A Christmas Thunderbolt for the Arch-Enemy of Religion
BY: JOHN CORNWELL
Dec 28, LONDON, ENGLAND (TIMES) Professor Richard Dawkins has caused a sensation this year with the runaway success of his anti-religious book The God Delusion. Here, through the pen of John Cornwell, the Almighty delivers a counterblast.
Naturally I can appear to my creatures in any form I choose - burning bushes, pillars of fire, bearded Jewish patriarchs, even bread and wine. So imagine Me, if you will, in the guise of a simple monk. Does that surprise you? I have chosen to pen this letter in the cloister where a century and more ago the Austrian priest-scientist Father Gregor Mendel discovered the genetic laws of heredity. Cross-breeding different coloured peas, he performed a series of remarkable experiments that became the basis of the modern age in biology.
Richard, you know better than anybody that Father Mendel was both a scientific genius (to whom you are immensely indebted as a scientist) and a deeply religious man. Mendel was living proof that faith in Me and knowledge of science are not in competition. I hope to persuade you that while science and religion are two very different discourses, they can coexist in harmony.
I’ve read your book, The God Delusion, which calls for the elimination of religion and belief in Me. I do not wish to berate you; after all, as a poet once wrote, “hatred of God may bring the soul to God”. For what many atheists loathe is not God at all but the false representations of Me.
But consider the wise warning of GK Chesterton. When people cease to believe in God, they come to believe not in nothing, but in anything. It’s that anything that concerns Me. You recommend in almost every line of the book that your readers should replace Me in their hearts and minds with you.
Let me begin with your overall thesis. You insist that all claims for My existence are “hypotheses about the universe”, and hence the exclusive province of science. What of those traditional rational “proofs” for My existence? Popular to this day is the argument for a Grand Designer God to solve the riddle of nature’s exquisite complexities. Could the parts of a watch, or a Boeing 747, fall into place by pure chance? How much less likely the human brain, or a water beetle! Following Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, however, you explain, eloquently and persuasively, how the mystery of design is sufficiently settled by the bottom-up blind laws of evolution.
You then allow that anthropologists are competent to describe what religion is and what religionists do. But only Darwin’s theory of evolution, you insist, can offer an ultimate explanation for the true origins of religion.
So you relate what you believe to be a parallel in natural history. A moth navigates by the light of the moon or the stars, but is sometimes attracted by the same conditioned reflexes into a candle-flame. These accidents of self-incineration, you tell your readers, are a “by-product” of a programmed behaviour that is normally advantageous. Religion, you speculate, is also a harmful by-product of an infant’s disposition to believe fairy tales that are beneficial. Believing in a big bad wolf may prevent a child straying into the woods. But stories of the hell fires that await naughty children are received with the same credulity in inevitable consequences. Thus religious fictions, with a propensity for fear, bigotry, hatred and violence, take hold of a child’s psyche and are passed from generation to generation.
The tragedy for most believers, you argue, is their failure to understand that all are free to reject the religion taught by their parents. You end with the heartening news that once God has been abandoned, “a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically - and inadequately - usurped”.
Without commenting in depth on these arguments, it must be said at once, Richard, that most sensible theologians have no problem with Darwin’s theory of evolution, nor with much of what you yourself have written on the wonders of the natural world. You are pushing against an open door. Nor are most children so credulous as to actually believe that they will be eaten by bears if they tread on the pavement cracks. They can, and do, distinguish between the real and the imaginary at a very early age. Most human beings, moreover, are capable of being moved both by nature and the inward stirrings of the spirit without a sense of mutual exclusion.
Let Me start, though, by commenting on the sources you have marshalled for a work that attempts to embrace a vast scope of philosophy, religion, anthropology, and theology.
You have relied far too much on the nice but facile philosopher, Richard Swinburne of Oxford, for Christian theology. On Islam you cite one book, Ibn Warraq’s caustic Why I am not a Muslim. Nothing on Judaism, Confucius, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Sufism. Little or nothing, moreover, on your philosophical atheist antecedents since the 18th century. And in support of many amateurish generalisations on anthropology you have mainly resorted to that decaying old monument, Frazer’s Golden Bough.
It was no surprise to read Professor Terry Eagleton’s acidulous observation: “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.”
But then, what need of scholarship when in possession of a superior intellect like yours! You are described on the book’s dustjacket as “one of the world’s top three intellectuals”. Not a peer-group verdict, but the opinion poll of a small-circulation, avowedly atheistic, British monthly.
There was a time when Oxford dons prided themselves on modesty - the more learned, the more unassuming. But your self regard, Richard, has assumed bizarre proportions, privately and publicly. Witness the admission that you allowed Mrs Dawkins, the former Lalla Ward of Doctor Who fame, to declaim out loud The God Delusion in its 400-page entirety; not once but twice. As you usefully inform your readers, such a service is best performed by a partner with appropriate speech and drama training.
