John Humphrys, (in?)famous BBC bulldog journalist, has been working on a book that is about to come out any day – IN GOD WE DOUBT – drawing on all his recent research and lifelong struggles with belief and unbelief. He describes himself as a sincere agnostic and a flavour of the book was contained in his interesting article from the last Sunday Times. What is especially interesting is his take on the militant atheists (and he’s met a few – regular readers will remember his chairing of the debate between Profs Lewis Wolpert & William Lane Craig and the subsequent interview). He doesn’t have a lot of agreement with theists either – well, he’s an agnostic isn’t he (and his article on Lane Craig earlier in the year was disappointing as i said at the time)? But at least he does try to get into the mindset of the theist with a degree of sympathy – which, sad to say, is an attitude that is shamefully absent from the likes of Dawkins. (Incidentally, my brother’s found a fascinating video interchange between Woody Allen and Billy Graham, of all people, that Dawkins and many Christians could do well to learn from – i’ve placed them at the bottom of this post – they’re just great)
Here Humphrys has a great little list which speaks for itself:
But let me try to sum up the attitude of those militant atheists who seem to hold believers in contempt:
- Believers are mostly naive or stupid. Or, at least, they’re not as clever as atheists.
- The few clever ones are pathetic because they need a crutch to get them through life.
- They are also pathetic because they can’t accept the finality of death.
- They have been brainwashed into believing. There is no such thing as a “Christian child”, for instance – just a child whose parents have had her baptised.
- They have been bullied into believing.
- If we don’t wipe out religious belief by next Thursday week, civilisation as we know it is doomed.
- Trust me: I’m an atheist. I make no apology if I have oversimplified their views with that little list: it’s what they do to believers all the time.
His riposte to each of these points is unassailable, I would have thought (although i know one or two creationists who might have a word or two to add, depending on how he interprets ‘creationist’, that is!):
So let’s answer each of those points:
- This is so clearly untrue it’s barely worth bothering with. Richard Dawkins, in his bestselling The God Delusion, was reduced to producing a “study” by Mensa that purported to show an inverse relationship between intelligence and belief. He also claimed that only a very few members of the Royal Society believe in a personal god. So what? Some believers are undoubtedly stupid (witness the creationists) but I’ve met one or two atheists I wouldn’t trust to change a lightbulb.
- Don’t we all? Some use booze rather than the Bible. It doesn’t prove anything about either.
- Maybe, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Count the number of atheists in the foxholes or the cancer wards.
- True, and many children reject it when they get older. But many others stay with it.
- This is also true in many cases but you can’t actually bully someone into believing – just into pretending to believe.
- Of course the mad mullahs are dangerous and extreme Islamism is a threat to be taken seriously. But we’ve survived monotheist religion for 4,000 years or so, and I can think of one or two other things that are a greater threat to civilisation.
- Why? For those of us who are neither believers nor atheists it can be very difficult. Doubters are left in the deeply unsatisfactory position of finding the existence of God unprovable and implausible, and the comfort of faith unachievable. But at the same time we find the reality of belief undeniable.
However, the thing with all this is that the militant atheists have had their day, as i’ve mentioned here before. That’s why they are ranting so much and pumping the bestseller lists with their tomes. People read them out of a peculiar fascination (I suspect) or to confirm their prejudices. But i really can’t see them convincing many people to change their minds. Their rhetoric and bile simply get in the way. Because what people are attracted these days to is precisely what John Humphrys advocates – doubt. That is the spirit of the age not belief (whether theistic or atheistic). Which of course presents plenty of challenges to both theists and atheists. So while i find myself agreeing with many of Humphrys’ points, i know that he would have 7 equally challenging responses for Christians as well. That is really where our challenge lies – and it is a tricky one, because i know full well that as a believer, i am riddled with doubts all the time. But then, that’s precisely why this blog is called Quaerentia – to evoke the theological classic phrase, faith seeking understanding (a phrase which, as it happens, one of Humphrys’ interviewees in his article completely mangles).
Here are the Woody Allen/Billy Graham exchanges – enjoy