A response to Richard Dawkins
Cranmer has been accused of all manner of nasty and hurtful things by the loyal disciples of Professor Richard Dawkins; even of rabid censorship on the grounds that so many of the contributions on the previous Dawkins post were ‘supportive’ of His Grace’s position.
No contributions have been censored (other than one anonymous two-liner of foul language), but doubtless the false allegation and numerous accusations of cowardice and ineptitude give them a superior degree of self-satisfied comfort.
Even the Professor himself appears to have expected that his letter might be censored.
Not upon this blog anyway, which appears is fast-becoming the last bastion of unfettered religio-political speech in the United Kingdom.
Professor Dawkins’ letter appears to be genuine, for he himself has said so. He will have to forgive His Grace for his doubting cynicism: when the White House emailed His Grace à propos of nothing, it took him a little while to realise that it was genuine; after all, Lambeth Palace has never bothered to write, and neither has Her Majesty's Leader of the Oppposition, let alone Number 10. So one might understand and excuse a little skepiticism when someone visits who purports to be the eminent and distinguished Richard Dawkins.
But the good Professor has been timing His Grace on the passing hours it has taken to respond (which is a little unfair, for His Grace does not have an abundantly-funded foundation behind him). Cranmer is content to respond to the Professor's series of comments and questions thus:
I am intrigued by the Christian vitriol that is being thrown in my face after my article in The Times. You, Cranmer, have even suggested that I should be arrested for incitement to religious hatred. Here’s a brief summary of what I actually said. Cranmer, please explain, calmly and coolly, what is wrong with it.
His Grace has no time for vitriol, though he understands that it is frequently confused with valid criticism or impassioned feelings on any matter, especially by the target of such criticism or expressed feelings. One wonders why you consider an accusation of ‘spineless hypocrisy’ or of the possession of 'a sub-GCSE level of comprehension' to be vitriolic, while your references to St Paul’s ‘nasty’ mind, or to ‘bleating’ clergymen, or to Pat Robertson’s ‘sub-Palinesque ignorance’ are presumably rational, polite and measured.
Nowhere has His Grace suggested that you ‘should be arrested for incitement to religious hatred’. It could not be writ more large than in the title to the post itself, which begins with an implied interrogative ‘should’ and ends with a question mark. In your apparent over-sensitivity, you seem to think that His Grace supports the 2006 legislation which is increasingly being used against Christians (usually) in order to stifle very legitimate debate about religio-political issues (or even to express opinions on religious orthodoxy). There is no indication at all that you ought to be arrested for speaking as you do or writing as you did in The Times. But neither should others. That nuanced point appears to have been lost on you. The article was as much about the hypocrisy of The Times (one could say the same of the BBC) in the unequal way they treat religions, as it was about your intolerance of Christianity.
Whether Christian, Muslim, Jew or atheist, we all agree in condemning Pat Robertson’s suggestion that the earthquake was God’s punishment to the Haitian people for making a pact with the devil. But Christians, unlike Muslims, Jews or atheists, are hypocrites to condemn Robertson, because he is the one who clearly and unapologetically stands up for Christian theology. As follows:-
Firstly, it is not clear that Pat Robertson actually said what he is widely reported to have said. We are all aware of how journalists and television reporters, eager for their scoops and desirous to bolster their reputations, take a sentence or phrase completely out of context and distort it in order to create the story. It is intrinsic to the media: it goes with the territory. However, even if we go with what you understand he said (and he may very well have done so, though even if he had it would have been no different to what Fr Wagner [Bishop of Linz] said a year ago about Hurricane Katrina being sent by God because it destroyed five abortion clinics and countless nightclubs), you are quite wrong to insist that it is uniquely the Christians who are hypocrites for condemning what you deem to constitute ‘clearly and unapologetically’ Christian theology. If a Muslim were to condemn it, they would also be hypocrites, for many of them hold the same beliefs about divine retribution for sin. And so do some strands of Judaism. And so (in a different way, through karmic laws) do Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. But you have chosen to focus solely on the ‘faux-anguished hypocrites’ the Christians, possibly because you are not aware of (or been bothered to acquaint yourself with) what adherents of other religions have said on the matter. And so you summarise ‘Christian theology’ thus:
1. God metes out terrible punishment for sin. The doctrine of post-mortem punishment for sin in Hell is fully sanctioned in the New Testament (not in the Old Testament, incidentally, although the Old Testament has plenty of wholesale punishment for sin in this world). Cranmer, are you now saying that Pat Robertson is mistaken in his emphasis on divine punishment for sin?
