I have chosen to dally on this graveyard pathway by St Stephen’s Church on my way to the Chapelfield shopping centre, where I have business at the Apple Store. I reckon it is a good place to observe the reaction of passers-by confronted by reminders of mortality. But it’s not. They are oblivious, or if not, they are unfazed by the headstones, entirely focused on their mission of retail therapy.
Unusually the church has all its doors flung wide. It is busy with excessively cheerful young men and women who purport to be running a cafe. It is a pilot project of an evangelical organization calling itself Norwich Youth for Christ. They plan to be there for a few days each week throughout the summer. It is a perfect pitch. They estimate that 50,000 people pass by in a week, 50,000 potential soldiers for Christ. They want me too.
‘I’m pretty much an atheist,’ I hear myself explaining, trying to inject the regretful tone that will tell them both that they are wasting their time and that I do not wish to be impolite. It sounds like an apology. Afterwards, I wonder why I did not simply say I am an atheist and leave it at that. I realize it is because it might seem confrontational, aggressive, dogmatic. Would an adjective have softened the blow? It would not have occurred to me to say, as some do, that I am a ‘committed atheist’. I have experienced no process of committal. I just am an atheist, and that’s all. It’s part of me that doesn’t take up much space.There is no ongoing dedication on my part. It’s not that I am wavering; I am committed. It’s just that I’m not committed in the way that Richard Dawkins is committed, in terms of devoting vast amounts of energy to an atheist project.
I don’t believe in God or a god. Yet I am uncomfortable with declared atheism. Why is this? Am I in fact agnostic – that weasel word of English compromise for someone who isn’t sure? Am I? No: I actually disbelieve.
Round here, I am not alone. The national census of England and Wales conducted in 2011 showed Norwich to be, as newspapers gleefully reported a few days before Christmas, the most godless city in the country. Norwich Youth against Christ, anybody? Just 44.9 per cent of people in the local authority area put Christian as their religion, while 42.5 per cent ticked the box for ‘No religion’. The national averages were 59.3 per cent and 25.2 per cent respectively. Nationally, the number of people giving Christianity as their religion fell by more than 10 per cent from the previous census in 2001 (the first time it was thought interesting to include a question on religion). The numbers saying they have no religion rose by a similar percentage. Inevitably called upon for his comment, the Bishop of Norwich suggested that the census made it easier to say no than yes to the religion question (‘No religion’ was the first option on the checklist), and complained, oddly, I thought, for a faith leader, that there was no provision for people to position themselves where they felt they belonged on a spectrum of interest in religion.
I have other atheist credentials, too. Scientists and science writers are some of the most militant atheists around. From time to time, members of science academies are polled about their religious beliefs. According to one recent American study, about a third claim some form of belief in a higher power. A 1998 study published in Nature, cited by Richard Dawkins, found that the proportion of believers is dramatically less among more senior scientists. Among those elected to the National Academy of Sciences, only 7 per cent believed in a personal god.
Though he might wonder about God’s bottom – ‘we are ignorant of the backparts, or lower side of his Divinity’ – Browne knows that scientific enquiry must have a stop. ‘How shall the dead arise, is no question of my faith; to beleeve onely possibilities, is not faith, but meere Philosophy; many things are true in Divinity, which are neither inducible by reason, nor confirmable by sense.’
The popular perception that science and religion are at war is as old as modernity, but it was given its present character by the Oxford evolution debate in 1860, a few months after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. On this now famous occasion, Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, took on ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, Thomas Huxley. Was it from his grandfather or his grandmother that Huxley claimed his descent from an ape, the bishop wanted to know. Huxley struggled to be heard amid the hilarity and it seems that Wilberforce had the best of it on the night.
The debate is back in the spotlight more than a century later, prompted by who knows what – the advent of space travel, the ecological crisis, sectarian conflicts, a rise in Christian fundamentalism? This time it seems the boot is on the other foot, with religion finding no coherent answer to the trenchant arguments of scientific atheists such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins. To follow their logic, it would seem that there should be neither religious scientists nor believers who value the principles of science.
In fact, the ‘war’ is greatly exaggerated. Scientists and religionists seldom cross paths, let alone swords. Many believers are also scientific rationalists and many scientists are also believers. But it will not rest there. For some scientists who are also atheists, other scientists who have a religious belief are something that needs to be explained. When these scientists investigate religion, they do so, naturally, in their usual scientific way, approaching religion as a social construct (although they seldom concede that science is also one). They may discover, through magnetic resonance imaging scans, for example, that there is nothing to be seen in a believing subject’s brain that is any different from ordinary human emotion. Or they may argue that religious belief needs to be understood in terms of evolutionary biology. These endeavours might one day lay bare religious belief in terms of biology, and therefore ultimately in the materialist terms of chemistry and physics. But what would we really understand the better for having gone down this road?
