Tuesday, April 10, 2007


[posted by Callimachus]

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.

... 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.

... 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?

Faith and belief are two of the most interesting words in English, to me, and they embody different ideas. Neither is, at root, a religious word.

The oldest sense of faith is "duty of fulfilling one's trust," and the root runs through Latin fidere "to trust." Among its relatives in Latin is foedus "compact, treaty," which is something you agree to for the sake of a future from which you have no evidence or proof. The native equivalent is trust, which is not etymologically related to faith

At the root of believe is love. What you believe is what you would love to be true. Human love is unruled by reason or argument, as the most ancient poems will tell you.

The most irritating Christians, in my experience, are the ones who try to reason you into faith. As if! "It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into," as Swift wrote, and it's equally absurd to do the reverse. Like trying to convince someone by argument to fall in love with you.

By the same token, I sympathize with a modern Christian of intellect and learning, who attempt the feat of standing on faith alone. I long ago stopped seeking pleasure in tipping them over.

You have to work every day to make the irrational and the rational bed down together under the same skull. That's faith. Faith comes a flare through the hollow of the ear, the thing that flows in from beyond what you know and can explain. It takes you where you're afraid to go. It sent Saul into a ditch and Thomas Merton to the Little Flower. It makes your hair stand on end. One who swims in logic and employs it like a Swiss knife to solve life's problems is forced to lay it aside when crossing into religion, for faith makes no concession to reason.