Which is a title sufficiently conceited to put anyone off reading this post. But let’s face it – it’s a not uncommon attitude. It lies at the heart of individualism, that pervasiveness western sickness that lies at the root of so many of our ills. It was the title I had in our current series, Great Lies of Our Time (I’m assured that the talks were not allotted because of some particular problem that needed addressing in each speaker – but who can say for sure?).
You can now download the talk here.
Mary Eberstadt has a wonderful turn of phrase and an impish wit, which are used to devastating effect in her 2010 book The Loser Letters. She boldly takes on the mantle of C S Lewis’ Screwtape, but instead of infiltrating the murky world of Wormwood’s diabolical apprenticeship, she joins the New Atheists in their quest to crush theism. So she writes 10 open letters, in the persona of A.F.Christian (i.e. ‘a former Christian’), to some of the leading lights of the movement like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. With great relish she writes to advise ‘The Brights’ (atheists) on how better to defeat ‘The Dulls’ (Christians), and above all to undermine belief in ‘The Loser’ (God). At times, the result is laugh-out-loud funny. Read more
I was a green and callow undergraduate in 1992 – present at a debate between A N Wilson (who’d recently produced his iconoclastic hatchet job, Jesus) and Anthony Harvey, who’d given the Bampton Lectures and subsequently written Jesus & The Constraints of History. It’s etched on my memory, not least because it was so frustrating to listen to Wilson rip into the historical record of Jesus; but mainly because it was the first time I’d ever spoken out in a public event. Wilson’s main contention (as I remember), in common with countless theologians, was that Paul was the one who forged what we would recognise today as Christianity. So i put my hand in the air, and found myself asking why Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the message of the Cross and Resurrection as something that he himself had received before passing them onto others (1 Cor 15:3-8). Well, it received the scorn it didn’t deserve, although I seem to remember Harvey saying something in its defence.
So I nearly fell of my breakfast chair on Saturday when my mother passed her copy of the Daily Mail (I don’t read it myself, note), that Wilson has changed. Quite radically in fact. Al Mohler noted something of his honesty and openness 2 years ago. But now, Wilson’s gone even further. He opened his article, provocatively entitled Religion of Hatred, (to which my immedate assumption was, “oh no, here we go again”), by describing a Palm Sunday procession that he took part in last week, in London. He’s not unaware of the shock this would be to many:
For much of my life, I, too, have been one of those who did not believe. It was in my young manhood that I began to wonder how much of the Easter story I accepted, and in my 30s I lost any religious belief whatsoever. Like many people who lost faith, I felt anger with myself for having been ‘conned’ by such a story. I began to rail against Christianity, and wrote a book, entitled Jesus, which endeavoured to establish that he had been no more than a messianic prophet who had well and truly failed, and died.
But he’s changed now. And he has turned his gaze against ‘irrational’ haters of religion, like Hitchens, Dawkins and Polly Toynbee. These, with countless others, are now the preachers of a Religion of Hatred.
For ten or 15 of my middle years, I, too, was one of the mockers. But, as time passed, I found myself going back to church, although at first only as a fellow traveller with the believers, not as one who shared the faith that Jesus had truly risen from the grave. Some time over the past five or six years – I could not tell you exactly when – I found that I had changed. When I took part in the procession last Sunday and heard the Gospel being chanted, I assented to it with complete simplicity.
The change was brought about by a number of factors. But one was that he refused to be cowed by the heat and vitriol of the new atheists. Then there’s this:
But there is more to it than that. My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known – not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die. The Easter story answers their questions about the spiritual aspects of humanity. It changes people’s lives because it helps us understand that we, like Jesus, are born as spiritual beings. Every inner prompting of conscience, every glimmering sense of beauty, every response we make to music, every experience we have of love – whether of physical love, sexual love, family love or the love of friends – and every experience of bereavement, reminds us of this fact about ourselves.
