Monday, 1 February 2010

My Disagreement with Dawkins

Last Sunday, Howard Jacobson fronted a Channel 4 documentary about the Biblical account of Creation. The basic thrust of his argument, scarcely original, was that while it isn't in any sense literally true the story that opens Genesis is rich with poetic and metaphorical significance, that it grounds us in a sense of overarching narrative, teaching us our place in the universe - not as it really is, but as we as human beings experience it. It isn't true, but it contains truth.

This was reasonable as far as it went: Jacobson is a creative writer, after all, not a scientist. But it was marred, for me at least, by an intemperate attack on Richard Dawkins for his supposed atheist fundamentalism and lack of imagination. In an accompanying article for the Mail on Sunday, Jacobson wrote, apropos Dawkins, that "a man who is closed-minded in the name of science no more has right on his side than the man who is closed-minded in the name of God." He criticised the evolutionist's "extraordinary ignorance" of religious history and thought, adding, "Not only does he comprehend nothing of what it is to have a religious imagination, he actually revels in his own incomprehension, as though not to believe whatever isn't scientifically provable, or not to understand any person who doesn't feel as you feel, is a virtue."

I found this assault on a caricature of Dawkins not just gratuitous and irritating, but ironic, given that Jacobson was accusing Dawkins of attacking a caricature of religion. He told a story about an atheist and a rabbi: the rabbi tells the atheist, "That God you don't believe in, I don't belive in Him either." Likewise, I don't believe in Jacobson's Dawkins, any more than I believe in Karen Armstrong's or Terry Eagleton's Aunt Sally versions of the prof. The author of the Selfish Gene, the author of Unweaving the Rainbow, even the author of The God Delusion, is more subtle than that. It was a lazy pop at an easy target, I thought, cheap and unnecessary, undermining the more interesting things that Jacobson had to say.

And then I read a remarkably stupid article in The Times, purportedly written by Richard Dawkins. Except that it appeared to have been written by Jacobson's Dawkins, not by mine.

It opened with a statement that Doug Chaplin rightly described as "extraordinarily facile":


We know what caused the catastrophe in Haiti. It was the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature, sin-free and indifferent to sin, unpremeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery.


Dawkins' target, naturally, was Pat Robertson, the not very pleasant American evangelist and exemplar of the Religious Right who is generally believed to have blamed the earthquake on the Haitians' "pact with the Devil". I've been here before: briefly, what Robertson blamed on the "pact" - a garbled account of a voodoo ritual said to have been held in 1791 - was not the earthquake itself but the chaotic and underdeveloped condition of Haiti. However crass his comments, he was right to point out that had Haiti been a richer country the death toll would have been much less. He did at least correctly identify the context of the disaster - which is more than Dawkins did, with his trite and utterly irrelevant little geology lesson.

"The religious mind," Dawkins continues - he also has in mind the 2004 Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina - "hubristically appropriates the blind happenings of physics for petty moralistic purposes." But is that not precisely what he has just done - his purpose being to wag his finger moralistically at the religious for daring to find human meaning in events beyond human control? It's the world "petty" that enrages. Yes, it's petty, as well as pre-scientific, to claim that God sets off earthquakes to punish sinners. But it is far from petty to point out that natural disasters pose challenges for human beings - for individuals and for society - that are very much the province of religion (if not, of course, only of religion). You may not like or agree with the answers that religion offers - hope for an afterlife, for example - but you must surely admit that people who are suffering are looking for something more substantial than a lecture about the workings of tectonic plates.

But Dawkins' main target, it turns out, isn't Pat Robertson at all. "At least, in his hick, sub-Palinesque ignorance, he holds up an honest mirror to the ugliness of Christian theology." It's the Christians who aren't Pat Robertson who really annoy Dawkins, the Christians who have the temerity to accept the findings of modern science, who want to pray for the afflicted rather than damn them as sinners, whose theology has moved on since the wars of the Reformation.

Loathsome as Robertson’s views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. The agonised theodiceans who see suffering as an intractable “mystery”, or who see God in the help, money and goodwill that is now flooding into Haiti, or (most nauseating of all) who claim to see God “suffering on the cross” in the ruins of Port-au-Prince, those faux-anguished hypocrites are denying the centrepiece of their own theology. It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.