You get more straightforward answers if you simply ask the scientists themselves. Some turn to religion because they believe science has shown the universe – through the numerical values of the fundamental constants of physics, the position of our planet, and so on – to be ideally suited for our existence. More interesting are those scientists, who often start out as religious sceptics, but who find that science offers no adequate explanation of phenomena such as beauty, truth and love. Theirs is not a choice for faith, against reason, but an attempt to reconcile the two. For influential figures such as the Hungarian chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi or John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist later ordained as an Anglican priest, science and religion reveal different facets of the same reality. What we know is inevitably personal to us, they argue. This is the case even for scientific theories and mathematical axioms, since our conviction that they are true because they are seen to work is also personally apprehended. Scientific belief therefore finds itself on level terms with religious belief.
The Islamic fundamentalist attacks of 11 September 2001 helped to create a new audience for atheism. Books by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens as well as Dawkins (they have been dubbed the ‘four horsemen of the non-apocalypse’) argued that religious faith could or should be brought to an end. Dawkins made himself the cheerleader of the ‘new atheists’ when he set up the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science to hasten the day. His book The God Delusion makes the argument at length, but it is his frequent sulphurous outbursts on Twitter that better illustrate the furious tenor to which the spat (at this level it certainly cannot be called a debate) between religion and science has risen.
Sample Tweet: ‘If one person claimed that a wafer was literally the body of a 1st century Jew,you’d certify him.That’s what Catholics officially believe.’ First of all, if a person claimed this, you wouldn’t actually certify him (or her) for this harmless delusion under any reasonable mental health legislation; which means this is a gratuitous insult. Second, it’s not quite what Catholics believe in any case: the bread and wine remain bread and wine (if one were rude enough to interpose a chemical analysis, say), but in the act of consecration their substance is changed into the substance of the body of Christ; according to the Catechism, it is a mode of His presence. Scientists may well have trouble with this, but semioticians will have less. Third, if it is what Catholics believe, then it is what they truly believe, not what they ‘officially believe’, a phrase that unreasonably projects Dawkins’s own distrust into the minds of these believers.
Because of his combative language, and because his religiose scientism is so curiously like the fundamentalism he is attacking, Dawkins himself has become a target for abuse, although his supporters claim this is only because the believers can find no answer to his logic. Dawkins’s bracing asperities are now routinely met in kind: ‘Puffed up, self-regarding, vain, prickly and militant’ was one columnist’s string of adjectives for him.
My problem is that I agree more often with Richard Dawkins than with the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope, yet it is Dawkins who irritates me more. I am not looking for a middle ground – on the Bishop of Norwich’s spectrum of interest in religion I am still at the not-interested end – but I wonder if a more civil accommodation can be reached between religion and science.
The signs are not good. Consider what happened when the geneticist Steve Jones published his recent book The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science. Jones dares to look at the Bible as a kind of record of early attempts to understand the world, in other words as a work of science, in which Genesis is a story of the origin of the universe and Leviticus reflects sensible dietary precaution. For this, he was treated to some vituperative criticism from Christians unhappy at seeing stories they were used to regarding as allegory or metaphor treated as if they might actually have had a basis in physical fact. At the end of his trek through ‘Dawkins’s Canyon’ – his name for the chasm between science and religion – Jones was forced to the odd conclusion that he in fact believes more of the Bible than many Christians do.
Thomas Browne’s footprints also run through Dawkins’s Canyon, for in Religio Medici and Pseudodoxia Epidemica he similarly considers possible natural origins of many biblical phenomena. Unlike Jones, Browne usually leans in the end towards the standard supernatural interpretation, even though he is fully aware of a plausible physical explanation. For example, he entertains the notion that the fire that consumes the altar of Elijah (i Kings 18) might be a geological eruption of flammable naphtha or bitumen, which he has seen used in experiments. But he swiftly rejects the idea as the suggestion of the devil, and affirms the Bible story conclusion.
Thomas Browne’s best-known statement of his faith is made at the very beginning of Religio Medici:
For my Religion, though there be severall circumstances that might perswade the world that I have none at all, as the generall scandall of my profession, the naturall course of my studies, the indifferency of my behaviour, and discourse in matters of Religion, neither violently defending one, nor with that common ardour and contention opposing another; yet in despight hereof I dare, without usurpation, assume the honorable stile of a Christian.
