Friday, January 25, 2008

The Old New Atheism


A few days I encouraged all and sundry to drop everything they were doing, run to their neighborhood bookseller, purchase a copy of Marilynne Robinson's stellar novel Gilead, call in sick until they've finished it, and then take a sabbatical to think about it.

Those who have not yet done so (say, if they were giving birth or were orbiting Mars) can redeem themselves slightly be reading Ms. Robinson's trenchant review of Richard Dawkins' abysmal (I've had the misfortune of reading it, so I use that word advisedly) newish book, The God Delusion.

A selection, to whet your appetite:
The nineteenth-century abolitionist, feminist, essayist, and ordained minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson made the always timely point that, in comparing religions, great care must be taken to consider the best elements of one with the best of the other, and the worst with the worst, to avoid the usual practice of comparing, let us say, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie with the Golden Rule. The same principle might be applied in the comparison of religion and science. To set the declared hopes of one against the real-world record of the other is clearly not useful, no matter which of them is flattered by the comparison. What is religion? It is described by Dawkins as a virtually universal feature of human culture. But there is, commingled with it, indisputably and perhaps universally, doubt, hypocrisy, and charlatanism. Dawkins, for his part, considers religion wholly delusional, and he condemns the best of it for enabling all the worst of it. Yet if religion is to be blamed for the fraud done in its name, then what of science? Is it to be blamed for the Piltdown hoax, for the long-credited deceptions having to do with cloning in South Korea? If by "science" is meant authentic science, then "religion" must mean authentic religion, granting the difficulties in arriving at these definitions.

I wish, then, to speak of science in the highest sense of the word, as the astonishingly fruitful human venture into understanding of the world and the universe. The reader may assume a somewhat greater admiration on my part for religion in the highest sense of the word, though I will not go into that here. Science thus defined does not claim to understand gravity, light, or time. This is a very short list of its mystifications, its inquiries, all of which are beautiful to ponder. These three are sufficient to persuade me that conclusions about the ultimate nature of things are, to say the least, premature, and that to suggest otherwise is unscientific. The finer-grained the image of reality physicists achieve, the more alien it appears to every known strategy of comprehension.

I'll post my own reactions to Hitchens and Dawkins at some point in the near future. In the meantime, you can treat yourself to another good review, this time by the critic (and Marxist!) Terry Eagleton. I'll get you started by citing the opening paragraph:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. These days, theology is the queen of the sciences in a rather less august sense of the word than in its medieval heyday.

For the benefit of the lazy and illiterate, two videos: a good lecture by Roman Williams called "How to Misunderstand Religion" (the text itself seems to have vanished) here, and a debate between an irenic Alister McGrath and a belligerent Christopher Hitchens may be watched here. (Best line of the evening: McGrath to Hitchens: "I take it you do not believe in Hell or anything like that, and therefore I don't see what the difficulty is for you personally.")

My final word for the moment is this: if any of you are even the slightest bit tempted by atheism, then you must read Dawkins or Hitchens, for you'll see that the contemporary case for atheism is intellectually bankrupt.

Illustration: St Nicholas striking Arius at the First Ecumenical Council.

11 comments:

Maximus Daniel said...

My friend have you read Robinson's book of essays "The Death of Adam"? They are superb. She is a wonderful writer.

Felix Culpa said...

Thanks for your recommendation. I'm aware that it exists, but I haven't yet gotten around to acquiring it. I see that she also has a previous novel, Housekeeping, and a book on environmental pollution, Mother Country. Have you read either of those?

I came across Gilead quite by accident very recently, which may explain at least a small part of my enthusiasm. A correspondent suggested that a good place to go after Gilead is Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, which I should be getting in the mail any day now.

Maximus Daniel said...

Wendell Berry is breath taking also. I had the honor of hearing him read one of his short stories @ the University I just graduated from (western kentucky university). I have yet to read very deeply in his fiction or poetry, but have had the distinct pleasure of reading many of his essays. They are wonderful! He is a heir of the Agrarians or the Fugitives of Vanderbilt University. He is a stalwart advocate of being rooted to a place and the agricultural life.

