In chapter 4 of his book The God Argument, ‘An Axe to the Root’, A.C. Grayling rebuts the charge that you cannot condemn something without first investigating it thoroughly, especially in the case of religion, which, being so complex and varied a phenomenon, you might spend a lifetime investigating. Fortunately it is not necessary to do so. Consider astrology. There are several different species, but once you have shown that astrology itself is bunkum, it follows that all its varied kinds are as well. The same is true of religion. Once you can cut the root of this poisonous tree the many branches springing from its trunk will automatically wither. What is this root? It turns out to be fear of hell, for that is the subject of the rest of the chapter. Professors Grayling and Dawkins love hell. What could be more contradictory an expression of the irrationality of religion than professing belief in this God who claims to love his creatures but at the same time dispatches them to eternal torture? What could be more of an affront to the dignity of human reason than an institution that does not seek to keep its adherents in line through rational arguments, but by terrifying them with threats of terrible and everlasting punishment? The professors are contemptuous of watery liberals who want to go on believing in religion but at the same time seek to shrug off this grotesque embarrassment. Thus an Anglican synod of 1996 redefined hell as the absence of God, and punishment for very bad people not eternal torture but mercifully instantaneous total annihilation. But not all believers are such hypocrites. In response to the synod, the Evangelical Alliance re-affirmed that those who refuse to accept the message of Jesus Christ will face everlasting torment in ‘a sphere of damnation, punishment, anguish and destruction’. There you have it, the full horror of religion in all its cruel and enslaving irrationality.
As ever, Professor Grayling’s comprehension of what the Catholic Church actually teaches on this topic is slender to vanishing. The root of religion is not fear of hell. It is not even belief in God. It is the conviction that there is a sphere of reality beyond that which we currently inhabit, of which we can know nothing directly. Its reality, if it is real and it may well not be as its supposed existence is an object not of knowledge but of faith, can only be communicated to us, and thought about by us, through myths. We can never know, but only imagine, what this further realm of reality is like. It is a salient point of Catholic doctrine that even its most cherished propositions, the Incarnation, the Redemption and the Trinity, are as wrong as they are right, indeed far more so. Theology is an analogous science says St Thomas (theology a science? that’ll get Dawkins going). When two things are analogous they are like each other in at least one respect but not in others. Thus you could say that the Battle of Britain was analogous to the defeat of the Spanish Armada, in that in both cases a larger invading force was defeated by the wit and ingenuity and courage of a smaller defending one. But to think that the two cases were like each other in all respects would be a serious mistake. Mysteries of faith, are by definition about a sphere that we cannot know. Doctrines are accommodations of these mysteries to our limited capacities. We believe them not because our intellects are compelled by inescapable truth, as they might be by mathematics, but because, as myths often do and as lovers do, they engage our hearts. The one thing that the Catholic Church absolutely does not believe is that there is literally a place of eternal torment complete with its lakes of fire and leering devils with pitchforks, ‘a sphere of damnation, punishment, anguish and destruction’.
What we are asked to consider is that there is a mystery of iniquity and its ultimate consequences, rooted, as it were, in the further dimension but affecting this, a mystery that entirely defeats our understanding and can only be guessed at analogously in the Church’s doctrine of hell. And indeed, surely, there is a mystery of iniquity. Can you imagine yourself on the ramp at Auschwitz directing innocent women and children into the gas chambers? The SS on the ramp weren’t barbarous savages, they were doctors no less. Yet they did it. Can you imagine yourself chopping to pieces with an axe a neighbour next to whom you had lived amicably for years? But Hutus did it to Tutsis. Can you imagine yourself an inquisitor burning somebody alive in the name of the gentle Lamb of God (my horror and disgust aroused by the church that in other respects I love so much would, I am sure, match any Voltairean fighting cock that the professors could produce)? Can you imagine that there could actually be people so hypocritical and stupid and wicked, who say they respect science but, when large numbers of scientists tell them that the very earth we inhabit will be devastated for future generations unless we give up oil, go on using it? Could there be a historic crime greater than destroying the earth? But we are all, religious believers and atheists alike, involved in perpetrating it. Indeed, the atheists generally have less excuse than the believers, for they are often scientifically literate, whereas the believers not only gullibly believe what the Church tells them but what they read in the newspapers. Can any atheist put hand on heart and say he is absolutely certain that the scientific consensus on climate change is wrong? How could anybody even run the risk of devastating the earth for future generations? But, if so many scientists are right, we are all doing it. The idea that Dawkins and Grayling seem to have, that if only religion could be abolished then humanity would become rational, peaceful and well behaved is so naive my vocabulary of scoff and ridicule fails utterly. Science cannot tell us how it is that humanity can be so very very evil. But it all too often it is.
Theology is not the only science to be analogical. Natural science is too. The whole framework of Newton’s thinking, absolute space and time, the very condition of the great truths he discovered, turned out to be wrong. His mathematically proven laws of motion turned out to be wrong too. Einstein showed that they do not apply when objects are moving at speeds approaching that of light. Yet it would be wrong to say that Newton was wrong. He was right in one frame of reference but not in another. He was analogously in agreement with Einstein as far as large objects moving at relatively slow speeds go. But then it turned out that the very framing condition of Einstein’s own thinking, that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, was not wholly true either. Scientists now think that subatomic particles that are entangled with each other, as they say, can communicate instantaneously even if they are on opposite sides of the universe (not that the universe has sides). More and more science is discovering facts that escape our ability to comprehend them. How can not only light but matter be both visible particles occupying a particular time and place, yet also invisible waves that are in no particular place? But they are. How can time go backwards at the subatomic level? Yet it does. How in the quantum domain can effects cause causes that have themselves caused the effects? But that seems to be the case. This is the most astonishing thing. Science now seems to be verifying the intuition that is at the root of religion, that there is a further dimension of reality that escapes our capacity to comprehend it. If you could take an axe to the root of atheism it would fall here. Science only explains facts by revealing mysteries that are even more mysterious than those that the discovered facts have now explained. It sheds light by advancing into territories that grow ever darker.
I don’t know what you do with thinkers who are so unsophisticated as Grayling and Dawkins. One is a professor of science and the other of philosophy for goodness sake. But when it comes to religion they are like chemists who are still earnestly arguing against phlogiston. Hell? We don’t know much about it, but then we don’t know much about the more than 99% of the universe that is dark matter either. Judging by what we do know, if we do ever discover anything about it it will turn out to be literally far far beyond our at present wildest dreams. Religion, with its mysteries and contradictions and even absurdities, is closer to the way reality actually is than the Gradgrindean ‘facts, sir, give me facts’ approach professed by so many atheists. But here’s a thought. Those SS on the ramp did it because they wanted to. They thought they were doing right and doubtless went home happy to their tea, at peace in the knowledge that they had served their Fuhrer well. Students beat their formerly revered professors to death in the Chinese cultural revolution in a kind of ecstasy of righteousness. Perhaps hell is good itself become evil. Perhaps those in hell don’t suffer torments. On the contrary, that is where they want to be because that is where they feel happy. After all, the people streaming into the Trafford Centre on Saturday afternoons aren’t thinking ‘we’re in hell, we could be listening to Bach cantatas instead of buying all this stuff we don’t really need’. On the contrary. If there is a heaven it is shopping. Come on Profs. Don’t be so literally minded. Loosen up.