Thursday, November 01, 2007

Truth in religion

The polemical works by Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others comes under critical scrutiny in a review in the Times Literary Supplement.

In his review of John Cornwell`s DARWIN’S ANGEL: An angelic riposte to The God Delusion and John Humphrys IN GOD WE DOUBT, John Polkinghorne in his article "The truth in religion: Substituting science for religion is like swapping a series of case-notes on senile dementia for King Lear" takes the recent critics of religion to task.

John Polkinghorne was formerly Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, and President of Queens' College. His autobiography From Physicist to Priest was published this year

"Religious belief is currently under heavy fire. Books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others tell us that religion is a corrupting delusion. Despite their assertions of the rationality of atheism, the style of their onslaughts has been strongly polemical and rhetorical, rather than reasonably argued. Historical evidence is selectively surveyed. Attention is focused on inquisitions and crusades, while the significance of Hitler and Stalin is downplayed. Believers in young-earth creationism are presented as if they were typical of religious people in general. The two books under review aim to make a more temperate contribution to the debate. ...

Cornwell begins by pointing out that Dawkins makes no serious attempt to engage with the academic discussion of religious thought and practice. His book is “as innocent of heavy scholarship as it is free from false modesty”. When it asserts that Jesus’ call to love our neighbour referred only to relations between Jews (despite this claim being in clear contradiction to the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan), the only support quoted for this highly questionable statement is a book written by an anaesthesiologist.

Over the centuries, theologians have wrestled with how human language can attempt to speak about the nature of God, emphatically rejecting the idea that the deity is simply an invisible object among the other objects of the world. Yet, as Cornwell points out, the God in whom Dawkins disbelieves is a kind of “Great Science Professor in the Sky”, a simplistic notion that any thinking theist would be quick to reject. We are continually told that theology is no proper academic discipline, a conclusion that could only be reached by someone whose knowledge of the subject was comparable to the scientific knowledge displayed by those who write in green ink that “Einstein was wrong”.

Dawkins is relentlessly rude about religious believers. They are said to be “malevolent, barking mad, mendacious, deluded” and much more. He cannot have the courtesy to take seriously those of us who are both scientists and believers. Religious education of the young is equated with child abuse. Darwin’s angel pertinently asks, “Would you really trade child sexual abuse for being brought up in the religion of your parents?”. The tone of contempt – one might almost say hatred – that characterizes many of the assertions in The God Delusion is one of the most disturbing aspects of the book."