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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A truly useless article by Greg Sheridan

The only thing to be said in Greg Sheridan's favour in respect of this misguided article is that its nonsensical headline was probably chosen by a sub-editor, rather than by him. All the same, whoever chose it ... what nonsense! No, critiques of Christianity (or any other religion) will not undermine our society. On the contrary, they may well make it better and stronger.

Here's a sample of Sheridan's muddled thinking:

A liberalism that softens all differences, that abolishes almost all rules, that says one thing is as good as another, may be exhilarating at first in the sense of licence it brings, but ultimately it is enervating. After all, Jesus Christ might have been just a man, in which case Dawkins, Hitchens et al are right. He might be just a prophet leading up to Mohammed, the last prophet, in which case Islam is right. Or he might be the son of God made man to redeem humanity's sins, in which case the Catholic Church is right.

One thing is certain: he couldn't be all three, and in the end you must make a choice. A religious liberalism that tries to avoid these choices leads nowhere.

But many theological liberals get by just fine by being doctrinally indefinite, while mainly oriented to goals and values (such things as equality, solidarity, and freedom). I'm sure that Philip Kitcher is right about that, and it's Sheridan who could do with a better theological and sociological understanding. But more importantly, the state most certainly can and should decline to make up its mind as to whether Jesus was "just a man", a prophet, or the Son of God. That's what political liberalism is really about, and it's the kind of liberalism we most definitely ask for from the churches- i.e. that they don't expect the state to have a view on such theological claims. Even quite theologically conservative religious people can sometimes embrace political liberalism. Generally, however, the Catholic Church has been unwilling to respond positively. It still proclaims that it is the role of the state to impose the moral law (as determined by the Vatican) on citizens.

That's not to say that no intelligent and sensitive critiques of the "New Atheists" can ever be made: I'm still working on my series of posts about the interesting critique by Philip Kitcher, trying to work out how much of it we should accept and where it might take us if we think about it seriously and carefully. But Sheridan's absurd concerns - his worries that orthodox forms of Christianity are too marginalised in Australia - are not presented with anything like Kitcher's sophistication.

Sheridan's article is a nice example of what secular people are up against, though, so it may not be totally useless. Here's a very powerful journalist wanting even more social and political influence for the Vatican, which, as he boasts at length, is already an enormously powerful institution. We should be thinking of ways to reduce the Vatican's power, not encourage and increase it.

3 comments:

Tim said...

Hear hear. And I agree that we secular thinkers need to continue explaining what secular liberalism really means - it means both promoting religious freedom, and criticising supernaturalist religion. To many, that's a contradiction, and we need to do better in explaining that it's not. Once they get that, we'll be half way there.

Greywizard said...

Wow! This really is a train wreck of an article! Is Sheridan only marginally intelligent, or is he just having a bad hair day? He really makes no real sense. Sure, he's against the "professional church denouncers," but why is this dominating an article which (by all accounts) is about Mary McKillop? If he wanted to tout the Australian saint, why would he do it in this context?

And as for his choice, whether Jesus was man, prophet, or son of God: well, he made that easy. A man of course. CS Lewis argued that he must be mad, bad or god, which was a false trichotomy, squirreling the truth away, but you could see the point he wanted to make. But Sheridan left an escape hatch that Lewis never meant to leave. Kind of him, but a bit careless.

Rorschach said...

Talk about truly useless articles !! Try this one from The Drum !! It's quite frankly astonishing.I've put a post up about it.