Open List's first book was called The Insulted Trilobite... 



... a personal essay on the subject of religion, atheism and intellectual dishonesty. The pretext was a reading of Richard Dawkins' bestselling atheist tract, The God Delusion. We hoped it might cast a little light in a region of argument accustomed to the generation of heat; but the spark fell on damp ground, resulting in little warmth and, evidently, no illumination.

     The conclusion of the book read as follows: 



     What am I trying to say?



A preliminary conception, indefinite but comprehen­sive, is always useful as an introduction to a complete conception... A complex idea is not communicable directly, by giving one after another its component parts in their finished forms; since if no outline pre-exists in the mind of the recipient, these component parts will not be rightly combined. The intended combination can be made only when the recipient has discovered for himself how the components are to be arranged. Much labour has to be gone through which would have been saved had a general notion, however cloudy, been conveyed before the distinct and detailed delineation was commenced.


 (Herbert Spencer, First Principles, II, XIII, §105)


     Perhaps I was deficient in not offering a preliminary conception or general notion (however cloudy) of religion before launching into my dialogue with the God Delusion. Having looked over my pages with a view to constructing a short thematic index, I find that my conception (which is hardly a novelty, and certainly not comprehensive) may be reduced to a handful of related points:



     1. Religion is a natural occurrence in the human world.


     My premise is that religion is a fact (if not an inescapable fact) arising out of our self-perceptions, following our use of language and the formulation of concepts, and in the context of our constructed relation to the world and our actual relations with one another. There appears no need to imagine “gods” or “spirits” are in any sense separable from the human beings to whom they appear. The gods speak to individuals, not to crowds; and it is by the experience of individuals that religion is formed and shaped.

     Even if we grant (as we may, as historically we have) the value of what the gods tell us, the evidence suggests that enthusiasts, messengers and prophets receive messages which are neither consistent with one another, nor uniformly reliable. Inspiration is tailored, in each case, to the receptivity of a particular individual, and coloured by particular circumstances.(1)  

     And the gods have never stopped speaking to us – but we have before us today a larger sample than our ancestors of dream, fantasy, play, pretence and performance, mediumship and channeling, altered states of consciousness, dissociative and hallucinatory episodes, enthusiasm, passion, obsession and derangement. We no longer attend so readily to those who hear the voices of gods; nor, when the gods speak, are we so ready to listen. Did they speak more loudly in days of old? Maybe they did. Maybe the world just got a lot noisier.

     Julian Jaynes has proposed there was a radical change in the nature of human consciousness within the period of recorded history.(2) His construction of the evidence is interesting but, for now, I’m content to imagine the evolution of our cultural practices can account for different ways of interpreting the same old stuff. So that’s another of my basic assumptions – that it is the same old stuff.



(1) Indeed, the most pertinent argument against fundamentalism is that the sacred books are comprised of out-of-date information. Even and especially if you believe in “intelligent design”, you ought to recognize you were designed to receive updates.


(2) Dawkins refers to Jaynes and his book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, on pp.392-3 of The God Delusion.



     2. The origin of religion is to be found in the subjective experience of the non-self.


     The human organism is so constructed that, by using language, it can codify and organize information about its situation. Each human is born into an ocean of language, in which it learns to swim; and, guided by its own imperatives in responding to its own particular circumstances, each individual organism engenders a self. The organism is already a conscious being, but its use of language permits the construction of a complex self-consciousness. (That’s you.) Yet, however much the constructed self learns to identify with the organism and its characteristics, the functioning of the organism is never fully under its control – and that includes the complex functioning of the brain upon which the self depends. Do you ever hear the prodigious chatter of your brain as your self ceases to function on the edge of sleep? I do. I can’t take dictation that fast, and I don’t recognize all of the voices.

     For all practical purposes, your self is a set of recognitions: what you learn to recognize as your self is your self. But the self has its limits. You may dispose of your body and its time as you see fit; you may select the tasks to which you devote its energies – and jolly harmony may be the result – but occasionally, if you push against the organism, if you push against even your own habits and routines, and push at the limits of your self, the same mechanisms and capacities usually harnessed by the self may be experienced in forms recognized by the self as something other than the self.

     By way of example, let me ask: who wrote this book? Did “I” write it? Well, I know I was pushing pretty damned hard to get it written, but – and here, of course, I speak from my own experience – I’m conscious also, when I write, of pushing beyond the limits of what I know I want to say in order to find the words with which to express myself. Sometimes they come pouring out, sometimes I have to dig for them. In either case, I apply my critical faculty (for what it’s worth) to what I get or don’t get; but, notwithstanding the ability to shape and to judge, I feel that what comes out is no more a part of me than the water that comes out of a tap. Of course, most writers probably acknowledge that turning on the tap is a part of their technique; it’s what they learn to do, and I dare say they trust (as I do) that they’re tuning in to a private channel, unique and responsive to their needs, rather than simply taking dictation anyone might take – and you can bet that by the time I’ve read a sentence over a dozen times, changing the words and the word-order, the rhythms and the punctuation, I’m ready to recognize it as my own.

