Thanks A.C. Grayling and Richard Dawkins for making me laugh so much. It is the comedy of total condemnation in the most confident tones of subjects about which the hanging judges give every appearance of knowing so little. A.C. Grayling thinks that primitive people believed in religion because they didn’t yet have science. Can’t wait till 1672 and the publication of Principia Mathematica let alone The Selfish Gene said Ug to Wug. Primitive people believed in religion, as I do too, not because they didn’t have science but because they had a very strong sense of the numinous divine in nature and an almost universal belief that there is another dimension of reality to which the dead go (propositions to which science gives no ground for opposition and, indeed, in the light of quantum physics, every reason to believe that there is indeed another dimension of reality underlying this one). Maybe a quick dip into Mircea Eliade, van Gennep, Leroi-Gourhan, Alexander Marshack and numerous other writers on primitive religions? I am surprised that A.C. Grayling mentions none of them.
My favourite comic read, however, is The God Delusion. I love those re-tweets Dawkins does where people say I just read The God Delusion it was wonderful , it has changed my life thanks Richard. Well it always reminds me of one time I took a party of adolescents down a show coalmine. The ex-miner who took us round explained that they used to keep canaries in the mine to test for poison gases. No, said one of the adolescents, it was a minah bird. Really? said the miner. Yes, that’s why they’re called minah birds. Dawkins has totally misunderstood Aquinas, shows no knowledge of contemporary biblical criticism yet is prepared to condemn the crudest understanding of the Bible in appropriately crude terms, has completely mis-interpreted what theologians mean by the Redemption and thinks you can solve the problem of agency in genes simply by re-writing purpose as “purpose”. My favourite bit, though, is the passage where he explains that in the nineteenth century hungry sailors killed so many dodos they extinguished the whole species. But with the rise of science and the decline of religion the moral zeitgeist has marched on. If that happened today there would be an outcry.
But Professor, surely you’ve heard that largely because of human activity large numbers of species are disappearing every day and at least 40% of all known species are set to disappear by the end of this century. Where’s the outcry? Well I can’t find it in The God Delusion. I’ve got a vague memory that I read somewhere in Dawkins’ works – or maybe I imagined it for I haven’t been able to re-find it – that he thinks prayer is asking a little man inside your head to stop it raining on the day of the church fete. I love the idea of that – when you think of the vast mystical literatures of the world and experiments by mystics for thousands of years in the inner realm that are as rigorous and disciplined as any that science performs in the outer, and their universally confirming reports of experiences of an inner dimension of reality that ecstatically transcends ordinary experience – enlightenment according to the Buddhists, saccidananda as it is called by the Hindus, union with God say the Christians. How can you dismiss such a weight of evidence so cavalierly? I don’t claim to be any great mystic but I find contemplative prayer deeply meaningful and enthralling. That doesn’t mean that Dawkins isn’t right. It could all be some kind of self-delusion. But how do Dawkins and Grayling know it is? Thanks atheists everywhere for caricaturing so readily and trampling so clumsily all over what to me is so precious.
Actually I only laugh at Richard Dawkins because I think he is representatively human. Before the great mystery of reality we all strut and proclaim most pompously, not least the custodians of religion. In fact I admire Dawkins greatly for the very reason he has been prepared to have a go at that great mystery and speaks his mind so sincerely and forthrightly. I think he’s an admirable example to us all, for what do any of us know of God? I think he’s a wonderful man and I only laugh at him in the way in Britain we laugh, say, at the Queen or celebrate the valour of our armed forces by putting on Dad’s Army. He has become a national institution and deservedly so. All we are asked to do as humans is to address the great and ultimate mystery of being and, in all our ignorance, make up our minds as best we can. My laughter is the kindly laughter of a fellow-traveller. Though in the end it isn’t. It is a sardonic rattle of despair. 40% of all species disappearing by the end of this century! All those millions of beautiful creatures that took millions of years to evolve! Surely this is a new Holocaust? Because of us! What an immense tragedy for religious believers and non-believers alike. Come on Richard Dawkins. Not only are you the world’s greatest scientific communicator, your sincerity and burning belief in your cause, however wrong it might be, persuades and impresses in the way St Paul did. You command respect, and most certainly mine. I implore you. Lay off religion for a bit and start campaigning to save all those wonderful species.