The Gift of Dawkins

Sunday 4th October 2009
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Matthew 10:1-22

Ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake

Matthew 10:22

God moves in mysterious ways; and none more mysterious than his choice of the avowed Atheist, Richard Dawkins, to engender a theological renaissance in English-speaking Christendom. For his famous, or infamous book, The God Delusion [1], sometimes beautiful, more often ugly, lucid on biology but very poor on philosophy and theology and marred by the kind of vitriol that befits a tabloid newspaper rather than an offering from an Oxford Professor, has triggered a veritable avalanche of Christian ripostes from all parts of the Christian spectrum. In spite of its terrible flaws, it is your Christian duty to read Dawkins so that you know what he is saying; and, as we always prefer reading things we agree with, enjoy yourself with one of the replies which range from the esoteric [2] to the pragmatic [3], [4].

And when we have finished our reading, then what? In the words of today's reading from Matthew, Dawkins is in the vanguard of a vast body of educated opinion which hates us for the name of Jesus; but what surprises me is that we seem to be taking it rather in our stride. We don't seem to be suffering in any way for Jesus' sake; we simply see this as another scientific onslaught on the existence of God which is receiving what it deserves from the people on our side. God our parent and its incarnational form in Jesus is being traduced in public and we are sanguine.

You will notice I said of Dawkins that he is "in the vanguard" which should alert us to deeper implications. If we think back over the last few years, we will recall that there have been attacks in our country by the authorities, including the Government on:

In truth, all three Abramic religions would be under attack: but public sentiment will not permit Muslims to be attacked because of the sensitivity of the racial element, the fear of being misunderstood and the difficulty of fathoming how to avoid male youth radicalism; and the Jews have 'bought' a degree of protection at the terrible price of the Shoah. Only the fascist political parties will attach Muslims and Jews but Christians are fair game for everyone.

The crux of the argument between the state and the Christian is that the state wishes to down-grade religion to a private preference to be practised in private, rather in the same way that it thinks about homosexuality. This is why it does not want 'vulnerable people' to be contaminated by Christianity when they are receiving services from charities; and this is why there is an attack on church schools although, note that these are highly esteemed by Muslims. In a bogus attempt to say that all religions must be equal, the state is saying to us that we, living in a country which is irremediably infused with Christianity, must put our heads down and accept a level of suspicion and contempt which is usually reserved for politicians themselves, journalists, estate agents and, latterly, bankers.

And yet, we submit even though we know - or should do - that the perception of the state is totally misplaced. Christianity is quintessentially corporate, public, evangelising, missionary and hungry for justice so that The Kingdom be better established on God's earth. Granted, we are all enjoined to practice private prayer, to put ourselves in the situation where we can receive God's self-communication, but Jesus quite specifically founded a church and he told us to go out into every nation and spread The Word of God, not just as a theological proposition but in Word, Sacrament and practical action. If we think that the most important phenomenon in our lives is the creatureliness we have received as free gift from the Creator, how could we keep quiet? How could we accept the idea that it is fine for us to enjoy this privileged position but we must not share it? How can we deny the knowledge of the love of God to the vulnerable and the sick for whose care we are responsible? We quite readily accept that the vulnerable cannot avoid being exposed to propaganda, pornography and advertising; and we are well on our way to legalising assisted suicide on what are called 'compassionate' grounds, to save us the expense of providing the best possible palliative care. The people may have bread and circuses under any circumstances, they may use supposedly respectable credit cards to buy pornography and yet they will be endangered by the Sermon on The Mount and the story of the Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus.

The strategy that many of us adopt is precisely that which the state requires of us; we keep our heads down. While the immigrant Catholics from Eastern Europe and the Muslim clerics draw lines which, they say, should not be crossed, we keep our distance. And the real worry of it is, we feel no pain.

