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Belief, Unbelief and Religious Education

Monday 8th March 2004

A lecture delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at Downing Street.

There has been much discussion in recent weeks of the possibility of including in courses of RE in schools some attention to atheism and other non-religious forms of belief. In the light of this, I want to explore not so much the issue of relations between faiths as the challenge that all faiths have in common – how we manage the tensions between belief and unbelief in our public life and policy, and specially in education. I shall be looking in what follows at some of the assumptions that have been around on both sides of the recent discussion, in the hope of restoring clarity to what threatens to become a somewhat confused and overclouded landscape. And I hope too to shed some light on broader questions about belief and unbelief as they affect all our religious traditions, in a way that may open up some fresh conversations between us.

In the year 156 of the Christian era, Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was arrested and brought before the magistrate, charged with being a Christian. He was in his eighties, and his age and frailty prompted the magistrate to offer him a quick discharge if he would acknowledge the divine spirit of the emperor and say 'Away with the atheists.' The latter, at least, you might think would not be difficult for a bishop; but of course at this period an atheist was someone who refused to take part in the civic cult of the empire, to perform public religious duties and take part in the festivals of the Roman city. Christians were atheists, by this definition; Polycarp had a problem after all. His response, though, was an elegant turning of the tables. He looked around slowly at the screaming mob in the amphitheatre who had gathered for the gladiatorial fights and public executions, and, says our eyewitness chronicler, he groaned and said, 'Away with the atheists.'

The magistrate did not fail to grasp the theological point, and Polycarp was duly condemned to be burned alive. But this moving little incident casts a slightly ironic light on the question of 'teaching atheism' in schools as supposedly recommended in the IPPR report so much discussed in recent weeks. It might suggest to us that 'atheism' is a less simple idea than either its defenders or its attackers assume, and that before we take up positions on the report's recommendations we might spend some time drawing out a few of the presuppositions around the language being used. It's easy to talk as though 'atheism' were a self-contained system, a view of the world which gained its coherence from a central conviction – that there is no transcendent creative power independent of the universe we experience. But the story of Polycarp reminds us that to understand what atheism means, we need to know which gods are being rejected and why. An early Christian was an atheist because he or she refused to be part of a complex system in which political and religious loyalties were inseparably bound up. Buddhists are often described as atheists, because their discipline of spiritual liberation is wholly unconnected with any belief in divine agency. But in the intellectual climate of the modern west, someone like Bertrand Russell is an atheist because of the impossibility of giving a coherent account of what belief in God involves – though his expression of this is shot through with elements of what is often called 'protest atheism', the belief that religion is morally bad, both in its practice and in its requirement that we worship a God who appears to be ultimately responsible for evil in the world. This latter element brings in the mythological theme of revolt against God – Shelley, Blake, and, most recently and famously, Philip Pullman. Marxian atheism builds on this in another way, identifying religion as the cardinal case of false consciousness, a mental slavery offering illusory consolations and so delaying that truthful perception which issues in social change. On the other hand, the atheism of some twentieth century Anglo-American philosophy is more intellectually radical, claiming that it is strictly meaningless either to affirm or to deny the existence of a divine agent.

All these modern phenomena are reactive, in the sense that we cannot understand them except in the context of a specific set of arguments or conflicts. It is difficult to see them as a system; they share the denial of a transcendent agency but little else. Thus there are varieties of belief and intellectual policy involving this denial, but their actual contours are not necessarily determined in detail by it. As an 'ism', atheism does not present a single face. Needless to say, this does not settle the validity of atheistic arguments; but if we are to think about them sensibly, we need to be clear that they necessarily begin from various aspects of religious doctrine and are determined by what they set out to refute. To speak as though 'atheism' were a belief system alongside varieties of religious belief is simply a category mistake. And as for Buddhism, the absence of reference to a transcendent agent is nothing remotely to do with arguments against divine existence, simply a recognition that the task in hand requires us to leave behind argument either for or against, indeed argument of any kind.

