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Angela Tilby: Dawkins and the divine spy camera

11 October 2019


Richard Dawkins, pictured in 2015

Richard Dawkins, pictured in 2015

RICHARD DAWKINS appeared to have changed his mind on the dire effects of religion when he announced at the Cheltenham Literary Festival that belief in a “divine spy camera in the sky” might prevent people from doing bad things. He later complained that he had been misreported.

Religion, in his view, really ought to be abolished. But his original remark is worth attending to, not least because it is eminently compatible with the atheism that he espouses. Religion could have evolved because it offered an evolutionary advantage, binding societies together by a moral code believed to have supernatural authority. No actual belief in God is required to hold this view. In fact, it has been a feature of some authoritarian societies to ensure that the eyes of their rulers (dear leaders) gaze down from screens and billboards on their subjects, willing them into conformity and obedience.

Contemporary Christians are understandably rather squeamish about thinking of God as a spy in the sky. But in a more biblical and nuanced form, belief that God watches over us in judgement could give grounds for real dialogue with atheists who deplore the moral gap left by the loss of faith. I know whereof I speak. My seven-year-old self became adept at sidling up to the sweet counter in Woolworths and sliding penny bars of chocolate into my blue woollen glove to be consumed at leisure later on. I wasn’t afraid of being caught (I was good at it), but, over time, I did become afraid that I was storing up trouble with God. Then we did the Ten Commandments at school, and, realising that “Thou shalt not steal” was one of them, I solemnly gave up shoplifting for life.

The philosopher Roger Scruton argues in his book The Face of God that the belief that we live in God’s gaze is profoundly human. He suggests that without a sense of living before God’s face we lose a sense of accountability one to another. The face of God is the template through which we understand others as having faces, as being persons like ourselves.

We spend so much time speaking of Christian faith in terms of personal fulfilment, life that really is life, etc., that we sometimes forget that the gospel comes with a No before there is a Yes. The roots of our faith are in the Ten Commandments, and the Summary of the Law. There is no point to faith if it does not begin with the boundaries designed to prevent us from exploiting, envying, hating, and murdering each other. The idea of God as a heavenly spy camera who sees and knows our every thought is a horrible rebuke to our quest for personal autonomy — but that might be just why we need it.

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