“I’m very narrow”, said the slim woman as she squeezed past me. As the bloke next to me pointed out, you have to be careful saying things like that at a Rowan Williams gig.
It wasn’t even standing room only at the Archbishop’s lecture this afternoon. The provocative title of How to Misunderstand Religion delivered a packed-out lecture theatre, plus at least one overflow room with a video link. This turnout wasn’t exactly a surprise for a man on his home turf, but by the skin of our teeth, Nessa and myself made it to the main auditorium.
I could write (and in five words’ time, I will) that was a pie-hot lecture, but what surprise is that? The entire Anglican communion knows that its head has a sizable brain between his two shoulders, despite their disagreements on what comes out of that head. Rowan Williams has an ability not to baffle his audience with obscure terminology, which is scandalously rare in academic theological circles. He knows what to say, and he knows how to use language clearly and accurately while he’s saying it. His talk was Crystal Mark material.
The ideas expressed themselves needed concentration, but rewarded it. Where many, if not most, of Richard Dawkins’ religious opponents have been as shrill as Dawkins himself in their opposition to him, Rowan Williams’ response was simple, measured, and graceful. He eloquently questioned whether the concept of a meme was valid when talking about religion itself, this being for the past 30 years a central plank of Dawkins’ argument against religious belief. He argued that atheists, rather than trying to drive out bad religion with no religion (an impossible project, in his view) should rather try to argue against the bad bits of religion, and try to turn it into good.
True, you can argue against those arguments, and Richard Dawkins would certainly have a good stab at them. But you can’t argue against their expression, or – for this afternoon anyway – the way in which they were expressed.
But the most memorable bit for me came right at the end, as a quaking questioner asked the Archbishop, what he made of the Guardian’s insistence that the biggest belief group in the UK are ‘Christian but not religious’.
His answer, with gross paraphrasing and some editorialising? “Well, being Christian seems to be a historical position for Britain, and for many it’s nothing more than something to rely on in times of crisis, rather like the National Health Service.” The audience murmured. “Maybe the National Health Service was a bad example.” The audience laughed. “But what worries me is that an anti-Muslim backlash in Britain means that people are increasingly defining themselves as Christian in the sense of ‘non-Muslim’. In other words, what they mean when they call themselves Christian is ‘whatever those Muslims believe and do, it’s nothing to do with me’. So I think we need tolerance and compassion in understanding those of other faiths, which will help those with little faith of their own.”
The audience applauded, and so did the questioner. It seemed to all of us, including me, to be a point well worth making.