The Atheist Delusion.
Defending God in the 21st Century.
Published in Reality Magazine in December, 2012.
By Sue Leonard.
When the Oxford based Scientist Richard Dawkins first launched an attack on all religious belief through writing books like, ‘The God Delusion,’ it was easy for believers to ignore him. But the kind of militant atheism Dawkins espouses is on the rise; and is gaining credence in Ireland, as elsewhere.
How do people of faith respond, when they are ridiculed, and dismissed as deluded and unthinking? How do they set about defending God in this 21st Century?
The Most Reverend Richard Clarke, Bishop of Meath and Kildare.
Bishop Clarke is more irritated than distressed by the angry atheism that appears to be on the rise in Ireland.
“I'm irritated because I think the anger, whatever about the atheism, is intellectually misplaced and deeply flawed,” he says. “It may be reasonable for people to be angry at the church, but the Church is, emphatically, not God. Therefore the atheism is hitting the wrong target.
“Some atheists like Dawkins, argue that religion causes people to do terrible things, yet many people of faith have brought only good into the world. Distorted and twisted religious faith may cause harm, but many of the worst things done over the last century have not been done in the name of any religion. Take Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot. And not every terrorist group - even ones that will use suicide bombing - is "religious" in motivation.
“Religious faith should make people better people, but it doesn't always succeed. Evelyn Waugh was once asked how he could be such a deeply unpleasant person when he claimed a religious faith. His reply was to ask his questioner to consider how much worse he might be if he didn't have a religious faith.
“There are some philosophical flaws in an atheists’ argument too. The person of religious faith sees a pattern in life and believes that this pattern has some meaning and purpose outside itself, given to it by something transcendent, in God. The atheist may also see a pattern in nature but comes to the conclusion that there is no ultimate meaning in the pattern.
“The atheist's conclusion that there is no greater significance to the pattern may not be unreasonable, but this does not make the believer’s view the pattern’s significance unreasonable either. The scientist asks, ‘How does it work like that?’ The person of religious faith, who may also be a scientist, asks in addition, ‘Is there a purpose given to it all, and if so, what?’
“Unfortunately, in countries like Ireland, Britain and the USA, there is a hostility between humanism and Christianity, and this makes respectful dialogue virtually impossible. "Secular Humanism" here tends to see itself as the direct opponent of religious faith, and often tends to be sadly disrespectful of such belief. It need not, and should not be so.”
Professor William Reville. Associate Professor in Biochemistry at University College, Cork.
Prof. Reville is often criticised for his religious belief.
“This is mostly through written comments in response to articles I have written, but the tone is often sneering and insulting. A charge is made, all the time, that if you believe in God, you are prepared to believe in things for which there is no evidence. And that is not the way that anybody with a reasonable faith understands the matter.
“We all have faith ‘in’ things for which there is no evidence. Maybe it’s faith in a local GP’s efficacy. As a scientist I have to have faith in the way the world works, and I have to have faith in science’s ability to understand and predict. When it comes to spiritual matters atheists choose to interpret faith differently. They ask, ‘how can a scientist believe in God when there is no evidence that he exists?’
“It can’t be proved in any logical sense, but few things can be proven in that way. You can’t prove that somebody loves you. But you can know. You can believe in the concept of God who made the world. There’s no absolute scientific evidence that there is such a being, but it’s not unreasonable to believe so. Science shows us that the world began as an explosion of pure energy, and that all that exists materially is matter or energy. But why is the world suitable for life?
“My answer, is that the world is understandable through science and mathematics, and mathematics is a pure product of human imagination. Mathematicians dream up patterns and call them equations, then, looking at the universe, they see the patterns already written there. Why is that?
“I believe we are made in the image of God, and if so, we are like God in our logic and our minds. If we can think, even dimly, as God thinks, that would explain how we can understand the world as God made it.
“If you believe in the teachings of Jesus, and have experienced his teachings; if his message works for you, then it is not unreasonable to believe in the God of whom Jesus spoke; eternal God, the creator. I find my faith comforting, and it doesn’t insult my reason to have this belief.”
Sarah Carey. Journalist, Columnist, and Broadcaster.
Sarah has noticed a rise in the aggression of some of Ireland’s atheists of late. But this doesn’t, too much, worry her.
“I think extreme aggression can be counter-productive,” she says. “I know many atheists who remark that they find Dawkin’s methods distasteful. They tend to say, ‘so what if he doesn’t believe in God? Why does he want to take the comfort of faith away from those who do believe?’ I feel he’s getting up the noses of genuinely liberal people so much, that he’s actually doing Christians a favour.
“In general, I find that atheists are happy to live and let live. They respect the consolation that believers draw from their faith. But the ‘evangelical atheists,’ the ones who are active in the media and in politics, tend to be campaigning for secularism. They tend to see themselves as virtuous harbingers of moral progress, and are not, generally abusive. Whilst they can, occasionally, be shrill, they generally confine themselves to civilised debate. But they do tend to be patronising.