Maximus Daniel said...

I haven't read either of Robinson's fiction, just her essays. I spent the day looking for Gilead and some poetry by R.S. Thomas today at the local bookstores here in Bloomington. Unfortunately I came up empty handed.

Felix Culpa said...

I had always thought of Berry as an essayist in the Agrarian model and, to a lesser extent, as a short story writer. That is, I always thought of him more of a man of ideas than as an author. (I know that distinction doesn't speak well for writers of fiction!) He was someone in whom I always had a distant and abstract interest, but it wasn't until my friend recommended 'Jayber Crow' that I gained the initiative to start. I'll read it as soon as it shows up in my mailbox, and then I'll post about it.

I'm sorry that you couldn't find 'Gilead,' but, for all the critical praise it received, I can't imagine it being a big seller. I really can't think of all that many people who would appreciate it: it might be taken as too slow by some readers, and too "American" for some Orthodox. It really is a gem, though.

At some point I hope to post on the difficulties of depicting goodness, let alone holiness, in literature. Not many people can do it; so far I can count only Robinson and Solzhenytsin, and arguably Pushkin. (Depicting evil, of course, is much easier, and therefore much more boring.) I suppose one could include more authors if one could include children's books: no book inspires more warmth in me than 'The Wind in the Willows,' which also has a very good depiction of spiritual epiphany.

(Incidentally, is it just me, or does Neko Case think that John the Baptist and John the Divine are one and the same person?)

Maximus Daniel said...

I hope to pick up more of Berry's fiction too also. Before I do so I have a lot of other reading stacked up for myself. (Dostoevsky (crime and punishment) Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, and finish some William Faulkner. All the while working through some R.S. Thomas and Seamus Heaney. And also working through the Gospel of Matthew with Chrysostom. Robinson will also have to fall somewhere behind this list.

I look forward to that post. I have found this blog to be quite delightful and always a pleasure to read. Where abouts are you from?

I unfortunately don't know the Neko Case reference you are making? I know the singer, but I don't know of the confusion with John you speak of. Fill me in brother.

in Christ,
Maximus

Felix Culpa said...

Google the lyrics for "John Saw That Number." It starts like this:

Old John the baptist, old John divine
Leather harness round his line
His meat was locust and honey
Wild honey lord, wild honey

John saw that number
Way in the middle of the air
Cryin' holy, holy to the Lord

So much for Biblical literacy!

Maximus Daniel said...

haha,
I have two of her albums and that song isn't on there. I presume you enjoy Neko also?

Am I to guess you are Serbian from your blog's references to St. Justin Popovich? I had the great pleasure of visit New Gracanica Monastery in Illinois recently. It was breath taking.

Felix Culpa said...

That's on her most recent album, "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood." (And if that isn't a religious title, I don't know what is.)

I'm actually Russian, grew up in the Midwest, studied on the East Coast, and have been splitting my time between Europe and the US most of my life. My interest in Wendell Berry's idea of "place" is, as you can imagine, largely theoretical.

Incidentally, I think Faulkner's strongest novel is "The Sound and the Fury." As for O'Connor, the Library of America's edition of her collected works has all her fiction, as well as a good selection of her essays and letters.

Maximus Daniel said...

ah good. I am a recent convert.. not even a year old yet. Just finished undergraduate work and going to be working on languages before heading to grad school.

I love the Sound and the Fury. I actually wrote a paper on Quentin's section. I have O'Connor's short stories and correspondence, I have been eying that volume.

Alas, Berry's idea of place is theoretical for me also. I have grown up and lived in the South, but I have deep ties to the Midwest (my parents were both Hoosiers). Faulkner, Berry, and the Fugitives have returned a love for the South that I needed to reclaim. I went through a youthful and stupid phase hating the South and its rural aspects. I know long for a garden and some simple living.

I am guessing you studied theology? or literature?

Felix Culpa said...

Both and then some, and then some more some, as my monthly student loan bills eloquently testify.