This attack on Christians for being compassionate and, as they would see it, Christian is startling. It's like Ronald Reagan damning Gorbachev for not being enough of a Communist. In a post that has attracted a response from Dawkins himself, Cranmer wonders if the professor would have dared make the same criticisms of Islam. Actually, Dawkins doesn't refrain from criticising Islam in The God Delusion and elsewhere, though he directs most of his vitriol towards Christianity - perhaps because that's what he knows. But it's true that Dawkins' criticism of Christianity has a great deal in common with Geert Wilders' criticism of Islam.

In his notorious film Fitna, Wilders "proved" that Islam was inherently a violent religion by pointing to verses in the Koran that exhorted Muslims to kill unbelievers: this, he alleged, represented "true" Islam. Those Muslims - the majority, he admitted - who had no desire to blow up planes hadn't read the Koran properly. They weren't proper Muslims. Only Osama Bin Laden and those who thought like him possessed the correct interpretation of Islam.

It is clearly true that global Jihad represents an interpretation of Islam. It is a thread that runs through Muslim history all the way back to Mohammed himself, who waged war to defend, and later expand, his new religion. Those who, like Tony Blair and many moderate Muslims, claim that the violent strain of Islam is nothing but an aberration have to ignore a wealth of historical evidence. Islamism, moreover, has been growing in strength within the religion for at least the past hundred years. But it does not represent the totality, or the majority, of Islam: far from it. Like any complex system of ideas, Islam has within it many contrasting streams of thought and many internal contradictions. It can be interpreted as a call to establish an pan-global caliphate through conquest, and it can be interpreted as a gentle, personal faith. For the sake of world peace and security, we should be encouraging those Muslims who believe that the Koran teaches non-violence. We should not be doing the extremists' work for them by treating Anjem Chaudary as the only authentic spokesman for Islam.

Similarly with Christianity. Pat Robertson speaks for a tendency within Christianity, and no negligible tendency. Even an Anglican bishop (albeit the demon-obsessed, borderline certifiable Graham Dow) voiced similar thoughts after floods hit his diocese a few years ago. For centuries it was acceptable and mainstream (though never universal) for Christians to attribute earthquakes to divine wrath. But there was also, from the beginning, a tendency to view earthquakes as natural phenomena - and to stress that, though God was responsible for the state of the world, earthquakes were part of a divinely-ordered creation, not individually and capriciously started by God to punish sinners. Jesus himself told his followers, in the Sermon on the Mount, that God "causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

There's an ambiguity here, of course. Medieval science, such as it was, followed Aristotle, who believed that earthquakes were caused by wind and water churning around the inner parts of the globe. In effect, they were the earth's indigestion. But it also found a place for God. St Thomas Aquinas wrote that "Earthquakes are caused, in the first place, by God; in the second place, by subterranean winds." And so it went. Wolfgang Lindner began a description of a 1590 quake in Lower Austria with these words: "Even though it was a manifestation of divine punishment and a portent of the war against Murad the Turk, yet it also proceeded from natural causes." And he went on to discuss what he thought the natural causes were, with no more mention of God. Call it hedging of bets, call it doublethink, but that sentence does show that people did not simplistically attribute earthquakes to God pulling levers until modern science came along.

But even if Christians had believed that earthquakes were the consequence of divine wrath and disdained the possibility of natural causes, that would not oblige modern Christians, who have the benefit of scientific discovery, to think likewise. There is no excuse for modern Christians to blame God for earthquakes. They know better. For Dawkins to criticise modern believers for not living still in the mental landscape of the Middle Ages is frankly stunning. It's obtuse to the point of idiocy. As far as I'm aware, the causation of earthquakes has never been central to Christian theology; at most, the notion that earthquakes were a divine punishment is something that many Christians used to believe, just as believers in Homeric times attributed them to Poseidon.

Dawkins devotes a large part of his article to a discussion of the doctrine of atonement, which he thinks "would win a prize for pointless futility as well as moral depravity." The particular version of the doctrine that he singles out for criticism - by no means that shared by all Christians - is no more to my taste than it is to his. I agree that - as Dawkins frames it, perhaps however it is framed - it is morally objectionable. But I struggle to see what it can possibly have to do with earthquakes, any more than Natural Selection has anything to do with earthquakes.

To the objection that Dawkins is insufficiently well-versed in theology, he tends to respond that there's no reason he should, given that the discipline is entirely bogus: the study of something that does not exist. Fair enough. But in this article he is posing as a theologian. He is presuming to tell Christians what they can and cannot validly believe, based on a superficial and partial view of Christian theology. For him, the only authentic way of being a Christian is Pat Robertson's way, or Calvin's. Anyone who isn't a fundamentalist must perforce be half-hearted. Nonsense.

Please, Richard, don't turn into a parody of yourself.