Following the US election marathon is always unnerving for Brits. Listening to some of the views of potential presidential candidates can be scary on this side of the Pond. But, aside from the strangely limited world view of some of the guys who clearly haven’t looked at an atlas recently, there is something more interesting and incomprehensible to many of us in Europe – something to do with religion (surprisingly).

 

According to news reports here, Rick Santorum thinks the ‘global warming’ warners have had too much space given to them. He seems to have the sort of understanding about science that makes not only Richard Dawkins shiver with incredulity. Add into the mix the whole fundamentalist view of creation and the Bible and the picture is complete. It’s also weird.

 

Let’s nail this one. If someone believes that (a) God is the creator of everything as it is and how it is, and (b) all truth is God’s truth, then why be afraid of whatever science might throw up? As someone once said (possibly CS Lewis, but I can’t remember while sitting in a Yorkshire Dales car park): “If Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it isn’t true because it is Christianity.” In other words, if you truly believe in God, there is nothing to be afraid of in scientific exploration – after all, and if you accept my logic, God must have known the truth about what is true and real anyway.

 

Sorry if all this sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it clearly isn’t obvious to some people who think that (a) God needs to be defended and (b) the science has to be bent to our assumptions rather than our understanding be re-shaped by the science. What is there to fear – other than that the whole house of cards might collapse if one card is removed. Such a faith isn’t worth having anyway.

 

As Operation Noah will make clear later this week, global warming isn’t a knock-down issue by itself. Whatever conclusions you draw about this particular phenomenon (and the interpretation of the science that undergirds it), it still exposes a bizarre, utilitarian, short-term selfishness insofar as we think it OK to gradually turn the earth into some sort of mineral-drained Swiss cheese that one day will have little or nothing for future generations. What sort of theology sanctions such blind exploitation?

 

Which brings us back to the Santorums of this world. What is often called the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1 & 2 says more about the exploration of reality, materiality, spirituality and existentiality than it does about the exploitation of the earth’s resources for short-term and selfish utilitarian expediency.

 

I guess this is where Richard Dawkins comes back into the picture. He is all over the news at the moment because of his attacks on religion in the last couple of weeks. (There is an interesting exchange between him and Will Hutton in today’s Observer newspaper.) My question is simply why Dawkins doesn’t take the best examples of religious expression rather than the worst when engaging in debate? This is a lesson that should go to the heart of tolerant liberal secularism: not misrepresenting your opponent’s case. Picking Christian loonies and ridiculing their credulity is not the best way to secure the sort of rational, respectful and intelligent debate he claims he wants. In fact, this is what annoys intelligent, rational Christians and other theists most about Dawkins and his polemical methodology.

 

This is something Christians have to learn in respect of Muslims, atheists, etc.: always measure yourself against the best of your opponent’s examples, not the worst. And, following the ninth Commandment, don’t misrepresent his case… or set up saw men simply in order to knock them down.

 

Will the debate improve? I don’t know. But there are lessons to be learned on all sides in how it should be pursued.

So, Christopher Hitchens has died. I, for one, am sad to hear this.

Any death ends a world for those who are bereaved. And the brutality of this rupture has been brought home recently in the premature deaths – by various means – of people like Gary Speed, the young family in Pudsey, the victims of Liege. Death strips from our ‘normal’ life the veneer of self-sufficiency and confronts us with the pain of our mortality.

The odd thing about the death of Christopher Hitchens, however, is the repeated suggestion that he was in some way (and incontrovertibly) a ‘scourge’ of religious believers, trouncing by sheer intellectual sharpness the nonsense of religious belief. He wasn’t and isn’t a scourge in any sense at all. The difficulty for Christians like me (and theists in general) was that that he wasn’t ‘scourge’ enough. I don’t need to repeat the response he got from Professor Terry Eagleton (among others). Along with Richard Dawkins, Hitchens set up aunt sallies which are not only easy to knock down, but which theists might also wish to knock down. Caricatures of faith might be convenient, but they are not thereby credible.

But, that said, there was always something admirable about Hitchens’ willingness to provoke. Polemic – whether entirely rational or not – is at least interesting. It is a pity that such material will no longer come from his pen.

