Janet Daley in the Telegraph a couple of days ago reflects on why the last week was a bad week for atheism
Stephen Kelly, in an article entitled Does Dr. Who feature a god for our times assesses how a country that has turned its back on its God(s) resorts to making up new ones.
The article concludes
And that’s just it, isn’t it? In the absence of an interventionist God, people simply make their own. After all, when presented with such an abyss, you fill it with whatever you can. Even if that does happen to mean someone who now thinks bow-ties are cool.
As GK Chesterton once said
For when we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.
The problem with atheism is that as ideas go it’s a perennial underachiever – the Tim Henman, if you will, in the world of ideas. Wherever it has been tried it has been found wanting, not least because as a ‘negative’ philosophy it is unliveable and unloveable. The absence of belief in a transcendent reality finally collapses into a celebration of nothingness.
So what is an atheist to do? Alain de Botton has hit on an idea – why not should steal all the good ideas from the world of religious belief and pass them off as your own.
De Botton, author of soon to be published Religion For Atheists, has written a piece for the Guardian in which he comments that ‘Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone‘ and that therefore ‘the wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed.’
It doesn’t take much by way of intelligence to recognise that there is nothing particularly rational about such a statement. After all ethical ideals depend upon reasonable foundations for believing them and compelling reasons for protecting them. Atheism is a denial that any such foundations exist and so any morality or virtue is so to speak built on sand and so easily swept away. Unlike de Botton, the New Atheists recognise that religious ideas cannot simply be stuck on.
Yet atheists who have experienced and benefited from the values they have inherited from Christianity find it so hard to let them go.
Roger Scrutton in An Intellegent Person’s Guide to Philosophy admits;
The ethical vision of our nature gives sense to our lives. But it is demanding. It asks us to stand up to judgement. We must be fully human, while breathing the air of angels; natural and supernatural at once.
A community that has survived its gods has three options. It can find some secular path to the ethical life. Or it can fake the higher emotions, while living without them. Or it can give up pretending, and so collapse, as Burke put it, into the ‘dust and powder of individuality’. These are the stark choices that confront us, and the rest of this book defends the first of them – the way of high culture, which teaches us to live as if our lives mattered eternally.
As yet, I offer no philosophical justification for taking this apparently objectivist stance. For the moment, it is enough that, in practice, it seems to work.
One hopes, as a Christian, that such thinkers who find the fence they sit on so uncomfortable will land safely on the side of the God who alone makes life liveable.
In an interview with Christopher Hitchens in the Christmas Double Edition of the New Statesman, guest editor, Richard Dawkins, speculates as to what would happen if he and the new atheists succeed in ‘destroying Christianity‘.
Well it certainly looks as if he’s got some way to go in his attempts. The Pew Forum’s recent Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population shows that as of 2010 Christianity is the world’s largest religion (2.18 billion)and accounts for one third of the global population. A proportion that has remained unchanged despite 100 years of secularisation and oppression of Christianity in communist countries.
On the same day that the nation woke up to the news that Christopher Hitchens had died our Prime Minister gave a speech in Oxford to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
That these two items of news should have followed on from one another on the BBC 10 o’clock news was striking.
Hitchens in his book God is not great argued that religion poisons everything. For Hitchens religion is not just wrong it is dangerous and damaging to society.
Cameron’s speech flatly contradicted everything Hitchens stood for when he said:
We are a Christian country. And we should not be afraid to say so.
So who is right?
It is important to read Cameron’s speech in full to understand what he is and isn’t saying.
1. He was NOT saying that the majority of people in our country are Christians (although we should not entirely disregard the fact that in the 2001 census 71% of the British population chose to define themselves as Christian). It is not particularly clear in what sense Cameron regards himself as a Christian for example.
2. Nor was he saying that Britain as a Christian country is intolerant of people of other faiths. Quite the opposite it is Christian countries that have demonstrated a tolerance for other faiths.
Those who say being a Christian country is doing down other faiths simply don’t understand that it is easier for people to believe and practise other faiths when Britain has confidence in its Christian identity.
The tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths too.
That could certainly not be said of Muslim countries where freedom to convert from Islam to Christianity is illegal and those who do face severe sanctions.
