|IMAGINE THERE'S NO HEAVEN|
There’s No Heaven
excerpt from ‘The Gonzagan’, weekly Newsletter of St Aloysius’
College, Milson’s Point.
Friday sees the commencement of the 2010 Global Atheist Convention in
Melbourne – the who’s who of atheism gathered, as it were, in
prayer. At first glance, there appears to be something anomalous about
such a gathering to study someone they don’t believe exists.
Nevertheless, for the believer there is a passing interest, as it
attracts some big guns, pre-eminently the scientist Richard Dawkins,
author of “The God Delusion”. Their need to meet is explained
perhaps by Dawkin’s claim that “The enlightenment is under threat.
So is reason. So is truth. So is science…We have to devote a
significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from
deliberate attack from organized ignorance…” Dawkins, himself, has
been making numerous appearances in Australia, arguing the case that
science and religion are contradictory and that faith is irrational.
Ironically, Dawkins is a fellow of New College Oxford; a College
founded by a Catholic bishop in honour of Our Lady some 600 years ago
– itself in a university – that owes so much to a conviction that
faith and learning are complementary.
Dawkins’ The God Delusion, is but one of a raft of books by atheist
writers in recent years. Others include journalist Christopher Hitchens’
God is Not Great and philosopher Michel Onfray’s The Atheist
Manifesto. They share a common robust attack on the continuing force of
religion in the modern world and, more specifically, on religious
fundamentalism, triggered by the experience of 11th September
and religious-based terrorism. While they address the issue of the
philosophical or scientific arguments for the existence of God, the
force of their critique is aimed at the notion of faith and the nature
of religion, and through this they assail belief in God. In essence they
attack the message by going for the messenger.
is relatively easy to look at religious extremism and, consequently,
mount a case against religion. Dawkins, however, attacks even moderate
or mainstream expressions of religious belief: “Even mild and moderate
religion helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism
naturally flourishes.” What
he fails to acknowledge is that almost any of the great convictions of
the human story – freedom, liberty, justice, independence, etc –
have been the occasion of enormous conflict and war. Dawkins’ argument
could be made against the quest for knowledge or justice, on the same
grounds. One could argue for a ban on scientific enquiry because it
enables the weapons of war – without Einstein, nuclear war would not
people, and their religious communities, fail to live up to their
religious principles, but so does science and education. No one has a
mortgage on human sinfulness. Take
one example: as mixed as the record of the churches was in Nazi Germany,
the record of the scientific and educational communities was
considerably worse. Many embraced the opportunities presented by the
Nazi state. A whole science of eugenics blossomed in the climate of
social Darwinism, with a branch of pseudo-science called phrenology even
gaining prominence – but the blame for this cannot be laid at the
doors of moderate Darwinism. Universities and teaching associations
surrendered meekly to Nazi demands, but this does not invalidate them.
Medical science makes very considerable use of the concentration camps,
and there is still a debate in the scientific community about the
ethical use that can be made of such research.
But this is not to question the morality or legitimacy of
an historian, I think I could draw up an even more damning indictment of
religion through examples drawn from the historical record of extremism,
violence, ignorance and idiocy. The problem is that I could do the same
of almost any other aspect of the human experience: the quest for
freedom and liberty, our dreams of justice and a better world, qualities
of patriotism and nationalism, the desire for change or the desire to
conserve, and so on. The desire for a more just society, for example,
has given us the terror of the French Revolution, the gulags of Russia,
the violent chaos of China’s cultural revolution, the killing fields
of Cambodia, etc – does this history invalidate entirely the desire
for justice, or rather, does it speak to the complexity of the human
condition, our capacity to do good and to do evil that is ever present
around the noblest of causes?
struck me most in my own reading of Dawkins was his refusal to give
serious consideration to mainstream religious thinking. It is as if he
has to, in the best tradition of Don Quixote, erect windmills created
from the eccentric, the marginal or the fundamentalist, so as to be able
to strike them down with the lance of reason. An example is his
treatment of the New Testament, where he makes no attempt to deal with
scholarship about how the New Testament was formed, leading to his
conclusion that “The only difference between the Da Vinci Code and the
gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while the Da Vinci Code
is modern fiction”. Leaving aside what theologians might make of this,
there can hardly be an historian or a professor of literature in the
world who would concur with Dawkins’ argument about the core document
of Christian belief.
In addition to religious extremism, the other issue that appears to drive the recent flurry of atheist writing is the so-called conflict between science and religion over evolution. In many ways this is a peculiarly American phenomenon and related to fundamentalist reading of Scripture and the development of a theory of intelligent design to rebut evolution. Significant numbers of Americans, including – as Dawkins notes- presidential candidates, reject evolution, and I have no problem with Dawkins weighing into the debate (and I might even agree with him), but listening to him, one could almost be forgiven that all Christians, or most Christians or nearly most Christians reject evolution, yet Catholic Christianity, representing over half the world’s Christians, accepts evolution and argues that there is no conflict between faith and reason, yet Dawkins, the scientist, does not feel the need to deal with that is the oldest and most developed intellectual tradition within Christianity. For Dawkins this is an inconvenient truth, and this galls me as a Jesuit – a member of a religious order that played no small part in the development of modern education, that has contributed significantly to scientific enquiry, including the evolutionary scientist Teilhard De Chardin, and which is committed to the intellectual apostolate around the world.