In a post last month, I summarised Timothy Garton Ash’s categorisation of the six main western responses to Islam, and in particular the acts of violence committed in the name of Islam. The first of these was that “the problem is religion generally, not Islam”, and this led to a discussion in the comments as to whether this view needs to be distinguished from what Tom R called “the Karen Armstrong option”: namely, that it is not religion generally, but “fundamentalist” religion that is the problem.
This view is often expressed by members of a group identified by Theo Hobson in a Spectator article from October 2001, Piety Trick (subscription required, though if you ask very nicely, I do have a PDF copy available for anyone who’s interested). Hobson writes:
There is one attitude to religion especially favoured by the media, even more prevalent than left-wing mockery or rightwing Catholicism. It is pervasive in “religious” broadcasting, and it emerges in force whenever media pundits turn amateur theologians.
One high profile example of this attitude could be seen in the appointment in 2001 of an agnostic, Alan Bookbinder, as head of religion and ethics at the BBC:
Taking an understandably apologetic tone in his initial statement, he insisted that he had nothing against religion; it was just that his life so far had been devoid of any personal experience of a Supreme Being. He was open to it happening; it just hadn’t yet — no one’s fault. The impression that Bookbinder sought to give was, of course, that he was a Devout Sceptic (DS).
Hobson goes on to describe some of the key characteristics of these Devout Sceptics:
Though unbelievers, DSs are sympathetic to faith. In many cases they profess to be “wrestling with faith”, often they express a “yearning for faith”.
This is in stark contrast to old-fashioned atheists. Whereas atheists have contempt and pity for believers, DSs have respect for and even a sort of envy of them. Or at least they say they that do. There is an inevitable problem of authenticity when someone professes to admire what he refrains from being.
Devout Scepticism tends to “want the social benefits of religion while maintaining personal detachment”, approving of “faith communities” and admiring religion’s perceived “powers of moral and social cohesion”.
Sometimes this admiration for religious “social cohesion” tips over into a desire for religion-based social control, as seen in a Sunday Times column by Melanie Phillips cited by Hobson, in which Phillips deplores “the secular depths to which society has sunk”, and the failure of the Church of England to act as “a force for moral order”:
Phillips does not state her own religious position, as if it has no bearing at all on her right to preach at the Church. Yet if she’s not herself a believer, then surely she considers religion a tool of social engineering, to be used on other people to keep them in check.
“The purpose of religion”, she says, “is to provide a meaning for existence.” To provide it for everyone? Or is it mainly to pacify the lower orders, who can’t afford opera and shrinks?
Other prominent DSs include Simon Jenkins, Melvyn Bragg and Roy Hattersley. However, the poster-boy for Devout Scepticism remains AN Wilson, who “has made a sort of career out of his lofty problems with religious belief”, and who describes himself as “a sort of devout Anglo-Catholic sceptic”. Unlike Melanie Phillips, Wilson’s admiration for religion is largely aesthetic rather than authoritarian (“A world without saints would be duller, to say the least”), though like Phillips:
Wilson … assumes the right to lecture the Church of England on its shallowness, as if he were some firebrand prophet, some old-school believer; except that — would you believe it? — he finds himself, tragically, incapable of faith.
A less “gently reactionary” form of Devout Scepticism than Wilson’s is now, Hobson continues, “the conventional pose of the sensitive liberal”:
“I would love to believe, if only I was slightly less honest and brave. How I would adore the comforts of faith!”
But what is wrong with these “tortured souls”? “And what on earth,” asks Hobson, “do I accuse them of?”:
Only this: a certain dishonesty and laziness of mind, and a certain pretentiousness. The Devout Sceptic wants to lay claim to the glamorous depths of religious tradition, without the embarrassment of actually identifying with it. Do not confuse me with a common atheist (he says), like that brash chap Dawkins, who is blatantly ignorant of the controlling passion of Western culture. Consider me to have the integrity and depth of a believer, yet also the searching mind and defiant heart of a Romantic.
This idea that “to refrain from faith is … a nobler, higher calling” is particularly popular with “the so-called religious media”:
Actual believers scare them silly (the things they say!); they much prefer treating DS-ism as if it were a rather more refined form of faith.
Hobson describes seeing a reverential interview with Clive James on the BBC’s Heaven and Earth Show, in which James “explained, with rictus pride, what was to him the real stumbling block: the Problem of Evil”. As Hobson observes:
Nearly all DSs cite the Problem of Evil. What scuppers their yearnings for faith is this: their exceptional sensitivity to the suffering at large in the world.
Here again is how A. N. Wilson puts it: “Many of us find it very difficult in a suffering universe to believe in a God of love. In fact we find it all but impossible.”
The implication is that to subscribe to the massive naivety of faith is a probable failure of moral imagination. How could anyone who really understood the reality of the Holocaust, as I do, subscribe to a system of transcendent affirmation? If believers knew as well as I do the darkness at the heart of existence, they would surely abandon their illusions.
They are too generous-spirited to put it so bluntly, of course, but this is what they are getting at.
And Hobson continues:
The fool, according to the Bible, says in his heart, “There is no God.” The contemporary fool says in his weekly column, “Alas! There is no God adequate for such a clever and sensitive chap as me.”
Hobson, writing four weeks after 9/11, concludes with the suggestion that “maybe the terrorist atrocity in New York will shake things up a bit, force some greater clarity of thought”. The outpourings of Devout (and not-so devout) Scepticism after each of the many disasters of the past year – the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Kashmir earthquake – suggests that this was rather optimistic.