Tag Archives: Richard Dawkins

Dawkins & Porn; Fry and Heaven

Telegraph.co.uk

Saturday 31 January 2015
Richard Dawkins wants to fight Islamism with erotica. Celebrity atheism has lost it
A tweet from Richard Dawkins’ account suggests beaming porn all over the Middle East. And Stephen Fry is angry with God. Who cares anymore?

image
By Tim Stanley12:15PM GMT 31 Jan 2015
Richard Dawkins’ insanity has now become an English institution – like warm beer and rain. On Saturday morning, a tweet from his account asked why we don’t send lots of “erotic videos” to theocracies, adding that it should be “loving, gentle, woman-respecting” (I guess this involves the pizza delivery boy calling the next day). If we’re going down this road, I also hear that Islamists aren’t very keen on bacon, so perhaps we should bombard the Iranian countryside with pig carcasses? Also, miniature bottles of gin. And photos of hot guys making out – in a “men-respecting” and “gentle” sort of way.
After a few minutes of mockery, the tweet was deleted. Perhaps even he realised how utterly mad it was. Which suggests a degree of self-awareness that I didn’t think possible in Britain’s nuttiest professor. Time was when it looked like Dawkins was about to go the full “nut-job 180” and declare that, upon reflection, there actually is a God and it’s Richard Dawkins – and have himself blasted into space on the back of a dolphin singing Onward Christian Soldiers.

As you can tell, I’ve come to regard Dick with a great deal of affection. He’s just a mad uncle – a genius academic with monomania who probably isn’t a bad person just a rather naïve one. And his capacity for dreaming up new ways to irritate the religious is, at least, not boring.


The same, alas, cannot be said of Stephen Fry. When asked by the great Gay Byrne on Irish telly what he would say to God if he met him, super atheist Fry had this response: “I’ll say: bone cancer in children, what’s that about? How dare you how dare you create a world where there is such misery that’s not our fault? It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

He went on to say that he much prefers the Greek gods.
Saying that you prefer the Greek gods to the Christian one is akin to screaming “I did classics at school!” and is really just showing off. It’s also morally corrupt, because the Greek gods rather liked raping and murdering – and were often immune to human pleas for compassion. Moreover, Fry’s central point, that a God who is all-powerful yet does nothing about suffering must be cruel, is – sigh – rather passé.

Not only has theology dedicated itself for thousands of years to unpicking that problem but the answer to it is there in the very Bible itself. Since Adam and Eve ate the apple, we’ve been living in a fallen world full of pain. God granted us free will not only to do bad things but also good things – like finding a cure for cancer or caring for those dying from it.

Terrible things happen because of a) random acts of nature, b) the intervention of the Devil or c) the corruption of man. I’m not saying anyone has to believe what I write, but please don’t act like it’s never been said before or that the answer to Fry’s facile question doesn’t exist. Dear Stephen imagines that he’s the first person in history to wonder why folks suffer. He’s not. He is, however, strangely upset about something that he doesn’t even believe in. Who gets angry about an imaginary conversation?
Ultimately, I don’t care that Fry doesn’t believe in God or that he spouts off about it at every given opportunity like a crazy man on a bus. What irritates me is that his remarks are reported as though they are important. He’s not Oscar Wilde (who died a Catholic). He’s not even Benny Hill (who was funny). Celebrity atheism was a big thing ten years ago but now is old hat and rather tiresome. Oh, there are atheist thinkers out there whose opinions are worth hearing and there are eloquent people of faith ready to respond. But why must it always be the same old bores boring on about the subject? This yawnfest has to stop.

© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2015

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under The Ramblings of a Reformed Ecclesiastic

Father Dawkins (?)

from the Telegraph

image

Is Richard Dawkins leading people to Jesus?
By Damian Thompson Religion Last updated: April 16th, 2014

Winning souls for Christ!
My schoolfriend Michael – an atheist for decades – rang me the other night and told me he’d returned to the Catholic Church. “And you’ll never guess who converted me,” he said.
“Your wife?”
“No! It was Richard Dawkins!”
He explained that he was, and is, a huge admirer of Dawkins the biologist. (I’m with him there: I read The Blind Watchmaker when it first came out and was blown away.) “But then I read The God Delusion and it was… total crap. So bad that I started questioning my own atheism. Then he started tweeting.”
Like a loony on top of the bus, no?
“Exactly!”
Funnily enough, this is the second time in a week that I’ve heard of Richard Dawkins leading someone to Christ. Let me refer you to an article in The Catholic Herald by Francis Phillips:
Judith Babarsky, an academic … having only a “surface level” understanding of Christianity as she admits, was recommended Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion to read. She writes that when she began, she thought she would read “a logical, sceptical, nay scientific critique of religion.” Instead, she was surprised to find “strings of pejorative adjectives pretending to be argument, bald assertion pretending to be evidence, an incredibly arrogant attitude and a stance of moral equivalence incapable of distinguishing between the possible strengths and weaknesses of different religions…”
Indeed, Babarsky found Dawkins’ arguments so unsatisfactory, coupled with his own atheistic and fundamentalist stance, that they prompted her to examine for the first time what Christianity was all about. Her examination was to lead to her conversion to Catholicism. “In reading to refute Dawkins as well as educate myself … I discovered the God-man Jesus Christ. Not only did the Catholic view resonate with me emotionally but … it was intellectually honest.”
Here is a link to Babarsky’s original article, with its uncompromising title:

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might conclude that Prof Dawkins secretly converted to Christianity decades ago, and then asked himself: “How can I best win souls? By straightforward argument, or by turning myself from a respected academic into a comic figure fulminating against religion like a fruitcake at Speakers’ Corner, thereby discrediting atheism?”
Hmm. Let me throw this one open to the floor. />© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2014Terms and Conditions

Leave a comment

April 17, 2014 · 10:03

How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet

By Brendan O’Neill Last updated: August 14th, 2013

Article in the Telegraph

 

When did atheists become so teeth-gratingly annoying? Surely non-believers in God weren’t always the colossal pains in the collective backside that they are today? Surely there was a time when you could say to someone “I am an atheist” without them instantly assuming you were a smug, self-righteous loather of dumb hicks given to making pseudo-clever statements like, “Well, Leviticus also frowns upon having unkempt hair, did you know that?” Things are now so bad that I tend to keep my atheism to myself, and instead mumble something about being a very lapsed Catholic if I’m put on the spot, for fear that uttering the A-word will make people think I’m a Dawkins drone with a mammoth superiority complex and a hives-like allergy to nurses wearing crucifixes.

These days, barely a week passes without the emergence of yet more evidence that atheists are the most irritating people on Earth. Last week we had the spectacle of Dawkins and his slavish Twitter followers (whose adherence to Dawkins’ diktats makes those Kool-Aid-drinking Jonestown folk seem level-headed in comparison) boring on about how stupid Muslims are. This week we’ve been treated to new scientific researchclaiming to show that atheists are cleverer than religious people. I say scientific. I say research. It is of course neither; it’s just a pre-existing belief dolled up in rags snatched from various reports and stories. Not unlike the Bible. But that hasn’t stopped the atheistic blogosphere and Twitterati from effectively saying, “See? Told you we were brainier than you Bible-reading numbskulls.”

Atheists online are forever sharing memes about how stupid religious people are. I know this because some of my best Facebook friends are atheists. There’s even a website called Atheist Meme Base, whose most popular tags tell you everything you need to know about it and about the kind of people who borrow its memes to proselytise about godlessness to the ignorant: “indoctrination”, “Christians”, “funny”, “hell”, “misogyny”, “scumbag God”, “logic”. Atheists in the public sphere spend their every tragic waking hour doing little more than mocking the faithful. In the words of Robin Wright, they seem determined “to make it not just uncool to believe, but cool to ridicule believers”. To that end if you ever have the misfortune, as I once did, to step foot into an atheistic get-together, which are now common occurrences in the Western world, patronised by people afflicted with repetitive strain injury from so furiously patting themselves on the back for being clever, you will witness unprecedented levels of intellectual smugness and hostility towards hoi polloi.

So, what’s gone wrong with atheism? The problem isn’t atheism itself, of course, which is just non-belief, a nothing, a lack of something. Rather it is the transformation of this nothing into an identity, into the basis of one’s outlook on life, which gives rise to today’s monumentally annoying atheism. The problem with today’s campaigning atheists is that they have turned their absence of belief in God into the be-all and end-all of their personality. Which is bizarre. Atheism merely signals what you don’t believe in, not what you do believe in. It’s a negative. And therefore, basing your entire worldview on it is bound to generate immense amounts of negativity. Where earlier generations of the Godless viewed their atheism as a pretty minor part of their personality, or at most as the starting point of their broader identity as socialists or humanists or whatever, today’s ostentatiously Godless folk constantly declare “I am an atheist!” as if that tells you everything you need to know about a person, when it doesn’t. The utter hollowness of this transformation of a nothing into an identity is summed up by the fact that some American atheists now refer to themselves as “Nones” – that is, their response to the question “What is your religious affiliation?” is “None”. Okay, big deal, you don’t believe in God, well done. But what do you believe in?