The historicity of the resurrection lies at the heart of his confidence:
Easter does not answer such questions by clever-clever logic. Nor is it irrational. On the contrary, it meets our reason and our hearts together, for it addresses the whole person. In the past, I have questioned its veracity and suggested that it should not be taken literally. But the more I read the Easter story, the better it seems to fit and apply to the human condition. That, too, is why I now believe in it. Easter confronts us with a historical event set in time. We are faced with a story of an empty tomb, of a small group of men and women who were at one stage hiding for their lives and at the next were brave enough to face the full judicial persecution of the Roman Empire and proclaim their belief in a risen Christ. Historians of Roman and Jewish law have argued at length about the details of Jesus’s trial – and just how historical the Gospel accounts are. Anyone who believes in the truth must heed the fine points that such scholars unearth. But at this distance of time, there is never going to be historical evidence one way or the other that could dissolve or sustain faith.
Read the whole article – it’s fascinating. Amazing to read it in a national newspaper. And it indicates that, in common with so many, he’d before been protesting just that little bit too much.
His unique position as a creatively working scientist and reflective man of religion has brought to science a sense of transcendent mystery and to religion a view of the universe through the broadly open eyes of science. He has introduced a significant notion of theology of science. He has succeeded in showing that religion isolating itself from scientific insights is lame, and science failing to acknowledge other ways of understanding is blind.
So said Professor Karol Musiol, Rector of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, of his friend Professor Michael Heller (left) – a philosopher, theologian and mathematician – who has won the Templeton Prize (worth £820,000!). See the whole article in The Times (HT – Nancy Heeb). This is how Heller describes the relationship between his theism and his science:
If we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about the cause of mathematical laws. By doing so we are back in the great blueprint of God’s thinking about the universe, the question on ultimate causality: why is there something rather than nothing? When asking this question, we are not asking about a cause like all other causes. We are asking about the root of all possible causes. Science is but a collective effort of the human mind to read the mind of God from question marks out of which we and the world around us seem to be made.
Of course, sceptics will simply point out that this prize is biased: it’s for people who already accept God. Dawkins described it as ‘a very large sum of money given [...] usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.’ Well so what?! After all, the culture wars of modern science appear to make scientific advancement very difficult for those who do accept God. But the fascinating thing about all this is simply that it gives exposure to top-level scientists who are theistic, much to the incomprehension and frustrations of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens. They seem to be everywhere these days. In fact, if you visit the average British university Christian Union these days, you are much more likely to meet students from the ‘hard’ sciences like Physics and Chemistry or Medicine, than you are from the wishy-washy arts subjects like (Languages, Literature, History – and I speak as someone from one of those who started out in the wishy-washy world of Classics). There is a widespread acceptance (despite media gossip-mongers and New Atheist ranters) that there is no intrinsic or necessary contradiction between science and religion.
I’m no scientist or mathmo, so i don’t fully understand it all – but that is not what interests me. It is simply the fact of philosophical compatibility that gets me. This is how The Times article breaks Heller’s ideas down:
- They revolve around the search for a fundamental theory of creation. His research ranges beyond Einstein and into quantum mechanics, cosmology, physics and pure mathematics, including his own version of the Heisenberg equation, below. Although his theories do not prove the existence of God, they may provide circumstantial evidence that He exists.
- So long as the Universe had a beginning, we can suppose it had a creator, he says. But if the Universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?
- Professor Heller argues against the Newtonian concept of creation, that is, against the idea of an absolute space and an absolute time and of God creating energy and matter at certain times.
- He suggests modern theologians should go back to the traditional doctrine that the creation of the Universe was an act that occurred outside space and time.
For the amateurish novice like me, there are some great books out there that provide accessible avenues into all this. Here are one or two of my favourites:
Have now managed to listen to the debate – you can too on Richard Dawkins’ official site. I enjoyed it, especially because both were gracious to each other and it was done in a professional and good-natured manner. Here are some random thoughts:
Was it unfair? Having listened to it, i would actually say it was more frustrating than unfair – so i take back my comments from a few days ago (Oct 5th 07). The format was just a bit odd, i felt – the moderator read an extract from the God Delusion, Dawkins had a few minutes to comment, then Lennox responded. Then the moderator would go onto the next point. I felt very frustrated listening and completely understand why Dawkins felt the need to come back to a previous point in his allotted time to speak to the next point (if you see what i mean). But actually Lennox also had a few moments (though not as many) when he was constrained by the format. It would have been better to have allowed 2 minutes each response after their main remarks before moving on. Fortunately the moderator did ease up in the second half of the debate, and Dawkins was allowed to have the last word. So it wasn’t unfair – but it was very annoying for the debaters and the listeners!