     It’s also possible, however, to conceptualize that creative interplay as a supping at the common trough; but my point here is that the self has its limits, and beyond those limits the action of mind is experienced as a mystery. How often does something you’ve struggled to remember come, with an almost audible pop, into your consciousness, as if from somewhere else? What comes forth, when one is working with words, may be accepted as a gift – I was certainly grateful, on more than one occasion, for a felicitous construction, a particularly pungent adjective – and if you wish to suppose this book inspired, there’s your authorization.

     Possibly you think that’s rather a grand claim, but I suspect that at least some of those who acknowledge divine guidance, and who confide that God speaks to them, are conceptualizing similar mechanisms in their own way, and supping at the common trough.

     Of course, I won’t insist this is the whole story, and it’s not my intention, by means of this conceptualization, to persuade you to stop listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Quite the reverse: I’m suggesting anyone may become aware of its urgings, at times, on the other side of self-consciousness. The centredness of self is the ground of your being as an individual; but the world in which you exist is multi-centred – in order to live in it, you must look to your limits, and beyond.

     A more likely objection is that I’m making a false god out of a quirk of consciousness – that this can’t be the great god of all creation that you worship.

     Maybe your god is bigger than my god.



     3. When religion emerges from the realm of private experience, it becomes political.


     Far from trying to trivialize the experience of religion, what I hope I’ve been doing is setting it in its natural context. If religion remains important, it’s because it addresses matters of personal import – matters of life and death, obviously enough – and religious texts record an engagement with these things. Some may even have a bearing on how we choose to live today.

     But it’s a fundamental error to imagine that the guidance offered by gods, and recorded by our ancestors, all holds good indefinitely. Some of it may not have been worth much when it was fresh; some of it may have made sense at the time; and some of it, to be fair, may still be valuable – at the temple of the Delphic Oracle, one might have read the inscription, “Know Thyself” – but it’s more important to heed good advice than to get hung up on where it came from.(3)

     These are generalities. The point I want to make is that if all religion begins with private revelation, nevertheless politics and religion have walked side by side from the moment that revelation was confided to a second person. No matter which god speaks, from the moment the words are repeated or written down, they are clothed in matter, and lose their sacred character, for they are thereafter embroiled in questions of authority, transmission, translation and comprehension. These are things people argue over; and insofar as the words commend a way of living or a course of action, there are raised issues not only of authority, but of orthodoxy and discipline. People jostle for position in this world, and these are among the common frameworks they use to situate themselves. Insofar as it becomes communal and institutional, religion is political, and it is essentially political. Only insofar as religion is centred in the individual, bringing the individual into relation with their world, is it essentially religious.

     Once you stand outside the framework of belief, the political character of religion is as plain as the mote in your brother’s eye. By “political” I mean, in the most general terms, concerned with the organized relations of individuals and groups, and involving (as the occasion demands) persuasion, negotiation and compulsion.

     But the beam in your own eye, which may be all too easy to overlook, is that the notion of one God, embodying absolute power and absolute authority, is largely a political invention – and an invention, moreover, which no institution, having once adopted it, is likely to relinquish, for fear of undermining its claim to authority.



(3) Chance (though, if I were so minded, I might give it another name) places under my hand a passage from Martin Buber, in which he is


 reminded of the strange confession of Nietzsche when he described the event of ‘inspiration’ as taking but not asking who gives. Even if we do not ask we should ‘thank.’

        He who knows the breath of the Spirit trespasses if he desires to get power over the Spirit or to ascertain its nature and qualities. But he is also disloyal when he ascribes the gift to himself.


(Buber, I and Thou p.162)



     4. Belief is ideological in character.


     We don’t learn language from a dictionary. A dictionary records how words are used, and the meaning of a word changes according to what we intend by its use – but our intentions are sometimes confused. Dawkins wishes physicists and cosmologists wouldn’t talk about God, because it causes confusion. From confusion arises a fog of appeasement: he sees scientists and theologians ambling into that fog, where scientists carelessly and theologians hungrily pretend they are treading common ground. But Dawkins sows confusions of his own. I might wish, for instance, that he didn’t use the verb “to believe” so carelessly.