Today’s atheism-as-identity is really about absolving oneself of the tough task of explaining what one is for, what one loves, what one has faith in, in favour of the far easier and fun pastime of saying what one is against and what one hates. An identity based on a nothing will inevitably be a quite hostile identity, sometimes viciously so, particularly towards opposite identities that are based on a something – in this case on a belief in God. There is a very thin line between being a None and a nihilist; after all, if your whole identity is based on not believing in something, then why give a damn about anything?

 

2 Comments

September 4, 2013 · 14:56

What’s God got to do with evolution?

logo

8 August 2013 | By

Sarah Coakley, Cambridge professor of divinity, discusses how theology throws light on evolution, gender and other issues

Sarah Coakley

Source: Steve Bond

When Lawrence Summers arrived, he banned the Dalai Lama from a conference – he didn’t want anyone in a robe in Harvard! He wanted a religion department that was secular

At a time of fierce contention with secularists and scientists, most theologians believe it is best to keep their heads down, argues Sarah Coakley, Norris-Hulse professor of divinity at the University of Cambridge.

Instead of “going out to fight with the enemy direct”, they opt to “stay within the circled wagons”, on the grounds that otherwise “you will get your head bitten off – and devalue the product [theology] in the process”.

But if that is a common view among her peers, it is very much not hers. Not only is she someone who “likes a fight”, she also worries that theologians are “acceding to their own marginalisation” by remaining “in the corner of the university talking to each other”. Her preference is rather to explore “how theology can come into creative interaction with secular thought, how it can make its case for itself, not in a bludgeoning but an engaging fashion”.

Coakley’s recent work only confirms the boldness of her engagements. God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity”, the first of a huge four-volume work of systematic theology to be called On Desiring God, addresses many crucial debates about gender. Her 2012 Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen, “Sacrifice Regained: Evolution, Cooperation and God”, audaciously returned to the 19th-century idea of “natural theology”, which held that contemplating the world around us can lead us to a belief in God. Much of her argument for this draws on the three years she spent “sitting in a top-rate Harvard research laboratory”, collaborating on an interdisciplinary project on evolution and cooperation with what she describes as “brilliant international postdocs milling around the centrally positioned espresso machine, and with other eminent faculty in mathematics, psychology, clinical medicine and biological science regularly pitching in too”.

The same research project also underlies a new essay collection, Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation, that Coakley edited with Martin Nowak, professor of mathematics and biology (and director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics) at Harvard University. The book is almost heroically interdisciplinary, touching on everything from brain science, meerkats and slime moulds to experimental economics and the theological concept of kenosis (or divine “self-emptying”).

All this makes Coakley exceptionally well placed to discuss the position of theology in today’s universities, and the role it can play in social and scientific debates. But I’m also keen to use our lunch at Kings Place in London to find out more about what drove her to become one of the UK’s most daring and prominent theologians.

She tells me that she comes from a religious background. Her mother is “a profoundly religious and spiritual person” and, although her father also “worshipped on the golf course”, she “can’t remember a time when God wasn’t a vibrant reality for me”. So much so that she already knew that she wanted to be a theologian by the age of 12.

After a first degree at Cambridge and a master’s at Harvard, Coakley returned to Cambridge for a short period before securing from Lancaster University a pioneering shared lectureship with her husband, which she held from 1976 to 1991. This experience proved “very cementing, as we had to stay together. The rule was: if one of you leaves, the other has to go.”

Since 1977, alongside her progress as an academic, she has been “exploring a particular kind of practice of attention, a form of prayer”.

“Sustained practices of silence are profoundly transformative over time of one’s spiritual and ethical perspective on the world,” she says. “Initially the undertaking can be quite fearful because – to put it in secular terms – you are encountering the unconscious, which can be very disturbing, destabilising, but at the same time there’s a sort of seepage into consciousness of all the creative material academics are otherwise trained to filter out…When I talk to a Buddhist who is also a practitioner I feel more in common than with many Christians.”

Sarah Coakley

Source: Steve Bond

After Lancaster, Coakley spent two “very painful” years at a then highly traditionalist Oxford college, where she experienced “the extraordinary psychic difficulties of being the first woman in an all-male environment”.

She was met with what she terms “trivialisation”: “the assumption I couldn’t really do the job but had been appointed to look nice”, which led to “quite devious” behind-the-scenes attempts to undermine her. The atmosphere took its toll on the female students as well, almost all of whom “had some kind of neurotic problem: they had eczema, they picked their fingers, they suffered from depression – there was something about the culture that was not allowing them to flourish. When I got to Harvard in 1993, there was such a difference! The women there were sure of their own convictions and their own giftedness.” Coakley now has a rule of thumb that institutions begin to change significantly only once there are five women in senior positions.

But her 15 years at Harvard (1993-2007) – where, from 1995, she was Mallinckrodt professor of divinity – were not without their frustrations. She recalls that Lawrence Summers, who was president of the university from 2001 to 2006, was “totally opposed to any religious practice on his campus”.