What do debates achieve? Having glanced at a few of the comments on the official sites – it is clear that the two sides were cheering for their man and were not necessarily open to having their minds changed. But what i think it did do was to provide a platform to gain a degree of mutual respect and to set out the stall for those who are confused and wavering. The audience in the theatre were probably evenly balanced – but i sincerely hope that people will have realised from Lennox’s excellent performance that Christian theism is no pushover, despite the atheist rhetoric and bluster.
Failing to engage. I am biased – i am of course a Christian theist – but i did feel that Dawkins dodged most of the arguments placed before him – most tellingly the issue of morality. He ducked it by talking about the possibility of atheists who behave uprightly – which Lennox rightly conceded fully. No one disputes that good behaviour exists amongst atheists (although his suggestion that within a Darwinian framework, we all have a ‘lust for doing good’ was a striking one and probably more contentious). What was completely avoided was Lennox’s cogent argument that atheism removes the grounds for even the categories of good and evil.
Failing to prepare – again I’m biased and i was cheering for my man. But it did seen that Lennox was by far the better prepared – he had really done his homework on Dawkins’ books and his wider reading and experience was brilliantly used. Dawkins on the other hand presumably pitched up without really preparing that much (or at least it sounded like that as he was more hesitant and fumbling) – which i fear is a mark of his position – he simply doesn’t give a theistic argument any credence at all and thus assumes it is a pushover. This was especially evident with the sheer scorn and ridicule he poured on Lennox’s closing remarks about Jesus and the resurrection. Those comments particularly are a classic illustration of 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.
I did feel that in purely debating terms therefore Lennox had the upper hand. But the issue is not necessarily always to win the argument but to win the man – and that is of course a much tougher call. But I was very excited to hear that John Lennox did everything he could to do both and therefore should be very pleased that it went as well as it did.
While we’re on this theme, there is another debate in the USA this week – Alister McGrath against Christopher Hitchens. Details at the Trinity Forum page. Will post further details when i can.
As a staff, we’ve all been reading Bunyan’s epic, Pilgrim’s Progress. Lots of things jumped out at me and will perhaps appear here in due course. But one small theme is that of the atheist objections to the very foundations of the Christian life – namely that it is a pilgrimage to something beyond this life. The first has Christian’s companion, Faithful, describing a difficult conversation he’s had with a man called Shame:
FAITHFUL: …he objected against religion itself. He said it was a pitiful, low, sneaking business for a man to mind religion. He said that a tender conscience was an unmanly thing; and that for a man to watch over his words and ways, so as to tie up himself from that hectoring liberty that the brave spirits of the times accustom themselves unto would make him the ridicule of the times. He objected also that but few of the mighty, rich or wise were ever of my opinion; nor any of them neither, before they were persuaded to be fools, and to a voluntary fondness to venture the loss of all, for nobody else knows what… He said also that religion made a man grow strange to the great, because of a few vices (which he called by finer names), and made him own and respect the base, because of the same religious fraternity; and is this not, said he, a shame? (pp81-82)
In other words, religion is bad for you – it makes one “unmanly”! Is that why there are more women in western churches than men?! Then, at a later point, Christian is accompanied by another friend, Hopeful, when they encounter ATHEIST. Atheist asked them where they were going:
CHRISTIAN: We are going to Mount Zion. Then ATHEIST fell into a very great laughter.
CHRISTIAN: What’s the meaning of your laughter?
ATHEIST: I laugh to see what ignorant persons you are, to take upon you so tedious a journey, and yet are like to have nothing but your travel for your pains.
CHRISTIAN: Why, man, do you think we shall not be received?
ATHEIST: Received! There is not such a place as you dream of in all this world.
