Once upon a time there was a race of bipedal creatures. They ran around all over the place, meeting, exploring, finding food, going hungry, hurting themselves and each other, taking care of themselves and each other, and gazing at the stars.
These creatures had an unusual sort of anatomical feature: their two legs needed different types of food. Many foods could nourish their whole body, including both legs, but some types of food were only good for the left leg, some for the right. So, as a result of this, most of the creatures had one leg longer than the other and they walked about in a sort of lurching way. They did their best to find foods for both legs.
One day some of these creatures found a really tasty sort of food called hummus. They loved this food. It was not only tasty but also nourishing and very healthy. They ate it on toast, they had it with salad, they ate it for breakfast, lunch and tea. The only trouble was, hummus was much better for the left leg than the right. So as they munched and gulped down lots of lovely hummus, their right leg only got a little nourishment, but their left leg grew big and strong. Without really noticing, or minding that much, they started getting around mostly on their left leg. They found it could carry them pretty much anywhere they wanted to go.
Meanwhile other creatures carried on using both legs, but some of them went the other way. They didn’t like the look of hummus. They were suspicious of it. They started to eat more and more food which was good for the right leg, and not enough that was good for the left. So after a while those ones started hopping around on their right leg. They loved their right leg. They found it could carry them pretty much anywhere they wanted to go.
Well this parable is pretty obvious and perhaps you can guess where I am going with it. But maybe I won’t go exactly where you expect. Let’s see.
What happened next is that first of all the left-hoppers and the right-hoppers started to denounce one another.
“Those left-hoppers do not give weight to the right leg, as they ought,” said the right-hoppers.
“Those right-hoppers have only a paltry sort of leg hanging in air, they get themselves about on some other thing which has no proper leftness about it,” said the left-hoppers.
After that had been going on for a while, each group extended its polemic. Whenever a creature walking on two legs came in view, they both immediately denounced it. The right-hoppers would look on it with suspicion, as one who had one foot in the other camp. The left-hoppers were even more angry. They would look at the two-legged creature and, noting the presence of a right leg, they would declare that it did not have a left leg at all, or else that it was woefully uninterested in or not properly committed to left legs. The fact staring them in the face, that the two-legged creature had both legs, and enjoyed and used them both, and was committed to both, was not a convenient fact to these hopping-mad left-leggers. They just stared at the offensive right leg, and give scant attention to the quality of the left leg of the two-leg creatures. They even said that children should be fed on a diet that only stimulated the growth of one leg, and the two-leg creatures were abusing their own children by causing both legs to grow. They set up whole communities in which hummus was the staple food. The creatures growing up in these communities were taught that two-leg creatures were suffering from a sort of deformity, and should be pitied.
A two-legged creature living in a predominantly one-legged community generally ended up in jail. A defence along the lines of, “look, I have got a perfectly good leg of your preferred type” was not enough in a one-legged court. No, the mere presence of a leg of the offending type was enough to condemn a person. They must never mention the offensive leg, and must sit on it in their professional life, and accept a life-sentence of oblique derisive comment and the feeling that they excite disgust in others.
One day, in a lecture, a left-hopper was analysing footprints. He pointed out how the dreadful right-footprints had features that mimicked the beautiful left-footprints, but in a way that was abruptly and fundamentally different. There could be no reconciliation between two such thoroughly opposed types of foot. The transformation between them was essentially a sort of mirror-reflection, and this type of transformation cannot be achieved by any continuous set of translations or rotations. The two prints are implacably, incontrovertibly, irrefutably opposed and irreconcilable.
But I looked out over the audience, and I saw, seated in many of the chairs, happy, healthy creatures with both types of foot. Each foot was continuously joined to an ankle (two different types), which was continuously joined to a leg (two different types) and then something strange happened. The legs somehow both joined to something else that was nothing like a foot. The two feet were not directly reconciled, since each kept its own innate and different form, but both gave support to something else, something rather lovely that sat there smiling back at me from a hundred different faces.
If this were just a story and only that, then I would not comment further. But it is obviously a parable and I am posting it on a blog in the area of science and religion, so I will explain what I am getting at. The two legs in the story are not science and religion. To think that way is a very common mistake. No, religion (good religion that is) is represented in the story by the torso of these creatures, and it highly values both legs. If you prefer, you can call that “faith” rather than “religion”. The two legs are, roughly speaking, science and spiritual wisdom.
In writing this story I do not intend to imply that I completely know what a balanced creature would look like, nor that my own commitments have got both legs in perfect health, but I do insist that I certainly possess both legs and I am as committed as anyone to the proper growth of each of them. My scientific leg is not enfeebled by my spiritual wisdom leg, and my spiritual wisdom leg is not compromised by my scientific leg.
I have chosen the phrase “spiritual wisdom” here in order to be as inclusive as possible. I do not think that theists are the only people with spiritual wisdom. But I do think that large amounts of atheist literature has tried to suggest either that the right leg (spiritual wisdom) can be subsumed into the left, or that the right leg can only be properly discussed by informed adults if this is done in an atheist framework. So although the people making such claims may themselves, as people, be in possession of some spiritual wisdom, this part of their work does not show it, and acts to stunt the growth of such wisdom in the wider community.
I also think that plenty of theists lack spiritual wisdom, or at least their written work does.
However, I find myself in a time and place in which the following needs to be asserted:
It was, has always been, and remains a deeply unjustified and unjust move by the atheist community when they declared themselves to be the only true possessors of, or champions of, reason and rationality.
I say “unjust” because to be placed under a presumption of guilt in this central area of what it is to be human is deeply unjust.
Having said that, I realize that there is an awful lot of unreason in the world generally, and in certain types of religion in particular. I also assert that well-informed and faithful followers of Jesus of Nazareth are atheist in a certain special sense. We do not believe that Jesus ever talked about the sort of “supernatural being” or “god” that you will hear about in many a supposedly “Christian” sermon in various parts of the world. We think Jesus talked about the foundational reality called God alright, and, more importantly, he lived God, and showed us most of what we need to know about God’s way of doing things. But he was part of a community (the Jewish community) which had, by long painful struggle, largely grown out of the various stupid ways of thinking about God. Some of his ancestors might, thousands of years before, have thought of God as like a “god”, a supernatural “being” like a human ruler only more powerful, but by the first century AD they did not. They still had their fair share of religious nincompoops and hypocrites trying to pin God down in an artificial system, but they were ready for another way of doing business with God, a way that on the one hand seems to be more subtle, but in practice is very readily grasped. This is the direct address to God, without troubling with definitions, as simply the reality that is our ultimate foundation, as that which “holds” us, and recognizing that this reality also knows us, and is good, in such a complete way as to be the right and only proper focus of our deepest allegiance. In other words, a good parent (but not an easy one).
Full engagement with the real world is about aligning ourselves with an ultimate spiritual reality that can know and be known—One for whom terms such as will, intention, insight, agency, sorrow, creative anger, forgiveness and compassion are appropriate. The best picture of this reality is not a powerful god-being sitting on a supernatural throne, but the sort of personal compassion that one sufferer has for another, and the sort of bringer-of-hope that every Spring is a fresh reminder of.