Holy atheists

I haven’t heard much about Richarf Dawkins recently. You will remember his many publications including The God Delusion, which I reviewed for the Catholic Herald. It resulted in a discussion of nearly 30,000 words on his website (which I summarised in the Church Times). But I am grateful: if anyone hears of me in the next century it will be because I am mentioned in a footnote in the book. ‘Who on earth was he?’ the historians of the 21st century will ask.

I am reminded by coming across, by chance, a few paragraphs I wrote about Dawkins at the time. And I have to say I thought it summarised the question of atheistic scientists. So I am cheating by reproducing it here:

“Notwithstanding Piers Paul Read’s excellent article on Professor Dawkins’s programmes The Root of All Evil?, or perhaps because of it, I fell to wondering whether he might have something to teach us. It would be safe to say that Dawkins is not exactly popular among Christians at present. The only redeeming feature a lady friend of mine could find was that she found him rather good looking. But Benjamin Franklin claimed that he had never met anyone from whom he could not learn something: so what can we learn from Dawkins?

First of all, Dawkins is a searcher after truth. We may think that he is confused or barking up the wrong tree, but no one who has read his books will doubt his sincerity, and his determination to increase the sum of human knowledge. How many of us could say the same? We may claim that he has an obstinately closed mind. But how many of us have really used our intellects to interrogate what we believe? And has our religion been in the habit of encouraging or discouraging this? There are motes and beams here.

Second, he is a man of faith. He believes without any solid evidence that science can, at least theoretically, explain the whole universe, including the crucial transcendental aspects. But he would retort that we believe in a creator God equally without any solid evidence. In fact we regard this as a major virtue and call it Faith. So, “Yah Boo!” all round.

Dawkins chose his targets selectively. His programmes were an exercise in polemics, not science. But in themselves they were good targets, and we would do well to acknowledge this. The tendency in human nature to form intolerant communities around some core, unprovable “value” appears in both secular and religious contexts. But it has been prevalent in Christianity, even in modern times, as a brief acquaintance with Church history will show. Derek Wright in The Psychology of Moral Behaviour quotes evidence to suggest that the majority of religious adherents do so primarily to meet their emotional need to be part of a secure and certain community. Only a minority genuinely own their religious belief and commitment.

Dawkins argues that the indoctrination of the young into religion is an abuse of young minds. Of course others indoctrinate, we teach (can you spot the difference?). A shocking accusation! Well, not altogether. I can think of several examples of such abuse in my Catholic education. Just challenge me. My point is that until we open our minds to the tragic ways in which we can be false to Christ’s message we cannot hope to do better in the future. Dawkins, for all his vehemence, can do us a service — if we feel secure enough to listen to his case without prejudice.

And the vehemence of his views is what I like best. Hugh Ross Williamson, the distinguished Catholic historian who died in 1978, wrote in his Letter to Julia that he respected the committed religious believer and also the committed atheist. He reserved his contempt for the wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle. I suspect he would not be any more surprised than me to see Professor Dawkins, wearing that “naughty boy look” he does so well, welcomed at the Pearly Gates. His passport would not be that he had found the truth but that he had looked for it.”


About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Quentin queries, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Holy atheists

  1. Quentin says:

    Forgive me if you had double notification of this blog. Sending a number of BCC messages confuses my computer (and me).

  2. John Thomas says:

    Indoctrination: What I would say to RD is that in my view the indoctrination of children into the religion of secular materialism is the worst child abuse, and it occurs on a vast scale, in our society, all schools being ‘faith schools’, the vast majority of which indoctrinate children into the secular materialist faith. The militant atheists, of course, are in reality simply involved in clearing the ground for a radical form of Islam to take over, in our society – most are too stupid to realise what they are actually doing – I give them the benefit of the doubt as to their intentions, naivety seems better than duplicity – and there is evidence that RD is begining (a bit late in the day, perhaps) to realise this. He has said things recently that suggest he is happier with some form of Christianity continuing to hold sway, rather than the Islamist alternative. I have a Christian friend who suggests that RD may one day see the error of his atheist ways, and turn around … who knows – bigger things have happened.

    • Vincent says:

      John, I wonder if you are being fair. To me, indoctrination is directed and forceful teaching. Of course every child is likely to pick up the general values of their parents, but the Catholic teaching, I hope of yesteryears, is absolute, unquestionable and repetitive. You are or were force fed meticulously in both spiritual and moral matters. No doubt some atheistic parents behaved like this but the Church did so, as a communion, on principle.

  3. Alasdair says:

    Quentin hasn’t heard much about Richard Dawkins recently probably because he, Dawkins, really doesn’t have much to say – certainly nothing new. It’s is, and was, just the same old stuff and even many atheists were’nt comfortable with his arguments and his tone, and even if they once were, they’ve long since moved on.
    C S Lewis was familiar with the “Dawkins Delusion” long before Dawkins’ time, having heard all of the arguments before and seen right through them. For example, in “Mere Christianity” he wrote:
    “Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack. When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads spin and that it is all too complicated and that if there really were a God they are sure He would have made ‘religion’ simple, because simplicity is so beautiful, etc. You must be on your guard against these people for they will change their ground every minute and only waste your time”.

