I believe myself that his whole life was a search for God, or, for those who prefer less personal terms, for absolute certainty. Indeed, he had first taken up philosophy in the hope of finding proof of the existence of God… Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put it in.
Without doubt David Bentley Hart’s book Atheist Delusions The Christian Revolution and its fashionable enemies is the best thing I have read in response to the New Atheism. Less a critique of their views it is a scholarly rebuttal of their scandalous historical revisionism which attempts to present Christianity as a force for evil in the world by a scholarly demonstration of how Christianity transformed every aspect of society.
Hart’s thesis as set out in his introduction is as follows;
Among all the many great transitions that have maked the evoltion of Western civilization..there has only been one – the triumph of Christianity – that can be called in the fullest sense a “revolution”: a truly massive and epochal revision of humaniti’s prevailing vision of reality, so pervasicve in its influence and so vast in its consequences as actually to have a createad a new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of time, and of the moral good.
Although a ‘historical essay’ more than a philosophical response to the New Atheists he does, along the way, highlight the flawed logic of their thinking. It is a short section on morality in the opening chapter that I would like to quote at some length.
What I find most mystifying in the arguments of the authors I have mentioned [Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins], and of others like them, is the strange presupposition that truly secular society would of its nature be more tolerant and less prone to violence than any society shaped by any form of faith. Given that the modern age of secular governance has been the most savagely and sublimely violent period in human history, by a factor (or body count) of incalculable magnitude, it is hard to identify the grounds for their confidence.
It is not even especially clear why these authors imagine that a world entirely purged of faith would choose to be guided by moral principles remotely similar to their own; and the obscurity becomes especially impenetrable to me in the case of those who seem to believe that a thoroughgoing materialism informed by Darwinian biology might actually aid us in forsaking our “tribalism” or “irrationality” and in choosing instead to live in tolerant concord with one another. After all, the only ideological or political faction that have made any attempt at an ethics consistent with Darwinian science, to this point at least, have been the socialist eugenics movement of the early twentieth century and the Nazi movement that sprang from it. Obviously, stupid or evil social and political movements should not dictate our opinions of scientific discoveries. But it scarcely impugns the epochal genius of Charles Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace to note that – understood purely as a bare, brute, material event – nature admits of no moral principles at all, and so can provide non; all it can provide is its own “moral” example, which is anything but gentle.
Dennett, who often shows a propensity for moral pronouncements of almost pontifical peremptoriness, and for social prescriptions of the most authoritarian variety, does not delude himself that evolutionary theory is a source of positive moral prescriptions. But there is something delusional nonetheless in his optimistic certainty that human beings will wish to choose altruistic values without invoking transcendent principles. They may do so; but they may also wish to build death camps, and may very well choose to do that instead.
For every ethical theory developed apart from some account of transcendent truth – of, that is, the spiritual or metaphysical foundation of reality – is a fragile fiction, credible only to those sufficiently obstinate in their willing suspension of disbelief. It one does not wish to be convinced, however, a simple “I disagree” or “I refuse” is enough to exhaust the persuasive resources of any purely worldly ethics.
Compassion, pity and charity, as we understand and cherish them, are not objects found in nature, like trees or butterflies or academic philosophers, but are historically contingent conventions of belief and practice, formed by cultural convictions that need never have arisen at all.
They [the New Atheists] are inheritors of a social conscience whose ethical grammar would have been very different had it not been shaped by Christianity’s moral premises…and good sense should prompt them to acknowledge that absolutely nothing ensures that, once Christian beliefs have been finally and fully renounced, those values will not slowly dissolve, to be replaced by others that are coarser, colder, more pragmatic, and more “inhuman.”
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying that it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist–in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless–I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality–namely my idea of justice–was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”
CS Lewis – Mere Christianity
Tomorrow John Lennox debates Peter Singer at Melbourne Town Hall.
Prof. H. Allen Orr is an evolutionary geneticist. He is University Professor and Shirley Cox Kearns Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester. He was one of only thirteen winners (alongside Stephen Jay Gould and John Maynard Smith) of the Darwin-Wallace medal presented every 50 years by the Linnean Society of London for “major advances in evolutionary biology“. He’s also an agnostic.