“When he arrived, he banned the Dalai Lama from a conference – he didn’t want anyone in a robe in Harvard! That was a sort of declaration of war. He wanted a religion department that was secular: he didn’t want a divinity school that was training ministers. He had to back off because of antagonising alumni, but what he did instead was to try to secularise the place as much as possible. That was deeply unhappy for me. The indecision about what the divinity school was for made it difficult to operate with integrity.”

It was partly because of this that Coakley decided to take on “a big flagship interdisciplinary investigation”. She was “given postdocs and space in Nowak’s lab, and spent a year there on a sort of sabbatical watching the number crunchers at work. He’s a devout but liberal Roman Catholic. We went out to lunch every Friday to talk about theology because he was keen to find a way of integrating his religious belief with his scientific work.”

At the heart of God, Sexuality, and the Self is the compelling and perhaps disconcerting claim that sexual desire is “the precious ‘clue’ woven into our created being reminding us of our rootedness in God”, not least because “the contemplative on her knees well knows the messy entanglement of sexual desire and the desire for God”. Rigorously argued, the text also makes appeal to the insights derived from contemplative practices that “involve the stuff of learned bodily enactment, sweated out painfully over months and years, in duress, in discomfort, in bewilderment, as well as in joy and dawning recognition”.

Each planned volume of On Desiring God will take in one of the arts because, as the first volume puts it, “to allow oneself to be caught off guard, disturbed, intrigued, irritated, freshly inspired or even reduced to mirth” by such an experimental approach to academic writing is “precisely part of the searching of dark corners that my method bespeaks”.

Each volume will also draw on theological fieldwork. The forthcoming second volume will describe Coakley’s experiences when she was training for the priesthood and working in a Boston jail with black men between the ages of 17 and 23, most of whom were in for minor drugs offences.

“I was asked to teach them practices of attention,” she recalls. “They were doing a programme of anger management and post-addiction training, which involved learning to deal with their own inner turmoil…Their whole social status depended on a policing culture that ensured they would be cycled round criminality for at least the first few decades of their lives. When they engaged with practices lacking in immediate gratification, they were enormously empowered. One of them said to me: ‘I get it! This practice is the opposite of drugs.’ It’s a wonderful insight.”

But, I suggest, doesn’t her impassioned, wide-ranging and somewhat experimental brand of theology put her at odds with the modern academic imperative to produce a stream of methodologically “safe” works that peers on research assessment panels are likely to smile upon?

The Dalai Lama

Source: Getty

“It’s risky to be appealing to prayer and contemplation as well as to argument,” she agrees. “The nature of the university right now, and the way our work has come to be policed, makes it seem a little unusual. But if you don’t take such risks in our subject, you are painting yourself into a corner of extinction, because the claims of theology have always been about the nature of God in relation to the world…[It is not enough to] talk about what other people have said about the nature of God – that’s safe, but it’s reducing theology to textual criticism and anthropology.”

Furthermore, Coakley believes that “there are a set of seeming irresolvable questions in contemporary culture”, such as many of those relating to gender and race, “where we seem to have reached an impasse” – but which now “deserve critical theological illumination from a left-field perspective”. In God, Sexuality, and the Self, she sets out to develop a form of feminism that disputes the idea that “submission to God” is “the opposite of female empowerment”, noting that “it’s a strong strand in my writing that submission to the right and only and true source of power empowers you better than any form of worldly power”.

Meanwhile, with Evolution, Games, and God, Coakley, Nowak and their contributors have stepped right into the heart of the disputes between science and religion.

Central to the book is an attempt to think through the implications of new mathematical models of “the impact of cooperation on evolutionary processes”. Nowak argues that there are “three principles” of evolution and cautions that mutation and selection alone, without the third principle of cooperation, “may not give rise to complexity”.

This issues a direct challenge to the “story of evolution as something propelled entirely by selfishness”, which Coakley and Nowak take to be the message of Richard Dawkins’ seminal 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. They also speculate that “the intensification of the idea of evolutionary selfishness” may be linked with “a Western market bubble that has subsequently burst”.

I remind Coakley of a striking aside in her Gifford Lectures about the “great secret that men rarely discuss”, namely that “sacrifice is being done all the time physiologically in the tiring and painful human business of pregnancy, birth-giving and lactation”.

Yes, she agrees, “self-giving is a reality. I think Nowak’s work points directly to those features of evolutionary life that haven’t been sufficiently reflected on. Nature red in tooth and claw is dominatingly there, but other things are going on as well. No clear gender theory can be read off the results of evolution. What you can read off is the productive significance of certain forms of sacrificial behaviour. The whole process can’t occur without those. That allows us to look at the spectrum of evolution in a way that has been deeply out of fashion.”