  4. ignatius says:

    Yes I agree about this. I’ve been involved in evangelism for a long time now and have come to the conclusion that ‘polite discussions about religion’ are pretty much a waste of time…pearls before swine I think it is called. On the other hand we Catholics do have a tendency to overdress the gospel and obscure it with complexity.

  5. Nektarios says:

    Yes, Ignatius, quite so.
    Hence my repeated appeal to return to the Apostolic Doctrine, Teaching and Practice.

    • Alasdair says:

      Then having dumbed down the Gospel for the benefit of the people C S Lewis was taking about (Quentin’s Holy Atheists) – and wasted your time because they won’t actually be listening to what you’re saying, they’ll suddenly come out with “So what about the Spanish Inquisition then?”.

      • Ignatius says:

        Alisdair, Not quite sure who you are speaking to in your post or even what exactly you are trying to say. But it is my own experience that treating the gospel as an intellectual debating game really is a waste of time unless one can sense a deeper unexpressed need. Human beings have a desperate need of God’s mercy but until they recognise that need the gospel is meaningless to them.

  6. Alan says:

    Quentin – “He believes without any solid evidence that science can, at least theoretically, explain the whole universe, including the crucial transcendental aspects.”

    I’m unsure what you mean by this. Are you certain that he accepts that there are “crucial transcendental aspects” to the universe or are you expecting that it be a part of his openness to possible scientific explanations because you are certain of it?

    • Quentin says:

      Alan, I am guessing because it was all a long time ago, but I assume that what I had in mind was consciousness, moral obligation and freewill. None of these appear to be susceptible to a scientific (materially causable) explanation.

  7. Nektarios says:

    I think we can drop the word ‘Holy’ and just call them Atheists. That is the natural state of man regarding God. They won’t have His rule over us, and imagines himself at the centre of the universe.

    Richard Dawkins, brought up in the Cof E but his education at the time was all about science and how it can achieve anything it wants. But two world wars later, with the introduction of the Hydrogen and Atomic bombs it shows all the hype about what technology can achieve by science
    has fallen on its face and failed. I guess that is why Richard Dawkinns has not much to say these days apart from repeating the same old mantras and sell a book or two.

    In the 19th century Religion was all the rage and slowly but surely it too, like the grand churches to their vanities began to crumble and fall into ruins and be sold off to the world for pubs and other uses. The problem in the 19th century was their smugness as churches were full and gaining in wealth, power and prestige, only to come crashing down and failing.

    This is why science and psychology took off so easily, now it too is reaching its limits and failing.

  8. Vincent says:

    If we can reasonably assume that Dawkins, wrong or right, is trying to find the truth, and if we assume he is concerned to benefit the human race — wrong or right, would he not be displaying love? We have just been reminded at the royal wedding that human love is God expressing himself in the world. Do you think God would turn Dawkins away on the grounds that he didn’t know God’s name?

    • Alasdair says:

      RD may have been trying to find the truth when he was in the role of scientist. He has moved on from that however, and is now evangelising his own world view in a totally unbecoming way. He takes a most “superior” and belittling attitude to his audiences and to those who disagree with him on any issue. To quote him on Brexit for example :
      He (David Cameron) handed over this massively important decision to a simple majority of ill-informed voters. The fleeting opinion, on just one day, of a slender majority of an ignorant and misled public is now touted as the sacred and unchangeable word of “the British people”.
      I interpret this to mean that RD considers the public ignorant and misled whichever way they voted – and certainly even more ignorant and misled if they also believe in God.

  9. Nektarios says:


    You write:- We have just been reminded at the royal wedding that human love is God expressing himself in the world.

    The natural man does not express God in the world, the direct opposite in fact. He hates God,
    is rebellious against God, is a sinner, separated from God, until God may have mercy on that person.

    You further write:- If we can reasonably assume that Dawkins, wrong or right, is trying to find the truth, and if we assume he is concerned to benefit the human race — wrong or right, would he not be displaying love?

    Yes, love of self. Love of Science. Both which are failing, as I said previously.

    So let me ask you, what is it to Love God? What does it mean?
    My own feeling about your posting is you assume too much, and perhaps a trite gullible to be taken in with liberal thinking and definitions?

  10. G.D says:

    You all may know this joke (slightly adapted) … St Peter was showing a new comer around heaven. “Over there we have the baptists, over there we have the Hindu, there the Muslim, there the C of E over there the Catholics ..etc etc” . “What’s behind all those walled off sections?” asked the newcomer. “Ah, that’s the self opinionated from each persuasion; they think they are the only ones up here”.

    ‘There’s none as blind as them that say they see’.

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