If one were to take The Ladybird Book of Evolution and advance extracts as evidence to disprove the nuances and complexities of that to which you have dedicated your eminent and learned life, you would be justified in expressing a degree of incredulity. Yet are an academic: the readers of Ladybird books tend not to be. While there is no doubting that there are indeed some Christians who believe as you have written, as straightforwardly as you have expressed it, you will be aware that there are also evolutionary biologists who are quite content to accommodate in their disparate belief systems the ‘Intelligent Design’ or ‘Creationist’ theory, and find it quite consistent with all that you yourself profess. But it would be quite wrong of anyone to categorise you all as evolutionary biologists in the same sense, not least because you might feel that to be so categorised with your co-biologists would do you an immense disservice, or constitute evidence of a fundamental lack of comprehension of your writings. The ‘Creationists’ sustain all manner of disjunctive contradictions and inconsistencies which simply do not exist for you.
You appear (with respect) to have no appreciation of the varieties of literary genre that are to be found in the Bible: it is not a novel, and neither is it a scientific textbook nor a broadsheet newspaper. Yet what it is in each of its constituent parts is fundamental to this discussion, because we can proceed no further (as may be your wish) until there is an understanding on your part of the discipline of textual criticism. Granted, that which has been applied to the Bible is a relatively recent pursuit of the last century or so, but Gunkel’s concept of Sitz Im Leben is immensely useful in that pursuit as it informs us on some of your questions. The crass ‘cause and effect’ theology to which you refer was addressed millennia ago in the Old Testament 'Wisdom Literature', when it was observed that it rains on the righteous as well as the unrighteous. Yet you still insist on caricaturing God in the fashion of Job’s friends.
You appear (again, with respect) to be unconcerned with authors, audiences, contexts, philology and hermeneutics – all of which are the building blocks of discourse analysis. You appear to have no appreciation of the complexities of communicating a Hebrew gospel in a Greek world or of the historical reality and theological necessity of incorporating aspects of cultural philosophy into what became the New Testament: if the gospel of salvation was not to be perpetually dismissed as ‘foolishness to the Greeks’, words and expressions had to be found to communicate it in the vernacular. What ‘hell’ became is not what ‘sheol’ was, for it could not be: the Greeks had no ‘sheol’.
All of this, of course, is not a research methodology required in science, but you will find it foundational to innumerable Oxford DPhils. Unless you consider a DPhil in Theology or Philosophy to be of a lower order than your own doctorate; a proposition from which you are unlikely to dissent.
2. Humanity is so deeply sinful that the only way God could forgive us was to have his own son punished vicariously for all our sins. He was tortured and crucified so that humanity’s sin could be purged. Cranmer, are you now denying that Jesus died for our sins? Moreover, the principal sin for which Jesus died was the sin of Adam, who actually never existed. Cranmer, are you saying you think Adam existed and therefore that evolution is false?
There has been (and is) no denial that Jesus died for our sins, and no denial of the concept of ‘original sin’.
It is interesting that you are able to assert so dogmatically that Adam ‘actually never existed’.
It is an assertion that cannot be made other than by faith, for you cannot possibly know by any epistemology or method of science. His Grace is content to say that he does not know whether or not Adam existed because he cannot know. But then he does not believe that the Book of Genesis is in the same literary genre as The Downing Street Years.
3. Robertson’s devil talk may sound barbaric, but all Christians subscribe to the belief that Jesus ‘cast out devils’. And this cannot just be an archaic way of saying ‘cured mental illness’, because on one occasion the devils departed from a madman and entered a herd of swine, causing them to stampede over a cliff. Christians who believe that Gospel story are therefore committed to the belief that ‘devils’ are actual entities or agents, capable of leaving one brain and entering another. Cranmer, are you denying the truth of that Gospel story? (Many modern Christians would, but Pat Robertson would stay true to the Gospel).
What is the source of your information that ‘all Christians believe...’? It is this sort of absolute assertion which leads people to judge your prejudice (for it is evident) and undermines the strength and validity of your argument that some Christian beliefs are repugnant, some irrational and incomprehensible, and others quite offensive. But not all would agree with all of these assertions: you appear to have no latitude for the infinite variety of human expression and understanding. Why is the ‘truth’ of any gospel story so mono-dimensional to you? Why are these accounts of the life of Jesus so monochromatic and incapable of other quite credible interpretation, regardless of what you consider to be ‘archaic’ modes of expression?
You appear to confuse the Christian understanding of the Bible with the Islamic view of the Qur’an. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were human beings whose accounts of the life and works of Jesus were somehow inspired: they are not infallible for they are mediated by man. Mohammed was a human being to whom Jibrail is believed by the majority of Muslims to have dictated the Qur’an verbatim, in Arabic, between AD610-632. For many Christians, that which you posit to be written ‘truth’ may simply be one perception of it. You appear to seek to impose the majority Muslim view of the Qur’an upon ‘all Christians’, because the only ‘true’ Christians are as ‘Evangelical’ or ‘Fundamentalist’ as Pat Robertson.