But whether or not we agree that a religious perspective on sacrifice and cooperation can sustain a fruitful dialogue with modern evolutionary theory, it is hard to disagree with Coakley about the sheer importance of cooperation to our future as a species. “I think we are at a moment when cooperation either is or isn’t going to go into a completely different gear of operating globally,” she says. “We now have the communications systems to be able to do that. Do we have the moral purpose? If we don’t, there are certain pressing problems for the human race we can’t solve.”

Print headline:

Article originally published as: Giving but not yielding (8 August 2013)

Postscript:

Sarah Coakley’s God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay “On the Trinity” will shortly be published by Cambridge University Press. Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation, edited by Martin Nowak and Sarah Coakley, was recently published by Harvard University Press.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Ramblings of a Reformed Ecclesiastic

Dawkins, the Twitter 2

Please be quiet, Richard Dawkins, I’m begging, as a fan

By  Religion Last updated: August 8th, 2013

 

I really don’t want to write this piece. I have long worshipped Richard Dawkins and sort of wish I’d never started following him on Twitter because it’s ruining all my happy memories of The Blind Watchmaker.

But, I mean, come on.

He’s just tweeted the following:

  • All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.

— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013

 

  • You can attack someone for his opinion. But for simply stating an intriguing fact? Who would guess that a single Cambridge College . . .

— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013

 

  • Muslims aren’t a race. What they have in common is a religion. Rather than Trinity, would you prefer the comparison with Jews? Google it.

— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013

 

He’s absolutely right on one level, of course: Islam is a religion, not a race, and it would be ridiculous to accuse someone of racism for criticising its tenets. For instance, I actually (sorry, Mehdi) agreed with him when he said it was odd that someone of Mehdi Hasan’s undoubted intelligence could believe that Mohammed was taken up to heaven on a wingèd horse. I mean, that just didn’t happen, let’s face it. I also agree with him that many Islamic theocracies are viciously repressive, and that many cultural practices carried out by some Muslims are horrible, notably female genital mutilation and honour killings.

But as Heresy Club’s Alex Gabriel writes:

Asserting that because Islam is a religion and not a race, one can never discuss it (or treat its followers) in racist ways makes about as much sense as saying that because ballet is an art form not a sexual identity, it’s impossible to say anything homophobic about male ballet dancers. Hip-hop musicians and immigrants aren’t races either, but commentary on both is very often racist – or at least, informed and inflected to a serious degree by racial biases.

Treating all Muslims as featureless representatives of their religion (as Dawkins does when saying things like “Who the hell do these Muslims think they are? How has UCL come to this: cowardly capitulation to Muslims? Tried to segregate sexes in debate between @LKrauss1 and some Muslim or other”) is – well, it may not be directly racist, but it’s certainly not the sort of thing Martin Luther King would admire. The content of their character, and all that.

Because Dawkins has gone from criticising the religion itself to criticising Muslims, as a vast bloc. They’re not individuals with names, they’re “these Muslims” or “some Muslim or other”, undifferentiated, without personhood. They haven’t managed to get very many Nobel prizes, presumably because they’re stupid, or brainwashed into zombiehood by their religion. Yes, it’s only a “fact”, but in different contexts, the same fact can have different meanings. For instance, would Dawkins have tweeted another fact, which is that Trinity also has twice as many Nobel prizes as all black people put together? It’s just as true, but presumably he doesn’t believe that it’s because black people aren’t as clever. Yet he is willing to make the equivalent inference about Muslims, without further evidence.

And here’s what’s really awful: he’s failing as a scientist. It might be true that Islam is holding back scientific and other achievement among Muslims. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if it were. But you don’t get to simply assert it, because there are far too many other variables. Islamic countries are themselves usually poorer than Western ones (and far poorer than the average Trinity alumnus). Their standards of public health are lower, nutrition, education, everything. Does the average Muslim do worse in the Nobel prize stakes than the average similarly deprived Christian or atheist or Hindu? I don’t know. You need to do proper analysis, statistical regression, to work that out. What’s worse, Dawkins knows that.

Dawkins may believe that he is criticising only the religion, and its effects on the people who hold it, rather than the people themselves (“don’t hate the player, hate the game”), but his gleeful hurling of rhetorical stick-bombs doesn’t make that sort of distinction. Is he being racist? Maybe not, depending on how narrowly you define it. But whatever he’s being, it’s not nice, and it certainly isn’t advancing the various causes of secularism, atheism or everyone just bloody getting along.