CHRISTIAN: But there is in the world to come.
ATHEIST: When i was at home in mine own country, I heard as you now affirm, and from that hearing went out to see, and have been seeking this city these twenty years, but find no more of it than I did the first day I set out (Eccles 10:15, Jer 17:15).
CHRISTIAN: We have both heard and believe that there is such a place to be found.
ATHEIST: Had not I, when at home, believed, I had not come thus far to seek; but finding none (and yet I should, had there been such a place to be found, for I have gone to seek it farther than you), I am going back again, and will seek to refresh myself with the things that I then cast away for hopes of that which i now see is not. (pp156-157)
All quite interesting – Atheist reminds me quite a bit of the words commonly attributed to Yuri Gagarin, but more accurately taken from a speech by Soviet Premier Khrushchev: Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there. But more relevant even than that outmoded Soviet jibe, it at least proves that the likes of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are not saying anything new (in case we ever thought they were). They’re simply conforming to type!
Very interesting article in the Spectator: Please Can We Have Our Enlightenment Back? by Hywel Williams – appealing against the aggressive fundamentalist atheists. There are some great lines:
This is an episode in the history of the English intelligentsia — which need not mean that it’s particularly intelligent. It’s just terribly well packaged as, enchanted by themselves, the authors castigate the irrational past.
But the last 2 paragraphs are worth quoting in full:
…Moreover there is hardly a single scientist of the Age of Enlightenment who was not a professing Christian of some kind. Baron d’Holbach’s thoroughgoing materialism was entirely exceptional — which accounts for his notoriety. Newton’s Unitarianism meant that he doubted Christ’s divinity, but that still means he was in a serious tradition of religious thought — and one that had a profound impact on his portrayal of the regular and uniform laws of classical physics. And — most awkwardly for our modern polemicists — what scientists meant then by ‘reason’ could involve much of what we would now call magic. Francis Bacon’s prose seems coolly lucid until we remember his dabbling in the occult, and Newton was keen on alchemy.
David Hume’s sceptical refinement makes him the Folk Enlightenment’s pin-up boy. But it was that same scepticism which made him doubt science’s objectivity: genuine knowledge, he said, was based on sensory evidence, and science was therefore authentic enough. But for Hume that also made science subjective — the product of one person’s experience. It’s also Hume who taught us how weak a thing reason really is — a ‘slave of the passions’, as he puts it — reflecting our interests, ambitions and prejudices. A little less cockiness about reason as their private possession might cure our present-day crusaders of their vulgar certitudes.
A truly Christian worldview has never made it possible to espouse the absolute and final authority of human reason. But it is interesting to note that even Hume (right) saw the flaws in that.
The underlying fury, it seems to me, of the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and Sam Harris is not so much directed at Christianity (although they are of course wildly concerned about the influence some groups within Christianity have in politics, especially American politics – but it should be said that there are some other Christians who are rather concerned about that as well). It is all perhaps a matter of transference. The Christian right (and with them, wider theistic worldviews) are far easier and more obvious prey than the real shifts that are going on at a more philosophical level, because these shifts have already reached street level. Postmoderns are incredulous towards metanarratives – yes, because of power claims, yes because of totalising and manipulative effects; but also because they distrust human reason, on precisely the grounds that Hume appeared to. (It’s just that they have taken things much further than Hume would allow.) And the atheist fundies can’t stand that. Nor can Christian, Muslim or any other fundy, for that matter.
Now, i haven’t swallowed it whole. We don’t throw babies out with the postmodern bathwater. Instead, we should aspire more to a critical realist approach (because what alternative is there, in actual fact?) – there is such a thing as objective reality; there is such a thing as knowing; it’s just that my knowledge of the reality out there is flawed – always. And my hunch is that actually it is (ironically enough) the Christian worldview/metanarrative that does justice to both. For as the apostle Paul wrote (albeit in a slightly different context):
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12
If you want some more on this, check out the Hitchhikers’ Guide to Postmodernism on iTunes.