If you are denying some parts of the Gospel but not others, how do you decide which parts? As it happens, Pat Robertson, like the true Christian he is, chooses to deny none of it.
Again, you contend Pat Robertson to be a ‘true Christian’ because he believes that which you understand all Christians ought. It is a wonder that you cannot see the arrogance of such a view, for how can those who do not believe instruct those who do believe in what they must believe? It is not even as if your writing is temporised with ‘might’ or ‘may’ or some’ or ‘most’, but perhaps that is consistent with your offensive (in the literal sense) scientific method.
Scholars of the Bible understand literary criticism, yet they are not all constrained to believe what is fore-ordained, not least because the Protestant Reformation liberated man to use his unique intelligence and apply reason to tradition and scripture. To many Christians, these are not mutually exclusive (or, rather, reason does not operate to the exclusion of tradition or scripture). There are various schools of thought on this, but none of them has the whole truth, which only you appear to possess. And that is not meant as ad hominem vitriol, but a genuine expression of a sincere observation. If a Christian holds a tradition or teaching which you determine to be unscientific, it is intrinsically unreasonable. But that which is unscientific is not necessarily anti-scientific.
Cranmer, you accuse me of a “sub-GCSE level of comprehension of theology and an utterly simplistic caricature of religious philosophy.” My comprehension of Christian theology is set out in points 1 and 2 above (and arguably point 3, depending on what kind of Christian you are). My understanding of Christian theology is that all true Christians stand by at least 1 and 2. Cranmer, do you deny either of them? Please answer clearly and honestly, and without personal venom or irrelevant sideswipes.
With respect (once again) if the sum total of your ‘understanding of Christian theology is set out in points 1 and 2 above’, the observation of a sub-GCSE level of comprehension may be fairly adduced. Please be assured that there are many children in Year 8 who are more advanced in their understanding of Christian doctrine than you appear to be. There is an absence of any knowledge about the Patristics or scholasticism, the development of doctrine or any understanding of how scripture was compiled. Yet perhaps you would argue (or your followers on your behalf) that it is all nonsense and so you have no need to. Cramming God into a nutshell is a laudable pursuit if one can sell books and make a living from it. But yours is the ‘odious doctrine’ insofar as it seeks to transform the nut into God, for the nut can be empirically verified while God cannot, and so one should not be surprised if, just occasionally, a sledgehammer might be disproportionately deployed to crack it. Throughout history, scientists have attempted to explain the universe as they observe it. And some of them have paid the ultimate price at the hands of religious zealots whose religio-political authority was ostensibly threatened. But if history has taught us anything about science, it is that those observations may be temporal and partial. What the omniscient alchemists once taught as science is now known to be absurd superstition, and you are only standing upon their shoulders: not in the sense that what are saying is absurd superstition, for it is not, but in the assertion of an omniscience as absolute and unequivocal as the ‘mad mullahs’ or other ‘faith-heads’ you routinely scorn and berate.
His Grace does not wish to caricature either you or your views, and certainly not in the fashion that Howard Jacobson has recently done. You may, indeed, be a better theologian than many theologians. But, ultimately, we appear to differ on only one thing. You seem to believe that the integrated complexity of the physical universe and the origins of life itself can be explained rationally through particle physics and evolutionary biology; that the patterns and order which may be observed are consistent with apparent disorder and chaos, and that experiments and equations are all that we can know to be true.
Theists have space for the ontological as well the physical, chemical and biological. And the reasonableness (to them) of that ontology does not negate, neuter or nullify what is known in the physical world. Indeed, there is an abundance of evidence that it does not; that the two may co-exist.
We agree that you cannot disprove the existence of God any more than the Christian can prove it. Yet, for you, there is no necessity to disprove, while, for the Christian, there is a soteriological need to increase faith by, in part, drawing on the empirical evidence which has been corroborated by the humanities and the sciences. While this Christian is capable, willing and content to draw philosophical inference from such evidence, and to find within it a rational argument for God, you appear to be incapable, unwilling or uncontent to draw such philosophical inferences, or even to concede that this empirical evidence may constitute evidence at all, for it may not be placed in a test tube, observed under a microscope, or conjectured through a plethora of theoretical equations.
If the theologian speaks as a philosopher to the scientist, it may be nothing but ‘foolishness to the Greeks’. Yet when the scientist instructs the theologian in what the scientist believes the theologian should believe, there is not only the absence of academic humility, but neither is there science nor philosophy for there is no rational discourse, and where there is no rational discourse there can be no enlightenment, and where there is no enlightenment, there can be no discovery of further truth.