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Faith and Its Critics: A Conversation

David Fergusson’s Faith and Its Critics: A Conversation is written in response to the new atheists, especially Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. Fergusson regards it as incumbent on Christians to give an answer for the hope that is in them and in this sense his book is certainly an apologetic work. However, unusually, he also believes that theology has much to learn from the new atheists themselves, and hence that a theological study of atheism might be of salutary benefit to those who remain committed to faith. Fergusson stresses that such a discussion is of paramount importance in the wake of 9/11, especially amid growing fears over the resurgence of militant religion. Indeed he regards it as important for all of us in coming to terms with the new face of society, in which there exists a pluriformity of religious choices and in which atheism competes as a viable and credible alternative to faith.

Fergusson begins with a historical introduction to atheism. He remarks that atheism is essentially the negation of a position and has therefore meant quite different things across space and time. Thus in the ancient world it could mean the lack of participation in societal forms of religion, whereas in Reformation Europe it was often used to refer to practical atheism or living an impious life. Fergusson suggests that atheism as we know it today – in terms of lack of doctrinal belief – originated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and was associated with such factors as the rise of rational enquiry, the progress of science, the religious fracturing of Europe and the loosening of ecclesiastical control. In intellectual terms he traces its rise particularly to the seventeenth-century philosophers Hobbes and Spinoza, who while not atheists in a modern sense may be viewed as standing at the beginning of an atheist, or sceptical, trajectory which can be traced through Hume and Diderot to the modern day. While commending the courage of many atheists who were willing to suffer for their beliefs, Fergusson notes that atheism is essentially a reactive philosophy and is therefore highly context dependent. Thus, for example, while in Victorian times atheism took on a nostalgic hue, more recently it has become militant and aggressive, as may be seen in Nietzsche, Russell, Sartre and especially the new atheists themselves. For this reason Fergusson rejects simplistic narratives of the rise of atheism and corresponding retrieval strategies designed to counter atheism and return Christianity to a golden age, arguing instead for the need for a careful and sensitive engagement with atheism as a complex and multifaceted phenomenon.

In engaging the new atheists on their own territory Fergusson turns in his second chapter to discussion of the credibility of religious faith.  He begins by cautioning against the reductive understanding of faith as an assent to intellectual propositions deployed by many of the new atheists. Instead he argues that faith is a personal trust which motivates a whole set of intellectual and moral commitments and transforms an entire way of living. For this reason evidentialist lines of argument are ultimately inappropriate, and Fergusson aligns himself with the claims of Plantinga and Wolterstorff that religious belief is in some way epistemologically basic. In saying this however he does not intend to shortcut critical discussion, or to reduce apologetics to simply ‘defeating the defeaters’. In similar vein Fergusson moves on to argue that science and religion, more broadly faith and reason, are not contradictory but complementary modes of understanding the world. He points out that sophisticated discussion of cosmological and design arguments, from both the theist and atheist side, far from resolving anything has left wide open the mystery of accounting for why there is a universe at all and why it exhibits a rational structure. He finally suggests that in confronting the problem of evil – one of the strongest objections raised against it – faith provides as many resources as it leaves questions open and points the way towards a future resolution of the issue. Fergusson insists therefore, with Newman, that while faith is a rational process it cannot always be articulated rationally. Moreover it points towards transcendence and a horizon of mystery. In this sense faith retains its credibility but becomes open to investigation and even change.

In the third chapter Fergusson points to a deep tension at the heart of the natural sciences – between the design intuition evident in much modern physics and cosmology and the metaphysical naturalism of contemporary evolutionary theory. In responding to the latter Fergusson insists that design and evolution are not incompatible. While he is highly critical of creation science and the Intelligent Design movement, on both scientific and theological grounds, he points instead to evidence of convergent patterns of evolution or to what Van Til has called the ‘formational economy’ of the universe – its inbuilt dynamic capacity to ‘create’ itself. In this sense Fergusson views Darwinian evolution and theological language of design as complementary modes of description. He makes a similar claim about the discipline of evolutionary psychology, and especially the work of Boyer, Atran and others seized upon by the new atheists, which claims that religion is an evolutionary spandrel, a natural misfiring of otherwise healthy evolutionary and adaptive strategies. Thus while he acknowledges the sophistication of evolutionary accounts of religion, and even suggests that they contain important truths, Fergusson cautions against reductive cognitive or evolutionary approaches to this question. He points out that the claims to explain religion in this way, despite arguments to the contrary, are neutral towards its truth-claims. He also argues that the cognitive and evolutionary sciences do not offer us an Olympian height from which to survey religion’s truth claims, but that we must instead move towards an emergentist account in which higher descriptive levels are irreducible to lower ones.

