The smallest signs of retreat
By MADELEINE BUNTING
Added: Thu, 06 Sep 2007 23:00:00 UTC
Richard Dawkins' normal arrogance and contempt for religious belief faded briefly to conciliation today, when challenged by one of his critics.
It was tantalisingly brief, but welcome all the same: the scientist, Richard Dawkins, finally agreed to debate religion with one of his critics. He has repeatedly refused a head-to-head with protagonists such as his Oxford colleague, Professor Alister McGrath, but on the Today programme this morning, we got a snippet of a fascinating exchange between two very clever men. John Cornwell's book, Darwin's Angel published today, is a powerful riposte to the huge success of Dawkins' The God Delusion and draws on Cornwell's background as a philosopher, director of the science and human dimension project at Cambridge and his Catholicism.
Under challenge from Cornwell, Dawkins came over all conciliatory. It's not a tone we are familiar with from his book. But in the process he got very tangled up trying to justify his comments that bringing a child up with a religious faith is akin to a "milder form of sexual abuse". He got even more contradictory on Cornwell's main critique of the book developed in the Guardian last week. No, said Dawkins, I never said religion was a disease, only "a virus". It was a shame we didn't have time to establish the fine distinction Dawkins was trying to make.
But the conciliatory tone from Dawkins - "religious people have done plenty of good in human history, plenty of good people are religious, very few people are extremists" - is welcome. Is this a new departure for the New Atheists whose aggressive, shrill attacks on religious belief over the last year, is prompting increasing distaste? Magnus Linklater in the Times yesterday voiced sentiments one hears from many quarters. Isn't the aggression counter-productive? Doesn't it do more harm than good? As Cornwell sums up, the danger is that polemics such as The God Delusion are "liable to persuade religious fundamentalists that a pluralist secular society is every bit as hostile to the practice of faith as they ever thought it to be".
But there is another possibility: Dawkins has always had a gentler side - just look at the exchange with the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries here. But of course, this was the bit cut out of the Channel Four documentary made by Dawkins in January 2006. What the media wants is polemic not reasonable exploration of complex issues - does Dawkins resist that tendency or play up to it? He clearly has a huge vested interest in doing the latter because it has made him a fortune out of booksales.
But does Dawkins' approach advance human understanding? Does polemic increase our capacity to understand people who are very different from ourselves? Because it seems to me that this is the most urgent challenge facing every public intellectual today. We live in a crowded planet and bump into diversity in a way that no previous generation have ever done to the same extent: we have to increase our imaginations to grasp the enormous variety of human experience. Narrow certainties - wherever they come from - have unprecedented capacity to generate destruction.
And this is why I think Dawkins is dangerous. He has spent enough time now thinking about religion and listening to thoughtful religious people such as the Harries, yet he persists with a parody, a childlike perception of God and religion. Of course there's no man with a beard crashing about in the sky. He persists in believing (note the verb) that belief is an intellectual assertion based on reasoning. But belief is a word derived from the old German "to love" as Diana Eck, Harvard professor of comparative faith, argues. Only in the last couple of centuries has belief become a matter of the intellect rather than an expression of commitment.
In common with our highly rationalised culture, Dawkins fails completely to understand how powerful myth is - not in terms of factual, historical truth - but in terms of emotional, spiritual truth. Human beings make and use myths and have always done so; the crucial issue is whether those myths are benign, sustaining or destructive. Dawkins insists on taking the most literal - and least sophisticated - reading of religious myth as factual truth; he calls for "evidence" for belief in his interview on the Today programme today.
This is a crazy reading of belief. He needs a crash course in the anthropology of religion. Meanwhile, he remains wilfully blind to the myths of his own time and age. Just because secular societies have junked religious mythology, doesn't mean they don't have myths - the ones they have developed to replace the religious can be deeply destructive - celebrity, consumerist aspirations that material wealth brings happiness, the winner takes all. These are myths which cause untold unhappiness in lives blighted by dissatisfaction, disappointment and frustration - and the impulse to deaden such emotions through alcohol or drugs.
There's a fascinating debate to be had between atheists and people of faith and, often, they can find the gulf between them is not nearly as wide or unbridgeable as is often suggested. Even when there is a gulf, both sides can find the process helpful in clarifying their positions - Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan's exchange for example. What I find hard to forgive of Dawkins is that he's led his huge army of admirers in the opposite direction, away from thoughtful engagement and towards a dangerous contemptuous arrogance.
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