Leave a comment

August 10, 2013 · 21:20

Dawkins the Twitter

from the Website of the Telegraph Media Group

Monday 29 July 2013

Tim Stanley

DR TIM STANLEY IS A HISTORIAN OF THE UNITED STATES. HIS BIOGRAPHY OF PAT BUCHANAN IS OUT NOW. HIS PERSONAL WEBSITE IS WWW.TIMOTHYSTANLEY.CO.UKAND YOU CAN FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @TIMOTHY_STANLEY.

If we’re cracking down on Twitter abuse, can we include Richard Dawkins and the atheist trolls?

 

Richard Dawkins: a clever but horrible man

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about civilising Twitter – and it’s a conversation that we need to have. I’m not in favour of banning free speech, except when it’s an obvious incitement to violence, but there’s no denying that Twitter has become a bear pit. In the long run, that might not be an entirely bad thing. The invention of social media – an unregulated, semi-anonymous public space – has handed us a chance to explore what is and isn’t acceptable discourse in the Internet age. We’re in the process of building a new online etiquette, and it could teach us some self-discipline. We’re slowly learning that sticks and stones might break our bones, but words can hurt, too.

So this gives me an opportunity to flag up a particular kind of abuse that’s annoyed me for a long time: aggressive online atheism. Don’t get me wrong: this is in no way comparable to the terrible sexual abuse that has recently gained headlines. But it’s still amazing how people feel that they can casually mock the spiritual and emotional convictions of others – including Tweeting directly at believers that God doesn’t exist and they’re either liars or idiots for saying so. One man who does this with gay abandon is Richard Dawkins. Apparently Prof Dawkins is a genius who writes beautifully about chromosomes and cave men. Well, bully for him. But he’s a bully, nonetheless. A recent Tweet that caused a stir: “Don’t ask God to cure cancer & world poverty. He’s too busy finding you a parking space & fixing the weather for your barbecue.” Hilarious. Or on Islam: “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.” Of course, that’s the same New Statesman that invited Dick Dawkins to edit it for a week – so, yeah, its taste is questionable.

Prof Dawkins is only sending out Tweets rather than Tweeting directly at individuals – which makes him more of a passive aggressive bully than the full on shove-you-head-down-a-toilet variety. But there are plenty of the alpha male atheists around and I’ve had many come knocking at my Twitter feed. I don’t hate them, I don’t want them banned, and they certainly don’t make me want to boycott Twitter. But I would like them, and the Neanderthal Dawkins, to consider the following.

When you insult my faith you go right to the heart of what makes me me. When you’re trying to convince me in 140 characters of sub-GCSE philosophical abuse that God doesn’t exist, you’re trying to take away the faith that gets me up in the morning, gets me through the day and helps me sleep at night. You’re ridiculing a God without whom I suspect I might not even be alive, and a God that I prayed to when my mother was going through cancer therapy. You’re knocking a Church that provides me with compassion and friendship without asking for anything in return – perhaps the greatest, most wonderful discovery of my adult life. You see, people don’t generally believe in God for reasons of convenience or intellectual laziness. It’s usually fulfilling a deep need – filling a soul with love that might otherwise be quite empty and alone. In short, when you try to destroy someone’s faith you’re not being a brilliant logician. You’re being a jerk.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not calling for Dawkins or his ilk to be banned. I’m thick skinned and I can take the odd badly spelled Tweet telling me that I’m a simpleton. But if we are having a grown up conversation about what is and isn’t offensive, can we Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and All Of The Above be a part of it, too? Or is only liberal secularists who are allowed to take offence?

 

Our Dawkins
Who art at Oxford
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
In the rest of the world as in in Oxford
Give us this day your daily tweet
And forgive us our ignorance
For thine is the kingdom
The power and the glory
Forever and ever
Amen

1 Comment

Filed under The Ramblings of a Reformed Ecclesiastic

Christianity and atheism

Christianity and atheism are two sides of the same coin

Those of us with no faith have a lot to learn about the value of halting the normal rhythms of life and stopping to reflect

 

  • Matthew Engelke
  • guardian.co.uk, Thursday 27 June 2013

 

Westminster Hall

The annual parliamentary prayer breakfast in Westminster Hall is an excellent example of the importance of public ritual. Photograph: Rex Features

Earlier this week I attended the national parliamentary prayer breakfast, which takes place each June in the magnificent surrounds of Westminster Hall. As usual, there were hundreds of guests, including church leaders, community activists, diplomats and politicians. All for a 7.30am start. It was my third time, but my first as a speaker at one of the post-breakfast seminars – perhaps notable above all because I am not a Christian or otherwise religious.

I wasn’t the only non-religious person there, although it is definitely a Christian occasion. On the event’s website, Stephen Timms MP is quoted in a promotional video as saying the breakfast captures “a very important movement, across Britain today, of people whose starting point is faith in Jesus”. Nicky Morgan MP says she’s in parliament not only for her constituents, but “to remember the Word of God and serve the Lord”.