And although I have no way of assessing his claim it was striking that Cameron also said:
Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France.
What was Cameron’s point then?
Essentially it was this:
The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.”
Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities these are the values we treasure.
Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that.
So David Bentley Hart in his work Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its fashionable enemies rightly concludes:
Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible. It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things – they would never have occurred to us – had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren.
It is very hard to imagine what the world would have looked like without Christianity. The nearest we can get is by asking how are countries that have long history of Christian faith and worship different from those that do not.
This post can’t possibly do the work of establishing that Christianity has had a profound influence for good that we all benefit from whether we acknowledge that origin or not. For that you must look elsewhere. Perhaps with Bentley Hart’s book or maybe this one God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam which has been short-listed for the Royal Society Prize for Science Books 2010
How should we respond as Christians to the speech?
At least three things come to mind.
1. David Cameron in his speech gave Christians ‘permission’ to openly acknowledge the God who has blessed our nation in ways not even we Christians easily remember. It is often the case that it is those who have emigrated to our country from other parts of the world who can see what we take for granted. They rejoice in the rule of law, freedom of speech, human rights, isn’t it time we thanked God for them too!
2. Christians also have been given permission by Cameron to challenge Government positions that would seek to undermine this all to valuable heritage for instance in the proposed attempt to redefine marriage.
3. The speech was also a repost to the new atheism which wants to rewrite history by distorting the contribution of a thousand years of Christianity in our country. Such a denial of history creates a culture in which scepticism flourishes. Cynic and doubter alike would do well to be reminded, and we can help in this, that the life that we enjoy and celebrate is simply NOT to be found in nations that are not built on a Christian foundation. There are uniquely Judeo-Christian values and at least in that sense Britain remains a Christian country.
Always controversial and an outspoken atheist his ideas have impacted and infuriated many.
His entry in Wikipedia notes that he was included in ‘The Top 100 Public Intellectuals Poll’ The poll ‘was conducted in November 2005 and June 2008 by Prospect Magazine (UK) and Foreign Policy (US) on the basis of responding readers’ ballot. The objective was to determine the 100 most important public intellectuals who are still alive and active in public life.’
I remember watching the documentary Collision which followed Christopher Hitchens (author of God is not great) and Doug Wilson as they debated ‘Is God good for the world?‘. It’s not a particularly good documentary in some senses but what you can’t miss as you do watch it is what a friendly relationship they enjoyed.
In an article in Christianity Today on the death of Hitchens Wilson writes ‘During the time we spent together, he never said an unkind thing to me—except on stage, up in front of everybody. After doing this, he didn’t wink at me, but he might as well have.’
As we reflect on the death of a godless man we remember the word of the Lord in Ezekiel:
‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?’
So Richard Dawkins is guest editing the Christmas edition of the New Statesman – a smart move on their part which is guaranteed to boost the sales.
Like all fundamentalists Richard Dawkins can be infuriating. His resistance to reason and his refusal to engage with the world of ideas has driven many an atheist mad let alone the Christian. Again like many fundamentalists his rhetoric is often full of vitriol and demonstrates a sometimes scary intolerance for any who disagree with him – no matter how reasonable. But I for one am still glad he’s in the world. Why?
1. Is there anyone who does more to keep religion in the public eye than Dawkins? The secularist agenda is to marginalise people of faith by keeping God-talk out of the public sphere. Dawkins functions as a secret agent subverting the secularist agenda by insisting on discussing matters of faith. When others go on and on about X-factor he just can’t stop talking about God! He’s done more for the church, in the public sphere, than any religious figure since the time of CS Lewis.
2. It follows from the first point that Dawkins is responsible, both directly and indirectly, for opening up many a conversation as matters of God, faith & science continue to be discussed in the media. Just this last week Brian Cox distanced himself from Dawkins views on Radio 5 Live.
3. Dawkins does a great deal to reassure Christians that their faith is reasonable and credible. His refusal to debate Christian apologist William Lane Craig in Oxford a couple of months ago, even at a time that he was promoting his own new book through a show at the Royal Albert Hall, was a massive own goal. His unwillingness to defend his own ideas has been exposed by a number of atheist Philosophers.
