Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 11th February 2007
Through the month of February in the sermons at Matins I am responding to a book that has been continuously in the bestseller lists since it was published last year: Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Dawkins' book is a searing attack on belief in God, developing points made in his television programmes 'The Root of All Evil?'. He outlines four functions of religion, which he takes apart one by one.
The first is explanation. Last week, I spoke about the different sorts of explanation that are associated with different types of knowledge. I argued that, though in the past, and still amongst some evangelical Christians, Christianity has been expected to provide an explanation about what the universe is, and where we have come from, for many of us this is not what Christianity is all about. We don't expect the Bible to give us an explanation of the origin of the universe or of our species. I suggested that being a Christian is rather like being a character in The Complete Works of Shakespeare: the Complete Works, because The Complete Works contains different plays with different characters in different situations. This is a bit like the way we have different religions in the world, and each religion, like each play, has its own world-view.
To be a Christian is, then, a bit like being a character in a Shakespeare play. As we read Scripture, we are drawn into seeing the world as though we were ourselves a character in the Scriptural narrative. When we read the Gospels, it as though we say, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God'; we say 'Crucify him;' and we say, 'My Lord and my God'. And as we do so, we find new, Jesus-centred explanations as to why we experience life the way we do. So, there is a sense in which our Christian faith does help us explain who we are and what we are, but not in the scientific sense that is so important for Dawkins.
This brings me to Dawkins second function of religion, which he calls exhortation. Dawkins thinks religion gives us moral exhortation, telling us how to behave and how not to. Much of that religious exhortation he abhors. Here again, religious people can agree that religion does have a key role in passing on teaching about how we ought to behave. And that certain features of the morality carried in the past by religion are rightly to be rejected today. When Christians in this country faced up to the cruelty of the slave trade, they came to see it was incompatible with some of the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. But this took time, and for a hundred years Christians argued vigorously on both sides of the debate: in America it brought them to civil war. As an Anglican Christian I would hope to maintain a questioning attitude towards the morality that comes to us through our religious tradition. In our religious tradition we have the secure ground we need both for moral commitment and for moral exploration. For a Christian, the central moral value conveyed by our religious tradition - never to be rejected - is quite simply that of love (interpreted particularly in the light of forgiveness and reconciliation). The question is how that cashes out today in a rapidly changing world. It is striking that Dawkins has virtually nothing to say about love, and certainly not about an ethic of love.
Dawkins' lack of discussion of what is central to Christian morality comes about, I think, because he separates morality and religion. He discusses morality before he discusses religion. For him, Darwinian theory explains why we feel moral obligations towards those close to us which we do not feel towards strangers (we share the same genes) and why we feel that we should not steal from or lie to members of our own group (the group or tribe that lives this way is more likely to survive). Dawkins argues that such instincts go very deep indeed.
He also argues that there are advantages for religions which promote this kind of morality. Just as there is competition among genes and among species, there is competition among religious ideas and cultural practices. He doesn't consider the possibility that some of those that thrive do so because they convey a particular truth or truths. For Dawkins, to look for truth in religion is to fall prey to a delusion.
Dawkins gives a characteristically functional account of religion, looking at what religions can do for their adherents. However, right at the heart of his project is his determination to show the advantage of believing in no religion at all. The atheist, he argues, is free from the delusions promoted by religious belief, and can therefore function better in the world. The atheist can espouse a vigorous and challenging morality untrammelled by the teachings of religion. To argue this, Dawkins must separate morality from religion, in the hope that religion will drop away. Religionless atheists, he says, can be just as moral in their own way as believers.
I would see things differently. I would argue that for humans the origins of morality and the origins of religion are absolutely interwoven. Significantly, Dawkins does not define what he means either by religion or morality. The root of the word religion lies in the Latin word religio - meaning 'that which binds'. A religion is a collection of beliefs and practices which binds together a society. It is in principle shared: you can't have a private religion with a membership of one. Since all human societies seem in the past to have believed in God or the gods, religion has been associated with belief in God or the gods. The key point though is that to practise a religion is as much to do certain things as to believe certain things. The religion carries the beliefs, affirming and reinforcing them as the religion is practised. In the West today we tend to separate out morality and beliefs and to make one of the other optional; in the religious life the two go together.
All religions have some kind of ritual. In religious ritual what is being enacted is a whole way of experiencing the world. It is enacted symbolically - often with the use of dance, chanting, music, and readings from sacred texts. The use of symbolic materials like water, fire, or food and the sharing of symbolic meals is, of course, common, as is the practice of sacrifice. Because these ritual acts are done together, the people are bound together, and the values that they share are reinforced - just as I am reinforcing Christian teaching by preaching this sermon in a liturgical context now. Dawkins is right to point to the importance of exhortation, but this central function of religion would be better described by a word like affirmation or even performance.
In response to Dawkins' attack on religion, we might well ask what happens when you take away from society the belief that God or the gods exist. Dawkins argument is that this sets us free; mine that it sets us adrift. This is not as such an argument that God exists, but it is an argument for the link between religion and morality. I would argue that much of the social breakdown we currently see reflected in the rising numbers of those imprisoned, or the breakdown of marriage, can ultimately be traced to the lack of shared religious belief binding society together, and that not to have this social bond is indeed a serious loss.
Dawkins does us all a service by challenging much that is wrong about religion: for instance its appalling propensity for violence. However, the answer to the failures of religious believers is not to abolish religion but to repent of these failures and to learn from our mistakes.
Dawkins does his cause a disservice by misdescribing the relation between religion and morality: it is not that religion reinforces a pre-existent morality; rather that each religion empowers its adherents to act in society according to its own distinctive morality (which may well overlap with the morality of other religions, as with the 'golden rule' to treat others as you would have them treat you. This is common to all the major monotheistic religions.) In the case of Christianity, the morality which we struggle to enact is based upon the teaching of Jesus, who constantly challenges the religious values of his own time: 'You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Mt 5: 43-5)'
This key aspect of Christianity is completely missing from Dawkins argument. Christians have to acknowledge that from the outside Christianity can be seen as a religion which performs and affirms certain moral values, some of which Dawkins does not like or understand. From the inside, it contains a critique of religion, because religion so easily becomes self-satisfied, legalistic and violent. Jesus was a great religious teacher - precisely because he warned so strongly of the perils of religion. Dawkins too warns us of the perils of religion, but fails to engage with the positive message of Jesus, in which is the promise of Life.