Writing in the Guardian, Julian Baggini referred recently to the tendency of religious people to be critical of political or social wrongs, but to be jolly nice to the representatives of other religions. He repeats an anecdote (from Simon Blackburn) in which the representatives of various faiths react to each other’s presentations, saying, “Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great” to each other. Even when the Catholic priest argues that it’s not a question of whether it works for him, and that if they don’t believe they are damned to hell, they give the same response.
Baggini then argues that what may be going on is a matter of self-interest, along the lines of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, where the enemy is those who give up on religion altogether. There are a number of problems with this suggestion.
I don’t know whether it was in Blackburn’s original anecdote or only in Baggini’s retelling that the representatives are listed as “Buddhist, Hindu and so on”. Telling the story that way makes it easier for the reader to swallow the idea that almost all of them would adopt the “great if it works for you” attitude. It would perhaps be less believable (and therefore make the story less funny) if the Muslims, Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and Calvinists had been included.
It is therefore not really clear that “great if it works for you” is really a widespread attitude. What is also not clear is that, when it is adopted, it is based on a self-interested wilful blindness. No Buddhists that I know of, for instance, believe that because someone is a Christian they are incapable of achieving liberation. We believe that they are wrong in their belief, and that at some stage it could be a spiritual obstacle. But if it works for them now, especially if it helps them to be compassionate and tolerant – then, yes, well, great! And we have no problem recognising that they think we are wrong. All that we need to agree on is how to treat others with kindness, and that has only a limited relationship to any particular belief system.
“Great if it works for you” is therefore not a mealy-mouthed copout. It is an intelligent, mature and kind response to the varieties of human culture.
Baggini also suggests that it is a symptom of what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief”. The video linked here shows Dennett arguing that people who say they believe in God don’t really do so, they only believe that belief is a good thing. We can know this, he says, because those who say that they believe don’t, for instance, typically put their lives on the line for God.
This is a piece of shallow sleight-of-hand. Dennett pretends, and invites us to imagine, that people are primarily driven by logic and intellect. Dennett suggests that because somebody believes in God – which I don’t, let me say – they would not be mortally afraid of dying. This is either merely rhetorical or shows a startling lack of insight into the human condition. Look, I believe firmly that the safety systems at the Sydney Skywalk are quite adequate, but that does not stop me being too afraid to enjoy the experience. How much more hardwired are we to be afraid of dying?
Dennett, however, has a history of sleight of hand. Enjoyable and insightful as I felt his Consciousness Explained to be, I felt that the title lacked a third word: “Consciousness Explained Away” would have been more fitting. (I now see that this mock title has since been adopted by greater luminaries of the thinking world than me, but I do claim that I thought of it myself!) The “hard problem” of consciousness refers, simply put, to the question of why we are aware of our experiences. Questions such as why we react to sense impressions, why we talk about them and so on are, at least relatively, easy problems. Dennett claims to get around the “hard problem” of consciousness essentially by saying, “Let’s pretend it doesn’t exist – now look, the problem doesn’t exist.”
So where Baggini asks why religious people insist on presenting a united front, the answer is that they don’t. Some of them, perhaps many, disagree in very unpleasant ways. Some, being human, may adopt their position, whether admirable or not, out of self-interest. But surely some say “great if it works for you” out of genuine respect and tolerance.