I have often found John Gray, who writes for the Guardian newspaper, one of the most perceptive liberal journalists in the UK. This piece published in today’s Guardian on atheist fundamentalism is another well-written piece which highlights many of the flaws in the new atheism from a man who is no friend of religion.
Archive for the ‘atheism’ Category
So at last the much predicted conversion of Tony Blair to Catholicism has happened. Much has been made of the timing of his conversion- after leaving office rather than before. Anyone who has observed Mr Blair’s behaviour over the last decade will not be surprised. Despite his repeated talk about his faith such faith has always taken second place to political expediency. Despite the rhetoric his policies have not been driven by genuine convictions but by what he can get away with in the court of public opinion. Once again his conversion to Catholicism has reflected the fact that political gain always comes before convictions. This is something that he has already admitted by his acknowledgement that he refrained from speaking publicly about his faith for fear of being called a ‘nutter.’ His knowledge of what it means to follow Christ has obviously not be shaped by Jesus teaching in the gospels.
The news of his conversion has also re-ignited the debate about how he led us into the Iraq war. Here he stated that he prayed before taking this momentous decision. It is a typical Blairism- the public are expected to accept what he has done rightly or wrongly because he claims to be sincere. There is no need to enter any kind of debate because he says he is sincere. But the reaction to this statement has been fairly typical- what was a Christian doing leading the country, we should have had an atheist! Of course the argument is that atheism is rational based on neutral reasoning, unclouded by any external factors and moral(!?) Its a view of atheism that is a much a caricature of atheism as it is of Christianity.
If Blair has been guided in his politics by Christian faith it is not a Christian faith that I recognise or would want any part of- all rhetoric and no substance.
I was saddened to learn that Jonathan Edwards, the Olympic gold medalist and triple jumper has renounced his Christian faith. Edwards has been one of the most high profile Christian figures in the public eye overt the last two decades. For a time like Eric Liddle he refused to compete on a Sunday. I was always slightly puzzled that having taken that stand, which I didn’t agree with, that he then did a complete u-turn.
Seemingly his reasons are intellectual. In a recent interview in the Times he said, “During my documentary on St Paul, some experts raised the possibility that his spectacular conversion on the road to Damascus might have been caused by an epileptic fit. It made me realise that I had taken things for granted that were taught to me as a child without subjecting them to any kind of analysis. When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God.” Such reasoning led me to a number of conclusions.
The first is I again became aware of the continued impact of liberal ‘Christianity’ in our day. That this kind of nonsense is still perpetuated and sadly still believed by some.
Secondly, Edwards was an avowed evangelical but sadly he seems to have belonged to that weak, unquestioning strain of evangelicalism, that raises less than robust Christians. The suggestion that Paul had an epileptic fit is pitiful. Yet, sadly, Edwards, hears this type of thinking and his faith is blown away. It reminds us of the need for a spiritually and intellectually robust faith where followers of Christ are able to stand firm in the faith of such feeble rationalism.
Thirdly, it of course raises the question as to whether this is the real reason that Edwards departed from the faith he once professed. I doubt it. I also doubt that he realises that himself for ‘the heart is desperately wicked and deceitful above all things.’ Perhaps Edwards story is not so surprising for a man who has been elevated in the public eye as a world class athlete and media star.
Fourthly, it raises the issue of how churches use Christians in the public eye uses. Edwards was a headline act and speaker. Yet he admits that his own understanding of the faith was shallow. It is perhaps inevitable that he was pushed forward into such a role. But it should be a sobering reminder that that is not God’s way. That he uses the things of no repute to shame the things that are of repute.
Edwards says he has no interest in returning to Christianity. I hope that God in His grace surprises him.
Polycarp was a Christian Bishop in Smyrna (which is in modern Turkey). He was martyred for his faith about 155 AD. At his trial before the Roman Proconsul he was asked to swear an oath to Caesar, revile Christ and thus to repudiate atheism. He made the rather moving reply ‘Fourscore and six years have I been serving him, and he hath done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?’ He was put to death for his refusal to repudiate Christianity, which the Romans called atheism.
It was it seems not uncommon for Christians to be accused of atheism in these early decades. The accusation is itself instructive about the nature of Christianity. In the first instance we see that from the outset it repudiated pluralism. Secondly, it viewed itself as self-consciously arising from a different source than other religions.