In the fourth chapter Fergusson develops his emergentist account of religion by appealing to similar emergent patterns in morality and art. Here he refers first to the work of sociobiologists who attribute the development of human morality to evolutionary mechanisms such as kin selection and reciprocal altruism. While Fergusson sees much of value in such explanations he warns against the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ of viewing morality as simply an illusion of genetics, suggesting that this goes against our natural moral intuitions and fails to account for many features of moral life. Following Scotus, Reid and Kant he instead suggests the need to locate morality in the dynamic of self-love and self-transcendence and following Smith in the existence of innate moral sentiments. In this way he believes it possible to retain an objective basis of morality without discrediting its evolutionary origins. Fergusson also claims that something very similar is true in the field of aesthetics. Thus while he by no means depreciates evolutionary accounts of the origins of aesthetic judgement, he cautions against employing evolutionary narratives as forms of totalising explanation. With Murdoch and Heidegger he claims that art is intimately connected to disclosure or revelation of the transcendent and thus irreducible to nonartistic forms. In this way he argues that aesthetic judgements must always be related to objective features of reality. Fergusson’s conclusion is that morality, art and religion must all be seen as emergent features of human consciousness and thus resist, what he calls, the downward pressure of an inflated evolutionary psychology.

In the fifth chapter Fergusson takes up the alleged connection between religion, violence and oppression trumpeted by the new atheists. Significantly, he admits the validity of much of this criticism, pointing to the chequered record of religious communities and the potential of religion to exacerbate sectarianism, polarise societies and mobilise violence. In his own tradition he particularly deplores the example of the Crusades and concedes that there has often been an intimate link between Christian faith and violence. Nevertheless he is also insistent that no simplistic equation can be made between religion and violence, something he illustrates through an extensive discussion of martyrdom in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions. He opposes especially the caricature of Islam as a violent religion, pointing to its long history of coexistence with other faiths and its encouragement of cultural flourishing in Europe. He points out that violence is a feature of all human society, contributed to by atheism as much as by religion. He also argues that while undeniably contributing to violence religion also makes a major contribution towards peace, empowering reconciliation and the transformation of society. For this reason he advocates what he calls a ‘chastened understanding’ of religion accompanied by a reappropriation of internal sources of charity and tolerance.

In the sixth and final chapter Fergusson takes up the issue of sacred texts and how they are to be read and interpreted today. The role of sacred texts in religion has often provoked the opposition of the new atheists who argue that these are irrelevant, outmoded, irrational and even dangerous. Fergusson traces the source of this antipathy, at least in part, to a fundamental difference between the science and humanities in their attitude to the authorities of the past, which taken to an extreme foments the Whiggish understanding that we have outgrown the views of our ancestors. He argues, however, that behind such an understanding lies a simplistic understanding of the nature of sacred texts and their interpretation, which ironically represents a kind of inverse parallel to the view of religious fundamentalists. Instead of seeking a literal and timeless reading of the ‘surface of a text’ – the ‘modernist aberration’ of fundamentalists and new atheists alike – Fergusson argues that we must consider sacred texts according to their community of origin and pattern of ongoing interpretation. Illustrating this he points to the history of Christian exegesis which developed patterns of interpretation implicit within the Bible itself into sophisticated exegetical models: the Creed as rule of faith, the medieval fourfold exegesis, the Reformation canon within a canon, the modern prioritising of spirit over letter. He also argues that a similar, although by no means identical, process is apparent in the developing exegesis of Jewish and Muslim Scriptures.

This recognition brings him finally to the one area where he acknowledges the force of the atheist critique: the plurality of sacred texts and their tendency to promote division. Fergusson calls the pressing need to come to terms with this difference the theological issue of the twenty-first century. He himself urges the need for traditions to maintain their distinctiveness at the same time as acknowledging the breadth of God’s revelation. According to the tenor of the rest of the book Fergusson insists that atheists too must become part of this ongoing dialogue concerning human flourishing. For it is only in this way that we will come to see the true vitality of faith and to recognise its need for continual transformation and recontextualisation.