You write that you don’t regard religion to be a “proper field in which one might claim expertise”. Which is presumably why you saw no reason to acquire any knowledge relating to the topic. Yet you concede that there are eminent scientists who disagree with you, and you cite the eminent cosmologist Professor Sir Martin Rees.
“The pre-eminent mystery,” Rees has stated, “is why anything exists at all.
What breathes life into the equations, and actualised them in a real cosmos. Such questions lie beyond science, however; they are the province of philosophers and theologians.”
Yet you dismiss this gracious acknowledgment as folly. What fuels your contempt of theology, moreover, is the profound prejudice you once articulated in an earlier work, Climbing Mount Improbable. Let’s take a look.
You describe how you attended a lecture about figs in poetry, religion, anthropology. “This kind of thing,” you write, “is the stock-in-trade of a certain kind of literary mind, but it provokes me to literal mindedness.” The “real poetry”, the “real metaphor” lurking in the fig, you argue, is its “Darwinian grammar and logic”, Botanical facts are true, whereas the other stuff is made up and hence untrue.
So why not propose, Richard, that King Lear by William Shakespeare (the Bard being of that “certain kind of literary mind” you so much depore) be substituted with psychiatric case notes on senile dementia? Or that Wordsworth’s Daffodils be swapped for a horticultural fact sheet? You condescend elsewhere to permit a role for literature in your science-dominated utopia, provided that it is confined to anodyne tropes about “ineffable” sunsets and “sublime” landscapes. But your dogmatic separation of true and false in literature could not be more plain. “The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels,” you pronounce in your new book, “is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.”
Logicians characterise the inherent fallacy of such statements as the “undistributed middle”. The Da Vinci Code, which is not factual, is pulp fiction; the gospels are not strictly speaking factual, therefore the gospels are pulp fiction. This freshman howler masks an even deeper, and more pernicious, error. You are thereby declaring that there is no sense in which storytellers, poets, dramatists, evangelists can utter truth. Never mind the profound verities of My Son’s Sermon on the Mount, what about Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky . . . the entire canon of world literature. I smell bonfires! On the matter of truth and bonfires, you are right to indict religious believers who have perpetrated persecution and cruelty in my name, both past and present! But would you deny the good performed down the ages by religious believers of every kind? And would you deny the evil done in the name of science and atheism in recent history? How do you see a world without religion? “If the demise of God will leave a gap,” you proclaim, “. . . My way includes a good dose of science, the honest and systematic endeavour to find out the truth about the real world.”
And you invoke John Lennon’s famous song Imagine to conjure up the paradise on earth that will ensue. “Imagine a world with no religion. Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11, no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts . . . no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers’, no Northern Ireland Troubles . . . No Taliban to blow up ancient statues.”
Oh please, Richard! Your list, which includes conflicts that are blatantly secular, omits two catastrophic eras in recent history: Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Hitler’s Germany. So how do you attain a world without them? Are you not aware, Richard, that Stalin’s brand of communism found its origin in an idea called dialectical materialism - a self-proclaimed “scientific” and atheistic ideology? Did you never learn that Marx, who characterised religion as the “opium of the people”, conjured up a dream of the perfectibility of humankind according to mechanical laws that operate like those of the natural sciences.
Marxist-Leninism, it is well known, provided a powerful impetus for murderous purges of political dissidents and religious believers alike. Under Stalin, Russia saw the devastating implementation of sociobiological principles based on Lamarck - the inheritance of acquired characteristics - legitimising strategies of enforced collectivisation and ruinous systems of agricultural production.
Meanwhile Hitler’s appeal to bio-politics evoked images of Jews as parasitical invasions of the host body of Germanhood. Jews were responsible, Nazi propaganda claimed, for actual epidemics in the east requiring immediate quarantine - early euphemisms for the ghettos and the camps.
In the pathological paradox that attends science as salvation, the purveyors of death paraded their cynical pretensions to preserve human life. Which is why I disapprove of your characterisation of religion as a kind of cultural virus, which you call a “meme”. In the gleeful claptrap generated around this unproven article of pseudo-scientific faith, religious belief has already been characterised as a viral infection requiring drastic solutions.
Are you not aware that Hitler yearned for religion’s capitulation to science? In his rambling table talk he declared that “the dogma of Christianity gets worn away before the advances of science. Religion will have to make more and more concessions. Gradually the myths crumble. When understanding of the universe has become widespread . . . then the Christian doctrine will be convicted of absurdity”. Familiar, Richard? Hitler and Stalin are a crucial test. In your opinion they were merely unfortunate by-products, the necessary “saw-tooth” of history, you call it, as science and encroaching atheism escort the human race ever onwards and upwards. But you are evidently irritated by suggestions that Hitler is a monstrous exception. Is it because the phenomenon of Hitler threatens your facile optimism? “Hitler’s ideas and intentions were not self-evidently more evil that those of Caligula - or some of the Ottoman sultans,” you pronounce in an attempt at moral equivalence that wobbles on the brink of mitigation.
