When in doubt, answer a different question

When politicians are asked a question they don’t want to answer you expect them to employ their usual tactic. This is to answer a different question, one they are happy to answer, and hope no one notices.

But it’s not only politicians who do this.

On BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions 10 April 2020 there were two politicians and two non-politicians. About 34 minutes into the program Jill Morris from Stafford asked what I thought was a very interesting question:

Does the coronavirus prove that God does not exist?

First to answer was Margaret MacMillan, Professor of History at the University of Toronto and Professor of International History at Oxford. I very much liked her 2018 BBC Reith Lecture series ‘The Mark of Cain’, on war and society. Faced with Jill Morris’s question however she evaded it rather dismissively, choosing to address a different question, something like:

At the moment should we be asking ourselves whether coronavirus proves anything about the existence of God?

Her answer to this question was an emphatic no. This was because:

Margaret MacMillan
Margaret MacMillan, 2017

…if we start attributing what is happening or not happening to a being, to a God, then we’re not really focusing on what we need to focus on, which is what do we do right now to bring this under control, to support our health workers, to prevent further unnecessary deaths from this virus.

Next to speak was Rosena Allin-Khan, who is a medical doctor, Labour MP for Tooting, and Shadow Minister for Mental Health. Less dismissive than Margaret MacMillan (’I know that whether God exists or not is a very contentious issue for many’), she nevertheless agreed that ‘the real question isn’t about whether God exists or not’. That was despite affirming that ‘Personally I believe in God’, so presumably it’s a non-question for her because she thinks she already knows the answer. She also chose to address a different question, which in her case was something like:

Can belief in God help us get through difficult times, like the current coronavirus pandemic?

Not surprisingly her answer was yes.

Dr Rosena Allin-Khan MP
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan MP
Edward Argar MP
Edward Argar MP

Next up was Edward Argar, Conservative MP for Charnwood and Minister of State for Health, who pretty much endorsed everything his predecessor said. He too believed in God, giving him licence to ‘skirt round the theology a bit’ and take advantage of the growing herd immunity to answering Jill Morris’s actual question, which he thought the final speaker would be ‘almost certainly the best placed to answer’.

That was Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York. Whether a person with the biggest vested interest in question X was by definition the one ‘best placed to answer’ question X could be a fruitful topic for a future Any Questions. He did however start out quite promising. He was ‘very glad people are asking such a question. Because if you don’t question anything it means you’re sitting on very shallow sand.’

He thought good and evil neither proved nor disproved the existence of God. OK.

But then he plucked his own very different question from the air. It was significantly different from the one Jill Morris wanted an answer to, and I would have thought largely irrelevant to it.

Jill Morris’s question was about coronavirus. Two obvious and salient facts about coronavirus are:

1 Coronavirus causes immense suffering.

2 Coronavirus is not human.

Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York
Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York

In shorthand therefore we can say that coronavirus is a particularly horrible example of non-human evil. John Sentamu however wanted to talk about human evil:

The thing which I find most amazing is somebody who survived the Holocaust. In his book The Beauty and the Horror: Searching For God In A Suffering World Rabbi Hugo Gryn wrote this: ‘People sometimes ask me ‘Where was God in Auschwitz?’ I believe God was there himself violated and blasphemed. The real question is ‘Where was man in Auschwitz?’

I hope my transcription is accurate. I say this because the book he mentions is not actually by Rabbi Hugo Gryn. It is by Richard Harries, formerly Bishop of Oxford. The book does however mention Rabbi Hugo Gryn, and includes the passage John Sentamu quotes.

The important point though is that John Sentamu is conflating human and non-human evil, in a way which obscures some of the more gritty implications of the so-called ‘problem of evil’. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Part 10) David Hume asks of God:

Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?

In the case of human evil a religious apologist can get round this problem with some success, if we allow for example that, as an act of divine goodness, God gave humans free will, along with the freedom to exercise that free will. With non-human evil however the escape route is less obvious.

So it was a bit disappointing that all four panellists decided to chicken out of answering Jill Morris’s question, as I will try to explain next time.

Chris Lawrence 2020.

4 thoughts on “When in doubt, answer a different question

  1. theotheri

    It is rather surprising to hear how 4 well-educated people ducked the question. Or rather, I suspect, couldn’t answer it. It is interesting, isn’t it, that it’s the Archbishop of York who came closest to facing the issue straight-on?

    I have thought for a great part of my life that most people do not understand the difference between scientific fact and religious faith – whether they are personally scientists or religious. Neither science nor religion can give us absolute certainty, but accepting the fallibility and incompleteness of human intelligence seems to be very challenging even for the most gifted.

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  2. Chris Lawrence Post author

    Thanks Terry. I may well be one of those who ‘do not understand the difference between scientific fact and religious faith’, if that means seeing a scientific truth claim and a religious (or perhaps I should say theological?) truth claim as essentially the same kind of thing.

    I’m aware that ‘belief’ and ‘faith’ do not overlap 100%, in the sense that, say, you may believe that the probability that you’ll successfully leap a chasm may be low, but the more faith you have that you’ll make it the more successful you’re likely to be. William James talks of ‘cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming … where faith in a fact can help create the fact’.

    But I don’t think we have any reason to think the questioner was referring to this kind of difference. She could have reworded it as ‘Does the fact that coronavirus does exist prove that God does not exist?’, with the implication that ‘exist’ means the same in both cases. Or maybe I’m wrong. But it would have been nice if at least one panellist had wrestled with this kind of stuff, considering the actual question that was asked.

    I guess you’re right that the Archbishop did come closest, but I hope to say more about this in the next instalment!

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