to religious claims of divine communication (for example, scriptures and revelations) into three types: the realists, who take them at face value; the non-realists like himself, who believe nothing supernatural produced them; and in the middle, the critical realists, who tend to believe the claims are real in some way, but are perhaps unsure, or question much more and believe them in a non-traditional and less literal way – for example, allowing for human error somewhere in the revelation process.

There are and have always been critical realists in Islam, as I learnt from an interesting post on Tazaqqa recently. But if there’s a single denomination that is almost wholly characterised by critical realism, it’s the Anglican church of Holloway’s background, and it was interesting to be amongst such a crowd at this talk and get a feeling for what they are about. When he said during the Q&A session, “I’d rather be uncertain about God and kind with it, than certain about God and cruel”, applause broke out in a spirit of what I sensed was passion, passion for a middle-of-the-road position born of struggles with faith and frustration with the ugly effects of certainty at both ends of the spectrum.

I’ve come across the critical realism approach a fair bit in my online travels – I’m sure a few of the people that comment on this blog would fall into that category – and I both relate to it in some ways and strongly don’t relate to it in others, which gives me an appetite to talk about it with critical realists but also makes me acutely aware of the possibility of seeming to be attacking. I am passionate about understanding other people; I think the more you understand something, the less offensive and more constructive you can be in talking about it… but we all have to start somewhere. I hope I’ve reached a point where I can share my thoughts constructively enough to at least not scare anybody away.

Richard Holloway remarked that “Anglicanism is no more toxic than apple pie” and it’s easy to nod and agree. I completely support and congratulate the critical approach, although it intrigues me that the religion is still clung to at all despite such willingness to make independent judgments and choices. Why does one need holy books to validate (or even blatantly contradict!) the views they already have? Is it that religion gives people something else, something that makes wrestling with ancient customs preserved in holy texts worth the effort for some people? Or is it that some of us, like Howard Jacobson*, need a God to argue with? 😀 (Yes, I miss that!)

I have also wondered whether critical realists worry that their children might believe the holy book really is a literal holy book, and take on some of the ideas in it that they themselves don’t agree with. Then again, some people would say reading a holy book is likely to make you an atheist. 😀 I have tentatively come to the conclusion that being taught to think critically and compassionately makes all the difference between being a dangerous zealot and being a force for good in the world, regardless of beliefs or lack thereof.

And although I found it impossible to approach religions’ historical origins critically and remain any kind of believer, it is impossible for us all to have the same ideas and opinions unless we are forced by concrete proof. Diversity of ideas is generally constructive in life, and it would be pretty arrogant of me to dismiss such deeply thoughtful and creative people’s ideas just because I don’t share them. I think we are all more conditioned by our idea-environments than we like to think.

I don’t think critical realism is an easy position to be in – attacked by the hardcore religious people for cherry-picking or being too wishy-washy, and attacked as irrational by the non-religious who often don’t realise they share most of their beliefs and values with these people. I sympathise with that and would like the critical realists to be better understood. 🙂

* “I feel proud that my Jewish religion is so rooted in philosophy and argument. Everything is up for constant refutation, endlessly being argued about and criticised. We are like no other religion in the way we subject our holy works to scrutiny. Nothing is so holy that it can’t be criticised, and re-understood, and reinterpreted. The Bible is about infinite reinterpretation.

“You can’t disagree with a God, unless you start with a God. That’s the other important reason to have a God, so that you can disagree and reject him if you like. But you can’t reject something that wasn’t there in the first place.” (Howard Jacobson)

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14 Responses to Critical realists

  1. sanil says:

    I’m not sure whether or not I fall into the “critical realist” category. I don’t have holy texts, but I think that there is more to the world than what we can directly observe. I greatly value religion and like to learn from all of them that I can. And yes, I do sometimes worry that my children will take it seriously. 😀 Just yesterday, actually, I read a comment somewhere that made me imagine one of my children (no, I don’t have any now, but one day) coming to me and telling me they had accepted Jesus as savior, and it was hard to imagine myself acting in a supportive way. I like (some) Christianity and (some) Christians, but I am still bitter about it sometimes and can’t stop my horror at the thought of one of my children accepting it without remaining skeptical.

