This article appears in the May 2004 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly
Book review - by Peter Doherty
An Intelligent Person's Guide to Religion
Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.
61 Frith Street, London W1D 3LJ
715 2865 4
217 pages. £12.99
A book addressed both to committed believers, assured atheists and confirmed agnostics. Many other readers who may not be quite agnostic but are uncertain
about the religion they practice, or those who speculate that there may be a God, might also find some pearls in this short , concise, informative volume. John Haldane is well known to many of our members either from the illuminative talks he has given at the annual symposia of the Guild, or to the Linacre Centre. His current work follows the same sequence. Its title, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Religion, appears to follow that by Roger Scruton An Intelligent Person' Guide to Philosophy.
He obviously greatly respects Scruton referring to him as 'a deeply humanistic thinker who has addressed the subject of religion but failed to embrace it '.
The main purpose of the book is one of an engaged, broadly philosophical exploration of the position of religion in the contemporary world.
A familiar notion that it claims to explain is that the existence and character of religion are undermined by the challenges of science, owing principally to (certain interpretations of) advances in physics and biology. And Haldane registers another familiar notion that religion as a source of moral guidance has been subverted thanks to psychology, sociology and the emergence of secular ethics. In reply he proposes, as a general definition, that religion is best characterised as a system of beliefs and practices directed towards a transcendent reality, in relation to which persons seek solutions to the observed facts of moral and physical evil, human limitation and vulnerability particularly and especially death.
That such a definition is necessary underlines his view that there is no thins as ' religion in general ' any more that there is any such creature as an 'animal in general' . Every animal is of some or other species and each has its own distinguishing marks. So, too, every religion is characterised by its founding myths, its sacred scriptures, its doctrines and dogmas, codes and commandments, rituals and sacraments and its deities and demons. Around the globe there are now over nine thousand distinct and separate religions with a hundred or so coming into being every year. Focussing on religion 'in general' can result in a kind of spiritual journeying which far from being a search for religious truth, is more akin to tourism.
However, Haldane confronts the challenge that religion has no proper role to play in the intellectual, moral and - odd though it sounds - spiritual life of educated and intelligent persons by viewing it from a Judaeo- Christian perspective. The very titles of some of his chapters indicate the breadth of his survey; Religion and the prophets of Doom, Science and the Universe, the Nature of Evil, Meaning of History, Value and Purpose.
As an illustration of Haldane in action it is salutary to look at his position against evolution. Before Darwin it was generally assumed that the natural world could not be anything other than the product of intelligence. Thanks to Darwin it then appeared that the conjunction of chance, circumstances and vast stretches of time were sufficient to account for the whole of nature.
He stresses that there are features of life whose adaptive utility is difficult to demonstrate; consciousness, an aptitude for philosophy, theology and other abstract thought. How can the ability to think about the nature of numbers, the meaning of human suffering or the ability to comprehend the nature of space-time confer any survival advantage on human groups or the whole species ? Again, Darwin had no idea what the fundamental source and medium of change and transmission were. The current understanding of the genetic basis of life and inheritance has lead to an appreciation of the underlying biochemistry. He quotes Michael Behe, an American professor of biochemistry whose favourite is the bacterium flagellum. An element is embedded at the base of the flagellum which acts as a rotary propeller and is made up of various parts. The claim is that this and other systems at the biochemical level only function if all the parts are present and functioning. It cannot be assumed that the system developed in parts , first one bit and then another, or that it resulted from an accidental coming together of several elements.
The conclusion is that religion offers an account that is subtle, deep and serious. But in revealing us to be creatures of a purposeful deity it forces us to ask questions about our nature, our responsibilities and our destiny. For Haldane the most mysterious aspect of theism is that like children in the process of education we exist for a reason not yet fully revealed or attained but one in which we may participate as beneficiaries. We should not remain passively awaiting our deaths to reveal our future lives. The journey to eternity has already begun and those who would hope to complete it must make sure to walk in the right path now. A guide may be necessary but John Haldane is modestly quite sure it will have to be another one than this.
John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews