Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Ten propositions on Richard Dawkins and the new atheists

by Kim Fabricius

1. Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists do not like Christians. They like Muslims even less. We are like people who believe in leprechauns, only worse, because people who believe in leprechauns, while ignoramuses, are not warmongers and terrorists (unless they also happen to be Irish Catholics or Presbyterians). So the New Atheists are our enemies. But remember, Jesus said that we should love our enemies, forgive them, and pray for them. Besides, nothing will piss them off more.

2. But Professor Dawkins is not just angry with Christians, with particular dismay at scientists who are Christians, who, of course, are huge flies in his ointment (at the word “Polkinghorne” he grinds his teeth). Dawkins also gets angry with fellow scientists on scientific matters. One of his most bitter and public altercations was with the late Stephen Jay Gould, the famous Harvard palaeontologist. The religious affairs correspondent Andrew Brown wrote a book documenting this rabies biologorum: it’s called The Darwin Wars. So you’ve got to be fair to Dawkins, he is evenly balanced: he has a chip on both shoulders.

3. I should point out that the word “wars” in The Darwin Wars is (I think) a metaphor. Professor Dawkins himself has a knack for the memorable metaphor. His great book The Selfish Gene is a case in point. People can be literally selfish, but not genes. Indeed Dawkins does not even think that there are genes for selfishness. Okay, he wrote: “The gene is the basic unit of selfishness.” But he didn’t really mean it. Not literally. The author of Genesis said that the universe was created in six days. But who would take that literally except some crazy fundamentalists? Oops – and Dawkins.

4. In The God Delusion Professor Dawkins suggests (no, states, Dawkins doesn’t do “suggests”) that “the Christian focus is overwhelmingly on sin sin sin sin sin sin sin.” No commas, unrelenting. And count them: that’s sin x 7. Perhaps this is a clever allusion to Matthew 18:21. After all, even the devil quotes scripture. The self-proclaimed Devil’s Chaplain continues: “What a nasty little preoccupation to have dominating your life.” Yes, we Christians think of little else. But here’s a thought. All those wars like the one in Iraq that Christopher Hitchens is so keen on, or the practice of torture that Sam Harris says is necessary – that couldn’t have anything to do with our “focus”, could it? But, hey, aren’t Hitchens and Harris New Atheists?

5. Their teaching on sin shows the New Atheists to be true children of the Enlightenment – that and their belief in religionless “progress”. Now Professor Dawkins’ case against faith is that it is “belief without evidence”. (For the sake of argument, never mind that this definition itself is belief against the evidence.) So on his own terms we may be permitted to ask Dawkins, “Where is the evidence for this progress?” Forgive me, dear reader, for wearying you with the obvious: the names of such progressive statesmen and harbingers of world peace as the atheists Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Pol Pot. Oh, and isn’t there the little matter that teleology has no place in evolutionary theory? Progress? My money is on the leprechauns.

6. “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” After this now famous first-line knockdown punch by Terry Eagleton it would be unsportsmanlike to bully the bully. Professor Dawkins does not enter the ring with the intellectual heavyweights of the Christian tradition, though he occasionally throws a bottle at them from the seats. Is he ignorant, hubristic, or just plain chicken? Whatever. The irony is that Dawkins thereby again betrays the very Enlightenment he represents (as Tina Beattie records a comment Keith Ward made to her, with sadness), “everything that the Western intellectual tradition stands for, with its privileging of informed scholarship based on the study of texts.”

7. If Professor Dawkins is the “bad cop” of the New Atheists, the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee is probably the “good cop”, while Christopher Hitchens is undoubtedly the “corrupt cop”. I saw him on the British TV programme Question Time, contemptuously holding court like Jabba the Hutt. And I sat for half-an-hour at Waterstone’s dipping into the over-priced God Is Not Great as if it were dishwater, a highly flattering simile. Hitchens’ penetrating scholarly appraisals include descriptions of Augustine the “ignoramus”, Aquinas the “stupid”, and Calvin the “sadist”; while Niemöller and Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazis was motivated by a “nebulous humanism”, and Martin Luther King’s faith was Christian only in a “nominal sense”. Enough said. It is all rather embarrassing.

8. There are two reactions to this sort of illiteracy that must be avoided. The first is the response of the right, which, when not hysterical, simply confirms the unquestioned assumption of the New Atheists that God is a huge and powerful supernatural being whose ways with the world are, in principle, open to empirical discovery and verification. This is the God of Intelligent Design. If ID is science, it is either bad science or dead science. “Bring it on!” cries Professor Dawkins, gleefully rubbing his hands together. But even if it were good science (and, by the way, weren’t driven by a political agenda), it would be dreadful, indeed suicidal theology, for the god of ID is but a version of the “god of the gaps”, a god deployed as an explanation of natural phenomena, a hostage to scientific fortune, in short, an idol. The operation of ID can be successful only at the cost of the patient.

9. The second response is the response of the left, the liberals. On this Enlightenment view, science is given its due in the realm of “facts”, while religion is cordoned off from the New Atheists in the realm of “values”. There is a superficial attractiveness to this division of territory – Stephen Jay Gould called it “NOMA”, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria, separate but equal – but in the end it amounts to theological appeasement. For the realm of “facts” includes not only the empirical, natural world but also the embodied, public, political world, while religion becomes the sphere of the “spiritual”, the interior, and the private. The church cannot accept this partition for Leviathan, the nation state, is a violent and voracious beast. Nor, however, is the church called to become the state: theocracies are inevitably gross distortions of power, whether the flag bears a cross or a crescent. Rather the church is called to be a distinctive polis forming citizens for the kingdom of God and sending them into the kingdoms of the world as truth-tellers and peacemakers.

10. The New Atheists don’t only have a dashing if reckless officer leading an army of grunts, they also have their aesthetes, a brilliant novelist in Ian McEwan, a master fantasist in Philip Pullman. Are they dangerous? Of course! Yet if the Russian expressionist painter Alexei Jawlensky was right that “all art is nostalgia for God”, there is nothing to fear and something to gain from them, their didacticism notwithstanding. Unlike atheist writers such as Camus or Beckett who (if you like) have been to the altar but cannot kneel, McEwan and Pullman are unacquainted with the God of Jesus. Nevertheless, McEwan, in novels like Enduring Love, Atonement, and Saturday (titles freighted with theological irony), so elegantly probes the human shadows, and Pullman, in the His Dark Materials trilogy (the title drawn from Paradise Lost), so imaginatively narrates the themes of innocence and experience and exposes the corruptions of false religion, that we feel at least that we have been in the outer courts of the temple. It is certainly better to read this outstanding literature and be disturbed by it than not to read it at all.

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