Militant atheists: too clever for their own good
By CHARLES MOORE, TELEGRAPH
Added: Thu, 05 Apr 2007 23:00:00 UTC
President Ahmedinejad chose his words carefully. Announcing the release of the 15 British Servicemen whom he held hostage, he said that Iran "forgave" them, because it was the occasion of the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed and also of "the passing of Christ". The word "passing" was deliberately vague.
He used this phrase for what Christians call the Passion, because Muslims, although they revere Jesus as a prophet, deny that he was crucified. Another was substituted in Jesus's place, they believe.
It is strange that the Koran, which explicitly accepts the virgin birth of Jesus, fastens on the most historical bit of the New Testament as being untrue. But of course it is helpful for Muslims if there was no Crucifixion, because then there could have been no Resurrection. And if there was no Resurrection, then the field is clear for Mohammed as the final Prophet of God.
So the President of Iran, well attuned to how propaganda works with different audiences, was trying to fool us in the West that he was being kind, while telling his people at home that he had the nation of infidels at his mercy.
Last week, I attended a debate organised by Intelligence Squared, an organisation devoted to high-level public argument. The subject was so popular that, instead of the usual venue, the Methodist Central Hall in London had to be hired. More than 2,000 people crammed in. The motion was "We'd be better off without religion".
The anti-God party was represented by Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. Christopher Hitchens, the English polemicist who has long made his living in America, and Professor A. C. Grayling, who has that big mane of swept-back hair which says "philosopher" just as clearly as a pinstripe suit used until recently to say "Tory".
Against the motion were the archaeologist Nigel Spivey, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, and Professor Roger Scruton.
Intelligence Squared has a good custom of taking votes before and after the debate. The idea is to see how much the speeches have swayed the audience. On this occasion, at the beginning of the evening, there were 826 votes for the motion, 681 against, and 364 don't knows. At the end, there were 1,205 for, 778 against and 103 don't knows.
Although I voted against the motion both times, I think the shift of votes was justified, on the basis of the speeches. All six spoke well, but the opponents of religion were more eloquent, more passionate, more - odd though it sounds to say it - believing.
By a curious reversal, it is now the atheists who thump the tub for their non-faith, as if it were they who were the preachers.
Matthew Parris, who writes a distinguished column in another newspaper, is normally notable for the subtlety of his argument and his sympathetic tone of voice. But this week, he was so angry at religion, particularly at the idea that the intercession of the late Pope John Paul II had cured a nun of cancer, that he was quite beside himself.
Parris wants faith and reason to part forever and for people to "choose your side". To the question, "But how can you be sure," he employs assertion, rather than reason, to answer: "Oh boy, am I sure. Oh great quivering mountains of pious mumbo-jumbo, am I sure. Oh fathomless oceans of sanctified babble, am I sure." Matthew sounded just like those people who say, "I KNOW God exists, because He speaks to me" - only the other way round.
I feel that atheism may be acquiring precisely those characteristics that atheists so dislike about religion - intolerance, dogmatism, righteousness, moral contempt for one's opponents.
When you hear or read people like Richard Dawkins, you have to admit the force of many of their arguments. Religious people do often say extraordinarily indefensible things about their faith, and can be astonishingly evasive or confused. Very few of us (certainly not I) can competently maintain the standard arguments for the existence of God against a determined onslaught.
And yet the Dawkinses and Graylings, the Hitchenses and the Parrises, seem somehow to be missing the point. What they say is dry and unnourishing. I think one reason for this lies in their underlying conception of what it is to be human - they think that the highest quality is to be clever.
I hasten to say that I am not arguing against cleverness. Intelligence is a great gift, and should be cultivated, if possessed, by all possible means. All these atheist thinkers I have mentioned are conscious of possessing big, bulging brains and I share their admiration for them. They are the mental equivalent of bronzed body-builders on the beach, kicking sand in the face of us seven-stone weaklings.
But what are we to make of Richard Dawkins's point, in The God Delusion, that Mensa, the society for people with high IQs, has published an article concluding that, of 43 studies of the relationship between intelligence and religious belief since 1927, all but four have found an inverse relation? Or of his statistic that only 3.3 per cent of the Fellows of the Royal Society believe that a personal God exists?
You probably know some people with high IQs. You may even have met members of the Royal Society. Does it strike you, brilliant though they are, that they have a deeper understanding of truth, beauty and all that you need to know about life than the rest of us?
Dawkins also tells us that "there are very few atheists in prison". He suggests that "atheism is correlated with higher education, intelligence or reflectiveness, which might counteract criminal impulses".
What begins to emerge - and it lurked strongly behind the anti-religion side of the Intelligence Squared debate - is the idea that atheism is an elite state, a superior order of being, a plane of enlightenment denied to thickoes.
This seems to me to present certain problems. A religious faith is not, primarily, a set of propositions, although it will contain such propositions and must use all human intellectual resources to understand and explain them. It is a belief about what governs the whole of life, indeed the whole existence of everything.
It therefore matters not only how we reason, but how we feel, how we act towards others, how we speak, sing, dance, laugh, cry, eat and wash, how we die, how we pray and how we love.
Does anything in our actual human experience tell us that clever people do these things better than anyone else? It is surely what people call "clever-silly" to argue that they do. In fact, in all this I hear the voices of a university high table - and almost invariably male voices at that - proving something to their own satisfaction while other people cook the lunch.
The Victorian Prime Minister Lord Salisbury once criticised Roman Catholicism for being "an excellent religion for peasants and women". But what sort of a religion would it be which was not excellent for peasants or women (who made up about 90 per cent of the world's population in Salisbury's day)?
And what sort of a belief system is it that asserts the superiority of Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, over the woman who toils in paddy fields, or the child who begs in the dirt, or the prisoner in his chains?
The Crucifixion and the Resurrection are just as distasteful for Richard Dawkins as for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, because they subvert the idea that man is at his greatest when he is most strong, masterful and clever: " 'Tis the old history - Truth without a home, Despised and slain; then, rising from the tomb."
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