Ponder too, Richard, the strange logic of the claim that militant atheism is by definition innocuous. “Hitler and Stalin shared atheism in common,” you write. “They both also had moustaches, as does Saddam Hussein. So what?” All three wore socks and underpants, but such banalities betray once again your pitiful lack of background reading.
Hitler cynically played fast and loose with religion, to manipulate the German people. Whenever and wherever he deemed religionists a threat to his own self-idolatry he persecuted them and purged them. Apart from the Jewish genocide, he persecuted and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Christians, Protestant and Catholic, for their faith.
Stalin’s atheism, moreover, was no mere private foible, either. It was a violent feature of his ideology. He oppressed, imprisoned, tortured and murdered the Orthodox faithful, destroying their icons and their churches, throughout the length and breadth of Russia. Mao Tse-tung, another enthusiastic atheist, followed suit, and his anti-religious policies continue to this day in China.
Your failure to acknowledge, still less explore, the consequences of triumphalist atheistic science as ideology undermines your claim to seriousness, Richard. But then, you seem to have a poor grasp of totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism alike, and how they relate to an absence of respect and freedom. Notably missing from your reading is the late John Rawls’s study of political science, A Theory of Justice. It might have compensated for the evident absence in your book of studies in political philosophy from Ancient Greece to the present day.
Rawls made a telling distinction between two paths to the “good society”. One allows for individuals and groups to choose their own beliefs and values (obviously within the law); the other insists that beliefs and values should be enforced top-down. The former, Rawls defines in the political sphere as a pluralist society; the latter as a totalitarian. There is a corresponding divergence within religions: tolerant faiths that respect difference, and fundamentalist faiths that do not.
It is in the context of these two paths, Richard, that you betray both political and historical naivety. You argue, for example, that the “secularism” of the founding fathers of America was a bid to weaken the hold of religious belief on society. Hardly. The genius of the American proposal was its insistence on a state (in other words governmental) secularism that guarantees religious freedoms, including atheism, in a pluralist society.
The importance of understanding, and conserving, that historic experiment could not be more urgent today as President George W Bush attempts to hijack the protective neutrality of America’s state secularism with evangelical convictions. Which brings Me to the issue of respect, which, you say, religion does not deserve.
The question is not whether you respect the content of people’s faith, Richard, it is whether you respect their right to adopt freely chosen beliefs, within the law, without insult and persecution. There is no more powerful incentive for universal respect than the proposition that all without exception are children of God and find their ultimate destiny in Me.
There are times when a fine line exists between persecution and satire, especially when a powerful majority makes mockery of all that is held sacred by an insecure, hard-pressed minority. But never let it be said that I am unable to enjoy a joke at My own expense! Which brings Me to the debate over creationism, on which you wax heatedly. To adopt such beliefs into the science curriculums of schools would of course be a gross category error. Theology is theology, and science is science, as Father Mendel would have agreed. But you yourself consistently make a striking category error by confusing creationism and the doctrine of creation held by many faiths.
The matter is straightforward: Biblical creationists believe that the Book of Genesis is a source of factual information about the origins of the world. They teach that I literally created all things in a series of instantaneous acts over six days some 5,000 years ago. Most sensible believers in the book subscribe without demur to Darwin’s theory of evolution while reading Genesis in the light of the mystery so well articulated by Martin Rees - “Why is there something rather than nothing?” And now, I am bound before I finish to comment on what you call the God Hypothesis. You define God as “a superhuman, supernatural intelligence which deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us”. This is typical of militant atheists who constantly define me purely in terms of the criteria of science alone, rather than in terms of a quest for spiritual contact that becomes a reciprocal loving relationship between creature and creator.
Hence you reduce Me by declaring that “any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything (for that is what you think I do all day!) comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.”
Richard, when theologians attempt to describe My reality (My Mind, say) they are all too well aware of the trap known as anthropomorphism: of treating Me as a human creature. Yet it seems pointless to remind you that thousands of studies have been published on this theme down the centuries. So your consistent image of Me resembles nothing so much as a megalomaniac designer-scientist. Should I say it? Your God resembles a Great Big Professor Dawkins in the sky!
The sun has gone down and the monks are chanting vespers. I’m reminded, Richard, that you were once a choirboy. Fancy.
The tradition of choral evensong, preserved in the churches and cathedrals of your islands, points back to the rhythm of the monasteries founded by St Benedict in the 6th century. While considering all the hateful things that believers have done down the ages supposedly in My name, you might spare a thought for the monks who lived, and still live, by Benedict’s rule.
During the troubled period in Europe known as the Dark Ages, which resemble in many ways the barbarism and fragmentations of the world today, it was the monasteries that preserved civility, education, scholarship, moral intellectual life, care of the poor and the sick, the arts of husbandry, and community building. So. Why don’t you occasionally slip into your college chapel for evensong to ponder that thought. It might make you less antagonistic towards religion. And it might help to relax you a little.
For now I bid you farewell. But be assured: you have not heard the last of Me.
Till then I remain yours affectionately, and faithfully