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)