It is a superb sentence first of all, with each phrase patiently shaped and placed in sequence in such a way as to postpone the end so that, when it comes, it has the requisite drama of confession. We are given the time to admire the way each part is carved, to feel how it weighs against the next part, before we draw back and gain the depth of perspective to see it assembled as a whole composition. Yet Browne’s construction is still more artful than this. The sentence has not in fact been assembled in this way, for no part can now be removed without causing the whole thing to collapse. It has instead been organically hewn. Perhaps we experience something of the same disbelief before a wood carving by Grinling Gibbons when we realize that each exquisite detail has not been made separately and then added in, but rather its negative has been painstakingly chipped away to leave us with the final illusion of piled-up riches. It is in Religio Medici, according to Rose Macaulay, that Browne made ‘in the most exquisite and splendid prose of the century, the best and most agreeable confession of the Anglican religion ever, before or since, published’.
In this affirmation, it is perhaps surprising that Browne considers it is not only his medicine – seen as suspect long before the seventeenth century began anatomizing the soul – but also his scientific hobby (‘the naturall course of my studies’) that leaves him open to charges of atheism. For the pursuit of scientific knowledge, to Browne, has the moral force almost of an article of faith.
Browne does not immediately say what form of Christianity he follows – a crucial matter for a young man widely travelled in Europe, and recently returned to an England where the king had asserted divine right and was fighting Catholic rebellion in Ireland and Presbyterian resistance in Scotland. But a few pages later he daringly comes out with this: ‘I borrow not the rules of my Religion from Rome or Geneva, but the dictates of my own reason.’ For this, Religio Medici soon found itself on the papal index.* In short, his faith was supple as it had to be, firmly based in a conservative Anglicanism, yet adaptable to the requirements of the Commonwealth. It is impossible to doubt his basic loyalty to the Church of England when he deadpans that he has submitted all Churches to reasonable analysis and has found this is the one that comes out on top.
The first book of Pseudodoxia Epidemica itemizes the many sources of error that lead people to believe foolish things. The final cause Browne gives – after unreliable authors and credulous auditors – is the devil himself, who niggles at our mental weakness in numerous ways: ‘he would make us believe, That there is no God, That there are many, That he himself is God, That he is less then angels or Men, That he is nothing at all’. Satan is not only the direct progenitor of error, but also the automatic supporter of those who promote errors of their own. Pseudoscience is the devil’s work for Browne far more literally than it is for Dawkins or Simon Singh, today’s scourge of homoeopaths and chiropractors. And God and science find themselves allies.
Elsewhere, Browne’s Christian faith leads him towards a moral philosophy that would surely be acceptable to persons of any religion – or none. Christian Morals, a late work not published until long after Browne’s death, might be expected to be a summation of his religion. And in a way it is, as the Christian message quickly gives way to a characteristic humanism, mingled with advice on how to go about things if, as it happens, you are a person a bit like Browne. The first few of seventy-nine numbered paragraphs begin with admonishments against the seven deadly sins – ‘Let Age not Envy draw wrinkles on thy cheeks’ for example. But soon, Browne is blandly recommending moderation in all things and telling us how to handle wealth and flattery. Much of it is completely secular advice on how to live that anybody might wish to follow: be your own master, be generous, try to see the good in everybody, don’t listen to gossip, be grateful for small mercies. It is all highly uncontroversial, an anodyne bookend to the protean Religio Medici. For a modern equivalent, I recommend the philosophical works of Alain de Botton and his School of Life.
A few of the aphorisms contained in Christian Morals have a startling modern air: one might now be paraphrased as ‘respect difference’; another as ‘be yourself ’. But of course Browne says it all uncommonly well. He offers the tritest of marriage advice – don’t go to bed angry – as follows: ‘Let not the Sun in Capricorn go down upon thy wrath, but write thy wrongs in Ashes. Draw the Curtain of night upon injuries, shut them up in the Tower of Oblivion and let them be as though they had not been.’ He counsels us not to blame the stars; to study history, not predictions; and to act our age. One especially fine paragraph exhorts us not to waste time:
Since thou hast an Alarum in thy Breast, which tells thee thou hast a Living Spirit in thee above two thousand times in an hour; dull not away thy Days in sloathful supinity & the tediousness of doing nothing.To strenuous Minds there is an inquietude in overquietness, and no laboriousness in labour; and to tread a mile after the slow pace of a Snail, or the heavy measures of the Lazy of Brazilia [the sloth], were a most tiring Pennance, and worse than a Race of some furlongs at the Olympicks.