At the breakfast we recited the Lord’s prayer. We sang a hymn and we listened to a gospel reading. There were other prayers too: one for the government (delivered by a Labour MP, who joked about the irony), one for parliament and one for the nation.

Many secularists go apoplectic about this kind of public religion, but I’m struck by how little attention these events garner at large. I’m sure most Britons don’t even know the breakfast takes place, and I suspect most wouldn’t care one way or the other. It’s not funded by taxpayers, which removes one bone of contention.

It’s public religion with very limited publicity, but God is being done like this day in and day out in the public square, even if it often takes a form very different from, say, my native land of America.

Faith or no faith, and whether you’re enthusiastic, indifferent or apoplectic, the breakfast is a brilliant example of why public ritual matters. Those of us with no faith have a lot to learn about the value of halting the normal rhythms of life and stopping to reflect. We could all benefit from prayer breakfasts, or at least something akin to such a metaphysical break.

Jesus was, without doubt, the frame. And yet staunch secularists, humanists, and atheists might have taken comfort from the fact that they were not forgotten, either in the prayers or the programme. In fact, it’s arguable that while Jesus was the message, new atheism was the medium.

The core of the hour-long programme belonged not to God but to Richard Dawkins, as did one of the post-breakfast seminars. In his 25-minute keynote address, Dawkins’ fellow Oxonian, the mathematician John Lennox, set out to rebut new atheism, arguing that science and religion are complementary rather than antithetical, and that faith and knowledge are both central to who and what we are as humans.

Lennox’s position is part of a longstanding tradition, and he brought it to life with a passion not always associated with mathematicians. As an anthropologist, though, what struck me was a social dynamic that often defines the clash of world views: how they come to be mutually constitutive, and how they become meaningful in relation to each other.

Christianity and atheism are two sides of the same coin. At the moment, their relationship to one another is often antagonistic, but for unbelievers the sentiment – if not the sacral nature – of the prayer breakfast should be taken seriously. In some quarters it is. In 2008, the British Humanist Association started something of a tradition like this. You can guess what it’s called, right? The no prayer breakfast.

2 Comments

Filed under The Ramblings of a Reformed Ecclesiastic

Fundamentalism

Progressive Christian Channel

 

A few thoughts on fundamentalism

May 29, 2013 By Kevin Miller

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about fundamentalism in preparation for an upcoming project I’d like to do on Rene Girard’s mimetic theory. As part of the development process, I’ve been doing a series of presentations to help me workshop the material. I’ve never approached a documentary project in this way before. However, I’m finding the opportunity to “test drive” the content with various groups tremendously fruitful.

I’m keying in on the issue of fundamentalism, because I begin my presentation with a “state of the union” on religion. I note how in the mid-20th century, sociologists and other qualified observers predicted that the rise of modernity would lead to the demise of religion. They assumed that as we moved toward a more scientific “evidence-based” way of seeing the world, worldviews that took more of a magical or supernatural approach would simply fade away–or be overrun by a tsunami of evidence that revealed such worldviews to be rooted in illusion rather than fact.

Instead, 60 years later it appears like exactly the opposite has happened. Instead of going away, religion is louder, stronger and more violent than ever. Of course, everyone points to 9/11 as the wake-up call that fundamentalism isn’t going away any time soon. And one has only to think of the Boston Marathon bombing, the brutal attack on the soldier in London, the recent skirmishes in the southern Philippines or any number of other religiously motivated acts of violence that occurred over the past couple of months to realize that religion–particularly fundamentalist religion–is very much a force to be reckoned with in today’s world.

But does religious violence necessarily indicate a rise in religious affiliation? I find Rob Bell’s recent comments about evangelical Christianity especially enlightening in this regard:

I think we are witnessing the death of a particular subculture that doesn’t work. I think there is a very narrow, politically intertwined, culturally ghettoized, Evangelical subculture that was told “we’re gonna change the thing” and they haven’t. And they actually have turned away lots of people. And i think that when you’re in a part of a subculture that is dying, you make a lot more noise because it’s very painful.

So rather than defy predictions of religion’s demise, perhaps these violent outbursts merely confirm it. The last gasp of a dying institution. To invoke a Tolkien image, they are merely the flaming tail of a Balrog seeking to pull us down with it into the abyss.

As if to bolster this hypothesis, in North America at least, we are seeing a stampede for the exits when it comes to people’s willingness to identify with institutional forms of religion, especially Protestant Christianity. A lot was made of the recent Pew study which documented the rise of the “nones,” one-fifth of the American population who claim no religious affiliation. That’s not to say the nones don’t believe in God. Many of them do. Call them “spiritual but not religious.” But, like this guy, they are increasingly sceptical of institutionalized expressions of faith, which seems to portend that America is following the same path toward secularization that many European countries have walked.