What this might mean for religious education in schools is interesting. The attempt to 'teach atheism' as a system is a deeply confused aspiration; the history of museums of atheism and courses in 'scientific atheism' in the old Soviet Union should be a warning about this. But should teaching about religion include teaching about its critics? There is every reason for seeing this as a good thing. Clarifying objections is one way of clarifying what is being claimed. After all, St Thomas Aquinas begins his account of the 'proofs' for God's existence with the startling words, 'It seems as though God does not exist.' No service is done to religious thought and practice by failing to give space to this critical and clarificatory work. In 1971, the French theologian Olivier Clement wrote a short essay entitled 'Purification by Atheism', responding to the then fashionable 'Death of God' philosophies; his point was that the denial of certain versions of religious belief removes some of the distortions and corruptions of doctrine, challenging mythological, repressive and incoherent versions of faith. If this challenge can provoke a new look at the central themes and structures of belief, it is an entirely positive matter for the believer. And Clement, as a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, is able to point within his own tradition to the disciplines of 'negative theology', in which every doctrinal statement is regarded as a true but incomplete account of God, since God's nature cannot ever be the object of an abstract definition.

So the question of whether the God rejected by this or that version of atheistic philosophy is in fact the God religious people claim to worship becomes crucial to the enterprise. The immense importance for religious education of serious exposure to the inner tensions of belief has to be granted. To see large school parties in the audience of the Pullman plays at the National Theatre is vastly encouraging; I only hope that teachers are equipped to tease out what in Pullman's world is and is not reflective of Christian teaching as Christians understand it. Equally, for an RE course to incorporate Dostoevsky's Inquisitor parable or Camus's The Plague is a mark of some maturity in approaching the subject. These are the things that make belief difficult; to recognise this is also to recognise that reflective belief systems have strategies for living with difficulty that are both intellectually and imaginatively sophisticated.

The IPPR report misdiagnoses the problems with RE. The odd claim made in the report that RE has an 'anti-science' bias should not delay us; I have no idea what this means except on the assumption that science and religion are rival systems of problem-solving, an assumption quite extraordinary in the context of contemporary philosophies of both science and religion. The worry that RE encourages empathy rather than evaluation, a worry identified in Michael Hand's background paper for the report, is again rather strange, and I shall want to come back to the question of what 'evaluation' means here. If the implication is that RE turns out young adults incapable of looking critically at religion, the statistics hardly suggest too much ground for concern.

But equally some of the response to the report has been confused, apparently taking it for granted that there is a proposal to instruct pupils in atheism or humanism, and failing to see the role of internal critique within the historic faiths themselves. And to study and absorb what 'protest atheism' means is an immensely important dimension of any education that seeks to think about why suffering or injustice should bother us in the first place – an issue fundamental to both religion and ethics. My own sense of the inadequacy of some RE in our schools has little to do with a fear of indoctrination one way or the other; more with precisely the lack of 'thick description', to borrow the language of the anthropologists, the lack of a strategy to help people see how religious traditions cope with difficulty. The inevitable projects on religious festivals, on rites of passage and on what different religions think about a scattering of moral issues will not on their own deliver much feeling for living with difficulty or of the concrete personal resources of a faith. You will learn from a reading of Rumi or John Donne or a few pages of Suzuki things that you are unlikely to learn in other ways; and this applies equally to reading the critics of belief in general or of specific doctrines – hence my appeal to Dostoevsky and Camus and Pullman.

In one way, then, I have some sympathy with what I think Michael Hand may be saying. RE as a benign tour of picturesque forms of life in which – it is tacitly assumed – no-one around here is likely to be involved is of limited educational benefit. It may promote tolerance of a sort, but not understanding. I am inclined to say, pace Hand, that the one thing it does not generate is empathy. Hand suggests at one point that we need to think more about a defence of RE on the grounds that some religious propositions may be true – and therefore appropriate matter for learning. And he goes on to suggest that RE should therefore provide students with the tools they need rationally to evaluate the truth or falsehood of religious propositions. The paradox is that this programme for RE at least takes seriously the need to look at religious discourses as making claims about the universe; the humanist voice in the IPPR text is one that is deeply troubled by postmodern relativism, and displays a laudable concern for a religious education that is concerned with truth.