Well, to parody Dennis Healey, if we don't feel the pain, we're not doing enough to put ourselves in the firing line. Most of us are not heroes, not the stuff of martyrs, but there are things which we can do to change the terms of the debate, to stem the tide of atheist oppression:

And when some people say to me that we are only ordinary people whose opinions count for nothing, remember how Marcos fell in the Philippines, remember how the Berlin wall fell down and remember how Nelson Mandela was freed. Remember the campaign of Quakers for prison reform and the campaign led initially by Quakers to abolish slavery and to impose limits on child labour. We have the best possible leadership in Rowan and Sentamu but I sense that they are feeling isolated, that they have left us behind, that we are not marching as foot soldiers for Christ, that we would prefer to leave our banners unfurled, that we have resigned ourselves to the position assigned to us by the political disciples of Dawkins.

Of course, our public figures would not dream of descending to Dawkins' level of nastiness; quite the opposite. They are charming us - the popular phrase is 'sleepwalking' - into impotence. Within a year there will be a General Election and the important questions for us will not be about public sector cuts or increased taxation, nor about which party will make us suffer least financial pain, the key question for us must be the attitude of the Candidates in our constituency, and their parties, to the role of Christianity in every aspect of our collective, corporate, public life.

Just because the Lord moves in mysterious ways it does not mean that God will fix it. God will fix nothing he gave us the means to fix. Dawkins was a gift; we should return it with interest.


V: Lord of our lives
R: Give us strength.

  1. Lord of our lives, creator and ruler of all, help us to see the world as a place of wonder, informed by grace; may we, with the gifts you have given us, see that all we have is pure gift; and may we share what you have given us and who you are.
  2. Lord of our lives, Parent of Jesus our beloved saviour, help us to glorify the mystery of the incarnation in our public worship and realise the depth of its tranquil immensity in our private prayer; may we, living in a world of practicality, rationality and civility, never forget Jesus in what we say and do; and may we never be afraid to affirm what we know to be true.
  3. Lord of our lives, co-creator of the Holy Spirit, help us to employ all the gifts you have given us in bearing witness to Jesus in our personal lives and in the collective, corporate life of the Church; may we, filled with the Spirit, stand firm in love and courtesy, never meeting cynicism with cynicism; and may we strengthen ourselves in a life of Word and Sacrament.
  4. Lord of our lives, source of love and patron of peace, help us to meet hate with love, indifference with attentiveness and hostility with courtesy; may we, as they are all made in your image, accord to all people the benefit of the doubt, the assumption of innocence and the embrace of sisterhood and brotherhood; and may we rank loving above liking.
  5. Lord of our lives, parent of every human being, help us to see a lack of security, self-confidence and self-esteem behind aggression; may we be slow to judge and swift in working to develop constructive solutions to conflicts; and may we recognise the integrity of those with whom we disagree while standing firm in our faith.
  6. Lord of our lives, blessed in the company of saints, help us to learn from the example of those who have borne witness to your infinite love in prayer and sacrament, praise and sacrifice, mission and martyrdom; may we keep in our minds and hearts the unique witness of Mary, the mother of our saviour, Jesus Christ; and may we, enlivened by the Spirit, aspire to join the company of the heavenly host. Amen.

[1] Dawkins, Richard: The God Delusion. Bantam Press; 1st edition (2 Oct 2006); ISBN-10: 0593055489, ISBN-13: 978-0593055489

[2] Lash, Nicholas: Where Does the God Delusion Come from? & The Impossibility of Atheism in Theology for Pilgrims, Darton, Longman & Todd, 2008 pp3-35

[3] Macgrath, Alister: The Dawkins Delusion.  SPCK Publishing (16 Feb 2007); ISBN-10: 0281059276, ISBN-13: 978-0281059270.

[4] Ward, Keith: The Big Questions in Science and Religion. Templeton Foundation Press (Div. of John Templeton; 2 edition (27 May 2008); ISBN-10: 1599471353, ISBN-13: 978-1599471358