As you probably know, he’s the Archbishop of Canterbury (AB of C), the head of the Church of England (C of E), “leader of the 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion”, and this week, once again managed to stimulate calls for his resignation. Today, according to a BBC news report:
…at least two General Synod members have called for Dr. Rowan Williams to resign… Colonel Edward Aristead told the Daily Telegraph: “I don’t think he is the man for the job… One wants to be charitable, but I sense that he would be far happier in a university where he can kick around these sorts of ideas.”
Alison Ruoff, a Synod member from London, said: “many people, huge numbers of people, would be greatly relieved [if he resigned], because he sits on the fence over all sorts of things, and we need strong, Christian, biblical leadership right now, as opposed to somebody who huffs and puffs around and vacillates from one thing to another.”
Brigadier William Dobbie, a former Synod member, described the Archbishop as “a disaster, a tragic mistake.”
And you think you had a bad day! But then, British tradition seems to be that AB of Cs can’t be fired – by tradition, they execute them!
As you probably know, also (unless your internet connection is down – or you have more important things to do!), Williams got himself in trouble (this time) by stating during an interview on BBC Radio that adopting some (Muslim) Sharia [or Shariah] law in Britain seemed “unavoidable”, adding that “Certain provisions of Shariah are already recognized in our society and under our law, so it’s not as if we’re bringing in alien and rival system” and that Muslims shouldn’t need to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty.”
Sensing potential votes (they’re good at that), politicians of all stripes leaped on him. Some examples (all from BBC News reports):
“The prime minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values.” [Spokesman for Prime Minister Brown]
“To ask us to fundamentally change the rule of law and to adopt Sharia law, I think, is fundamentally wrong.” [Home Office Minister Tony McNulty]
“[The] implication that British courts should treat people differently based on their faith is divisive and dangerous.” [Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission]
“Dr. Williams seems to be suggesting that there should be two systems of law, running alongside each other, almost parallel, and for people to be offered the choice of opting into one or the other. That is unacceptable.” [Baroness Warsi, “shadow community cohesion minister”]
“Equality before the law is part of the glue that binds our society together. We cannot have a situation where there is one law for one person and different laws for another… There is a huge difference between respecting people’s right to follow their own beliefs and allowing them to excuse themselves from the rule of law.” [Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg]
Quite a tempest brewing in the British teapot! Yet, if you read Williams’ original speech, you might conclude (as did I) that it’s rather mundane and unfortunately quite pedantic. In a nutshell, it’s close to: “Look, if people want to settle their disputes by arbitration without involvement of the courts, then go for it; if they want to settle their disputes with the help of the local Imam, then fine; Jews have a long tradition of doing similar.”
But I can understand the reactions. In his BBC interview, Williams was “just plain stupid” (or better, politically naïve) to have taunted the British bulldog (confined by its own customs, bound by more than a thousand years of its own laws, and recently wounded by Muslim supremacists) with the raw meat of Shariah.
Further, it’s certainly not the first time that Williams has demonstrated that he’s “out of touch” with the people, particularly those in the C of E: approving the ordination of women and gay clergy, opposing the teaching of “intelligent design” in science classes, using Homer Simpson cartoons to get kids to think about morality, describing the Jesus nativity story as “a legend”, and so on. In sum, I rather like the guy!
Yet, what I don’t know – and in the limited time I have to waste on the question, I don’t plan to continue to try to find out – is whether the guy is a nut or a genius. That he’s intelligent seems clear, but it’s equally clear that he isn’t grounded in reality: he’s hooked on speculation; he obviously feels no need to test his ideas against data.
As one of many examples, consider his denial that believing in God is equivalent to believing in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy:
“The thing is, belief in Santa does not generate a moral code, it does not generate art, it does not generate imagination…”
Oh? Really? Care to test your claim against data?
Another example is in his 13 October 2007 speech criticizing Richard Dawkins:
As I’ve said, what we’re saying as religious people, is not that God is the explanation of this or that bit of the universe which we can’t otherwise explain; even the very beginning of the universe. We are saying that the nature of our relationship with the universe, a relation of understanding, thinking and exploring, rational expectation, that that very structure requires some comprehensive energy at another level that sustains it as what it is [Italics added]. And because that comprehensive energy at another level is not the product of other things, doesn’t have a history, isn’t the result of processes going on; it’s perhaps an appropriate object for contemplation, given that we are not going to find successful or comprehensive words for it, but can only gaze into what is undoubtedly mysterious, but not mysterious in a way which simply says this is a puzzle somebody one day might solve.
Really? A “comprehensive energy at another level”? A mystery that he doesn’t want solved? Sure: I can go along with the speculation (for example) that the universe was created by a symmetry-breaking fluctuation in “total nothingness” that “still exists outside our universe” (a speculation I examine in the first chapter of my book), but 1) until we get some data dealing with “total nothingness”, then it’s all speculation, 2) I certainly would like to get some data to try to solve the mystery (which might be possible in the Large Hadron Collider), and 3) I sure as hell ain’t gonna waste my time worshipping “total nothingness”!
As for the mystery of Williams, himself: that he’s a bleedin’ mystic is abundantly clear. For example, read some of his poems; it’s clear that, like a little kid in love with a fantasy hero, he’s madly in love with Jesus:
He is a stranger to them all, great Jesus.
What is there here for me? I know
what I have longed for. Him to hold
Also, read some of his speeches: it’s clear that he really has convinced himself that he knows God’s purpose – as if an omnipotent, omniscient god could have a purpose!
But I don’t know Williams’ purpose. Yet, maybe there’s a hint of it in the speech (referenced above) in which he criticizes Dawkins. Throughout the speech he refers to a play by Mick Gordon and A.C. Grayling entitled On Religion. Near the end of Williams’ speech he quotes the play, with the young man who’s decided to become a priest saying to his atheist mother:
I’m not trying to pretend it’s not dangerous, sometimes. I think that’s absolutely the case. I just think that one of the things to do in terms of a strategy (and I’m being realistic and pragmatic here OK?) because we have to ask ourselves: what sort of strategy for dealing with nutters are we going to adopt? Do we want an all out culture war between your pure enlightenment thinking and bad religion? Or is there a value, is there… let me put it another way: is the answer to bad religion no religion or better religion? Who’s more likely to defeat bad religion, good religion or atheism? [Italics added] That’s a question, a real question. So stop attacking me, Mum, because I’m your hope. You’re never going to turn the world’s religious into atheists. If that’s what your battle is, if that’s what you’re trying to do, you’re going to lose and so are we all. The best you can hope for is to turn bad violent religion into better religion, that’s what I’m trying to do.
I’d entertain the possibility that such is what Williams is trying to do: trying to turn bad religion into good religion. Perhaps that’s what this latest row (over Shariah law) is about: maybe he’s trying to turn “bad violent religion [as promoted by Muslim supremacists, “the nutters”] into better religion.” If that’s his goal, however, he’s facing a slight problem: as he could determine from readily available data, Muslims have a different opinion about which is the “good religion” and which is the “bad religion”. They’ll think he’s “the nutter”!
Therefore, just as he’s displayed political naiveté in his choice of words and in his apparent conclusion that he can speak as an individual while being head of his church, I think he’s being naïve if he thinks he can change other people’s opinions about their religions – so long as such opinions are based on speculations rather than data. I’d go even further: in my opinion (based on data trends), no religion (including his own) will survive if it’s based on the untestable speculation that the universe is controlled by some invisible lover in the sky. If he desires to turn “bad religion into good religion”, I’d advise him to consider what M.M. Mangasarian wrote almost a century ago:
“Religion is the science of children; science is the religion of adults.”