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Faith for grown-ups

01 April 2016

The new atheists demand a new approach. Rupert Shortt tackles ten Dawkins put-downs


In the beginning? God creates an article, based on a woodcut for Die Bibel in Bildern, 1860

In the beginning? God creates an article, based on a woodcut for Die Bibel in Bildern, 1860

Rupert Shortt’s new book God Is No Thing aims to explain in a hundred pages how you can be philosophically and scientifically literate, and still believe the creed with confidence. Conceived as a tract – in the author’s words “pithy but not, I hope, glib” – his text doubles up as a reply to the New Atheists and a brief work of apologetics. He gives a flavour of his arguments by engaging below with ten of the commonest chestnuts raised by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion


1 “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us go one god further.”

With this comment, Dawkins supplies proof positive that the god in whom he and his allies disbelieve is simply a blown-up creature. One of the most astonishing claims in his book The God Delusion is that a creator of the world would need to be complex, that this complexity would need to arise from natural selection, and that there is no evidence for the evolution of any being more exalted than humanity so far. The god pictured here is thus a product of the universe, as well as its creator — perhaps a kind of demiurge. To describe the notion as confused is an understatement.

But look a bit further: Dawkins has little sense of history. It does not occur to him to ask why Christians have rejected pagan gods so resoundingly. Pre-Christian religion regularly mandated self-mutilation and human sacrifice. The weak were despised. Christianity’s emphasis on the radical equality of all, and the founding of hospitals, schools, and other philanthropic institutions, were genuinely revolutionary.

Legislation enacted under Roman emperors such as Theodosius II and Constantine raised the status of women. Even slavery — an institution common to all pre-modern societies that attained a certain level of wealth — was described as blasphemous as early as the fourth century by Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa. Although the blasphemy persisted for a further 1500 years, it was finally curtailed on the initiative of Western Christians.


2 “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

That the Old Testament represents God as acting cruelly or capriciously on occasion need be a real worry only to fundamentalists, for the simple reason that scriptural inerrancy is not itself a scriptural doctrine. Anyone who has done even a short course in biblical study ought to have digested the mainstream Christian view: that scripture is an extraordinary, complex human phenomenon, a library of books of every sort of genre, evolved over millennia, and held together first in the Hebrew scriptures by one nation’s quest for identity, and then in the New Testament by the life of an astonishingly original individual.

The aim of God’s creation is that creation should help to make itself; the Bible is humanly written and developed history, riddled with ambiguities and dead ends and fresh starts. Nevertheless, it forms a powerfully challenging call to humanity to grow and reform and criticise itself. What’s more, from a Christian point of view, the self-revelation of God comes into full focus only in the life and resurrection of Jesus, and in the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost.


3 “There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point. . . The truly adult view, by contrast, is that our life is as meaningful, as full, and as wonderful as we choose to make it.”

This is an exceptionally common view among post-Enlightenment observers. Ideal, modern men and women pictured by secularism are free, independent, powerful, rational, brave — the heroes and heroines of many novels and books on philosophy. But they are also proud, and somewhat stunted spiritually. Is it really true that the modern citizen who has “come of age” is the sole arbiter of meaning and value, for example? The religious understanding is that we are tenants in a house not of our own making; that our bodies are our “lendings” (in the expression used by King Lear in a moment of hard-won wisdom); and that, therefore, we are answerable to a truth we do not create. This strikes many as more realistic, as well as far humbler.


4 “More generally, one of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.”

This is a colossal caricature. A well-trodden path towards faith might entail three elements: first, an awareness of ourselves as embodied beings, with the capacity to grasp meaning and truth; second, the process of seeing our status as a gift, prompting awe, gratitude, and a heightened sense of ethical awareness; and, third, an acknowledgement of that gift as grounded in a reality that freely bestows itself to us.

A pillar of orthodoxy such as St Thomas Aquinas thought that a balance needed to be struck between the twin vices of too much religion, and too little. Aggressive secularism displays the second of these vices, while fundamentalism — what Aquinas would have called superstition — belongs in the first.

The Church is not incapable of error: its representatives can easily make statements going far beyond the basic natural perception of the mystery of existence. Such statements can lead to mistakes, conflict, and other evils, including the idolisation of community identities. In certain respects, the history of religion maps on to the entire social history of humanity. One implication of this is that religious leaders function better as sources of influence at some distance from political leaders, not as wielders of direct power themselves.

Correspondingly, while faith groups should be allowed to express their views on the issues of the day, they should not undermine the democratic process. But the core point is this: reason infers the existence of causes from the existence of effects, without always being able to infer the nature of causes from the nature of effects. If that applies in more mundane contexts, it is all the more true in a unique area of discussion such as creation.

Note, too, the unacknowledged dogmatism of the view implying that the only truth is the kind that you can measure in a test tube. The late Herbert McCabe once quipped that “Richard Dawkins is sure of what God is; and equally sure that God does not exist. I, for my part, am clear that the entity named by Christian tradition as God does indeed exist; but what God is in himself is a subject on which I can say nothing whatever.”


5 “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told that she is a ‘child of Muslim parents’ will immediately realise that religion is something for her to choose — or reject — when she becomes old enough to do so.”

Dawkins resorts to a false antithesis here. It is not just scientists such as himself, but also many philosophers (Richard Rorty being a notable example), who fail to see that secular humanism is not a neutral standpoint, the consequence of subtracting superstition from knowledge. It is an alternative metaphysical vision revolving around what a more searching thinker, Charles Taylor, has called “images of power, or untrammelled agency, of spiritual self-possession”.