4. Dawkins provides some great quotes to highlight the bankruptcy of atheism. His own (albeit qualified) support for infanticide, his admission that he has no idea how life began on the planet, his own recognition that for the atheist there is no good and evil all demonstrate how unliveable atheism is and how dark its conclusion are.
5.Dawkins compels Christians to think and to think deeply about their faith. As we take seriously the call to provide a reasoned defence for what we believe gets us back to our Bible and to good books.
6. Dawkins reminds us of the danger of fundamentalism in all of its forms. He is a warning to us all of how ugly it can be and how by contrast Christians need to think, speak and behave differently.
Francis Schaeffer was right when he said ‘the greatest apologetic of all is love’.
So happy Christmas Richard Dawkins and keep up the good work!
Stop mocking religions and start stealing from them? Why Alain de Botton’s new book is doomed to fail
The thesis of Alain de Botton‘s next book is that religion is good for atheists. It’s sure to create a stir (and sell a few copies) if Religion for Atheists: A non-believer’s guide to the uses of religion is all that it is cracked up to be.
There’s even an opportunity to hear a secular sermon from him in advance via the school of life in January of next year.
Judging from the introduction to the book on his own website it seems that de Botton thinks you can steal the best bits of a religion without being religious yourself.
The problem with the thesis is that, uniquely for Christianity, it simply cannot work that way. For to steal gospel instructions on how to live without relying on God who gives us life through the gospel is to steal a car without an engine. Quite simply you are going nowhere.
Here’s what I hope de Botton might grasp: the Christian life depends, and depends absolutely, on the Christian gospel . It is the engine of the Christian life because only a deep inner grasp of what the gospel has done for us can enable the response required in the Christian life.
So, for example, Christian community is made possible not because we choose to be nice, or like to forgive, or want to get along but because of a fundamental change of identity that the gospel alone has brought about.Christian community depends, absolutely, on the knowledge that IF Christ has died for me and you, and IF he has reconciled us to God, then he has reconciled us to each other.
The FACT that both I and they have been loved by God in Christ obligates me to love and serve them and gives me. The FACT that I have been loved by God in Christ also gives me a compelling and powerful motivation to boot. The ability to love flows out of the experience of love. The desire to forgive flows out of the experience of forgivenss. That is why the power to live the Christian life flows out of the gospel itself.
The same is true of forgiveness. The apostle Paul says to the Christian ‘forgive because’, but because what? Because, Ephesians 4:32 ‘in Christ Jesus God forgave you.’ I forgive because I have been forgiven.
And this is where de Botton’s thesis breaks down for the atheist does not share that experience and as a result does not share that obligation to live with regard to anyone. He does not claim to have experienced a forgiveness that compels him to forgive others. Forgiveness for the atheist is a lifestyle choice. He is not being inconsistent if he does or doesn’t forgive his neighbour. There is the world of difference between the Christian requirement to forgive because we have been forgiven and the atheist who is under no such obligation.
Take away the gospel indicatives (Christ forgave us) and there remain no binding gospel imperatives (therefore forgive one another).
It will be a curious thing to see how de Botton will escape such an obvious and necessary conclusion.
A while back I posted a short film clip in which Richard Dawkins not only admitted that we have ‘no idea’ how life began on planet earth but went on to suggest that human life may owe its origin to aliens; a theory known as panspermia. Of course, he had no scientific evidence for this, but in the absence of good science why not invoke the ‘aliens did it’ argument!
I knew Dawkins wasn’t the first to propose such a speculation. Sir Fred Hoyle argued along a similar line when he recognised the statistically absurdity of arguing that life simply evolved by chance.
Crick himself once said;
‘An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.’
Any problems that exist with theories of the evolution of life pale into insignificance when it comes to the problems with explaining the origin of life from a naturalist worldview as this recent article in Scientific American acknowledges.
The words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1 come to mind:
Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
So Richard Dawkins decided to stay away rather than defend his arguments set out in The God Delusion. Here’s your opportunity to assess whether that was a wise move. William Lane Craig sets out his critique of Dawkins’ book before a panel of Oxford University Atheists who in turn respond. All part of A Reasonable Faith Tour.
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