One of the things that fascinates me (but also invariably troubles me) is how people who are not believers view those who are. Of course, there is a lot of mutual prejudice and ignorance – all too often the worst culprits are sadly the Christians who presume to comment categorically and dogmatically on those who are not. There is no excuse for that – and I have to say I wince sometimes (perhaps even often) when Christians speak out publicly, especially when they claim to do it in my name as a fellow-believer. I dare say that others have winced when i’ve done the same thing – and we certainly need great care.
Still, non-believers are no less prone to stereotyping and strident prejudice or ignorance. I fear that our good friend Richard Dawkins is too often guilty of that. So it is very refreshing when people seek to be more objective, open and/or honest. This doesn’t necessarily mean they accept the premises of the Christian faith at all – in fact, in the examples I cite here, most of these writers do not. But that makes their comments all the more powerful or helpful. And certainly with these here, i’m sitting here going alleluia because they make so much sense. I just wish we could maintain their level-headedness and sanity when we discuss things that atheists believe strongly…
- Madeleine Bunting on THE NEW ATHEISTS WHO LOATHE RELIGION – grateful to Steve Timmis for putting me onto this one – fascinating article from yesterday’s Guardian. She engages with the likes of Christopher Hitchens and especially Sam Harris who has recently published the chart-topping Letter to a Christian Nation.
- Matthew Parris on THE HEART OF THE MATTER: regular readers will perhaps have picked up that I’m on the whole a big fan of Matthew Parris – former Tory MP, hilarious and astute political commentator (for years the Times’ parliamentary sketch writer) and now regular columnist in the same paper. I was given an old photocopy of this column he wrote some time back – i’ve no idea when and haven’t been able to trace it on the net. All I know is that it was definitely in the Times and was around Easter time. If you can trace it that would be great, so i can provide a direct link. In the meantime, i’ve posted a transcript of it. He is trenchant and spot on. There is an old gag amongst ministers that the things that are guaranteed to cause trouble (and even splits) in churches are Music or Flowers, or even a combination of the two. It takes someone like Parris to shake us up and bring us to our senses. Here is a small taste – one of my favourite bits:
- Terry Eagleton reviewing Richard Dawkins’ GOD DELUSION: because this is so good, i thought I’d link to it again (having 1st linked to it on Feb 4 2007). Full of very sane and sensible criticism from this brilliant literary theorist, former Oxford Professor and Marxist. The whole article was originally in the London Review of Books.
Dawkins is an unashamed proselytiser. He says in his preface that he intends his book for religious readers and his aim is that they will be atheists by the time they finish reading it. Yet The God Delusion is not a book of persuasion, but of provocation – it may have sold in the thousands but has it won any souls? Anyone who has experienced such a conversion, please email me (with proof). I suspect the New Atheists are in danger of a spectacular failure. With little understanding and even less sympathy of why people increasingly use religious identity in political contexts, they’ve missed the proverbial elephant in the room. These increasingly hysterical books may boost the pension, they may be morale boosters for a particular kind of American atheism that feels victimised – the latest candidate in a flourishing American tradition – but one suspects that they are going to do very little to challenge the appeal of a phenomenon they loathe too much to understand.
For if God exists then our Godless existence falls apart. And if God does not exist then surely the church falls apart! We would be dealing with a superstition. A whole range of ancillary debates would just drop away as pointless. Forms of prayer? Hats or no hats? Thou or you? What would it matter? Would we discuss how to address the Loch Ness Monster if we did not believe in the Loch Ness Monster? Would we pay money into a pension policy if the insurance company were a fiction?
This is slightly different but no less intriguing.
- Lord Hattersley on LINKING FAITH & GOOD WORKS: this is one of his regular columns in the Guardian, written 18 months ago, and did the email rounds at the time – but it is definitely worth keeping in circulation as it is generous and honest, even if you don’t agree with everything he says:
It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian or, better still, to take Christianity à la carte. The Bible is so full of contradictions that we can accept or reject its moral advice according to taste. Yet men and women who, like me, cannot accept the mysteries and the miracles do not go out with the Salvation Army at night. The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me. The truth may make us free. But it has not made us as admirable as the average captain in the Salvation Army.