“The aggression happens too, but that’s more on Social media. Once one becomes associated with matters of faith, the message boards and Twitter take off. Views are ascribed to people that they may never have expressed. This can quickly spiral into abuse. It starts as ‘X goes to mass, and is therefore religious and conservative, and then it’s ‘x is therefore anti freedom of speech. This can descend into, ‘X is homophobic, anti-choice, pro hierarchy, and pro covering up child abuse.’ It’s never ending.
“Fortunately I don’t have to read the internet. I can save debate for real conversations with real people. And when it comes to matters of faith, I’m fairly liberal. I never seek to persuade anyone as to the existence of God. Instead I offer evidence that faith is beneficial both to the individual and to society. Therefore, I argue, it is worthy of respect and support.
“If anyone wants to argue the point, or dismiss religious faith as a crutch for the peasantry, my most effective argument is to point out that many great scientists, and especially physicists, believe in some form of intelligent design. They are totally overwhelmed by the astonishing coincidences that combine to make the universe capable of supporting life. I haven’t heard a good answer from an atheist on that point yet.”
Senator Ronan Mullen. Politician, Barrister and law lecturer.
Senator Mullen agrees that atheism is on the rise here.
“10% of Irish people described themselves as atheists in the most recent Red C poll,” he says. “And atheists are more vocal now, and are forming political and lobbying groups to further their own interests.
“The rise in the number has many causes. There’s the dominance in the media of secular voices hostile to religion, and the status given to atheist and agnostic thinkers in public intellectual life and in the universities. Then there’s the weaknesses in religious education in schools, the marginalisation of religious faith by its portrayal as a purely private and subjective matter, and the priority given to individual satisfaction and pleasure as a personal goal.
“The sexual revolution hasn’t helped, with the undermining of family ties and responsibilities, and the undermining of the Church's credibility as an agent of positive values because of the child sex abuse scandals.
“I think atheists are emboldened by these trends and events and have become more vociferous. Polemists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have become popular and influential, in spite of, or maybe because their analysis is often simplistic.
“My views as a Catholic have always been challenged. I see this as a positive thing. Genuine faith thrives in an environment of intellectual challenge, discourse and openness. As a believer I hope I am able to challenge non-believers to engage with their own presuppositions and, ultimately, with the reality and message of Christ.
“There are, I believe, good historical reasons for accepting that Christ existed and preached as recounted in scripture. There are good moral reasons for accepting him as a person of good faith, and good existential reasons for thinking that his Gospel message is a reflection of the deepest desires of the human heart.
“Whether Christ is the Son of God is a matter that depends entirely on faith, but living in the love of God brings its own reassurance that this truth is indeed the answer to the mystery of our universe. If people can bring themselves to approach Christ and his message anew with an open heart they may surprise themselves; they may discover that his proclamation is indeed the first and eternal truth.
“I regularly find myself in situations explaining and proposing the Catholic faith. I try to do so with sensitivity, with awareness of my own weakness, but also with conviction. Sometimes, it is a matter of correcting misconceptions about the faith or about the Church's teaching and conduct. Sometimes it is more about encouraging people to search for, and find meaning in life and, beyond that, the true source of meaning. Cynicism and despair go hand in hand with atheism, as many of the great existential atheists of the twentieth century realised.”
Rev, Dr Ruth Patterson. Presbyterian Minister.
Dr Patterson feels that only a small minority of people in Ireland are atheists, but that, because they are so aggressive, their voice can make them sound like thousands.
“There has been a falling away from the church, but there isn’t, necessarily, any less of a belief in God,” she says. “People are looking for someone to make that belief more real for them. There is, within people, a great hunger for spirituality.
“I haven’t been challenged on my belief in God, but, as Ireland’s first ordained woman – of any denomination – I have been challenged on that issue; and I’ve often been challenged on my belief in reconciliation and the call to unity.
“If somebody’s mind is closed to God, they’re not open to debate. They will not listen, and it’s not worth entering into conversation, other than to assert that, ‘well by our fruits you will know us.’
“The biggest key is to enter into a relationship, because the attitude of our hearts and minds can be changed by the building of such relationships. That is what faith is all about. It’s about hospitality, and the restoration of hospitality between ourselves and God; between alienated parts of our own inner beings, between ourselves and others, and indeed the whole created order.
“How would I defend God to an atheist? I couldn’t win an argument, intellectually, with a Richard Dawkins type. I think the way to go about it is to seek, in all humility, to disarm them. The most radical gospel call of today is for people to recognise the vocation of being the beloved. If you break the word down, it becomes a challenge. Be loved.
“Most of the conflicts between people, and the breakdown of relationships, even most of the conflict in the world come about because people, for whatever reason, cannot accept that they are loved. Once they begin to understand that, they enter into a greater freedom, and can begin to see more clearly. It’s why Jesus came. He came to let people know how much they are loved.
“Or I’d use my father’s example. He was a clergyman of great openness and vision. Years ago somebody attacked him, and said, ‘prove to me that God exists.’ He said, ‘you go away and think about it, and give me proof that he doesn’t exist’ Two days later the man returned, nearly demented. I said, ‘I can’t.’”
© Sue Leonard. 2012.