And in the midst of all, he throws in some invaluable advice to scholars and writers: avoid academicism; don’t be too harsh on other people’s mistakes; risk being wrong for the sake of bringing new knowledge to the world; don’t sweat the small stuff, or rather: ‘if the substantial subject be well forged out, we need not examine the sparks, which irregularly fly from it’.
With his humanistic ethics and his dangerous medicine and science, would Browne be an atheist today? He offers the occasional hint that it is not inconceivable. He sometimes writes of Christians with a critical distance, as if he is not one himself. He writes about those ‘such as hope to rise again’, implying perhaps that he does not expect a Christian resurrection for himself. He even confesses in Urne-Buriall to a sneaking admiration for men ‘such as consider none hereafter’; for these – whether believers in other religions, pre-Christians or non-believers – ‘it must be more than death to dye, which makes us amazed at those audacities, that durst be nothing, and return into their Chaos again’.
But when he tackles the matter directly, he says there can be no such thing as atheism, or at least there can be no ‘positive atheists’. For some philosophers who might be thought atheists, Browne goes to some lengths to find a reason why they were not. Epicurus was no atheist when he denied there was a beneficent god, for example; it is simply that the God of Christians was ‘too sublime’ to make himself known to him. The Stoics were also subject, without their knowing it, to God’s will, and so are no atheists either. Besides, it is the devil, as we have seen, who plants atheistic thoughts.
It is hard now to recreate a sense of the almost complete impossibility of not being a religious believer in seventeenth-century England. But as I enter the Apple Store, symmetrically laid out with its central entrance door and an attractively illuminated high table at the far end, a parallel comes to mind. Digital technology seems to fill a large part of the mental space we reserve for faith. (Art, which is often put up as a candidate, is the opium only of a minority.) We depend on technology for the smooth running of our daily lives, if not for our salvation. We make obeisance to it, we feel obliged to buy into the whole package, rather than selecting and rejecting individual technologies. There is the familiar choice between minutely differentiated sects (Apple or Microsoft), but all must share the same basic creed. Upgrades are like revisions of dogma in which we have no say, but which we are bound to go along with anyway. To reject the technological is to declare oneself a heretic, a position as inconceivable now as declaring oneself an atheist in the 1600s.
To be an atheist now seems almost too easy. I have nothing against church architecture or decent sacred music. The aesthetic is fine. My problem with the Christian faith comes when my ear snags on something the preacher has just said, and I make the mistake of thinking about what it might actually mean. On the radio, I take exception to the simpering neediness of English vicars (‘O Lord, make speed to save us’ – Yes, Lord, look sharp). ‘Thought for the Day’ on the radio morning news is usually a good moment to run a bit more hot water into the bath.
Knowing how I feel, my wife gave me Dawkins’s The God Delusion for Christmas when it came out in 2006, but it soon found its way to the bedside table where it languishes still (like a hotel-room Gideon’s Bible?). A marker indicates that I got as far as page seventy-eight. I have not felt the urge to attend the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, a Christmas-time theatrical event hosted by the comedian Robin Ince, and organized by New Humanist magazine. Nor the Sunday Assembly, ‘a godless congregation that celebrates life’, a strange initiative apparently desperate to keep all the non-liturgical bits of church services – the getting together, enjoying a singalong, hearing some words to make you think, everything, in fact, except actual belief in a god.
The Sunday Assembly’s slogan is warm and vague: ‘live better, help often, wonder more’. Of course, it sounds a bit religious. But the sentiments are secular, too. Who does not want to live better? And why should the religious have the monopoly when it comes to being charitable (a monopoly some believers are keen to retain, to judge by recent reports of atheists being barred from helping in food banks)? What about ‘wonder more’? What is wonder? Is it admiration of the intricacy and complexity of nature, and the potential for it to be understood; or is it throwing in the towel, admitting there are things that cannot be understood at which we can only wonder? What bothers me most, though, is the air of superiority hanging about the slogan. I can imagine that people who self-consciously go around living better, helping often and wondering more might be just as self-righteous as the worst sort of Christian moralist.
Excerpted from "In Search of Sir Thomas Browne: The Life and Afterlife of the 17th Century's Most Inquiring Mind" by Hugh Aldersey-Williams. Published by W.W. Norton & Co. Copyright © 2015 by Hugh Aldersey-Williams. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.