None of us raises our children in a vacuum. We are all heirs to particular ways of looking at the world. But that is a different matter from the question whether young people should be allowed to make an informed choice about their beliefs. Of course they should. Christians who doubt this, and atheists who accuse Christianity of inherent intellectual authoritarianism, need reminding that loving your neighbour entails respect for his or her opinions.

When Christians and (especially) Muslims have problems over freedom of belief, this is partly a reflection of religion’s status as a badge of social identity. In a complex world, where identity is also marked by language, ethnicity, and history, it is not always possible to isolate faith from a context. At bottom, though, when Christianity and Islam are true to their guiding principles, both faiths insist on the sanctity of the person, and from this should duly follow recognition of freedom of belief as the first of human rights.


6 “Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility, and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility. As for whether they are ‘valid’, let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so.”

By all means. And if you are a militant atheist, be prepared to take your own medicine if your son or daughter starts to engage with religion in more than a skin-deep manner.


7 “I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits.”

This comment displays a typically wooden understanding of knowing and truth. Science is an exceptionally important mark of human civilisation, but its remit is not all-encompassing. On the contrary, scientism is a sitting duck; for a proposition such as “the only meaningful statements are those deriving from natural science” is not itself a proposition of natural science. In other words, whether the claim is true or false, it follows that there is at least one fact that is not a physical fact. This was the basic lesson apparently learnt after the bubble of logical positivism burst before the Second World War.

Religious language points to truths that elude scientific treatment, but this should not render it invalid by definition. Take a ready example: our understanding of others, not as objects to be analysed but as persons to be encountered, is just as real as our knowledge of stars or genes — more so, in fact, because it is more direct, and involves a greater spread of our capacities.

Aristotle had already made this kind of insight clear well before the birth of Christianity in his Nicomachean Ethics. Educated people do not expect the word “certain” to mean the same thing in every context, he argues, adding that it is the mark of a juvenile to think that certainty is fully contained in the notion of mathematical certainty. Mathematics poses no difficulty for a “juvenile” in this sense. But ethics is difficult, even for a mature person, because certainty is not so easy to come by. You have to grow into it.


8 “The only watchmaker is the blind forces of physics.”

Another false antithesis. Since Dawkins relies so much on fundamentalist — and deist — caricatures for plausibility, he does not grasp the force of a comment made 800 years ago by Aquinas: that God has made timber that makes itself into a ship rather than made the ship directly. Aquinas was naturally unaware of the theory of evolution, but his words point to why Darwin’s theories pose no great challenge to the integrity of Christianity. As a consequence of the belief that God’s creation makes itself at every level, we can fit into one picture both evolution and its costliness on the one hand, and, on the other, the Christian redemptive answer to human and natural evil.

Dawkins thinks that science can answer the ultimate question why there is something rather than nothing. He quotes support from the physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing. But Krauss’s whole argument assumes the previous existence of a quantum vacuum. Jewish, Muslim, and Christian philosophers have long grasped a core point — that actuality precedes potentiality. In other words, if x is potentially y, that is only because x already exists.

The point has tended to be imperfectly grasped across the atheist camp. In his book On Being: A scientist’s exploration of the great questions of existence, the physical chemist Peter Atkins, one of Dawkins’s allies, proves no more convincing than Krauss in accounting for existence. What Atkins calls a problem of the profoundest difficulty — namely, the unfolding of absolutely nothing into something — is avoided by arguing that, because the electrical charges and the angular momentums and the energies in the cosmos all add up to zero, absolutely nothing has only unfolded into nothing. Since nothing “positive” has to be “manufactured”, Atkins thinks that there need be no “positive, specific, munificent creation”.

This is as if we argued that quarrying a huge pile of material did not amount to anything, because the pile’s height was exactly cancelled out by the quarry’s depth. Wiser heads have been firm on this point, arguing that it is impossible, in the terms naturalism allows, to say how anything can exist at all.


9 “Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, distinctly heard the voice of Jesus telling him to kill women, and he was locked up for life. George W. Bush says that God told him to invade Iraq (a pity God didn’t vouchsafe him a revelation that there were no weapons of mass destruction).”

An astonishingly weak argument. Would people stop hallucinating if religion were banned? Has Dawkins never heard about the discernment of spirits, among other Christian terms? Or that almost every mainstream church leader on earth opposed the invasion of Iraq? Of course religious practice can go drastically wrong on occasion. But is sex a bad thing because some people become rapists or paedophiles? Or patriotism wrong because some people become xenophobic nationalists?


10 “Isaac Asimov’s remark about the infantilism of pseudoscience is just as applicable to religion: ‘Inspect every piece of pseudoscience and you will find a security blanket, a thumb to suck, a skirt to hold.’ It is astonishing, moreover, how many people are unable to understand that ‘X is comforting’ does not imply ‘X is true.’”

It ought to go without saying that the self-aware believer finds faith as much of a challenge as a comfort. Terry Eagleton puts the matter with gusto when he comments that, for Christian teaching, God’s love and forgiveness break into our protective self-rationalising little sphere, “smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down”. Pie in the sky? Opium of the people? I don’t think so. For Jesus, to live was to love. And that, at root, is why he was killed.


Rupert Shortt is religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a former Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford. His book, God Is No Thing: Coherent Christianity (published by Hurst, £9.99; Church House Bookshop £9), aims to explain in a hundred pages how you can be philosophically and scientifically literate, and still believe the creed with confidence

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