     Perhaps, however, the confusion is entirely natural. We tend to speak in the expectation that others will understand us. But where a word has more than one sense, care may be necessary, particularly if one is making an argument with pretensions to logical rigour.(4)

     An assertion of belief has at least two distinct and contrary uses. Dawkins knows this – “It really is a very different matter”, he writes – but doesn’t quite understand it. Ordinarily, when we say we “believe” something, we’re advancing an assertion of what we suppose to be a fact: we’re of the opinion that, if tested, the assertion will be found to be supported by the evidence. My own book is full of such assertions, and they amount to an invitation to go and look at the evidence. It may be worth my while to come along too because, if I say “I believe” in such circumstances, it suggests I know that someone else may have a different opinion, and that the evidence is not all to hand. My “I believe” is a provisional statement, ventured in dialogue, of what I suppose might plausibly be advanced as fact.

     It’s possible, however, to say “I believe” while intending something “very different”. To assert belief in this contrary fashion is to make a statement of conviction or commitment. My conviction may rest on the evidence – it may or may not be a legitimate construction of the evidence – or, on the other hand, it may rest on a wish or preference which satisfies my emotional needs. A conviction is something I can even, if I wish, assert in the absence of evidence, or in the face of the evidence. It is an affirmation of will.

     Dawkins writes that


  what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence. It really is a very different matter. Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy...



And here, as you can see, he has a palpable appreciation of the two senses of what it means to “believe” – it really is a very different matter – but he makes the mistake of supposing the two senses are commensurable; that the evidence which serves as a foundation for the first sense has an equivalent term in the second. In short, he imagines the evidence for what he “believes” as a scientist is stronger than the “evidence” for what a religious person believes, and this mistake undermines his analysis throughout the book.

     Yes, he’s right, books about evolution are not “believed” because they are holy – but neither are holy books believed because they are “holy”. A holy book does not constitute evidence, but forms the foundation of an ideology which promises its believers a special place in the world; and its believers choose, or are trained, to affirm belief in order to claim that place.

     In the hope of making myself clear in this regard, let me lay out, one on top of the other, two statements illustrating the two senses of “believing”:


                             (a)                        (b)


     1. Sense 1:   I “believe” (X) – the evidence supports it.


     2. Sense 2:   I believe (X) – the holy book says so.


     In 1, the weight of the assertion is thrown on part (b). The evidence is supposed to justify an assertion of fact – which may, in dialogue, be taken for granted, provisionally accepted, or contested. In any case, it is presumed open to argument or subject to testing. The word “believe” has no particular value, and the statement may be paraphrased as, “I take it that (X) is a fact. Let’s look at the evidence.”

     In 2, however, the weight of the assertion rests on part (a). Dawkins is relentless in harrying the holy books for their nonsense, and pitiless in mocking the arguments of his opponents, but never seems to understand – it would appear he wants not to – that what he’s attacking are only outposts. 2(b) is a skirmish line; and his enemies will not be routed, because they take their stand on 2(a), “I believe”.

     I don’t find it so easy to make clear by paraphrase this second sense of “I believe”. My best attempt is plausible, but rather clumsy: “I assert my conviction that (X) is so. The holy book is my warrant for that conviction. My conviction that (X) is so is an affirmation of my commitment to the holy book.”

     What I’m suggesting is that (X), in statement 2, is asserted not as a fact, but as an affirmation of faith. It constitutes a sign or token which stands for what the “holy book” means to someone who accepts the system of belief founded upon it. The statement might be paraphrased more compactly as, “I assert my conviction that what the holy book says is so.” Possibly its intent might even be clearer if reduced to: “I assert that the holy book says what I believe.”

     If this sounds like a particularly grotesque caricature of religion, and of the circularity of religious conviction, bear in mind that I started by adapting the two statements from Dawkins’ terms; but it is also, I believe (Sense 1), a fair exposition of the fundamentalist position, which is itself a grotesque caricature of religion. For all that fundamentalism is fixated on a set of ancient texts, it circles back to take its stand on the present needs of the self, and remains little more than the ever-renewed fantasy of a child, greedy both for security and for power over the world.

     Lest you suppose I believe (either in Sense 1 or Sense 2) that scientists always and exclusively use “I believe” in the first sense, and religious “believers” always and exclusively use it in the second, I’ll make the experiment of transposing the statements like so:


                           (a)                        (b)


     3.  Sense 1: I “believe” (X) – the holy book says so.


     4.  Sense 2: I believe (X) – the evidence supports it.


     Statement 3 may be taken to represent the position of an individual who’s willing to accept some part of scripture as factual, but who, on finding that it makes more sense to accept that it isn’t, is prepared to relinquish the belief. In other words, “the holy book”, in this case, is accepted as evidence; and, being so accepted, is made susceptible to testing, and ranged against other evidence. This, historically, has been the situation of some portion of those who accept religion in a world in which knowledge is increasing.(5) It is likewise the situation of someone whose understanding of the world is developing and changing. It’s not merely possible but probable that the conviction which anchors the religion of such an individual is lodged elsewhere; it doesn’t depend on the subjection of the world (and any and all evidence relating to it) to a totalizing ideology.

