Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Why haven’t the arguments of these atheists really evolved?

Ireland is a bit giddy on atheism. And there is nothing very surprising about that.



The country was darkened by a conservative religious culture for over a century, up to a generation ago. When that culture nosedived, it was inevitable that its passing would be marked with some exultation. What surprises me about the discussion about God in the last couple of years, however, is that it is not very interesting.

I would not make the case that there is a creator god but I would not argue against the idea in the terms which have been deployed by Richard Dawkins and the other celebrated new atheists.

I was born into that old fundamentalist Catholic culture which we have gleefully shaken off. People who read my books and articles tell me that I have already bored them enough with stories about the Christian Brothers and the parish priest, but when I think back to the discussions we had in school about religion, even in those more conservative times, I recall that they were very much in character with debates which are currently viewed as radical, brave and fascinating. The wonder of Dawkins is that he is received as an innovative thinker for telling us nothing that is new. His whole point is to remind us that Charles Darwin effectively abolished the understanding that man was made in the image of God. That being so, the implications of Darwin's discovery of natural selection were available in the 19th-century.

You have to wonder why a scientist like Dawkins feels the need to beat a drum for old familiar ideas and why a virtually global audience receives him almost as a prophet of secularism. The more worrying thing about Dawkins himself is that he actually discards his own thinking when confronted with evidence of human decency and civility beyond what the theory of natural selection, as he understands it, would explain. We are better than the savage forces of nature would have framed us, he says. We have outgrown the ‘selfish replicator’. On a recent television programme he credited our success in this to a faulty gene. Other thinkers in the field of evolution find different explanations.

John Gray says Dawkins is essentially religious in his thinking. Steven Pinker is now speculating imaginatively on a moral sensibility which is innate, if stronger in some than in others, like the capacity for language that we are born with.

Another star speaker on religion and evolution is Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, at Dublin Writer's Week last year, listed one of the atrocities of religion as the cultivation of a revulsion for women. Well, you get that in the book of Leviticus but I doubt you get it in Fitzroy Presbyterian or Clonard or even Windsor Baptist.

What is ghastly about the tramping over religion by these modern thinkers is that their glee is transparent and this puts their motive in doubt. And what is sad about the excitement with which they are received in Ireland today is that it is grounded on an almost wilful forgetfulness. Of course there is much daft religion and always was. Of course the book of Genesis is not an historical account of the creation of the world, and those who think it is mistake poetry for reportage. But we know, or should know, from our own acquaintance of the religious culture from which we have emerged that it was not all literalist. Dawkins and Hitchens damn, for their want of reason, those who profess religious belief. They think that all religion is simply a refusal to accept scientific arguments which are plain and obvious to thinking people.

And then when they are confronted, in debate, by religious liberals, as they have been by Julia Neuberger or John Waters, who are not plain old-fashioned creationists, they accuse them of not having the courage to defend their core religious traditions. What they should be asking is whether they have themselves completely misunderstood the basis of religious belief if liberal intellectuals can say they don't take the Bible literally but still want to worship.

The only explanation Dawkins and Hitchens can find for this is that such people are stupid. Of course there is much discussion of religion which is stupid and unsustainable. And Dawkins and Hitchens and the others can point to dippy creationists who refute the fossil record. But abusing them is attacking the easy target and I think Dawkins should find that beneath him. There was a bigger target in front of him, a religious leader who wrote ponderous treatises on the need to bring faith and reason back together, as they were before Galileo. That was Pope John Paul II. Dawkins ignored him.

Empty Pulpits: Ireland's Retreat from Religion by Malachi O’Doherty, Gill and Macmillan, £12.99

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