Monday, September 16, 2013

Can you have the bells without the believers?

Richard Dawkins and I have something in common (almost). He considers himself a cultural Anglican and I consider myself a cultural Catholic. For both of us, a world in which there were no churches would be a world in which there were something important missing. At the very least, there would be an aesthetic loss, but there would also be a loss of a sense—he seems to be saying, and I would agree—of what the Western identity has been. 
I imagine I am a little more invested in my cultural Catholicism than Dawkins is in his Anglicanism. More than considering going into a church, I regularly go to the chapel near my office after classes and I engage in other practices rooted in my tradition. But that's not the point I want to make.
Rather, it is that being a cultural Catholic or Anglican or member of another tradition requires that there be committed members of the same tradition. Of course, Dawkins is in a slightly different situation, since his aesthetic comfort is state-supported. But, even in that case, and even if he is right that many Anglicans don't actually believe anymore, when there are no more believers, the churches will be just museums and the sepulchers—as Nietzsche's madman had it—of the dead God. That is not quite the same thing as a functioning church to which you have a cultural affinity, any more than an altarpiece in a museum is the same thing as an altarpiece in a church. Having been divorced from its purpose, it loses some of its meaning. There's no contradiction in being a non-believing, though culturally-entwined, member of a tradition. There might be something elitist about it, maybe it causes a tension, maybe it might even be bittersweet.
But my point is that being a cultural Anglican or Catholic does place a kind of restriction on one. Since what you love relies on committed others, they deserve respect. You can't run around with and cross-promote the work of people who claim that religion poisons everything, a la Hitchens; or, that those who pray are no more stable than those who believe God can be contacted by talking into a hair dryer, a la Harris; or, that all religion is a delusion, a la Dennett (and Freud); and, you can't claim that people ought to lose their jobs because they take their religion seriously, as Dawkins himself has—though that was with a person who believes a religion for which Dawkins has no affinity. 
That is, contrary to the program of many New Atheists, if you value what religion has given your society and even want to see it stick around, you can't deride the people who actually believe it—and create what you like.


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