Bunting admits: no intellectual case for belief

April 6, 2009 at 7:10 pm (Christianity, Guardian, Jim D, religion)

Madeleine Bunting, the Graun‘s regular god-squaddist serves up a typical mix of sanctimony, hypocrisy, misreprestation  and non sequiturs in her offering for Holy Week.

As usual, she suggests that the so-called “New Atheists” like Dawkins and (Christopher) Hitchens are the mirror image of religious fundamentalists in their bogoted certainty, and once again she puts forward the banal proposition that religion can contain some useful insights into the human condition, as though that was a revelation that the closed mind of Richard Dawkins is unable to comprehend (has she actually read any of Dawkins’ work, one wonders?)

But there is one new and refreshing element to this latest Bunting banality-fest: the admission that there is no intellectual case for religious belief. I have been struck many times over the years by the complete absence of any intellectual case for the existence of god  (as opposed to utilitarian arguments about the alleged personal and social  benefits of faith) in anything Bunty has ever written (that I’ve read, anyway). Now she comes clean. Not only does she not have any intellectual case, but she is positively opposed to it. Citing with approval the ex-nun turned “historian of religion” Karen Armstrong and the anti-enlightenment “philosopher” John Gray, Bunty states: “Armstrong and Gray…pinpoint a key mistake. Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has infected other faiths. What ‘belief’ used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of ‘love’, ‘commitment’, loyalty’: saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a staement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles. Faith is something you do, and you learn by practice, not by studying a manual, argues Armstrong.”

Or as Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”


  1. maxdunbar said,

    I considered writing a response to this, but…

    Some random thoughts.

    1) This seems like goalpost moving. If us New Atheists are spoiling the debate with our table banging and shouty bollocks style (copyright Red Maria) then the logical outcome is to exclude New Atheist types from the debate. Then Bunting et al can have a closed debate with various pro-faith left types. No shortage of those around. There are twice as many atheists criticising ‘New Atheists’ as there are ‘New Atheists’ criticising religion.

    2) I like the idea that faith is about action rather than thought. After all, action is more important than belief. But can we agree with Armstrong’s statement that ‘what every faith makes clear is that the doing is about compassion’? There are millions of victims of religious violence that would greet such statements with scepticism.

    3) This comment from Alain de Botton: ‘Even if you’re an atheist, there are a huge number of insights in religion… We’re in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.’ I can see two things wrong with this. Firstly, not even Richard Dawkins is seriously suggesting that society should destroy religion. We just want basic constitutional secularism. Secondly, you can get massive insight from Shakespeare, Plato, all kinds of history, philosophy and art that don’t, as a bonus, contain theological mandate for genocide.

    4) Finally, John Gray’s idea that ‘all systems of thought rely on myth. By junking the Christian myths, the danger is that the replacements are ‘cruder, less tested, less instructive’. And Bunting goes on to say that:

    ‘At times of crisis – such as the economic recession – the brittleness of a value system built on wealth and a particular conception of autonomy becomes all too apparent, leaving people without the sustaining reserves of a faith to fall back on.’

    But isn’t that the problem with doctrinaire free market thinking – that it is too much like a religion. Perhaps it would be better to explore the option of a world based on reason rather than myths. Reason, in any case, provides much more scope for love, kindness and compassion.

  2. maxdunbar said,

  3. Rosie said,

    I was brought up in the Christian church and you were made to recite several beliefs:- about one God, the maker of heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible, and about Jesus Christ being begotten not made, incarnate, crucified under Pontius Pilate, then rising again on the third day.

    These were presented as facts you believed, not as a statement of “commitment” – commitment to what? I can be committed to a cause or a person, but the cause or person has to exist.

    There were times when stating that you disbelieved these facts would have got you into all sorts of trouble eg in the nineteenth century you would have been chucked out of Oxford university and socially ostracised. Earlier times would have meant blasphemy trials. It’s only now when continuing secularisation has made that kind of statement safe that Mush Brain Bunting can start serving out her brew of alcohol free religion.

  4. Rosie said,

    Good riposte here:-


    Bunting is, as Jim says, mistress of the changeable definition. One of her finest moments was in Thought for the Day when she said we should have faith in God, since our lives were built on faith eg we had faith if we rang for a taxi it would turn up, we had faith in our spouses and friends etc.

