Religion · Societal Issues · The Church

Trying to Grab a Victory on the Cheap

King James Version of Bible, first edition, title page - 1611
King James Version of the Bible, first edition title page

Over the last couple of days, self-identifying Atheist Facebookers (not necessarily “card-carrying members,” just folks) have been reposting a slam against Christians and the Bible from The Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science. Referring to the King James version of the New Testament, the piece asserts that “21st century Christians believe the ‘Word of God’ is a book edited in the 17th century from 16th century translations of 8,000 contradictory copies of 4th century scrolls that claim to be lost letters written in the 1st century. That’s not faith. That’s insanity.”

Coincidental with this posting was a recent debate at the University of Cambridge between Prof. Dawkins, an ethologist and evolutionary biologist, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. The debate proposition that “religion has no place in the 21st Century” lost by 324 votes to 136.

The London Telegraph reported that, in stressing his central concern as simply whether religion is true, Dawkins summed up his argument by describing religion as a “cop-out,” “a betrayal of the intellect,” “a pernicious charlatan” and a peddler of “false expectations.” Interestingly enough however, early in his address, Dawkins described himself as a ”cultural Anglican.” One is left to wonder if the author of The God Delusion was so roundly beaten because he hadn’t done his homework, had betrayed what he claims to be his own guiding principles, and is struggling with his own self-identity.

The self-stated mission of Dawkins’ foundation is: “to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering.” From the aforementioned FB posting and the summary of the comments made by Dawkins at the Jan. 31 debate, one might easily come to the conclusion that Dawkins is desirous of replacing what he perceives as religious fundamentalism with a secular fundamentalism that eschews scholarly inquiry, shuts down respectful debate, and preaches intolerance of other perspectives on the subject of religion. As the Urban Dictionary notes, such anti-religious ideology often “militantly ridicules, mocks, scorns and satirizes the idea of the existence of a deity or deities and or religion . . . [and employs] propaganda, bullying and insults as tactics to push adherents to abandon their professed beliefs and or convert them into like-minded individuals.”

But, you know, I’m beginning to think there may be a chink in Dawkins’ anti-religion armor. We may be watching an ethologist kicking against the goads.

In a public dialogue with Williams on the nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin at Oxford in February of 2012,  there was surprise when Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100 per cent certain of his conviction that there is no creator. The London Telegraph reported that “the philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: ‘Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?’ Prof Dawkins answered that he did. An incredulous Sir Anthony replied: ‘You are described as the world’s most famous atheist.’ Prof Dawkins said that he was ‘6.9 out of seven’ sure of his beliefs.”

As Dawkins has begun to accept the possibility that God exists, he might – from this point – begin to question whether that God could have conveyed truths about the God-self through human instruments who put that revelation in words that Christians have received as “The Word.” Who knows where Dawkins might end up if he gave the study of theology the same level of attention he has given to science?

Oxford theologian Alister McGrath offers this succinct assessment of Dawkins: His “engagement with theology is superficial and inaccurate . . . His tendency to misrepresent the views of his opponents is the least attractive aspect of his writings.” Many have listened to Dawkins over the years because he’s achieved so much in science but theology, while a companion discipline to science, is just as rich and detailed and just as demanding of rigorous attention and inquiry.

Literary scholar and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton passes similar comment in the London Review of Books: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins…are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster . . . critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook.”

For those willing to admit that there just might be a God, for those interested in the truth about the origins of the Bible, perhaps you might consider doing some research before rejecting, out of hand, that which Christians call “The Word of God.” You might start here: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/bib-docu.html

One thought on “Trying to Grab a Victory on the Cheap

  1. A man responding to this post via LinkedIn wrote the following:
    And why does this matter to you? It is your Ego, needing to define itself through enemies that is at play. What is, is… Let it BE… You have an exceedingly pleasant present moment to experience…

    Here is my reply:
    You misunderstand me; I don’t look at Dawkins as an enemy. I celebrate his willingness to debate Williams and I would vigorously defend the right of both men to speak their minds. This freedom to sort through ideas matters to me because I believe it is vitally important to a society for individuals to share – in safety – their opinions and their beliefs in the public square while maintaining a healthy respect for and dialogue with those who hold opposing views. The world is in great turmoil because so many refuse to listen, because so many leap to conclusions, because so many speak and act with little to no real reliable information, because so many shut down conversations before they even start. It matters to me because I value rigorous scholarship and lively exchanges and because I appreciate folks who do their research and focus on ideas without resorting to impugning the character of or questioning the mental stability of those who disagree with them. I agree with Terry Eagleton that we have “a moral obligation” to engage serious ideas seriously without trying to “grab a victory on the cheap by savaging those [ideas and, I might add, those who share those ideas], as so much garbage and gobbledygook.” To suggest that I write out of “Ego” (capital E) or to call a Christian’s appreciation of the Bible “insane” is, in my opinion, disrespectful savaging; it’s an attempt to grab a victory on the cheap.

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