Not dangerous but humanising

by
03 April 2007

Nicholas Holtam on a well written, elegant Christian apologetic

Is Religion Dangerous?
Keith Ward

Lion Hudson £8.99 (978-0-7459-5262-8)
ChurchTimes Bookshop £8.10

RICHARD DAWKINS is a bore about religion. Terry Eagleton, no particular friend of Christianity, got it right when he wrote: “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.”

So, this book begins badly by giving Dawkins more credit than he deserves for representing what is a popular atheistic challenge to religion. Keith Ward, the former Regius Professor of Divinity in Oxford, Dawkins’s own university, evidently feels the need to take him seriously. The pity is that, by definition, the result can only be a score-draw.

By allowing Dawkins to be the hook on which this book hangs, Ward’s introduction is too self-consciously written in response to Dawkins, and therefore is a bit pedestrian. His unexceptional conclusions are signalled on the first page: assertions such as “religion is the root of all evil” are absurd and ignore the available evidence; most people will conclude that religion does more good than harm.

This is a pity, because this book is a well-written Christian apologetic with passages that take off brilliantly. In response to contemporary issues, four sections in turn address religion and violence, irrationality, and immorality, with a final section on whether or not the effect of religion is harmful.

Ward’s thinking is simply expressed, weighs the available evidence and is often both intellectually sharp and elegant. It is an honest book, aware of its limits, not claiming too much for religion, but confident that religion can be reasonable.

“Revelation”, he says, “can expand the insights of reason, but reason must always test claims to revelation. That is why revelation is never static. It is always developing, though the limits of such developments are set down by the original paradigm, in the case of Christianity, of Jesus and the Bible, the witness to his life and work.”

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Morality has a specific character and tone established by a relation-ship to a personal God of supreme goodness, not laborious obedience to a set of impersonal rules.

“The believer”, he goes on, “does what is right because the believer has been grasped by a vision of supreme personal goodness, by a glimpse of the vision of God. . . God is obeyed because God is loved, and because doing the will of the beloved is the greatest pleasure life offers.”

Richard Dawkins will not be converted by the claim that religion, despite its flaws, has been one of the great humanising movements of recent European history, nor that it was religion, not secular thought, that propounded the view that nature is founded on a deep rationality. For the thoughtful Christian, hungry to develop intelligent belief, this book is a gift — and, despite the packaging, that’s its market.

The Revd Nicholas Holtam is Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

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