  5. Sue R said,

    I thought blind faith was the key element for religion. The Catholics in the Middle Ages (don’t know if they still do) believed in ‘justification through faith’ ie just believing was enough to get you a seat in Heaven at God’s Right Hand, while the Protestants developed the idea of ‘justification through good works’. There was of-course a certain amount of cross-over with this, but essentially, it all comes down to faith. Obviously, there are moral, social and jurisprudential aspects to religion, but all these are the icing on the cake.

  6. Ed said,

    There’s something almost indescribably patronising about this idea that the great unwashed need myths. Of course, we clever people know they’re only myths, but Lord, society would collapse if the proles understood things as clearly as we do.

    Bunting’s article is confused and incoherent. But I think she’s scraping around at something which does have a point. I’ve read lots of the so-called New Atheism, and it’s all good, knockabout stuff as far as arguments for the existence of (a theistic, at least) God and what not.

    But they all – I think especially Dawkins – seem to find religion just a bewildering intellectual choice. There is no sensitivity, if that’s the right word, to the social or psychological impulses behind religion. There is for instance a thing you can find on Youtube of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Sam Harris talking about all this, and after a while you do – I did anyway – start to think it’s a group of terribly clever men bemoaning the stupidity of the plebs.

  7. Jenny said,

    Yes, and Hitchens and Harris especially seem throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to muslims.

  8. voltairespriest said,

    I certainly don’t think Hitchens has much of an understanding of Islam’s relationship with politics, and that as a result he’s often drawn to wrong conclusions in terms of the consequences of his political positions. That said, I don’t think many prominent figures in the debates around Iraq, Palestine etc, really do. The majority seem to see it in terms of support for one or other of the USA and its proxies on the one hand, and the various reactionary political-religious movements descended from the Muslim Brotherhood or the proteges of the Tehran regime on the other. They all ignore the diversity of those nations whose dominant religious faith happens to be Islam (which after all stretch from Indonesia to Morocco, not just from Iran to Palestine), and the political debates which consequentially are there to be had.

    That said, I don’t think Hitchens is any more particularly criticial about Islam as a religion than he is about any other. He dislikes them all equally.

  9. Sue R said,

    It was an Enlightenment development to hold religious faith up to the prism of rationalism. Descartes, a natural scientist, provided ‘proofs’ for the existence of God. We forget that prior to the seventeenth century the existence of God was considered axiomatic, and in fact, it wasn’t until Bertram Russell in the twentieth century that atheism could provide a logical argument for the non-existence of God. I have always been baffled by scientists who are believers, but at the end of the day it is a question of faith, and, related to that, emotional need.

  10. maxdunbar said,

    I think too many liberals have bought into the neoconservative argument that the masses need myths to keep them going.

  11. Euripides Trousers said,

    The Catholics in the Middle Ages (don’t know if they still do) believed in ‘justification through faith’ ie just believing was enough to get you a seat in Heaven at God’s Right Hand, while the Protestants developed the idea of ‘justification through good works’.

    Or, indeed, the other way around.

  12. Sue R said,

    Mr Trousers: All I know is that I won’t be going to Heaven. Just worm meat.

  13. johng's cock said,

    Maddie B makes be tingle all over, but when I see Victoria Brittain I could cut a diamond!

  14. brigada flores magon said,

    To get the ‘sola fides, sola gratia’ of Luther incompetently mixed up with the doctrine of works of the mediaeval church may be considered a misfortune but to call Bertrand Russell ‘Bertram’ ……………

  15. Jenny said,

    Volitaire:Understandable.I’m often fustrated by the ambigutiy on sites like Lenin’s tomb where they never come right out and say what they agree and disagree on about radical groups.

  16. Rosie said,

    Aren’t the religious apologists always coming up with the profound misunderstanding defence? World created in six days? No, that’s metaphorical. Existence of hell? No-one really believed that. They’re like criminals changing their stories under police questioning.

    BTW I don’t like Dawkins or Hitchens on religion much – they assume that all the religious are fools and/or knaves.

  17. Lobby Ludd said,

    “Bunting admits: no intellectual case for belief”

    Thanks for that. I didn’t read the original article, nor your ‘critique’.

    Big-hearted I am – but sometimes all out of caring.


  18. Sue R said,

    As I said, I’m worm meat.

  19. Jenny said,

    “BTW I don’t like Dawkins or Hitchens on religion much – they assume that all the religious are fools and/or knaves.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: