Malachi O'Doherty's Empty Pulpits
Last night, in the Bookshop at Queen's, I helped to launch the new book by my friend and colleague Malachi O'Doherty. Malachi really needs no introduction to viewers and listeners in Northern Ireland: he is one of our best-known journalists and broadcasters, who writes and speaks on politics, religion, art, poetry and culture generally. He does so with characteristic wit and candour, and with the vigour of a natural contrarian. Malachi's new book, Empty Pulpits: Ireland's Retreat from Religion, is an analysis of the recent history of Catholicism in Ireland. My speech from the launch is below the line.
Empty Pulpits: Ireland's Retreat from Religion by Malachi O'Doherty
Thanks for coming tonight to witness this spectacle of a lapsed Protestant launching a book by a lapsed Catholic about collapsed religion.
Religion is big news these days, internationally and locally. Just last night, Labour's Deputy Leader, Harriet Harmon, was answering complaints at the Labour conference about the appointment of one of Britain's best-known evangelicals, Joel Edwards, to the Equality and Human Rights Commission -- prompting some commentators today to ask why a leading Evangelical Christian shouldn't be a member of a body that celebrates diversity. Is our concept of equality robust enough to include evangelical Christians?
Then there was the Michael Reiss debacle last week. A professor of science education, the author of many books on evolutionary biology, and director of education at the Royal Society, the UK's oldest and most respected scientific institution. Reiss, it appears, was forced to resign from his position at the Royal Society because he gave a speech at the Festival of Science in which he suggested that science teachers should be prepared to discuss creationism and intelligent design theory in the classroom - with a view to explaining why those views are non-scientific.
The fact that Michael Reiss is also a non-stipendiary priest in the church of England in his spare time was sufficient for some to suspect that the gamekeeper had turned poacher. Which is nonsense. Reiss has spent much of his career arguing for evolution and challenging the claim that all Christians are creationists.
It's just as well that the Bible Society has just released a new style guide for journalists - 80 pages of basic information on the Bible and Christianity -- aimed at challenging widespread biblical illiteracy across the media. It came too late for Michael Reiss, who was last week subjected to remarkably uninformed analysis from some of my journalistic colleagues, who simply couldn't understand how an Anglican priest could believe in Creation without believing in Creationism.
Then there's the selection of Sarah Palin, the Miss Congeniality of American Politics, which has guaranteed a slew of increasingly bizarre religion stories all the way to the presidential election in November. And - whisper it nervously - possibly even beyond that.
A Marsian media studies professor might reasonably conclude from the Western press that religion is very much a live issue for human beings. Attitudinal studies across the world would support that conclusion, on a massive scale.
In some ways, a more challenging question we might ask today is not why religion appears to be in retreat in some places, but why atheism is not overwhelmingly on the advance. Where once we used to ask whether God is dead, now sociologists are asking whether secularisation theory is dead.
Re-sacralisation is now a hot topic. The re-enchantment of the post-Enlightenment world, the re-discovery of the mystical in the midst of the mundane, the recognition now given to places of secular mystery. The postmodern mind gives significant space to science - but it is not uncritical space, and there is space left over for art, music, theatre, and God.
But here's the difference that Malachi is calling us to notice. That new process of sacralisation is unmediated by church authorities such as bishops, priests, and prayerbooks. The prophets of the new spiritual revolution are more likely to be singer-songwriters, artists, poets, and novelists.
Let's be clear about what Malachi means when he speaks of Ireland's retreat from religion. He doesn't mean a retreat from God necessarily. Nor does he mean that Ireland is abandoning spirituality. He is chronicling, here, a national walk-away from a certain type of institutional Catholicism; one characterised by intellectual control and moral policing, one that was obsessed with sexual purity and conformism.
Today's Catholics are not walking away from God, nor are they walking away from the place of ritual, or tradition. If there is a loss of faith, it is a loss of faith in the institutions of religion - the presumed guru status of the local priest, in particular, and the church's infallible teaching office in general. Malachi regards this transition as a secularising process. Cynics might just call it Protestantism. Church historians would call it more of the same: this is the history of a church that will be here long after the new atheists have gone to their eternal rest. Plus ça change.
Not that Malachi O'Doherty is a 'new atheist'. Far from it. He has been misrepresented as such already in the press by journalists who haven't read his book and haven't yet receieved their copy of the Bible Society's biblical style guide.
Malachi rejects the stridency -- and, from what I can tell, much of the substance -- of the new atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I heard him on RTE last week calling Richard Dawkins a prat; that's hardly a sign of comradeship. But if he rejects the new atheism, he also rejects old theism. Here again, there are many theologians who have abandoned old-style, sky-god theism, without rejecting some alternative conception of the divine.
Let's consider a spectrum of possible positions on this. At the new atheism end of the spectrum is Richard Dawkins, dismissing believe in God as a worldview on a par with astrology, scientifically illiterate, a form of intellectual adolescence.
At the other end of the spectrum, someone like John Lennox comes to mind. An Ulster mathematician who is now an Oxford don, like Dawkins. Yet Lennox's new book - God's Undertaker - is an extended argument for traditional belief in God as an intellectually tenable perspective. And for my money, Lennox understands philosophy of science a good deal better than Dawkins.
In between those two positions, we find Richard Holloway, the former bishop of Edinburgh and former head of the Anglican Church in Scotland, who describes himself now as a Christian Agnostic -- which means he doesn't believe in God but still goes to church. Religion, for Holloway, is a kind of language that still makes sense: it comforts us, it encourages heroic moral choices, and it binds us together in communities.
Where is Malachi O'Doherty on my epistemological spectrum? He's not a new atheist. There's not a single argument against belief in God in this book, and, if anything, Malachi thinks most new atheists have simply missed the point about why people are still drawn to religious faith. He's not an old theist. And, from what I can tell, he regards Holloway's in-between stance as tepid and innocuous.
Emperor Joseph II is reputed to have complimented a new work by Mozart moments before offering the composer the helpful criticism that his work contained too many notes. Malachi represents the theological equivalent of that critique: too many doctrines, too many creeds. But he's still drawn to the music, the architecture, the silence, the space, and the people. His is a kind of religionless religion. Or - God forbid - a religionless Christianity.
That phrase -- 'religionless Christianity' -- comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian who was executed at the age of thirty-nine for his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffher's argument against moralistic and pietistic religion was an argument in favour of personal faith and worldly discipleship. I've a sense, and I stand to be corrected any moment now, that Malachi's book amounts to something similar: an invitation to 'hear new voices around us - champions of the subjective life - who evoke truths about the human heart in language that we would recognise as authentic and natural.'
If that sounds like a sermonic ending, be warned: those are his words, not mine.