So long as religion is freed from authoritarian institutional forms, and conceived in personal terms, so long as overbeliefs are a source of innocent joy, a way of overcoming cosmic loneliness, a discipline of living with pain and evil, otherwise unendurable and irremediable, so long as what functions as a vital illusion or poetic myth is not represented as public truth to whose existence the once-born are blind, so long as religion does not paralyze the desire and the will to struggle against unnecessary cruelties of experience, it seems to me to fall in an area of choice in which rational criticism may be suspended. In this sense, a man's personal religion justifies itself to him in the way his love does. Why should he want to make a public cult of it? And why should we want him to prove that the object of his love is the most lovely creature in the world? Nonetheless it still remains true that as a set of cognitive beliefs, religious doctrines constitute a speculative hypothesis of an extremely low order of probability.
This has long seemed to me all that can reasonably be said about claims to religious truth. But Hook's principle also prescribes a particular way of dealing with religious believers. Treating purely private devotion as a choice in which rational criticism may be suspended is clearly not what, say, Richard Dawkins does. I'm consequently often uneasy about the way that Dawkins approaches the task of promoting free thought. (This was the gist of an argument I made here.)
Yet I wonder to what extent Hook is talking of an unrealisable principle. If you consider yourself in possession of knowledge derived from revelation, then there must surely be a constant temptation for you to try to convince others of your doctrines about first and last things. This is clearly true of a lay member of the Church of England Synod, Paul Eddy, who - as the BBC reports - is pressing for the Church to evangelise explicitly for the conversion of Muslims. Mr Eddy has secured enough support to have his motion debated at Synod:
Speaking to the Sunday programme on BBC Radio Four, he said that in an effort to be inclusive and inoffensive, the church had "lost its nerve" and was "not doing what the Bible says".
"Both Christianity and Islam are missionary faiths," he said. "For years, we have sent missionaries throughout the whole world, but when we have the privilege of people of all nations on our doorstep, we have a responsibility as the state church to share the gospel of Jesus Christ."
I don't consider Mr Eddy is in any respect malign (though I do think he's deluded). The great Protestant social thinker Reinhold Niebuhr - like Hook, an influential figure on the anti-totalitarian Left - mounted a sophisticated and seminal argument for why Christians ought to refrain from missionary activity among the Jews. Such activities, Niebuhr wrote ("The Relations of Christians and Jews in Western Civilization", 1958, collected in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, 1987, p. 198), were "wrong because the two faiths, despite differences, are sufficiently alike for the Jew to find God more easily in terms of his own religious heritage than by subjecting himself to the hazards of guilt feeling involved in a conversion to a faith, which whatever its excellencies, must appear to him as a symbol of an oppressive majority culture".
But much as I admire Niebuhr's principles of social criticism, I suspect they derive less from theological insight than from his being a humane and liberal-minded man. What, moreover, would a theologian of similar outlook say about a mission to the Muslims? He might conceivably make an expedient reply that Islam too is a religion of the book, a monotheism of similar inspiration to Christianity and Judaism. But I can understand how an evangelical such as Mr Eddy would find this a frustrating diminution of the good news.This is a general point about religious faith, and especially its Christian variants. If you know the will of God, or at least know who is God's intermediary in the communication of those truths, then it is presumptively unlikely that you will be content to leave alone those of us who are not in a state of grace. This is why religion is not a benign or even a neutral force in human affairs. It is essentially (if not in all particulars) a destructive one. That is the principal reason I am not only an unbeliever but an enemy of revealed truths.