It’s generally thought that the left has a problem with religion. Whereas some, like Seamus Milne, Brendan O’Neill or Madeleine Bunting see it as a potential ally of radical change, others, most obviously Chris Hitchens, see it as a force for reaction. But I’ve a theory - what the left is divided about is not so much religion as rationality. The left’s attitude to religion is confused because, ever since at least William Blake, it has had a deeply ambiguous attitude towards scientific rationality.
The atheistic left argument is something like this:
Don’t believe what authority figures like priests tell you. Look at the evidence of your own eyes - this tells us there is no God. And what’s more, we don’t need to believe in God. Reason, logic and evidence alone can unlock the secrets of the universe.
What’s more, reason is the friend of progress and liberty. Since scientists broke free of the tyranny of the Church and used rationality instead of appeals to authority, we have become vastly richer and more civilized. And because people have a capacity for reason, liberty of thought and speech can promote well-being by bringing us closer to the truth.
There are, however, powerful criticisms of this view:
1. Left to themselves, people can’t think rationally - as Richard Dawkins himself has sometimes shown. Science has progressed not because of the rationality of individual scientists, but because there is an institutional framework and tradition - openness, peer review, the ability to build upon past discoveries - which encourages progress.
Which raises the question. If science needs an institutional framework in order to direct the fallible human mind towards the proper growth of knowledge, mightn’t we also need such frameworks to help us with our moral and political reasoning? One such framework - as Augustine of Hippo stressed - might just be a belief in God and acquiescence to Church authority.
2. “Reason” is not ethically neutral. Instead, appeals to reason are often ways to legitimate power. We are expected to subordinate ourselves to bosses, capitalism or the state because these claim to be “rational.” Also, rationality invites us to prioritize what can be quantified and controlled over what cannot be. Blake’s criticism of Newton for being blind to imagination, Dickens of Gradgrind’s view that a horse is a graminivorous quadruped and the left’s attack on Wal-Mart for destroying communities are all part of the same tradition.
3. Reason doesn’t help us solve serious disputes. When people argue from different premises, rationality (in the sense of conventional rules of logic and statistical inference) just doesn’t work. To have a rational debate, we need some shared presumptions. Which is why the debate between Dawkins and the religious is just pointlessly shrill.
4. Rationality, at least in its instrumental sense, is insufficient foundation for morality. It cannot answer the question: “what is a good life?” because, as Hume said, reason can only ever be the slave of the passions. Moral thinking, as Alasdair MacIntyre argued, requires a different conception of rationality .
Now, I suspect that many on the left are sympathetic towards religion (whether they believe in God or not) because they are swayed by criticisms such as these.
And here’s my problem. I too think there’s something in these criticisms. What worries me is that the space between scepticism about instrumental rationality on the one hand and an embrace of religious obscurantism on the other is shrinking.