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Sermon preparation is an unpredictable business… You never know where you might end up. Today I came across Terry Eagleton’s review in the LRB of ‘The God Delusion’ (about five and a half years late, but better that than never).

When ‘The God Delusion’ was published, there was quite a bit of criticism that seemed to boil down to ‘you think I’m a silly hypocrite, Dawkins, but actually, YOU’RE the silly hypocrite’, but this is not one of them. The fault with certain strands of atheism as I see it, and as Dr Eagleton puts much more eloquently than I could, is this:

‘Apart from the occasional perfunctory gesture to ‘sophisticated’ religious believers, Dawkins tends to see religion and fundamentalist religion as one and the same. This is not only grotesquely false; it is also a device to outflank any more reflective kind of faith by implying that it belongs to the coterie and not to the mass. The huge numbers of believers who hold something like the theology I outlined above can thus be conveniently lumped with rednecks who murder abortionists and malign homosexuals… Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism. Even moderate religious views, he insists, are to be ferociously contested, since they can always lead to fanaticism.’

I can’t help meeting generalized statements like ‘Christians believe/think/do such-and-such’, or ‘religious people are all such-and-such’ with scepticism (and often, frustration), because a statement of that type necessarily brings together such a very diverse group as to render the label almost useless – almost always there are going to be notable and numerous exceptions. I also think it distracts accountability to say that ‘religion’ causes certain troubles in the world; religion is not a concrete, physical being capable of its own actions. Religion might be a motivating force, but it is people who act, people who are responsible agents.

Dr Eagleton also doesn’t avoid that tension that so often plagues debates like this, by resorting to a conclusion like ‘A secular rationalist view is the most correct option but that doesn’t mean that its adherents should ignore the positive contributions made to society be religious people or ideas’. Actually all human enterprise, ‘religious’ or not, should be critiqued by a community that wants to live ethically in response to its changing context. He goes on:

In some obscure way, Dawkins manages to imply that the Bishop of Oxford is responsible for Osama bin Laden. His polemic would come rather more convincingly from a man who was a little less arrogantly triumphalistic about science (there are a mere one or two gestures in the book to its fallibility), and who could refrain from writing sentences like ‘this objection [to a particular scientific view] can be answered by the suggestion . . . that there are many universes,’ as though a suggestion constituted a scientific rebuttal. On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare.’

The validity of a worldview, theistic or atheistic, shouldn’t be judged primarily on how it is expressed, by its followers. While we are making that distinction, by the way, let’s do away with distinguishing between ‘religious’ and ‘scientific’ as though they are opposites. They simply aren’t.

Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.’

But going on and to take up Dr Eagleton’s example, my explanation of my love for you, indeed, the evidence of my love for you as displayed in my actions, does not define who you are. It is a terrible mistake to point to the behaviour of people of faith (religious people, if you like) and draw conclusions about the nature or will of God on the basis of what you see. It would, for example, be ridiculous to suggest that the Christian church in any way adequately displays the fidelity to or proclamation of the nature of God to which she is called. That’s probably one of the reasons why we are so often compelled to pray ‘Lord, have mercy.’

Dr Eagleton’s observation (that religion and science are not in competition, but do ask different questions of the world) reminds me of Dr Rowan Williams’ statements on the nature of faith (‘good’ faith, as opposed to ‘bad’ religion) in his lecture for the Cambridge Consultations on Faith, Humanity and the Future, ‘What Difference Does it Make?’ – The Gospel in Contemporary Culture’:

‘I want to begin by thinking about that aspect of our human being in the world which is puzzled, frustrated, haunted by the idea that maybe what we see isn’t the whole story, and maybe our individual perception is not the measure of all truth… What if the world is not as tame as I think it is? One of the tests of actual faith, as opposed to bad religion, is whether it stops you ignoring things. Faith is most fully itself and most fully life-giving when it stops you ignoring things, when it opens your eyes and uncovers for you a world larger than you thought – and of course therefore a bit more alarming than you ever thought. One difference that faith makes is what more it lets you see, and how successfully it stops you denying, resisting, ignoring aspects of what’s real.’

It seems to me that the cause of most of the grief and division between us as human beings, whether we are religious or not, is a failure to acknowledge with a critical degree of humility that ‘our individual perceptions are not the measure of all truth.’ But that probably won’t change until we’d rather talk together and risk changing our minds, than shouting alone to justify ourselves and put down others. But that is another subject for another day…


Quote of the Week

“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”

Khaled Hosseini - The Kite Runner


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