The contemporary idea that is trotted out that all religions are the same and arise from the same common psychological need do not fit well with the nature of early Christianity and the distinctive beliefs of those early Christians- nor indeed authentic Christianity today.
I have sometimes mulled over how far atheism is a position of intellectual integrity. A quote from Carl Sagan in the Washington Post has made me think about this again. Sagan, the great cosmologist of distinctive voice and, I believe, no particular friend of Christianity once remarked, “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know.” Now here is what makes me think about the intellectual integrity of atheism. Agnosticism I understand- there may be a divine being but we cannot know for sure. Atheism- that there is no God I find more difficult to understand. For does not atheism presuppose the omniscience of the atheist? That he has indeed sufficient knowledge to conclude that there is beyond doubt no God? Is agnosticism not a much more intellectually defensible question?
The current tend towards militant atheism makes me question its intellectual integrity still further. If God does not exist why is that not clear to all who have sufficient education? Why has belief not collapsed? Why the militancy and ‘yah boo’ derision of belief as opposed to sane argument for atheism? Or is it a case of argument weak shout loudly?
Finally if atheists refuse to take seriously arguments for belief is it not a case that they too have closed minds just as surely as the religionists they decry? Is not agnosticism the more intellectually defensible position?
Again I must go back to the Bible and agree with the words of the Psalms which state, ‘the fool has said in his heart there is no God.’
Writing in the Times comedian David Baddiel says, ‘Logically religion is, of course, nonsense. Attacking it with logic, especially if you are as bright as Dawkins, causes its arguments to disintegrate so quickly that it can seem like bullying, like breaking a butterfly on a wheel.’ Its not without irony that Baddiel begins his article by noting how out of date he is with cultural trends! It has obviously completely by-passed him that religious belief has not crumbled away under the supposed genius of Dawkins. Indeed it has often been Dawkins’ ‘logic’ that has been exposed as absurd.
Baddiel then goes on to offer his own explanation of religion. He rejects a Darwinian explanation of religion and argues, ‘what drives us are not the basic positives any more but the basic negatives: anxiety, fear, incomprehension, the desperate need to think that we know, to be “right”all the time, and, above all, to be parented – and there you have him, God.’ Obviously the exposure of the Freudian explanation of religious consciousness has also passed him by. Religion cannot be reduced to some Freudian father-complex since not all religions have a father figure.
I have a problem with a certain breed of atheist. My problem is with these smug characters like Baddiel who dismiss religion as being nonsense but then proceed to argue their case based upon such palpable nonsense themselves. They try to defend their views as being different from religion since they have things coolly analysed. However it becomes clear that they have decided to reject religion on grounds that has nothing to do with careful intellectual analysis.
Rightly the Bible says it is the fool who has said in his heart ‘there is no God.’
So Christopher Hitchens continues to promote ‘God is not Great’ otherwise known as ‘Why I am Smarter than God.’ I saw this statement he made in a recent Q&A session in the Times newspaper.
‘I have a challenge that I have issued in America which I’ll put to you. You have to come up with a moral statement made, or a moral action performed by a believer or a person of faith, that could not have been uttered by an unbeliever. I haven’t so far had anyone come up with an answer to this and I’m genuinely interested to see if they can. My point is therefore that religion is optional and if you say, “Well I think we should free the slaves because Jesus wants it”, I think it is a fatuous thing to say but it is not a wrong thing to say. It ought to be enough to say “I think we should free the slaves.” There is no scriptural authority of any kind for freeing the slaves, none, but there’s a good deal of scriptural warrant for slavery, which is why it lasted as long as it did and why it persists, especially in the Muslim world. Because it is indeed warranted by the text, which emancipation is not. It is a very important question. In my book there is a good deal of material about the conditions under which Jews can have slaves and what they are allowed to do to them. A lot of it is in Leviticus and Exodus, I believe.’
Obviously Hitchens thinks this is the Gordion Knot revisited. Rather it is as usual good knock-about stuff. Also as usual it misses the point. No-one denies that an atheist may perform a moral action or make a moral statement. The real question is what is it that determines the morality of an action? When an atheist performs a moral action whose code of morality is it according to?