However, his death provokes thought not only about the impact of lifestyle choices on long-term health, but about mortality itself. We shall all die – that is the fundamental fact of life. Heidegger described human beings as ‘beings towards death’ – and he wasn’t really being miserable. Hitchens went along (as far as we can know) with Bertrand Russell’s conclusion that ‘We die, then we rot’. But, is that all there is to say?

Faith is often dismissed as a crutch on which those who cannot cope with life as it is can lean for emotional support. Apart from the fact that this (lazy) assumption rests on a further and un-argued for assumption that the non-faith world view is somehow neutral, it also fails to understand what faith is. Faith, for the Christian at least, is not some sort of credulous and escapist wishful thinking about a ‘system’ derived from fairies; rather, it is rooted in a person, a judgement and an experience. Put very briefly, a Christian is one who believes there is more to life than death, sees God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth whom death did not contain, commits himself or herself to living a life that transcends the mere satisfaction of personal needs or fulfilment, and, in the company of others who have had a similar experience of being grasped by God (including intellectually – see people like CS Lewis and GK Chesterton among others), live life to the full.

The beginning of being a Christian is coming to terms with – by facing and naming – death. We are mortal. We shall die. But, the sting of death is drawn by the conviction that death neither ends nor ridicules all that has gone before it. No escapism here.

The end is in the beginning. At Christmas we celebrate God coming among us as one of us. In being born, death became inevitable – and, with it, grief, loss, fear, and everything else that makes us alive. But, as the great Bruce Cockburn put it:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on for ever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.

The world appears a bit weird when Man Utd lose 6-1 at home to Man City. Wonderful (says the Scouser who is worried that two Manchester clubs now rule the Premiership).

But, more interesting is the response by atheist academic philosopher Daniel Came to the refusal by New Atheist academic biologist Richard Dawkins to debate with William Lane Craig. Dawkins gave his reasons in the Guardian here – and then got a response from Came. (Paul Vallely has also contributed in yesterday’s Independent.)

Not surprisingly, I am with Came on this. The New Atheists give atheism a bad name by substituting assertion for argument. Watch this space – the debate between Dawkins and Came might be even more interesting than debates between the theists and the New Atheists.

I was listening to Bruce Cockburn in the car while on my way to visit one of my clergy this morning. The first track on his last album, Small Source of Comfort, is called ‘The Iris of the World’ and one verse calls into question the ability of certain people to ‘get the disconnect’ between perception and reality.

I had just been musing on two pieces of news: (a) the refusal of some prominent atheists to debate publicly with William Lane Craig – not on personalities or assertions, but arguments and evidence, and (b) the furore over the mere suggestion that people considering abortions should be offered counselling before they go ahead with the termination. It reminded me of the response to the most detailed research into the nature of childhood – the Good Childhood report by the Children’s Society – when many commentators, unable to criticise the research, decided that the conclusions were inconvenient to their chosen values, choices or lifestyle and, therefore, rejected them.

The common denominator here is a prevalence in our society to start with conclusions and then try to find evidence to support them. In the absence of evidence, assertion will suffice. The problem here is that those doing the asserting are also the same people who constantly demand from everybody else ‘rational evidence’ for their position.

Take the first issue first. An fellow Oxford atheist philosopher, Dr Daniel Came, has written to Richard Dawkins accusing him of cowardice for refusing to debate with Professor William Lane Craig. Dawkins is not alone: Polly Toynbee and AC Grayling have also declined to debate and it is hard not to conclude that this unwillingness is born of fear rather than rationality. I am still waiting for a response to David Bentley Hart’s The Atheist Delusions and the substantive philosophical and historical refutation of the lazy and unargued-for assertions of the so-called New Atheists he offers. Is it fear that the evidence won’t back up the assertions that puts them off? If not, then what?

David Bentley Hart’s argument – backed up with copious historical analysis and evidence – is essentially that the pre-Christian world actually saw human life as expendable and cheap. What he terms ‘the Christian revolution’ brought about a ‘universal’ valuing of human life, of mercy and justice that did not hold sway beforehand. He then questions whether, in the post-Christendom world, the assumption of universal human niceness can honestly be held if the Christian worldview and associated praxis are removed. In other words, who says that the ‘neutral’ or natural default of human beings is to be nice to each other, to love justice and mercy, to protect the weak and vulnerable, etc? History would seem to demonstrate that such an assumption can not only not be taken for granted, but is actually called into question by the evidence.

