Rupert Shortt

Richard Dawkins and the ignorance of ‘New Atheism’

Richard Dawkins and the ignorance of 'New Atheism'
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I recently met an old friend at a party. She works for a Christian NGO. Later that evening we were introduced to a man with a background in software engineering. Having learnt about my friend’s job and then discovered that she goes to church, he asked her how old she thought the universe is. Her jaw dropped a bit. But she was composed enough to reply with a counter-question. ‘Did you know that it was a Catholic priest [the cosmologist Georges LeMaître] who proposed the Big Bang theory in the first place?’ Now it was the engineer’s turn to look shocked.

Some may dismiss this exchange as a flash in the pan. To others it will reflect a phoney war evident across Western culture and beyond. The frustration felt by this second group is well founded. Popular contemporary attitudes towards religion include condescending dismissal. The same applies to large sections of the media, universities and the arts establishment. Faith groups must bear their share of the blame for this. But so must the strident atheists who reject what they have never taken the trouble to investigate beyond a superficial level – especially those who write bestsellers ridiculing belief systems they know so little about.

How might scientifically informed religious believers defend the coherence of their world view? If they are Christians, say, part of their answer might run like this. The aim of God’s creation is that the world should help make itself, and the Scriptures are humanly written and developed history riddled with ambiguities and dead-ends and fresh starts. Nevertheless, they are powerfully challenging calls to humanity to grow and reform and criticise itself. This sort of judgement could be voiced in allied ways across the spiritual spectrum. ‘We have a deep respect for science,’ people of various stripes often add. ‘We just don’t think that this way of investigating the world exhausts all reality.’

In particular, there is no contradiction between accepting Darwin’s theories and belief in God. Young-earth creationists and advocates of intelligent design are therefore mistaken. So, too, are those who assume an unbridgeable divide between science and religion.

Four reasons especially might be cited in favour of such a model. The first is intellectual. Honest enquirers should follow the evidence where it leads, whether or not they practise a faith. There is nothing pious or wishful about this: a pillar of Christian orthodoxy such as St Thomas Aquinas would have insisted on the ‘unitary’ character of truth. If science establishes that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius or that the world is 13.7 billion years old, then these and other discoveries cannot be credibly challenged from any pulpit.

The second is theological. Classical teaching in various traditions, Eastern as well as Western, represents God not as a big thing competing for space with lesser things, but as the ground of existence.

One useful analogy is that of the author in relation to his or her characters. While not himself a cast member of War and Peace, Tolstoy nevertheless inhabits every line of the narrative. Another analogy is supplied by light. The light in which we see is not one of the objects seen, because we see light only inasmuch as it is reflected off opaque objects. Nature has its own integrity according to laws and patterns established by science. To repeat: God is not a micro-manager intervening here and there. Nor is the relationship between God and the world like that of a builder to a house. Things are both subtler and more intimate from a monotheistic standpoint. As a canvas supports a painting or a singer holds a song, God sustains everything in being moment by moment. We are talking about a deeper level of causation. So when someone turns on the gas to heat up a pan of water, for example, chemistry can give a full account in its own terms of the process involved. But a Hindu or Muslim or Jew or Christian can still maintain that God makes the whole situation exist: the gas, its power and its action on the water. God and the gas work at different levels, not in competition.

Divine being is also seen as unfathomable in the major faiths. ‘God may be loved, but not thought,’ as a classic such as The Cloud of Unknowing puts it. ‘By love may he be gotten and holden; but by thought never.’

Believers can nonetheless combine humility in the face of a profound mystery with a calm certainty about what God is not. In the case of a figure like Richard Dawkins, by contrast, things are turned upside down. Starting with an utterly inadequate definition of God as an angry tyrant in the sky, he then informs us that this monster doesn’t exist. It’s a true belief widely shared by people on either side of the religious divide. But why should it necessarily be an argument for atheism rather than a spur to resist idolatry?

Initial mistakes breed larger ones when unchecked. If I say that my favourite drink is beer and you reply that yours is wine, we are at least agreed on what it is we disagree about. But since the deity in whom Dawkins disbelieves is a blown-up creature, he has even gone on to make the surreal claim that our supposed creator would need to have evolved through natural selection, and there is no available evidence of any life form more sophisticated than humankind. In other words, ‘God’ is being pictured as both the cause of the universe and a product of it. Fallacies rarely come larger.

What is implied by all this? Among much else that so-called New Atheism is old hat. Call out superstition by all means. But don’t display culpable ignorance by likening all manifestations of faith across the world to belief in the tooth fairy. Dawkins’s new book Outgrowing God is no less crude than his earlier diatribe The God Delusion. Once more, he’s lobbed a stone in a vain bid to hit the clouds.

Rupert Shortt’s book Outgrowing Dawkins: God for Grown-Ups is published by SPCK (£9.99)