On how not to debate religion

John Haldane thinks discussion between atheists, agnostics, and theists isn’t going that well.



John Haldane thinks discussion between atheists, agnostics, and theists isn’t going that well.


Obviously people have been debating the existence of God for a very long time. We find ourselves in a situation today though that I think is different, because obviously historically in the past there was a widespread acceptance of some kind of religious reality. I mean, people might differ as between faiths, within denominations; there might be differences among philosophers and theologians; there would be refined differences and disagreements. And while there was agnosticism and obviously atheism present, they were not pervasive.

Now interestingly, actually, agnosticism is sort of under pressure, because in the current situation there’s been a sort of pressure to force people to sort of come down one side or the other of this question. And of course it could be an entirely reasonable response was just to withhold judgment and to say, well I hear that there are … you know, I hear these arguments, I see the power of them on either side. But we’ve got ourselves, or we find ourselves, in a situation in which this has become another of these contested issues. And it’s taken on something of the character of, say, moral debates – debates about abortion or whatever else it may be, sexual morality or other areas.

What explains that? Well I think partly it’s to do with the kind of whole cultural movement that has happened. And that has involved a generation of people growing up who sort of came to adulthood or were going through their late teens in the period of the 1960s, and of course in that period everything was up for question, and you had a generation just rebelling against the orthodoxies of previous generations, of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. So, you know, challenging religion was just one of the kind of social mannerisms that one engaged in.

Now I think for many people, you know, that’s just what it was and then they’ve just gone on and ended up wherever else they’ve ended up, but I think for some people they’ve kind of become fixated on the idea that somehow religion is the key to the division between, as it were, progressives on the one hand and reactionaries on the other, and so on. So I think to some extent the focus on religion is a kind of accidental artefact of a wider cultural revolution, it sort of … you know, to some extent made sex the focus of rebellion and then, well, you know, everybody’s liberated now so let’s move on to something else. And religion was a way of us kicking the parents’ and kicking the grandparents’ generation of the past.

But of course I don’t want to say there isn’t a serious intellectual debate to be had here, but I think it’s also worth seeing that they’re something that preoccupies a relatively small number of people. And to some extent it’s part of their own sort of working out their own identities and commitments. And I think particularly as people grow older, if you’re going to set aside religion, then there does become a pressing question about the nature of the meaning of life, human mortality, and so on. And I think that, you know, people are looking to provide alternative accounts of this – if it’s not going to be a religious one, what is it?

But looking at the debates themselves I have to say I don’t find them very inspiring often – partly because I think they’ve just become so polemical. And in particular – and maybe we should discuss this as a separate item – I think they’ve got caught up in certain naïve views about the relationship between religion and science.