As for the comments about slavery he as usual doesn’t bother too much about facts or context. A careful reading of the OT would show that slavery was only regarded as a temporary condition and often regarded as a means whereby a man could regain economic independence. Furthermore slaves had rights under the OT law and could not be mistreated. Slavery is recognised as a social reality and not an ideal. In the NT it is again clear that slavery is never regarded as ideal. A slave should gain their freedom if they can. A Christian slave owner should respect his slaves. And slaves should respect their masters because in serving their masters they are in fact performing a service to Christ who is the great liberator. Of course Hitchens skilfully forgets that the impetus to end slavery came not from humanism but Christianity.
But of course we’re getting into facts again. Sorry Christopher.
Recent post on Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins introduced me to the world of discussing atheism in this blog and elsewhere. And it has been an eye-opener. It was an eye-opener because I was regularly hearing Christianity(or religion- atheists seem incapable of distinguishing between the two) roundly condemned as ignorant and intolerant. So I was expecting to hear enlightened, reasoned, sophisticated arguments from the atheist community. What did I find? I found ignorance, arrogance and stereotyping. You may of course argue that Christianity can be guilty of all of these- which of course it can. My point is that I was having it stuffed down my throat- to use a favourite atheist description of expressing the Christian viewpoint- about how superior atheists were. And what better people they were.
I found ignorance-of Christianity, of the distinction between religious beliefs, of a fundamental understanding of history and indeed the case for atheism
I found arrogance- anyone who is not an atheist must be an idiot- as I was called on one occasion. Obviously Western civilisation began with Dawkins! No atheist has ever said anything stupid or done anything wrong
I found stereoptying- obviously every Christian approves of everything that has been done in the name of religion from the Crusades to 9/11
One other thing. Much of the discussion in which i found myself involved centred around the issue of morality. The atheist answer to the basis for morality is that society tells us what is right and wrong. No-one has been able to give me an answer to the question of what happens when whole societies get it wrong, i.e. in Nazi Germany. No-one has given an adequate answer to the question of why this society was wrong and those who opposed it were right.
Sorry. I know I have broken my own dictum about saying nothing about Christopher Hitchens because he does not deserve to be taken seriously. And now I am about to break it again. I can’t help myself, his writings are so ludicrous.
Hitchens writes, ‘We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion.’ In this statement Hitchens instantly runs into the problem of how we decide what is ethical if there is no God. If there is no ethical authority then we either descend into utilitarianism, where morality is governed by public opinion. Or we become our own authority in these matters, in which like Hitchens, we substitute ourselves for God. True morality needs an absolute moral standard. It requires a judge who will ensure that righteousness will prevail in the end.
Hitchens mistakes his personal values for ethics. In reality Hitchens is really more to be pitied than laughed at.
I’ve just finished reading an extract of Christopher Hitchen’s ‘God is not Great’ which he concludes with the words, ‘As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.’ Before coming to this conclusion he runs through the usual ill-defined nonsense. He states there four core arguments against the existence of God. But before that he already tells us that he has decided the case on the basis not of argument but experience. Thus in his investigation of religion he has closed his mind before weighing the issues. But of course he is not like those religious fundamentalists with their closed minds. We know that because he tells us it is so!
Hitchens writes, ‘There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.’ If I may have the temerity to challenges Hitchens argument, without trying to poison the minds of any-
1. Religious faith does not inherently misrepresent the origins of man and the cosmos. Since not all faiths are agreed upon this. Indeed not all Christians are agreed on the interpretation of the the Bible’s teachings on origins. Some favour mainstream scientific theories being compatible with Christian teaching others do not. But Hitchens spirit of open inquiry is too lazy to actually consider this.
2. I assume in argument 2 we are the ones who are in servility and God maximises the solipsism. This assumes that those who worship God are servile. That is of course Hitchens’ spin rather than the result of inquiry. I like millions of others across the centuries find joy in knowing and serving God. Facts borne out by the hymnology of the Christian tradition.
3. A careful reading of the Bible would clearly show Hitchens that Jesus taught a message of liberation not sexual repression. For example in his teaching on divorce he taught that men could not simply get rid of a wife they no longer wanted by mere casuistry. But again that is a fact that would not fit with Hitchens tilting at windmills.
4. Hitchens explains religion on the old Feuerbach/Freud/Marx idea of wish fulfillment. Again their arguments like his were rooted in their own prejudices rather than any examination of facts. The wish fulfillment theory simply holds no water. e.g. if religion explains our longing for a father figure when then do so many religions not have a father figure?
Hitchens expressed desire to have free inquiry apart from prejudice is just what he says he is seeking to expose- poisonous myth-making.