Imagine There’s No Heaven

An excerpt from ‘The Gonzagan’, weekly Newsletter of St Aloysius’ College, Milson’s Point.

This 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.

Richard 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.

It 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 be possible.

Religious 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 research itself.

As 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?

What 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. 

Chris Middleton SJ