    I wouldn’t say I “cling to” religion. I enjoy it and throw myself into it, because I find it interesting and it helps me to see things in a different way. I don’t think it works for everyone…in fact, I know it doesn’t. But it is my natural approach to the world. When I walk out into the sunshine (or even, beautifully rainy weather), my immediate response is one of gratitude – I don’t experience joy without having the strong desire to reach out and share that with the universe. Whether or not there is actually anyone/anything listening, the practice of sharing my experiences with the web of existence I imagine still gives me the feeling of community and love that I would have if there was. I recognize it may very likely be only my imagination, and I’ve had people ask me why I don’t just give it up and find other ways to get that feeling. Simple answer? I don’t want to. Why throw away something that gives you happiness and that you experience as real because you might be wrong?

    • Sarah says:

      You know, I’ve been wondering lately whether prayer is something I could still enjoy… I don’t know whether I would just confuse the hell out of myself by talking to an imaginary (for me) God, or whether, just like acting or singing a song, I could cope with the unreality of it without going mental, and still derive some emotional comfort from it. It sounds like what you’re saying isn’t too dissimilar from this.

      • sanil says:

        Yeah, I think it sounds similar.

        I think to an extent every God is imaginary. 😀 I don’t mean that in a “not real” sort of way, just that no one I know of has actually met their God/s, and our conceptions are very different. But I don’t think even when most theists pray their prayer and theology is necessarily dependent on the way they imagine God being exactly the way God actually is. So I don’t pray with the idea “this God is real” or “this God is a figment of my imagination,” I just follow my natural impulses. If someone is listening, great. If they aren’t, it is still good for me and doesn’t really bother me.

        • Achelois says:

          “So I don’t pray with the idea “this God is real” or “this God is a figment of my imagination,” I just follow my natural impulses. If someone is listening, great. If they aren’t, it is still good for me and doesn’t really bother me.”

          I really liked this!

        • Sarah says:

          What you say makes good sense, although you are more agnostic than I am. Even throughout my WWR phase I have been afraid to explore the subjective and just go with a feeling, since I did that when I was younger and didn’t think the effects of it were good. Of course I’m more mature and wise now, but I’m still fearfully aware of how suggestible I am. I don’t want to develop superstitions. But I do still feel that it might be possible – and beneficial – to use my imagination to frame the world in a positive and meaningful way, e.g. to play with notions of a God. Not sure!

  2. susanne430 says:

    This was a cute post. I especially liked the quote at the bottom about why one would want to have a God around … for the sake of arguing with Him. Hehehe. 😀 Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

  3. Achelois says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I agree with you on so many points. Maybe I am a critical realist. Once I spent a lot of time thinking about atheism and what really upset me is that atheism is now the next step in the progression of religious thought, and I thought “if I were to become an atheist, I would be so predictable”! Would I be an atheist because I really don’t believe in a God, or would I be an atheist because I am being trained by the general, modern and predictable thought on atheism. Now I am thinking, maybe I am a super critical realist 😀 I even thought critically about atheism!

    • Sarah says:

      Haha! Yes, I know what you mean… I resisted and still resist conforming to any status quo, because what would be the point of rejecting religious dogma just to accept alternative non-religious philosophical dogma? I strongly believe critical thinking (and that means DOUBT) is good for the world, but just because a lot of skeptics actively believe in a meaningless material-only ultimate reality doesn’t mean I’m not going doubt and question that too. 😀

  4. Valerie says:

    I really liked the article. I recently started going to an Anglican church and on Sunday the vicar was talking about doubt. He said that sometimes it is easier for people of no faith because they don’t have so many questions when things go wrong(something I have thought a lot about over the past year!) I was brought up as a literalist, then I realised it was a position I couldn’t accept any more, being aware of the historical background of the Bible and also comparative religious traditions has meant that for me that position is no longer something I can hold. I do sometimes miss the black-and-whiteness of this viewpoint and I do envy people in a way who are able to hold this point of view, but for me it’s not something I can believe anymore. I liked the comment Richard Holloway made about preferring to be uncertain and kind, than certain and cruel. I think that more or less sums up my position

    • Sarah says:

      I feel much the same way… there’s no going back once you’ve started asking the questions, but on the whole I think honest doubt is preferable to living with cognitive dissonance or burying one’s head in the sand, even if certainty would be nice sometimes. 🙂 Richard Holloway is great, I have a couple of his books that I hope to get around to reading at some point!

  5. Achelois says:

    “there’s no going back once you’ve started asking the questions, but on the whole I think honest doubt is preferable to living with cognitive dissonance or burying one’s head in the sand,”

    Loved that!

  6. Pingback: The need for clarity | Meaning and Truth

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