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.”