Yet here again I sense some real and potential confusions. In the proposed new RE environment , says Michael Hand, 'Pupils would be actively encouraged to question the religious beliefs they bring with them into the classroom, not so that they are better able to defend or rationalise them, but so that they are genuinely free to adopt whatever position on religious matters they judge to be best supported by the evidence.' This sentence begs a huge number of questions, and would need a paper to itself to analyse. What is implied is something like this, I think. A person's religious commitment is in some sense an obstacle to freedom, the freedom to reach a rational conclusion based on adequate evidence, and as such it should be subjected to criticism on behalf of the educational system. It is essentially a prejudice and so a fair target for challenge. This criticism is carried out in the name of a neutral procedure that can be identified as rational – the reaching of conclusions safely based on evidence – and administered by educational professionals.

Among the numerous questions to be raised, we might ask first whether religious commitment can properly be assimilated to the conclusion of an argument. At least one influential modern philosophical approach would be to say that religious activity is simply one of those things that human beings characteristically do. Humans pray or meditate just as they sing, swear, tell jokes, bury their dead, do pure mathematics or write plays. While praying is distinctive in that it purports in most religious traditions to relate to a reality not contained in the catalogue of things you can see or sense lying around inside the universe (though the pure mathematician might have something to say about that, come to think of it), it is not easily reduced to the level of the sort of thing you need a reason for doing. I agree that this doesn't settle the question of truth; but it suggests at least that this question is not as straightforward as it might look to an observer whose main concern is to start from the question of whether there is enough evidence to make addressing a divine agent a 'rational' thing to do. And in spite of some sophisticated arguments from certain Christian philosophers in recent decades, it is at least awkward to assimilate the act of faith and the practice of prayer to a decision based on a positive balance of probabilities.

Then again, what sort of beliefs exactly are to be 'evaluated' in the classroom? Just basic belief in God or in an active and self-revealing God? Or details of doctrinal or ethical teaching? I can't easily imagine a classroom situation in which there were attempts to tease out the rational status of belief in transubstantiation or the double procession of the Holy Spirit; the rational considerations at work here are bound up with prior commitments within the religious system, and it is a waste of time to try and assess them in isolation. Is it a matter, then, of moral commitments informed by religion? But that is just the problem – they are informed by commitment. If you believe that every organically distinct human individual, from the first moment it exists as such, stands in a unique and unbreakable relation with the creator, even prior to any conscious appropriation of that relation, it is rational to object to abortion and the breeding of embryos for experiment. You may argue – rationally – about what exactly that objection commits you to in practice, as you may argue rationally about how to define an 'organically distinct human individual'. But what precisely is involved in arguing the 'rationality' of the more fundamental belief in the unbreakable relation with God? The considerations that make this, not a reasonable conclusion, but a sustainable and defensible perspective, that does justice to how God is believed to have shown his character in events of revelation, these considerations are neither acquired nor lost by argument as a rule. The sense of fit, the sense of compulsion by a story of authoritative and total transformation of the world's self-definition, the sense of personal address or vocation, of personal and corporate liberation and so on – all these things are habitually involved in retaining or acquiring religious belief, but are significantly different from a process of evaluating evidence.

This does not mean, contra the arguments of some, that there are two or more sorts of truth (a view strenuously condemned by Aquinas) or that religion could or should claim a sort of immunity from prosecution. But it does acknowledge what we actually know in many other fields of humanistic study (if the term be allowed here) – that what counts as rationality is hard to standardise across disciplines in such a way that one method emerges as self-evidently the right or the best one. It also challenges the idea that the point of 'reasoning' is to get us to an optimal base point of non-commitment, from which we can move outwards to formulate evidentially grounded policies for moral action. Neutrality may look like liberation within the basic framework of enlightenment views of human nature; but the absence of God is a darker and more complex cultural matter than that. Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov preaches the heady freedom of life without God, but succeeds in providing a rationale for murder in the mind of a pathologically disturbed and calculating listener. Iris Murdoch's extraordinary novel, The Time of the Angels, likewise imagines a world without God which is dominated not by rational freedom but by impersonal and terrible compulsions, the 'angels' whose destructive energy is no longer channelled by and towards an ultimate good.

Neither novelist ends up simply defending a blandly conventional religious position, let alone a determined irrationalism; but both strongly suggest that the notion of a default position for the human mind or self, poised to decide its 'values', is a dangerous fiction. The enterprise implied in Head's phrasing is shot through with both confusion and risk; the idea of Religious Studies, in school or elsewhere as a therapy for religious unreason begs too many questions. And it is worth saying too that it assumes as of right that the practitioner's self-definition is bound to be flawed in the light of a superior and reasonable perspective which relies on no local power or tradition; some of the necessary suspiciousness of modern cultural, especially postcolonial, analyses needs to be brought in to this argument somewhere.