Now, this comes to mind because we now live in a culture in which many people think it is OK to have abortion on demand as a sort of right (or routine method of birth control) and for life to be ended where there appears to be any suffering. In other words, we live in a culture which appears to wish to make decisions about the ethics of living and dying in isolation from a common understanding of the worldviews underlying such a position, or the implications of adopting it. Such discussion needs to go deeper and longer than a simple case-by-case judgement on the sentiments and sensibilities of personal circumstances as we go along.

I am not and have never been opposed to abortion per se. But, when you step back a bit and ask what our culture is shaping and on what philosophical basis the moves are being made, there must be cause for genuine concern. Abortion is not trivial; it is not like taking an aspirin for a headache.

That’s why I am wondering: why the outcry about the suggestion that people be asked to think before opting for an abortion? What’s the problem? Yes, there is a massive pastoral issue in supporting people – whatever decision they ultimately make. Yes, there are circumstances where such decisions are enormously complicated. Yes, the ethical responsibilities are not always clear. But, so are the deeper cultural questions that relate to what sort of a culture we are both losing and creating. Even if we don’t agree with the rationale behind the current proposals, that doesn’t let us off the hook of asking the question.

There is a question here for anyone interested in how cultures are shaped and what makes civilisations come and go. I am compelled to agree with David Bentley Hart – with his excoriating judgement on the post-Enlightenment twentieth century state’s proclivity for enormous and technologically organised violence – that we are in danger of glancing along the surface of time, making ad hoc decisions about life and death, but in the absence of any ‘deep’ analysis or rational thought about essential values. It cannot be taken for granted that, left alone and de-religionised (or de-christianised), human beings will ‘naturally’ tend towards goodness, kindness and mercy. Christianity was, in one sense, a response to the evidenced absence of such a corporate nature.

So, what is the philosophical case for assuming that we can do what we want to do simply because we can? And who is to decide what is, or is not, acceptable? And to whom?

The Church of England has just published its response to the BBC Trust’s consultation regarding its review of Radio 3, Radio 4 and Radio 7. The element of the response that has caught the eye of the media is the appeal for the creation of the post of BBC Religion Editor to cover radio, TV and online news output, arguing that there is “no logical distinction between the genre of arts, science and business and that of religion, the landscape of which likewise demands a ‘trusted guide’ for both internal and external stakeholders”.

We urge the Trust and Executive to give serious consideration to this proposal; one that is intended as much for the benefit of people of no particular faith as for those of faith.

This is not an original call. Roger Bolton, BBC presenter of great renown, articulated an identical call in his speech to the Sandford St Martin Awards back in May 2010 –  a speech that provoked a great deal of media interest both in and beyond the BBC itself. Roger said:

When the much maligned John Birt (I never thought I would utter those words) set about restructuring BBC news and current affairs in a somewhat blunt and perhaps unnecessarily bloody way, he correctly identified a real weakness in the coverage of finance and business.  His solution was to create BBC Editors with real budgets and power at the heart of the news machine and with guaranteed access to the airwaves.  Hence Jeff Randall and now Robert Preston, who have transformed the coverage.

I believe BBC News similarly requires a Religion Editor, able to appear on the networks to interpret the latest religious story at home and abroad, but more importantly to bring a religious perspective to the vast range of areas such as foreign affairs and medical dilemmas where that perspective is so often, and so bafflingly, absent, both on air AND behind the scenes in internal editorial discussions.

Now, no doubt this will provoke the secularists again as it appears to represent special pleading by Christians for more ‘religious’ programmes. This, however, is a big mistake. In the same way that the BBC decided that some elements of the world’s news need to be understood and explained – interpreted – , so the religious perspective needs similar treatment.

Whatever one thinks about the ‘content’ of any religion – or, indeed, its validity – what cannot be disputed is the impact that religion (as a phenomenon), religious world views (as lenses through which billions of people interpret the world and human experience), and religious practice have on that world. I might think some of it is loony or perverse. I might find it incredible that people can think and live the way they do – or treat other people as they do. But not liking it is not the same as understanding it or acknowledging it as a reality.

A Religion Editor would not be there to propagate or evangelise (thank God), but to explain, interpret and educate. Think how different things might have been if the 9/11 media coverage had had such a person who actually understood Islam before the crime was committed.

