Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 18th February 2007
Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, has been continuously in the bestseller lists since it was published last year. It continues to make waves and to promote discussion. Dawkins' book is a searing attack on belief in God. It clearly invites a response from someone like myself who despite all that he has to say, continues to believe.
It is not easy to respond in a measured way to Dawkins' polemic. He is rightly outraged at the damage that religion has done to many people: one of the most attractive features of the book is his underlying passion to do away with all that harms and oppresses vulnerable human beings, especially children and women. He is, however, a ferocious debater, and can never resist making a point in the most provocative way. This makes him relatively easy to read, but difficult to pin down in argument. His points are often telling, but by and large they do not engage with anything - not anything - that is to be said on the other side of the argument. His underlying passion for truth and human liberation is immensely attractive; however, the way he goes about his mission - and it is a mission - is at times needlessly and distractingly offensive.
I am not myself competent to discuss Dawkins' earlier work in which he expounds a modern understanding of evolution, bringing together Darwinian theory with what we know about the origins of the universe, the origins of life and our contemporary understanding of genetics. However, I tried two weeks ago to discuss what Dawkins had to say about explanation, which is so important to his understanding of what science is all about. He seems to think 'explanation' is equally important for religious belief, but the religious people I know are content to leave scientists to explain the origins of the universe and the origins of life. We expect something different from our religious faith.
Dawkins next uses the word exhortation to describe the ways in which religious belief encourages us to adhere to certain moral teachings. Clearly, there is a point here, and sermons often have just this function of exhortation. But, again, what he says does not hit the nail on the head. The religious people I know would use a word more like 'affirmation' or 'performance' to describe the link between religion and morality. In our liturgy, especially the liturgy of the eucharist, we enact symbolically the story that lies at the heart of the Gospel narrative, and in doing so we affirm the Gospel values by which we seek to live. We are encouraged to live by those values because we share in the performance of the liturgy: being a Christian is not so much a matter of being exhorted to follow certain moral rules, but of living a certain kind of life, a life which reflects something of the life of Christ.
Taken together, the third and fourth words Dawkins uses to describe the central functions of religion come much nearer to what I would understand by being a Christian. They are consolation and inspiration. Dawkins thinks we find consolation by believing in an imaginary God. But the word he uses skews the argument. The word consolation has come to mean the sort of comfort we receive when something is irretrievably lost, and it can also have a sense of second-best, as when we talk of a 'consolation' prize. In the past Christian belief has consoled, and it continues to console, people who believe that the Christian teachings about life after death and about the nature of God are true: that these teachings give a secure foundation for the hope that 'death is swallowed up in victory'. The word I, as a Christian believer, would use for the way Christian belief does indeed console in the face of fear or loss is comfort. And I would link that with the power to strengthen the believer, as when the Holy Spirit is called the Comforter. Dawkins has a great deal to say about the way religious belief motivates people to do violent things, but nothing to say about the power of religion to strengthen the religious in resisting evil, nothing about the courageous witness of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Mother Maria Pilenko, an Oscar Romero or a Janani Luwum -all of them commemorated on the West Front of this Abbey church..
Dawkins' final value is inspiration. By the time he comes to this (which for me is pretty close to the heart of the matter) he has completely taken his eye off the ball, so he writes less than two pages, and those are entirely about the inspiration he thinks is to be found in science and in atheism. This is pity because I would have liked to have heard his account of the relation between religious belief and Chartres Cathedral, or Beethoven's music (the sublimity of which he mentions in passing, p. 86), or T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. 'Inspiration' is a word I would certainly associate with the experience of contemporary religious believers. For the Christian believer, the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth and of his early followers is truly inspiring. The very word reflects the experience of God 'breathing' new life into the believer. Through religious belief we can be inspired to live life in a wholly new way.
Before coming to my own word for the way a Christian believer experiences their own religion, I would, however, make two comments on Dawkins' approach. I have already commented on the way in which Dawkins sets out to attack belief in God, but spends much of his time attacking religion. He slides from one to the other - which is why I have spent so much time on what religion is about for the Christian believer. However, we should note that the God Dawkins attacks is above all a supernatural being. So far I have not talked about the 'supernatural' since the way this term is now used is so misleading as to what Christians believe about God and the way God works. I shall return to the question of the supernatural in next week's sermon.
One of the things that Dawkins most hates and fears about religion is its propensity for violence. Because religion 'binds' people together it creates insiders and outsiders, and all too often the insiders want violently to overcome the outsiders so that they can extend the reach of their religion. At least in Christianity, right at the heart of its teaching and life, there is a critique of violence. When Jesus was crucified he did not respond violently, but prayed 'Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.' In the same way, Stephen, the first Christian martyr is depicted dying with words of forgiveness and trust on his lips. Amongst the things the Early Church remembered and passed on about Jesus was that 'when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted himself to him who judges justly' (1 Pet 2:23). If those of us who are Christians lived and died a bit more like this, Dawkins would have less reason to generalise about the hatreds that religion engenders.
Dawkins is crystal clear that his real target, so far as religion is concerned, is extremism, whether Christian or Islamic. However, since he sees the potential for extremism in all religions, he will accept no defence of moderate Christianity or moderate Islam over against the extremist variety. He thinks the moderate practice of religion is dangerous because it can always revert to extremism. So, it is important to stamp out religion of all sorts, and what monotheistic religions have is common is their belief in the existence of a supernatural being in the name of whom human beings go on doing untold damage.
As a Christian, I must accept the criticism that, whatever good has come through religion, religion has also legitimated an appalling amount of violent and repressive human action. As a follower of Jesus Christ, however, I find in his life, death and resurrection the dynamic that breaks the terrible cycles of violence in which so many human beings are immersed. In the crucifixion we may see the glorification, even the legitimation, of extreme violence - as I thought might be the case with Mel Gibson's film of the Passion, which is why I did not watch it - or we may see the one great act of self-offering and victimisation that has the potential to break the cycle of violence in which we are all enmeshed. For the Christian, it is the cross that comforts - it tells us there is no depth of human suffering that is beyond the reach of God in Christ - and it is the cross that inspires, because in the death of Christ we see an unparalleled enactment of what it means to live and die without bitterness, with trust, forgiveness and hope.
For the Christian, it is above all in the eucharist that the death of Christ is enacted and affirmed; the eucharist is 'performed' through the sharing of bread and wine: 'As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes' (1 Cor 11:26) But the real reason we do this is not so that we can remember the death of Christ in the past, however consoling or inspiring that death may be, but because of the presence of the Risen Christ with us now. Not surprisingly, this sense of the presence of the Risen Christ in the midst, which is the key to Christian life, and to the Christian belief in a living God, is wholly absent from Dawkins' book. This is why Dawkins never once (I think) uses the word joy, nor does he use the word which for me which would best describe what being a Christian is all about: celebration.