The God of the gaps. The rise of fundamentalism has given credibility to the view of religion as a retreat from reason. So is faith anything more than a refuge of the ignorant? By Edward Skidelsky
An Intelligent Person's Guide to Religion
John Haldane Duckworth, 224pp, £12.99
Sophisticated young secularists increasingly think of religion as something scary, as a kind of voodoo or brainwashing. This is hardly surprising, given that their images of it derive mainly from Southern Baptists, al-Qaeda and films such as The Exorcist. But ignorance is not entirely to blame. The rise of fundamentalism has given some credibility to the view of religion as a retreat from reason. What has almost disappeared is the traditional Catholic portrayal of faith as consistent with, indeed as the perfection of, reason. An Intelligent Person's Guide to Religion is a lucid and timely restatement of this classic position.
John Haldane is a Catholic philosopher, a professor at the University of St Andrews, with a solid background in patristic and scholastic theology. Readers should not expect any daring soul-searching or metaphysical speculation; this is a sober piece of work, content on most points to follow Church teaching. But although Haldane is Catholic, his arguments are not narrowly confessional. The Catholic synthesis of faith and reason has close counterparts, as he acknowledges, in Jewish and Muslim thought. Behind all three traditions lies a particular conception of reason derived from Aristotle. To be reasonable, according to this conception, is to act towards a reasonable end. All objects, man included, have their own proper end. These ends are organised in a hierarchical series, at the summit of which lies God, the "end of ends". Science, art and politics all form part of this great pyramid. There can be no ultimate conflict between the various branches of human culture, because they all find a common purpose in God.
This beguiling vision found its classic expression in the work of the 13th-century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, who remains the official philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church. It has inspired poets from Dante to T S Eliot. But the proposed synthesis was premature. In the centuries after the death of Aquinas, the various branches of human culture broke free from theology and went their separate ways. Galileo established the right of science to describe nature in purely mathematical terms, without reference to "ends" or "purposes". Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli developed secular justifications of political authority. Artists increasingly depicted classical or contemporary rather than religious subjects. Nor was this a purely "superstructural" process. Modern state bureaucracies and commercial enterprises created spheres of practical activity to which religion was increasingly irrelevant.
As a result of these developments, Christianity now occupies a hugely reduced and somewhat awkward position in the western world. Once the governing principle of public and intellectual life, it is now confined to the sphere of private devotion. Research, business, politics and the culture industry go their separate paths with hardly any reference to it. Even committed believers must devote most of their time to activities that have nothing to do with religion at all. This - far more than the steady fall in church attendance or reported belief in God - is the meaning of secularisation. This is what Anglican clerics continually bemoan as the "irrelevance" of religion to the modern world.
Haldane confronts this process with heroic disregard. He refuses to acknowledge any such phenomenon as "secularisation" at all. The concept, he argues, has been invented by "those shaped by a certain sort of naturalistic education" who "tend to presume that traditional religion must be in decline because it ought to be, and so fashion and interpret surveys accordingly". The view that the present age poses particular difficulties for faith he dismisses as "presentism". The only problem he can see is that people are not properly informed. This is pure quixotism. Religion does occupy an anomalous position in the modern western world, because that world has been shaped by ideas and institutions that make no reference to it. The achievements of modern European science, art and political and economic organisation have all been at the expense of the original Catholic synthesis. The movement of our culture has been centrifugal; its various branches have achieved their present shape by breaking away from the theological centre. They cannot now be returned there, at least not without severe mutilation.
To all appearances, science is the most radically secular of the various branches of modern culture. Yet Haldane wishes to enlist it in the service of the older discipline of "natural theology". He wishes, that is, to use the results of scientific research to demonstrate the existence of God. It has generally been assumed, at least since the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, that this is a hopeless undertaking. Haldane, however, pins his hopes on a certain "bacterial flagellum". This subcellular entity is apparently of such irreducible complexity that it could not possibly have evolved from anything simpler. It must therefore have been created by God. QED.
Haldane should really know better than to tie the justification of religious belief to the bacterial flagellum. Its complexity may for the time being appear inexplicable, but in 20 years . . . ? Perhaps Haldane will then be able to rustle up some other "irreducibly complex" entity. The weakness of this strategy - sometimes caricatured as the "God of the gaps" - should be obvious. It does justice to neither faith nor science. It presents faith as little more than an asylum ignorantiae, a refuge of ignorance. And it places arbitrary limits on the scope of scientific explanation. Science views the world as amenable, in principle, to causal explanation. If certain things resist causal explanation, this can only be because of present deficiencies in knowledge or technique. There is no need to invoke God.
These observations point to the futility of resurrecting the old medieval project of natural theology in the context of modern, post-Galilean science. For scholastics such as Aquinas it was quite natural to think of God as completing the series of explanation. But this was because they conceived of explanation primarily in terms of "ends" or "purposes". God could easily be invoked as the supreme purpose towards which all other, lesser purposes tend. But modern science regards a phenomenon as "explained" when its empirical antecedents have been specified. "God created it" is not, in this sense, an explanation at all; it is simply a fancy way of saying that we don't have an explanation. Any scientist who invoked God in an academic paper would quickly be dismissed.
Haldane wants to return not only science but also art to the theological embrace. A work of art, he writes, is a "conception in material form". In judging it, "we are judging the credibility of what it proclaims. One implication of this is that art of religious or moral significance is aesthetically worse for being false in these respects." If only it were so simple. The fact is that art, no less than science, has won an ever-increasing degree of autonomy from religious and moral doctrine. It has carved out for itself a sphere of purely aesthetic, purely formal significance. Art no longer "proclaims" ideas; it entertains, it plays with them. This means that aesthetic and moral judgements can no longer be guaranteed to tally. "Yes, the monster can write," said Thomas Mann about Bertolt Brecht. And art with a worthy moral purpose, such as Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection or Maxim Gorky's Mother, can none the less be unbearably turgid.
"So much the worse for the art of the past half- millennium," Haldane might say in response. He might wish to say the same about the modern nation state, modern capitalism and even modern science. Haldane is contemptuous of Anglican attempts to make Christianity "relevant". It is the world that needs to be conformed to God, not God to the world. There is something awe-inspiring about such intransigence; it is far more attractive, in purely aesthetic terms, than the cravenness of so much modernising theology. But does it represent anything more than a piece of bravado? The truth in Marxism is that our historical situation puts constraints on what we can and cannot honestly believe. In a world shaped by secular ideas and institutions, can the profession of traditional Christian orthodoxy be anything more than self-deception? And if not, what options are open for believers who do not wish to make the "sacrifice of the intellect"? These are hard questions, and ones to which this worthy book has no answer.