So what does this picture tell us? Is religion on the rise or is it on its way out? At the risk of being annoying, I would say, “both.” Particular expressions of religion are certainly waning, and others are waxing. But the need to ground our identity in something that transcends our individual experience has remained constant.

Witness the trailer for the upcoming documentary The Unbelievers, for example. I find it intriguing that Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have essentially adopted the means of “the enemy” to win people over to their cause. In this trailer, you see them preaching, proselytizing, marshalling celebrity endorsements and working out strategies to communicate their message more effectively to the broader culture. Hanging over it all is an apocalyptic tone, a sense that failure to fulfil their mission could spell disaster. Swap out the names and the ideas being communicated, and this could just as easily be a trailer for the next big release from Campus Crusade for Christ. This isn’t a criticism of Dawkins so much as an observation. How could it be any other way? Dawkins is only doing what every human feels an inherent need to do–ground his identity in a narrative that makes sense of the world, and then validate that narrative by getting as many people as possible to assent to it.

The important question is how we deal with those who disagree with our chosen narrative. This is where the spectre of fundamentalism rears its head.

After scouring the web for a good working definition of fundamentalism, I decided to go with “a violent reaction to modernity.” I prefer this definition, because it helps encapsulate the idea that fundamentalism isn’t so much a set of beliefs as a sense of inflexibility in terms of how those beliefs are held. This means everyone–even Richard Dawkins (even me!)–can potentially fit into the fundamentalist category.

However, I think fundamentalist atheism differs from other forms of fundamentalism in one key regard: rather than a reaction against modernity, it seems to be more of a reaction against post-modernity–the idea that there could be more than one plausible explanation for reality, and that perhaps even our perception of reality is itself a social construction, always in need of revision. (Of course, many Christians resist this idea as well.) People like Dawkins talk about moving people toward an evidence-based view of the world. But what qualifies as evidence? That determination can only be made by referencing your worldview. For example, a Christian may accept a personal revelation gained through prayer as evidence of God’s existence. Someone of Dawkins’ ilk will dismiss such “evidence” as nothing more than a psychological projection. Same phenomena, different explanation, because according to each worldview, certain lines of inquiry or explanation are necessarily excluded.

The problem is, a worldview is nothing more than a set of improvable philosophical assumptions. We tend to believe our worldview is based on evidence, but I think it’s more accurate to say a worldview is a set of non-negotiable moral or intellectual intuitions that we have come to accept as facts. So when someone comes along and questions those assumptions or asks us to consider forms of evidence that our worldview has already excluded, it’s only natural to assume that person is cognitively or emotionally defective. How else could they dispute something so obvious?

So we attempt to educate such people, to win them over to our position. But when these dissenters refuse to surrender to the obvious supremacy of our view, we come to suspect that perhaps these people aren’t merely defective in some way, they may actually be evil. They know we’re right; they just refuse to admit it.

This raises an important question: How can we possibly resolve such disputes, especially when we can’t even agree on what qualifies as evidence? It’s like we’re speaking completely different languages.

Pluralism is one response. Live and let live. All paths are equally valid. There’s no need to decide. However, if all paths are equally valid, then all paths are equally meaningless. And the assumption that all paths are equally valid is itself a philosophical preference rather than a scientific inference. So even according to its own rules, there’s no need to grant it privileged status.

These questions could easily lead to paralysis, but I tend to be rather pragmatic. To me, the only important questions are: Which worldview(s) are most conducive to careful and accurate observation of the universe? Which worldview(s) yield the most accurate predictions? Which worldview(s) require us to accept the fewest improvable assumptions? Which worldview(s) yield the smallest number of unexplainable anomalies? Which worldview(s) minimize rather than exacerbate conflict? And which worldview(s) are the most receptive to change in light of new information? This doesn’t mean worldviews which fail to pass this test should be eradicated, but it is probably in the best interest of all if they are simply abandoned. (Of course, I say this fully realizing that all I’ve done here is articulate my own philosophical preference…)

However, as I think about it, perhaps this final question is the most important. It also leads to an even better definition of fundamentalism–a worldview that refuses to change in light of new information. By necessity, every worldview requires a certain degree of inflexibility. Otherwise it ceases to function as an explanatory filter. But when preservation and defence of our worldview becomes the end-all, be-all of our existence–when our worldview becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end–we can be certain we have crossed over into a fundamentalist way of viewing the world.

Whether or not that leads us to become violent, it certainly leads to an impoverished existence. And I don’t care what your philosophical preference is, no amount of evidence can dispute that

Leave a comment

Filed under The Ramblings of a Reformed Ecclesiastic