12 December 2010


A friend of mine has asked me a question - or rather expressed a difficulty he has and wonders if I have any thoughts on the matter:

I am trying to come up with a suitable response to (or way to approach) the "new atheists" (Hitchins, Dawkins, etc), who strike me as bigots, i.e. persons motivated by hatred of belief and believers, who do not take religious belief seriously.
A bigot (in the Wikipedia article's words) is "A bigot is a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices, especially one exhibiting intolerance, and animosity toward those of differing beliefs."

I am, of course, not competent to answer this question :-)  I have not read the books by these authors attacking religion, and am not going to do so.  I have what seem to me sufficient reasons to put my faith in Jesus Christ and in the Catholic Church.  I do not see that anything anyone could say against these reasons could change that.

So does that make me a bigot?  I do not think so.  In the first place, it is not as though I have not considered, and considered at some length, the various arguments against faith.  These arguments appear to me not to offer anything to believe in, but only to suggest that the reasons persons have for believing in the Christian faith might have difficulties.

Fair enough - these reasons do unquestionably have difficulties.  Every question of importance in life, from whether to trust a particular person's integrity in business or love to the question of religious obedience has difficulties.  There is not - and, I think, cannot be - an argument in favour of, say, believing that my wife loves me that is totally unassailable.  She might, after all, be an imposter - in it for some benefit (which, to be sure, I cannot currently imagine: wealth, physical attractiveness, and social prestige would seem, at least, not to be in question :-)).

So I do not think I need to read yet one more attack on Christianity to feel that I have sufficiently considered the objections to my faith.  I absolutely believe in God.  I have what Newman calls assent.

But if I were inclined to try to respond to Hitchens or Dawkins - rather like that mouse responding to the lion, I would suppose - but still - if I were to try to respond, I hope I would take them seriously as persons convinced of a point of view.  From the discussions of their books that I have read on-line - and from the bloggings of persons who quite certainly share their point of view - I would say that, yes, they are bigots.  These reviews and bloggings do not, indeed, seem to me to take religious belief seriously.

Well, so what?  Why should they?  They consider God to be a delusion.  Do I take seriously the views of some maniac locked up in an asylum who assures me that he is Napoleon?  No, I do not.

But of course I do not write books to show him that he is deluded.

But here, I think, we can see at least one aspect of the attack of the "new atheists" on religion.  For the religious point of view is not held by a single unfortunate schizophreniac.  It is held, and held with vigour, by billions of persons.  Great good is done in the name of religion - but great evil is done in its name, as well.  Religion is no mean opponent.  Both of these men sincerely believe, I think, in the fundamentally malignant character of religion.  Both think it worthwhile to try to point out this fact.

The, to me undoubtable, bigotry of their approach is therefore the more regrettable.  If, after all, there is something to their argument, it seems to me they would win more hearers on the other side - that is, on the side of religion - but taking seriously the point of view of religious believers.  The best of religious believers have been the best, also, of humankind.  I do not see how a clear-sighted view of history can deny that.  There must be something in it that makes us accept what Hitchens and Dawkins think a delusion.

I do not have the impression that they really want to know what that is.

But then I have not read their books, and do not expect to.  So they have the last laugh - for now, at least.


John Thayer Jensen said...

PS - I suppose, thinking about it, that Richard Dawkins might have an additional motive - the perfectly understandable one of finding, as I believe he thinks he has done, that his speciality - evolutionary biology - can explain religion quite well as the plausible outcome of natural selection.

That evolutionary biology itself requires any more fundamental metaphysical explanation may not have occurred to him.

John from Canada said...

Thanks, John, this is helpful. Given the enormous difference between a lunatic in a mental asylum and the millions of religious believers, I'm wondering, however, why Dawkins, Hitchins, etc. are being taken so seriously? One doesn't see debates with former UK prime ministers over whether Billy-Bob Thornton really is the reincarnation of Benjamin Franklin. Other sorts of bigots seem not to get the attention that Hitchins, Dawkins et. al. are getting.

John Thayer Jensen said...

@John from Canada:

I'm wondering, however, why Dawkins, Hitchins, etc. are being taken so seriously?

Well, there I think you have clearly to deal with the cultural history of the west. I do not suppose that there are so many in China or India who are concerned with these writings. We are a Christian culture - and, increasingly, a culture in rebellion against our Christian roots. I am not at all surprised to find enormous interest on the part of so many whose own cultural memory is of Christianity (now often two or three generations back), who are very much aware of the very significant power of the reality of believing Christians today - and are delighted to find men whose reputations, in their own fields, are very high (Dawkins, for instance), or who are just good writers (Hitchens), coming out against the hated oppressor.

For I do not think you can doubt that Christianity is oppressive - oppressive, that is to say, if you reject it. Christianity - like Islam and Judaism - makes absolutist claims. Christianity claims that certain things are true, and that failure to submit to the truth of these things may bring very great - indeed, eternal - consequences. That men should consider such claims oppressive, and wish to be given reasons why such claims need not be taken seriously, seems to me unsurprising.

Why, then, do not men also realise that, if the Christian claims are true, submission to those claims produces consequences so enormously desirable - so astonishingly positive - that they should rush to find evidence for their truth.

There, I am afraid, one must see evidence for the great stumbling block of Christianity: the Cross. To accept the claims of Christianity - the claims, in fact, of Christ - one must, finally, deny one's own most fundamental claim, the claim to autonomy. Christians themselves constantly struggle against that very self-assertion, that we call by the name 'pride', must do so in ever deeper ways, rooting out the self-deception that tells them they have already done so. And we Christians claim to have divine help in doing this - the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Is it any wonder that most men cannot imagine such a self-denial as being either desirable or possible?