     Statement 4 brings me to a curious fork in the road. It’s not at once obvious to me what happens if the weight of the assertion is transferred here from “the evidence” to “I believe”. Is there a genuine difference between merely supposing something is so and asserting a strong conviction that something is so, if both are predicated on the evidence? Or do statements 1 and 4 – “I believe/believe (X) – the evidence supports it” – mean the same thing, whether belief rests upon the evidence or represents a conviction?

     I tried to bring out the second sense (“I believe”) by paraphrasing statement 2. If I adapt that here, replacing “the holy book” with “the evidence”, in order to paraphrase statement 4, I get this: 


  I assert my conviction that (X) is so. The evidence is my warrant for that conviction. My conviction that (X) is so is an affirmation of my commitment to the evidence.


     Now, my first response is to suppose this reads as a strong and principled statement. The first two sentences appear more or less equivalent to statement 1, which I paraphrased as “I take it that (X) is a fact. Let’s look at the evidence.” The primary difference seems to be that the third sentence asserts a claim to certainty which is not only more forceful, but more personal.

     But, if the evidence is overwhelming and conclusive, is one led to make statement 4 – a statement of conviction – rather than statement 1, which rests on the evidence?

     I think not. The stronger the evidence, the more one might relax, and allow the evidence to make the case. Conviction manifests itself in the face of resistance, and the first two sentences of the paraphrase might be viewed as a commitment either to one construction of the evidence in the face of an alternative, or to taking heed of the evidence in the face of a conviction which ignores it. The former is natural enough in the course of dialogue; it’s as much as saying that the evidence is open to construction, and that the construction is arguable. The latter would appear to be a commendable basis for engaging in argument.

     The third sentence, however, is more difficult to unpick. In my paraphrase of statement 2, I suggested that a commitment to fundamentalist ideology is circular, and that its circularity insulates the “holy books” from the testing to which evidence might be subject. But can the “evidence” in 4(b) likewise be made subordinate to the conviction expressed in 4(a), so that the “evidence” itself is exempt from testing?

     On a purely verbal level, the answer appears self-contradictory, because evidence which is exempt from testing can hardly be said to constitute evidence. Nevertheless, conviction is not only manifested in the face of resistance, but underpins a range of activities whose nature is not disinterested and analytical, but assertive and oppositional. What I’m saying – what I discover myself to be saying – is that, whereas the assertion that I “believe” in statements 1 and 3 boils down to an intention to weigh the evidence, and the “I believe” of statement 2 is the assertion of a conviction, statement 4 yokes together these separate (if not necessarily exclusive) meanings; and what it may be taken to indicate will be determined by how the conviction and the evidence are related to one another:


     My conviction may rest on the evidence.

     If it does, it may represent a legitimate construction of the evidence.

     If it represents a legitimate construction, it may exclude some other constructions – though not all constructions are exclusive of one another.

     On the other hand, my conviction may not represent a legitimate construction of the evidence. It may be an error; possibly an “honest” or, shall we say, “disinterested” error – an error in logic or analysis, let’s say.

     Or my “error” may devolve upon a wish or preference which satisfies my emotional needs. Even that may be allowed to be “honest” (if not disinterested) to the extent that I fail to recognize the part the wish or preference has played in my construction of the evidence.

     On the other hand, my failure to recognize my own wish or preference may be wilful. This isn’t something I can always be sure of. We all have our blind spots, and the closer to the core of the self our convictions are formed, the more they reflect our wish to persist, to be secure, to be comfortable – and who knows what lies we may tell our selves in order to be secure in our comfort?

     But if you find me selecting and organizing evidence in ways that misrepresent and distort it, as well as selectively ignoring evidence, you may be persuaded that my error is, in some measure, deliberate. A conviction, I suggested earlier, is something I can, if I wish, assert in the absence of evidence, or in the face of the evidence.

     Perhaps my conviction may not rest on the evidence, after all.


     I think I’ve said enough.



(4) This short book, being substantially a conversation with Richard Dawkins, has no such pretensions.


(5) For instance, holy scripture provides little warrant for believing (in Sense 2) that the Earth is a sphere, and there is some warrant for believing (Sense 1) that most of those who wrote the holy books (whether inspired or not) had quite a different conception of the world in which they lived – but these days few, even among those who contest evolutionary biology and geology, will go so far as to make belief in a flat (or four-cornered) Earth an article of faith.