But does this entail that there is no such thing as unreasonable religion, and no proper challenging of it in an educational context? Surely we can't be doing with an account that leaves the suicide bomber (or the bomber of abortion clinics or the Christian or Muslim anti-Semite) unquestioned, on the grounds that they are following a particular track of 'reasoning' within their own basic commitments? Indeed not; but instead of beginning with an ideal of rational discourse to which religious language must conform, so that the suicide bomber and the believer in transubstantiation are equally examples of unreasoning faith, we might consider returning to a point made earlier: we need to attend to how religious people themselves identify both conflict and distortion within their systems, how religious reasoning actually works in specific communities and lives. The question is not so much why some Muslims are suicide bombers as why most aren't and couldn't conceive of being; not why so many Christians have been guilty of anti-Semitism but why and how Christian categories in this area have shifted in recent decades without unravelling Christian identity. 'How in specifics does a religious community manage change and challenge' is a question that might properly be the matter of a good course in Religious Studies at any level; it is to ask how people concretely reason on a religious basis. But this is different from the encouragement of an outsider to a believer to question fundamentals on the grounds of a determined rational process, a key to fit all locks.

What then might a sensible and contemporary RE programme involve? Forget for the moment two major and powerful factors which distort the discussion. I mean, firstly: the myth of a certain number of more or less equivalent belief systems, some religious, some not, purporting to answer questions of life and death and meaning. I have argued elsewhere that we need to get away from the idea that all religions are trying to answer the same questions; a fortiori we should beware of the assumption that 'non-faith belief systems', to use the jargon, are simply further additions to the list of schemata that provide meaningful foundations for moral policies. Then, secondly: the reliance upon a neutral system of rational evaluation directed at agreed public evidence as the model for all moral or metaphysical reflection. Of course education shows people the difference between good and bad arguments, it sensitises students to what rhetoric is, how illegitimate persuasion works as well as proper argument and commendation. But while we may know how a good argument works, we have to recognise that good and bad arguments alike begin from perceptions and 'readings' of the world that are not themselves the fruit of gathering evidence and testing hypotheses in the way appropriate to some intellectual disciplines.

Instead, imagine a Religious Studies course for young adults - fifteen plus? - in which the two main points of focus were biography or autobiography and the expression of faith in creative arts. Read extracts from the testimony of someone who has been wrestling with conflict in their life of faith, perhaps against a background of wider upheaval – Etty Hillesum, Simone Weil, Andrei Sinyavsky. For the seventeen-plus, read Murdoch or Dostoevsky on the death of God as preparation for a trip to His Dark Materials. Look at any serious modern account of conversion from one faith to another, watching out for the kind of 'reasoning' at work; The records of European conversions to Islam are often suggestive, in pointing up the difference between what we tend in this culture to think about religious faith (a private option, a voyage of self-discovery) and what it is like to encounter faith as submission to a wholly overwhelming incursion of the divine. Back to the cultural environment of modernity: there has been much writing lately on religious themes in modern film, and it ought not to be difficult to construct a term's programme around this. And: talk to a contemplative, Christian, Buddhist, whatever, to see what it is like to wait, to do nothing faithfully.

Now I am not in the business of planning a curriculum; but I do want to urge that the categories in which we think about RE need to be released from both the rather tame assumptions of some current practice (the benign description of the exotic) and the confusion represented by the IPPR report. The headline fuss about 'teaching atheism' reflects a basic mis-statement of the issues, based on a model of more or less mutually detached 'belief systems', some 'faith based' and others not. That religious education should include serious examination of what loss of faith involves and what are the elements of belief that provoke doubt and conflict is surely axiomatic. But it is in showing how religious beliefs sustain themselves in such circumstances that we best educate students in a critical understanding of their own faith and a critical understanding of faith in general. What most matters is the enterprise of seeing faith in the most intimate connection with human complexity and maturity: there is the real challenge for reconceiving the educational significance of Religious Studies in the years ahead.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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