By George Wilson
On the 21st November 2012, the day after it had voted against the ordination of female bishops, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams addressed the Synod on the subject. His much-publicized claim that the Church would be seen as “wilfully blind” to the “trends and priorities” of modern society did the rounds in the media for a few days afterwards. As accurate a statement as it was, and brushing aside the questionable use of the word “trends,” there was a far more significant statement to be found hot on the heels of that sound bite:
“It’s perfectly true…that the ultimate credibility of the church does not depend on the goodwill of the wider public. We would not be Christians and believers in Divine Revelation if we held that.”
“This statement, (statement A) I would contend, not only distils a fundamental problem in the collective religious thought process, but also reveals a far more general problem: The blending of evidence and belief, and the mistaken acceptance that the two are similar. In order to explain this, however, we must first answer two questions: What is “Divine Revelation,” and how – if at all – does it justify the ignoring of the public at large?”
Divine Revelation is, at its most basic description, the revealing of knowledge or truth through Divine means. Whether it is perceived in Scripture, the actions of Christ/various prophets or even in the natural world the truth that is revealed by these various divine interventions is considered transcendent. It is knowledge of a higher order, above that which we human beings can discover for ourselves.
Perhaps the most recognizable example – to Westerners at any rate – is the opening sentence of the Gospel according to St. John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In John I:14-15 the author explicitly identifies Jesus as the physical representation of the Word/Logos: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (etc) We might also mention the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which claims that the Word of God is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living.” – i.e. it can be found all around us.
In order to get a perspective from the Lion’s mouth, I contacted Rowan Williams on the subject. Perhaps written in haste, and certainly only meant as a starting point, it would be unfair for me to pounce upon one phrase in his characteristically good-natured response, however the first sentence of his description really does help explain the fundamental problem with this concept. Here is his (abridged) description (Statement B):
“Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) teaching takes it for granted that we can’t know all we need to know for our wellbeing just by what our own activity can uncover…So revelation implies an active God, who can in some way break into a fixed situation…this implies that revelation isn’t necessarily a matter of words or statements: events can trigger this sense of being overtaken – a sense of the world being suddenly bigger or more unmanageable than we suspected. So we can talk about the Exodus in the Old Testament or the Resurrection in the New as events of ‘revelation’… ‘Revealed’ doctrines are the things we find we have to say to make an adequate response to events such as these. And finally, when we encounter events or people or images in the world that have something of the same quality of enlarging and unsettling, we can speak of them as having something of the same revelatory quality.”
It is of course the “take it for granted” part that presents us with the biggest elephant in the room. No one in their right mind would claim that human beings are definitely capable of finding out all there is to know about life, the universe and everything, but starting with an a priori assumption of such magnitude does present problems.
This then is the problem: the fact that you believe something does not make it so; it is not evidence for anything other than the fact that you believe it. Yet the concept of Divine Revelation – the supposed source of all higher knowledge – does not require any evidence at all, just belief. Religious people will claim that they see the evidence everywhere – the Bible, nature, the life of Christ – but these things do not constitute evidence; they are perceptions of reality made with a vast, presupposed and conveniently un-falsifiable assumption informing them. To put it bluntly: Their perception of these phenomena already has a predefined answer built into it.
As a result, literally anything that can be said to be real – love, war, the sunset, an act of kindness, a Honda Civic – can be said to be a source of divine revelation. Now this isn’t really much of a problem at all when it’s reserved to things that any sensible person would agree with – basic common decency, the golden rule – but it is capable of being a very dangerous form of mental acrobatics when it comes to justifying things that are quite demonstrably false. The dogmatic stance on women, homosexuality, marriage, contraception, assisted suicide, faith schools and their admissions policies – all these issues are informed by that which is divinely revealed in one way or another. This is by no means saying that “all religious people are irrational” because that too is demonstrably false. Neither is it saying that all religious people, by virtue of the fact that they are religious, agree with the Dogmatic stance on these issues. It means that this aspect of dogma, this particular leap of faith, is highly susceptible to, and incredibly useful in, the defence of very bad ideas indeed. It means that denying women the right to be a bishop is possible and can be defended. If you have the creator of the universe on your side, then who can prove you wrong?
