Report of Meeting, 2 April 2008

We met on 2 April at David Lambourn’s house. Present were David Belcher, Michael Bennett, John Challenor, Paul Graham, John Howard, David Lambourn and Stephen Williams. Stephen reported that he had been co-opted as a SoF trustee with a view to becoming treasurer. Watch for further news.

As agreed our starting point today was the distinction between the public and private spheres. What people believe in private is their own affair but how far should those beliefs encroach into the public realm? At one level the issue is simple: no-one can claim special authority for their beliefs on the basis that they represent revealed truth and then seek to impose them on others (the attempt to impose a “Catholic whip” on the embryology bill is a current example). Democratic politics in particular is about argument and requires a shared commitment to rationality in which no viewpoint is in a privileged position.

Moving beyond that simple case, however, the boundary between public and private looks less clear-cut. Rorty also sees actions as public but thinking as personal, but for him this is an instance of irony, our ability to live two lives at the same time. It allows alternative ways of thinking to coexist and is essentially creative. The preoccupation with the truth/falsehood dichotomy overlooks the more interesting distinction between fact and fiction: we can recognise fiction (and its special case, myth) for what it is, but then still engage with it and be moved by it. Dawkins is surely wrong when he appears to suggest that the St Matthew Passion can be appreciated as pure music as if the setting of a very specific text is not integral to the whole enterprise.

The fact/fiction or fact/myth distinction appears to cause problems not just for religious critics but also for many religious practitioners. This is the issue in the quotation from Michael Elliott’s piece in “Time and Tide” (misquoted in my last letter – sorry!) about “talking privately among friends”. There is a presumption in many churches that those holding a non-literal understanding of religious belief should keep it to themselves, or whisper it among a few like-minded companions out of earshot of the orthodox. This is an issue for those of us no longer involved with churches but who toy with the idea of returning.

John Challenor reminded us of the Latin derivation of the words public and private, the one associated with the populus, the people, the other etymologically connected to the idea of deprivation. In the classical world, to be excluded from public life and society has negative connotations whether it is physical imprisonment or banishment, or the silencing of one’s thoughts and ideas that excludes one from public participation.

Beliefs are there to be shared. We must be able to think for ourselves and take responsibility for our own beliefs but we also need others to confirm and challenge our ideas. The essence of the exercise (which we would like to think this group epitomises) is the practice of conversation, an activity that is both public and private, underpinned by trust, hospitality and companionship as much as by the exchange of ideas.

A question begged by Dawkins, Grayling, etc is whether the family is part of the public or private sphere. They worry about parents indoctrinating children with false ideas, but it would be an odd family where beliefs and their significance were not part of the domestic conversation. Parallels can be found in other social settings. Religion, where it is understood as a source of myth rather than authority, should open up conversation rather than close it down. What we often then find, as the story of SoF illustrates, is a continuum of beliefs and values rather than a set of compartmentalised positions.

The topic for our next meeting seemed to choose itself. We agreed to look at Conversations on Religion edited by Mick Gordon and Chris Wilkinson (Continuum 2008). As previously arranged that will be on Wednesday 21 May 2008 at 1930 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road, Edgbaston. The meeting after that will be on Thursday 3 July.