Sunday, 20 May 2012

Value temperance

I have been wondering whether there is an elephant in my room recently. The evidence is inconclusive at present: I certainly can’t see one, and there are none of the usual tell tale signs that one might expect, such as mountains of dung, and flows of urine, but there is the nagging sense that there is one there, perhaps hiding in a cupboard, seeing how long he can remain undiscovered.

Today, I think I worked out what it was. I was hit by the realisation that recently I have been writing about issues that ask all of us to decide what we value, and yet, I have not on all of these issues, decided what my definition of justice and fairness is. It can be difficult to confess to an audience of unknown people exactly where one stands on a potentially divisive issue (such as social care) and I’m still not quite brave enough to lay it all bare, particularly as I’m not convinced that my particular values are that relevant to the wider world right. Perhaps that’s not quite right: my views may be relevant, but perhaps they are not needed. And yet saying that feels like an act of cowardice - a piece of intellectual chicanery to absolve myself of the responsibility of actually telling you what I really think about something. But that, for now, is my own personal demon.

A good friend of mine recently asked me to be Godfather to his daughter (is it Godfather or godfather?). There are perhaps two areas for discussion that this could lead us to. Firstly, we could debate the wisdom of my friend and his wife asking a committed atheist to be a godfather, but that is a relatively short discussion, as I clearly was not chosen for my belief system. Instead they have paid me the complement of suggesting that I might be a good moral rudder for their daughter as she grows up. Knowing her parents well, I am pretty sure that there will be very little steering for me to do, but this situation raised for me an important issue on what it means to have values, and to be consistent in one’s thoughts and judgements about others. And this I think is the issue worthy of discussion.

At dinner last night, another friend was talking about ‘Religion for Atheists’, by Alain de Botton, which he has been reading (and enjoying) recently. It is difficult to have a conversation about atheism, without Richard Dawkins, the great enforcer, rearing his head. My friend and I have both been turned away from Dawkins by his humourless and critical approach to traditional religions, and the inevitability that such strongly phrased criticism has only lead to entrenched positions, and not any kind of friendly discourse on the basis of religious belief. The elephant in Richard’s room is that while organised religions do have strong beliefs underpinning them which he disagrees with, often  they are also defined by the social structure and values that they lend to their communities. They offer support, wisdom and community in a way that I imagine that many atheists long for. It is perhaps to Dawkin’s credit that his recent activity has been slightly softer, but much of the damage was already done.

Maturity in my case has been marked by a greater degree of moderation. Not long ago, I was a Dawkins disciple, (I still think the Blind Watch Maker is brilliant) and to some extent I relished the drawing of lines that the publication of ‘The God Delusion’ represented. I went to a debate at a church about the book, only to be disappointed (actually, I was outraged) that traditional debating rules had been abandoned, and instead of having one person argue in favour of a motion, and one against, they presented the religious argument why the central thesis of the God Delusion must be wrong, followed by the scientific reason why the God Delusion must be wrong. This second argument was spectacularly obtuse: I remember that the man presenting the ‘scientific’ case against the book closed with the following sentiment:

‘And remember that if you believe in evolution, and you have a friend who has a child, and that child dies, then, as an evolutionist, you would be unable to offer that friend any sympathy at all, because that child would have died from forces of nature. And put in evolutionist’s terms, that is simply the survival of the fittest.’

Sentiment like that upsets me: it is factually wrong, and it is unkind. But it represents the nature of the debate at the time. A great many atheists have offered more excoriating, unjust criticism of people with religious faith, so it cannot be surprising, when someone puts the boot on the other foot.

Values are important. And so is temperance. Particularly when talking about the big stuff. We are never all going to agree, but we do all have to live together in the same world.

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