Surely he’s exactly the kind of guy you’d want reviewing your book if your name was Ricahrd Dawkins. Wrong. Writing in The New York Review of Books Orr is scathing about Richard Dawkins;
The God Delusion seems to me badly flawed. Though I once labelled Dawkins a professional atheist, I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude he’s actually more an amateur…his book makes a far from convincing case. The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkin’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way…One reason for the lack of extended argument in The God Delusion is clear: Dawkins doesn’t seem very good at it.
The criticism [of The God Delusion] is not primarily, it should be pointed out, from the pious, which would hardly be noteworthy, but from avowed atheists as well as scientists and philosophers writing in publications like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, not known as cells in the cast God-fearing conspiracy.
On the back of Dawkins book it reads ‘The God Delusion – timely, impassioned and brilliantly argued‘. It would appear that a growing list of philosophers and scientists who share his skepticism when it comes to religion are not persuaded, they’re just a little embarrassed.
When the BBC decided it was time to broadcast another attack at the foundations of Christianity in the form of Bible’s buried secrets I wrote a letter to Mr Aaqil Ahmed the Commissioning Editor Religion and Head of Religion & Ethics at the BBC. My concern was not that Christianity should enjoy a protected or privileged status beyond contradiction but rather that Christianity should not be singled out for such critique when other religions, at their foundation, are free from critique. I received a reply from someone at BBC Audience Services which was far from satisfactory. Here is my second letter to Mr. Ahmed.
Dear Mr Ahmed
I am sorry that you were not able to reply personally to my letter sent regarding the concerns of many over the BBC’s ‘Bible’s Buried secrets’ broadcast on BBC2 earlier this year. Having now received a reply from a Mr Roberts of the BBC Audience Services it is important that I write again in light of the errors contained within his letter.
The programme ‘Bible’s Buried secrets’ was a deliberate attempt to challenge the credibility of the Christian holy book and sacred text. As the review in the Daily Telegraph highlighted;
The programme’s findings, said Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou, would “rock the foundation” of Christianity and Judaism. She must have been very keen to press home this point, because she used the phrase again and again, although, perhaps worried we were tiring of it, she did once switch to “undermine the basis”
Michael Deacon goes on;
If you hadn’t already guessed from its subtitle, “Did God Have a Wife?”, you could tell this programme was trying hard to shock the moment you heard the music its producers had chosen to play in the background.
I very much want to make clear that I believe that programmes that question the origins and basis of religious traditions have a place in public broadcasting. I am in no way seeking a privileged place for religious belief and am certainly not seeking to exempt Christianity from critique on the grounds of personal offence. That the series was frustrating in both the manner in which the claims were sensationalised and perhaps more importantly in the way the views of a few on the fringe of academia were singled out for such a high profile is something perhaps I simply have to accept. Sensationalist claims boost viewing figures after all.
My original complaint, as Mr Roberts summarises accurately, is ‘that you felt this programme was biased against Christianity, and feel there should be other similar programmes exploring other religious beliefs’.
Given that he clearly understands my concerns it is Mr Roberts’ defence of the BBC’s position that cause great concern and warrants the need for a second letter. As a public service broadcaster the BBC must not only value, but be seen to value equality and fairness in its broadcasting and Christians ask for nothing more and nothing less. All we seek is a level playing field when it comes to world religions. Mr Roberts offers little if no assurance that the BBC is seeking to provide this.
He makes three responses to my letter.
Firstly he writes, ‘The BBC delivers a range of content that reflects, celebrates and debates Christianity across TV and radio’. I’m sure it does and that is not at all at issue so let us move on.
Secondly, he argues ‘It’s simply not correct to say there are no programmes on Islam or that the BBC would not address issues about Islam’. Again this is not in dispute and not a matter I raise in my letter. That the BBC has made programmes critical of radical interpretations of the Quran is neither here nor there.
The key issue, and my chief complaint, does receive the briefest of answers in Mr Roberts’ third point and it is here that the bias at the BBC seems to surface again.
In response to my complaint ‘why does the BBC attack the foundations of Christianity in programmes that rubbish the Bible in a way that it would never do to Islam in programmes that question the very authenticity of the Qur’an’ his reply makes a strange defence.
