I generally don’t like books with titles such as An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion, Scottish philosopher John Haldane’s latest (Duckworth). Even when well done, they tend to encourage the habitual and snotty arrogance about sheer intelligence that today is both widespread and pernicious. Other treatments are fine for the middling masses that did not attend Ivy League universities in America or Oxbridge in England, such titles seem to say; we Brights (as Richard Dawkins has encouraged smart, usually atheist, people to think of themselves) really need something higher. But Haldane’s very fine work, I have to admit, is the exception that proves the rule.
Indeed, Haldane turns the tables on what “intelligent” people think they already know about religion. To begin with, he argues that lack of interest about religion may not be a sign of sophistication or liberation, but rather “would suggest at least a want of reflective curiosity, and perhaps a failure of existential engagement,” two things the Cultured Despisers of Religion flee with a vengeance in other areas. Furthermore, the alleged modern decline in religion probably overdramatizes the case except in certain social pockets. Surveys purporting to show a decline in religious belief, Haldane says, may actually be trying to confirm what the smart set believes ought to be happening as modernization and science spreads.
In the 1960s, for example, Peter Berger, one of the leading sociologists of religion in the world, predicted the disappearance of large church organizations and the survival of faith solely in small communities. Berger has since repented of this youthful indiscretion, but that has not stopped younger thinkers from asserting that some current trend points in a similar direction. Yet survey evidence is ambivalent, when not outright self-defeating, depending on how questions are asked. In one Spanish survey, more people (84 percent) defined themselves as Catholic than said they believe in God (77 percent), clearly measuring a social rather than religious identification. More than twice as many Britons believe in the soul (70 percent) as in a “personal” God (30 percent). Haldane does not mention it, but years ago, after a previous survey on this very point, C. S. Lewis explained that a personal God to many English means someone who looks like a human person. So it is no wonder that these scientific attempts to find what fashion says should exist often wind up being of little real validity.
Yet as a philosopher, Haldane notices these problems merely as a prelude to his central task: “The most important question that an intelligent person can pursue in considering the issue of religion is not whether people believe in it, but whether they should.” And in a gentle, genial, engaging, but relentless way, he presses forward, brilliantly recasting common ideas in a number of areas that most people believe debunk religion or make belief difficult at best.
Take modern science. Haldane notes biologist Michael Behe’s recent work on the way that certain complex structures in nature make no sense on the usual Darwinist account. Like a mousetrap, the various pieces of these structures have no functional value unless they all exist simultaneously and are incorporated into a particular design. But he pushes Belle still further. Declaring himself “one who sympathises with the older medieval ambition to arrive at conclusive proofs,” Haldane lays out a syllogism purporting to show that we come to the need for an “uncreated designer.” If we dogmatically deny an intelligent designer for such structures, we can do so only at the cost of arriving at any explanation at all. This moves Behe’s probability argument to the level of an either-or choice. Further, Haldane goes behind the whole evolutionary argument in biology to point out that the very orderliness of the universe requires some explanation as well. Again, a scientist may simply profess agnosticism, but that means doing without an explanation rather than using other tools available to us.
On human beings and the soul, Haldane proposes some interesting material as well. There is a vast debate currently under way about the nature of human consciousness. Neuroscience, for example, one of the hot new fields and among the most scientific, has seemed to advance the view that consciousness simply “emerges” from a certain complexity of brain structure. Major figures in Britain and America have argued that we will never reach an understanding of what consciousness is because our conscious brains evolved on the African grasslands for practical purposes and are therefore unsuited to this pursuit. But that same brain has developed quantum physics, classical metaphysics, psychoanalysis, and a host of subjects that have little to do with African grasslands. This one area seems to have been declared off-limits by neuroscientists because it does not admit of a purely materialist explanation.
Haldane is not much concerned to explode this set of arguments. He merely notes that consciousness requires a certain material complexity, as most philosophers have accepted throughout history. But of far greater interest to him is a more ancient argument about the soul and abstract thought. How does our complex brain structure, for instance, connect with eternal principles of a philosophical kind, such as “The whole is always greater than the parts,” or even as simple a mathematical notion as 2 + 2 = 4? These things are so familiar to us in everyday life that we often overlook that the “meat computer” inside our skulls almost magically takes in these entities and is able to both analyze and use them. Plato, of course, thought this meant that we touched a realm of Eternal Ideas. There are philosophical problems with his formulation, but Haldane encourages us to think that this capacity of ours to touch the eternal may say something about the nature of the human soul.
These and many other well-wrought and very accessible arguments show that there are still many plausible arguments for traditional religious beliefs available to philosophers. Why have they for the most part failed to make use of them? Haldane acknowledges that major figures such as the Catholics Alasdair Maclntyre and Charles Taylor (we could add Haldane himself) and Jewish philosophers Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam have each in his own way reconciled faith and reason. Yet even relatively conservative figures often find it difficult to make the religious turn.
British philosopher Roger Scruton, for instance, appreciates the social importance of religion, as do many American conservatives, especially in the reading of the Bible, but appears incapable of looking beyond utility to truth. Another prominent modern philosopher, Thomas Nagel, has been at great pains to demonstrate that relativism and postmodern anti-foundationalism are false but balks at a religious view of the world: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God. It is that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God, I don’t want the universe to be like that.” Nagel knows quite well that a philosopher should want to know the truth, not the truth he wants to exist. But he is candid enough to say openly what many other non-skeptical philosophers today are thinking. Haldane reflects that Nagel does not really wish to pursue this speculation “for fear of what it may reveal.”
So sound is Haldane’s grasp on the essential things that he understands quite well both the strengths and limits of philosophical principles. Truths are necessary in religion because “conjectures rarely call forth martyrs.” Any religion that hopes to energize people needs to touch the living ground of life. But those truths alone are not enough: “Equally, though, even solid metaphysical bones do not by themselves make for a living faith.” Only very few among the already exclusive club of believing philosophers appreciate these points, but they indicate just a few of the many reasons to seek out and ponder deeply John Haldane’s brief but powerful Guide.