Such a person might also offer some advocacy for those who feel constantly misrepresented by media coverage of religion or of religious perspectives on world events. I know this will raise temperatures  among those who believe Rchard Dawkins is infallible and fundamentally inerrant (and I know his current programmes are broadcast from the Channel 4 stable, not the BBC), but we might be spared some of the nonsense that gets through the editors’ desks when it comes to religion.

During the making of his latest programme (against faith schools) Dawkins was apparently surprised to visit a Church of England school comprising 95% Muslim children. Despite a full interview with Jan Ainsworth (Church of England Director of Education), he omitted from the final cut any evidence that contradicted the conclusions from which he had started his programme. That’s fine as evangelistic polemic, but it isn’t very ‘scientific’ – which involves looking at the evidence and deriving conclusions (however provisional) from that. (Jan Ainsworth writes about this on a blog.)

OK, I have confused two things here. The call for a Religion Editor is about helping all people understand the world and the news better (regardless of belief about it); the Dawkins stuff is a call for more intelligence and evenhandedness in what is commissioned. The God Delusion is about to hit our screens; I wonder if The Dawkins Delusion would ever be commissioned to follow or accompany it?

This is not about ‘my’ worldview being vindicated in the media – or even being ‘given space'; rather, it is fundamentally about treating the viewing public as intelligent people capable of (a) listening to a proper debate before making their minds up, (b) having their prejudices and assumptions challenged and (c) being shown the best of such intelligent debate rather than the worst of lazy polemic.

The blogosphere has been alive this last week with the outraged Richard Dawkins hitting back at outraged people who had hit back at the outraged administrator of his website. There is outrage everywhere.

Now Richard Dawkins has apologised and explained himself. The subsequent thread is forgiving (‘we are all only human, after all’), but makes some rather odd claims that the apology demonstrates the best of reason and rationalism. Er…

Well, I want to put on record that I’m glad they have sorted themselves out and found a way forward for Dawkins’ site. I think it is excellent that he has apologised to his offended former friends and that the relationship seems to be back on track for some of them. I also would be pleased if the new Dawkins site achieves what he wants (and what any reasonable website hopes for), which is to screen out all the unreasonable, irrational crazies who think internet access gives them permission to spew abuse wherever they like.

Good on Dawkins for re-setting his site to moderate/approve comments – we will all benefit from threads that encourage proper discussion, reasoned debate and keep out the bilious nutcases (both religious and atheistic ones).

Just one plea to Richard Dawkins, however. Now you know what it feels like to be on the end of the bile, can you try to empathise with those whom you ridicule irrationally? We need to cultivate a reasonable debate between all people of faith (both theists and atheists) and we would get more light than heat if we were able to know we will not be misrepresented by the other.

So, three cheers for an end to outraged expression, genuine apology and the possibility of reconciliation.

I am still catching up with some of the stuff floating around the media in the last few days. The most absurd has to be the latest Richard Dawkins fundamentalist flounce about Christianity in the Times.

Does he not have an adviser or editor? Consider the language:

…hubristical.. petty moralistic purposes… milder-mannered faith-heads… hypocrisy… loathsome… those faux-anguished hypocrites… It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here… Dear modern, enlightened, theologically sophisticated, gentle Christian, you cannot be serious… effrontery… the odious doctrine… a nasty human mind (Paul’s of course)… the Christian “atonement” would win a prize for pointless futility as well as moral depravity…

And he keeps going:

You nice, middle-of-the-road theologians and clergymen, be-frocked and bleating in your pulpits… Educated apologist, how dare you weep Christian tears, when your entire theology is one long celebration of suffering: suffering as payback for “sin” — or suffering as “atonement” for it? You may weep for Haiti where Pat Robertson does not, but at least, in his hick, sub-Palinesque ignorance, he holds up an honest mirror to the ugliness of Christian theology. You are nothing but a whited sepulchre.

Dawkins not only demonstrates that he is prone to the very charge he levels at Christians: making apologetic capital out of the suffering of Haitians. He does so in extreme language, but along the way demonstrates that he knows nothing about theology or philosophy, nothing about how to read literature (including the Bible) and, more oddly, seems to pride himself on his ignorance.

I don’t know anyone who would dream of speaking about biology with the degree of prejudiced ignorance with which he speaks of religion. Does he read poetry as if it were an engineering book? Moralising caricature simply prevents a sensible engagement and this is all that Dawkins ever offers us. Pity, really.

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