I’ll be excerpting four times from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, which I recently finished. The first concerns faith and reason:
Even his good friends, Dawkins writes, ask him why he is driven to be so “hostile” to religious people. Why not, they say, as intelligent as you are, quietly lay out your devastating arguments against believers, in a calm and unruffled manner? Dawkins’s answer to his friends is forthright: “I am hostile to fundamentalist religion because it actively debauches the scientific enterprise…Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.” Dawkins refuses to be part of the public “conspiracy” to pay religion respect, when it deserves contempt.
Yet his complaint about “unquestioning” faith seems a bit odd. Some of us have thought that the origin of religion lies in the unlimited drive in human beings to ask questions—which is our primary experience of the infinite. Anything finite that we encounter can be questioned, and seems ultimately unsatisfying. That hunger to question is the experience that keeps driving the mind and soul on and on, and is its first foretaste of that which is beyond time and space. “Our hearts are restless, Lord,” Saint Augustine recorded, “until they rest in Thee.” These words have had clearly echoing resonance in millions upon millions of inquiring minds down through human history ever since. “Unquestioning faith?” The writings of the medieval thinkers record question after question, disputation after disputation, and real results in history hinged upon the resolution of each. Many of the questions arose from skeptical, unbelieving lawyers, philosophers, and others in the medieval universities; still others from the Arab scholars whose works had recently burst upon the Western universities; still others from Maimonides and other Jewish scholars; and a great many from the greatest pagan thinkers of every preceding century. Questions have been the heart and soul of Judaism and Christianity for millennia.
To be sure, Dawkins at least does think there are some religious people who can be converted to atheism by his arguments. He describes them as the “open-minded people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take,’ or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it.” Dawkins presents such believers with an ultimatum: Either join him in “breaking free of the vice of religion altogether” or remain among the close-minded types who are unable to overcome “the god delusion.”
On the fifth page of his book, Dawkins describes his hopes: “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” It surprised me that Dawkins would turn out to be such a proselytizer. Most of all what surprised me is that, while all three authors write as if science is the be-all and end-all of rational discourse, these three books of theirs are by no means scientific. On the contrary, they are examples of dialectic—arguments from within one point of view, or horizon, addressed to human beings who share a different point of view. Surely, one of the noblest works of reason is to enter into respectful argument with others, whose vision of reality is dramatically different from one’s own, in order that both parties may learn from this exchange, and come to an ever deeper mutual respect. Our authors engage in dialectic, not science, but they can scarcely be said to do so with respect for those they address. Thus, Dawkins: “Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination…Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely a work of Satan.” Here, of course, Dawkins flatters himself. “Screwtape” would have been far more insidious.
What most surprised me in the Dawkins book, however, is its defensiveness. He describes atheists, particularly in America, as suffering from loneliness, public disrespect, spiritual isolation, and low self-esteem. In one passage he recounts a letter from a young American medical student recently turning from Christianity to atheism. A medical student? Surely at least some of the doctors and scientists working near her are atheists. Nonetheless, the student writes: “I don’t particularly want to share my belief with other people who are close to me because I fear the…reaction of distaste…I only write to you because I hoped you’d sympathize and share in my frustration.” In an appendix, which Dawkins kindly adds for such unsupported souls, he offers lists of organizations in which lonely atheists may find community and solace. He devotes not a few pages to boosting his community’s morale—how large their numbers are, how smart they are, how comparatively disgusting their antagonists are.
Building a Culture of Reason
I have no doubt that Christians have committed many evils, and written some disgraceful pages in human history. Yet on a fair ledger of what Judaism and Christianity added to pagan Greece, Rome, the Arab nations (before Mohammed), the German, Frankish, and Celtic tribes, the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, one is puzzled not to find Dawkins giving thanks for many innovations: hospitals, orphanages, cathedral schools in early centuries, universities not much later, some of the most beautiful works of art—in music, architecture, painting, and poetry—in the human patrimony.
And why does he overlook the hard intellectual work on concepts such as “person,” “community,” “civitas,” “consent,” “tyranny,” and “limited government” (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…”) that framed the conceptual background of such great documents as the Magna Carta? His few pages on the founding and nourishing of his own beloved Oxford by its early Catholic patrons are mockingly ungrateful. And if Oxford disappoints him, has he no gratitude for the building of virtually every other old and famous university of Europe (and the Americas)?
Dawkins writes nothing about the great religious communities founded for the express purpose of building schools for the free education of the poor. Nothing about the thousands of monastic lives dedicated to the delicate and exhausting labor of copying by hand the great manuscripts of the past—often with the lavish love manifested in illuminations—during long centuries in which there were no printing presses. Nothing about the founding of the Vatican Library and its importance for the genesis of nearly a dozen modern sciences. Nothing about the learned priests and faithful who have made so many crucial discoveries in science, medicine, and technology. Yet on these matters a word or two of praise from Dawkins might have made his tiresome lists of accusations seem less unfair.
I don’t wish to overdo it. There have been and are toxic elements in religion that always need restraint by the Logos—the inner word, the insight, the light of intelligence—to which Christianity from the very first married the biblical tradition: “In the beginning was the Logos”—the inner word, the light, in Whom, and by Whom, and with Whom all things have been made ( John 1:1 NAB). Still, any fair measuring of the impact of Judaism and Christianity on world history has an awful lot of positives to add to the ledger. Among my favorite texts for many years, in fact, are certain passages of Alfred North Whitehead—in Science and the Modern World and Adventures of Ideas, for instance. In these passages, Whitehead points out that the practices of modern science are inconceivable apart from thousands of years of tutelage under the Jewish and Christian conviction that the Creator of all things understood all things, in their general laws and in their particular, contingent dispositions. This conviction, Whitehead writes, made long, disciplined efforts to apply reason to the sustained Herculean task of understanding all things seem reasonable. …
The path of modern science was made straight, and smoothed, by deep convictions that every stray element in the world of human experience—from the number of hairs on one’s head to the lonely lily in the meadow—is thoroughly known to its Creator and, therefore, lies within a field of intelligibility, mutual connection, and multiple logics. All these odd and angular levels of reality, given arduous, disciplined, and cooperative effort, are in principle penetrable by the human mind. If human beings are made in the image of the Creator, as the first chapters of the book of Genesis insist that they are, surely it is in their capacities to question, gain insight, and advance in understanding of the works of God. In the great image portrayed by Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling—the touch from finger to finger between the Creator and Adam—the mauve cloud behind the Creator’s head is painted in the shape of the human brain. Imago Dei, yes indeed.