He argues that Channel 4 have already made that programme! It’s strange because firstly it’s not true and secondly it’s strange because Channel 4 is not the BBC!
In my earlier correspondence I pointed out various academic studies that if given the same sensationalising treatment as the ‘Bible’s buried secrets’ received would also ‘rock the foundation’ of Islam. Mr Roberts’ seems to think that these studies were reflected in a Channel 4 programme which he says ‘question(s) the conventional reading of the authenticity of the Qur’an’.
As Commissioning Editor for Religion and Head of Multicultural Programming at Channel 4 when this programme was made no doubt you share my concerns that Mr Roberts should have made, no doubt mistakenly, misleading claims as to the nature and content of the programme.
The Channel 4 documentary, entitled The Quran and broadcast in July 2008, categorically does not do what your correspondent maintains it does. It emphatically does not address the issue of the authenticity of the Qur’an. As you know its concern was to focus on the issues surrounding the diverse interpretations of the book not the book itself. At no point did the programme criticise the Qur’an or mention any academic work that suggests the Qur’an is based on pre-Islamic texts. In other words, the programme at no point suggests in any way at all that the Qur’an might be merely a human book full of errors in the way that the BBC’s ‘Bible’s Buried Secrets’ does of the Bible.
So when Mr Roberts wrote in reply to my letter ‘This programme was only transmitted two years ago and no new academic work exists to warrant another film at present’ he is either ignorant of the Channel 4 programme or ignorant of the academic work or both.
The reality is, as I’m sure the forthcoming BBC series on the life of the prophet Mohammed will demonstrate, that Islam enjoys a privileged status at the BBC in being protected from criticism at its foundation. The BBC has never broadcast a programme questioning the behaviour of the prophet Mohammed nor critiquing the origins of the Qur’an. No such privilege is given to Christianity. In fact it’s quite the reverse. The corporation is quite ready to spend licence payers money on mocking and ridiculing Christianity, whether in light entertainment programmes such as Vicar of Dibley, and it’s indefensible airing of Jerry Springer the Opera or in sensationalist programmes undermining the credibility of the Bible but there is no level playing field and I suspect we all know why.
Should the BBC be free to mock Christianity? Yes. Should the BBC provoke our thinking and challenge our assumptions? In the name of education, absolutely. But should it single out Christianity for attack whilst protecting Islam? This is the big question and on this matter I look forward to receiving your answer.
William Lane Craig has two doctoral degrees, has published over 30 books, debated the world’s leading atheists including Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, but STILL Richard Dawkins will not debate him!
With thanks to Tony Watkins for this.
When the apostle Peter wrote a letter to Christians who found themsevles increasingly on the margins of society, mocked and even insulted here was his advice;
Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
In our increasingly secular society how do we respond to the growing numbers of people who are not just sceptical about Christianity but are downright hostile? How do we answer militant atheists who think no good thing comes from believing in God and that the only good religion is a dead one?
Well we should answer their arguments and there are good books worth reading and giving away on why Dawkins and Hitchens et al. are wrong. But maybe we have one knock-down apologetic argument that atheism cannot answer – the power of a transformed life.
The great defender of the Christian faith, Francis Schaeffer, said ‘the greatest apologetic is love’.
The one thing that atheism cannot explain or understand or rubbish is the extraordinary power of a transformed life.
So when the Guardian this week ran a story on the remarkable work of a church who decided to pour out their lives in sacrificial service of drug-addicts and prostitutes it was a great reminder that maybe Peter was right. When the pastor of a bible-teaching, Jesus-preaching church also says ‘”The real issues are how we should express and find love for the outcasts and the downtrodden” the world even as it accuses Christians of doing wrong still sees our good deeds and acknowledges something remarkable is going on.
John Harris author of the Guardian piece writes;
A question soon pops into my head. How does a militant secularist weigh up the choice between a cleaned-up believer and an ungodly crack addict? Back at my hotel I search the atheistic postings on the original Comment is free thread for even the hint of an answer, but I can’t find one anywhere.
The last Roman Emperor who viciously persecuted the church was Julian. He hated Christians with a vengence but even he conceded;
[Christianity] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.
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