Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Delusions of grandeur

I wrote about Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, in December. Having now finished it, re-read bits and thought about the whole thing, I feel there's a bit more I ought to say about it.

In particular, I must retract some of my earlier comments, now that I've finished the book. I’m referring to the comments about it being “clever”.

You see, it becomes rather less clever in its closing chapters. The first four chapters are, I freely admit, pretty clever. Dawkins presents an atheistic critique of religious “arguments for God”, largely from a scientific viewpoint. He does it with confidence and verve (though I became a little bemused when he attempts to dismiss a philosophical giant like Thomas Aquinas in three pages. There is such a thing as intellectual arrogance).

In chapter 5, Dawkins “boldly goes” into some of his more eccentric theories about where religion comes from (given that it’s all such a ridiculous error). It’s interesting enough, this pseudo-scientific-psychological perusal – but not very convincing when you get behind the rhetoric. For instance, Dawkins’ talk about “memetics”, his own pet theory of cultural evolution, treats “memes” as though they were concrete entities you could look at through a microscope (rather than the – fanciful? – hypothesis of a scientist who just happens to also be a secularist determined to explain human behaviour without getting near reference to spirituality). So, chapter 5. A good read, but a great deal less convincing even than Dawkins wants us believe poor old Thomas Aquinas was.

Chapter 6 continues along broadly the same trajectory, gustily avoiding the truly difficult question of what “morality” can possibly mean in an amoral universe that came to be by amoral chance. He avoids this question whilst addressing it, which, fair enough, is clever – but hardly satisfying.

But I’m afraid silliness really sets in come chapter 7, the chapter on the Bible. His dismissal of the Old Testament (and its God) is so obviously duff that I’d like to make it available in the flyleaf of every Bible sold as an example of how fanatical atheism takes away even the ability to read. Oh, there’s more than enough rhetoric about the bloodbaths in the Old Testament and so on. But Dawkins entirely ignores the many, many examples of God’s heart for justice, mercy, and love which come through not only in the narrative parts, but more especially in the prophets.

Then there is his entirely silly assumption that God endorses the behaviour of every character in the Old Testament simply because they’re in the Old Testament. Yes, Lot’s assumption that rape of females is less offensive than rape of males is reprehensible: and we can be sure God agrees (read the rest of the Bible, like the prophets who speak for God and Jesus who is the speech of God). It seems to me that the Bible’s unflinching honesty about the flaws (nay, the downright moral evil) of some of its characters (even its heroes) is a point in its favour. And we would do well to note a point that Paul makes in the New Testament about the Old Testament: “These things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did”. Moral examples go both ways. The Bible is grimly realistic about human morality.

Then there’s Dawkins’ thin and scanty critique of the New Testament. So brief and scanty that I shall be even more brief and scanty here: Dawkins mocks Jesus as a pale-faced Galilean and then condemns him for His harsher sayings. A proverb about wanting cake and eating cake springs to mind. And here ends Dawkins’ response to the single most influential collection of texts in world history.

Chapters 8 and 9 fall into a similar pit of self-contradiction: Dawkins bangs on about fanatical, unthinking, fundamentalist religion (he seems to know of no other kind, except when he posits that intelligent and sensitive theologians are not worth dealing with since they’re in such a small minority. And that’s an argument?) His solution? He recommends fanatical, unthinking, fundamentalist atheism. “Trust me, it’ll make the world a better place,” he insists.

Perhaps the biggest example of Dawkins’ flagrant inconsistency is in his recommendations for bringing up children. To sum up: “It is immoral to teach children what to believe. Let them make up their own minds. Teach them Darwinist Evolution. It is the Truth. ” I kid you not. Read it yourself – chapter 9.

So I have to retract my comments about it being a clever book. “Smart, pacy, well-written,” yes. “Full of wit and drive,” yes. “Incisive” yes, if you mean making your points in such a focused way as to leave no room for discussion. “Witty, cutting,” certainly. “Very, very clever. And it knows it.” Sorry, no. Here I recant what I wrote previously. It is not clever. It is really rather stupid, beneath the bombast. But, sadly, it doesn’t know it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Celibacy? Oh, that's easy!

At our church end of year celebration some people made vows of celibacy. (Celibacy is a gift and lifestyle that we honour as a church. See This year, when the celibates were making their vows, two sisters behind me got into a good-natured but spirited debate about whether celibacy was easier for men or women. One was convinced it was easier for women (‘after all, men have stronger sex drives’). The other was sure it was easier for men (‘they don’t feel the sacrifice of not having children so keenly as women’). After a while of listening to their discussion, I leaned back and said: ‘Surely the whole point is that celibacy is easier for both. If you want a real challenge - get married!’

They laughed and, of course, I meant it humorously – but there’s a serious point there, isn’t there? Paul advocates the single life to spare hassle and ‘secure undivided devotion’. Jesus’ ‘eunuchs’ are able to serve in the kingdom more freely.

That’s not to minimise the real and very wonderful sacrifice that celibates make to serve Jesus. Some of my very best friends are celibate – sometimes through trials and tears – and, truly, I’m in awe of their devotion. It’s just that, to serve the king and live for His kingdom in an all-out way (such as that we try to embrace in a lifestyle of intentional Christian community) as a married person, especially with children presents real challenges which the celibate avoids (and rightly so, since this is the key New Testament raison d’etre of celibacy).

How do you balance the demands of the church and community, and individuals within it, against the need to invest rightly in one’s children and relationship with spouse? How do you ‘live as though you were not’ married (Paul’s tantalising phrase in 1 Corinthians 7) at the same time as ‘loving your wife’ (to quote Paul once more, this time from Ephesians 5)?

It can be done, certainly, but it takes wisdom, grace, forgiveness of and from each other and those around you, willingness to look stupid and have your weaknesses on show a lot (children are experts at displaying their parents’ faults!)

But it’s worth the struggle. A committed, happy marriage breeds security in others. Hurt people find refuge among families with an openness which means they can ‘join in’. Children humanise community with their disarming sincerity (when a small child spontaneously hugs you, it’s because they love you, not because they’re after something – that only comes with teenage guile!) And even the many, many imperfections that families all display – outbursts of irritation, squabbles, taking one another for granted and so on and on – are a sign of hope. God loves and redeems us precisely in all our imperfections: we’re in His family.

So putting your marriage and family at the service of the kingdom is tough, exhausting at times, demanding constantly – but always rewarding. And always worth it.