Now let us remind ourselves of Statement A and return to it. Williams is right in one respect – the fact that millions think something is the case does not in itself mean that it should be so; and it would be a mistake to do something simply because of that. Countless millions believed that the earth was flat, that it was at the centre of the universe, and that bloodletting was an effective treatment for most ailments. They were all wrong. We can only hope, however, that the irony of that statement isn’t lost on him, especially considering the number of unjust privileges (as opposed to basic rights) enjoyed by the CofE as a result of the same sort of error (i.e., lots of people believe it, so we must accommodate them) being made routinely by Christians, the government, and crucially the public at large. If we were to remove the “Divine Revelation” part of the statement, and replace the word “church” with “an idea” Williams would be completely correct: There is no evidence. Nada. Nothing. Zilch, to say that women are incapable or should not be allowed to be in higher positions of power, just as there is no evidence to back the claim that gay sex is inherently evil – and yet, a small number of people in the church can argue away at this point by using their own version of “evidence,” mostly stemming from scripture. This is a blatant example of Divine Revelation’s inherent unsustainability.
Many of us can probably list off the top of our head the number of unspeakably discriminatory policies that many religions are free to adopt – in Britain their exemption from aspects of the 2010 Equality Act says more than any article ever could – but I seriously doubt many of us are willing to except a far more unpleasant truth: this inherent problem with Divine Revelation is a phenomenon – albeit under a different guise – that can be found in a secular setting as well.
For example, A 2007 ICM poll indicated that 32% of British people thought that LGBT parenting should not be allowed. Now they may have all been religious, but that is highly improbable. Those 32% were, according to all the available evidence so far, wrong. The Australian Psychological Society’s LGBT Parenting literature review of 2007 found no evidence of negative effects on the children of LGBT parents, nor did the Canadian Psychological Association in 2006, nor the United States Court of Appeal in 2010. The list goes on, and is of considerable length. Yet despite such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, poll after poll indicates either a sizeable minority – or in some countries a large majority – consider LGBT adoption to be a bad idea.
Whether it is Michael Gove’s overruling of expert advice and manipulation of figures in his quest for education reform, the Tory Party’s cynical assault on – and misrepresentation of – the Welfare System, or the arguments against the legalization of Gay marriage, a common thread emerges: in the part of the argument that requires, nay demands, evidence, belief has been placed in it’s stead.
Divine revelation can thus be seen as a dogmatic parallel of a larger, more wide-ranging reality: the tacit acceptance that a belief can justify an action. At the very least common knowledge that the person instigating the action believes in the said action can dilute the range of responses people make to the action itself. Just as many mainstream Christians consider the word of God to have manifested itself in Christ, Holy scripture or even nature, and view such ‘revelation’ as a reason for something to be done; so too do many secular people routinely permit a belief in an idea or method to undermine the truth.
This routine ignorance – whether innocent or not – of the knowable truth, is incredibly damaging, especially when it involves decisions that directly effect other peoples lives in the real world. As Polly Toynbee put it: “Wise atheists make no moral claims, seeing good and bad randomly spread among humanity.” This particular “bad” is everywhere. It is a humanist issue in the truest sense of the word, for it affects us all, constantly. No “wise atheist” disagrees with religion simply because they think a belief in a creator god is misguided, because that belief, in relation to it’s impact on other Humans, pales in comparison to those doctrines and beliefs that can come attached to it which do impact the rest of humanity. Divine Revelation is the mother lode in this respect, for it has the potential to defend concepts that are indefensible.
So what is to be done? Could it be possible to make it a criminal offence either to manipulate statistics for the purposes of your own argument or to misrepresent the facts if you are in a position of power? It would make it incredibly hard for politicians to push through a myriad of social legislation, and it probably would never pass through parliament anyway, but it would be a dramatic step forward. Just imagine a political – and religious – landscape in which only the facts as they stand are argued over, a landscape where ideology is shaped by the truth, and those that lie are brought to task. Consider the impact such a law would have had on the countless number of political decisions that were not backed up by facts over the last 10 years. Just think of what would have happened to Blair.
Perhaps it is I who is now working in the realm of fantasy, as this is unlikely to happen, but it is undeniable: evidence is either routinely manipulated or shunned altogether by many politicians, religious leaders and NGO’s to fit their own agenda or beliefs on a regular basis, and it is a problem that needs to be addressed far more frequently than it has been in the past. As Neil deGrasse Tyson put it: “There is no shame in not knowing, the problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behavior fill the vacuum left by ignorance.”