Wednesday, November 7, 2007

An Atheist Ally of Religion? Sounds Reasonable.

In the recent issue of City Journal (Autumn 2007), Theodore Dalrymple contributes his thoughts on the current “epidemic of rash books” by people whom we are calling neo-atheists, people such as Daniel Dennett, A. C. Grayling, Michel Onfray, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, for whom we here at The King’s College have a special fondness – despite his efforts to discourage our affections – because he was recently our guest.

Dalrymple’s essay, “What the New Atheists Don’t See: To Regret Religion is to Regret Western Civilization,” is a deeply humane and touchingly generous consideration of the controversy. It does not surprise me to find a defense of religious faith that is eloquent and profoundly sensible. It is a refreshing surprise, however, that it comes from a self-described atheist.

While the whole essay is a delight, both intellectually and aesthetically, l will hazard injustice by sharing two of his points. First, he says that even these scribbling neo-atheists find it impossible to avoid the language of teleology. Viewing the world as having purpose appears to be inescapable for us. “I think Dennett’s use of the language of evaluation and purpose is evidence of a deep-seated metaphysical belief (however caused) that Providence exists in the universe, a belief that few people, confronted by the mystery of beauty and of existence itself, escape entirely.” The very weapons we turn against God bear the evidence of his handiwork and proclaim him.

Though these currently popular authors see the Taliban and their atrocities in every religious person, Dalrymple, noting the rarity of religiously motivated cruelty, draws attention to the decency that the eternal perspective engenders in by far most people who genuinely embrace it. After quoting from a meditation by Bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656) on contentment and self-control, Dalrymple concludes that, “moderation comes more naturally to the man who believes in something not merely higher than himself, but higher than mankind. After all, the greatest enjoyment of the usages of this world, even to excess, might seem rational when the usages of this world are all that there is.” It is at least arguable that unsentimental, atheistic rationalism leads logically to debauchery and ultimately to tyranny.

He drives home this connection between piety and moderation by comparing the genuine fruit of Christian faith with what these grumpy anti-theists have to offer:

“Let us compare Hall’s meditation “Upon the Sight of a Harlot Carted” with Harris’s statement that some people ought perhaps to be killed for their beliefs:

With what noise, and tumult, and zeal of solemn justice, is this sin punished! The streets are not more full of beholders, than clamours. Every one strives to express his detestation of the fact, by some token of revenge: one casts mire, another water, another rotten eggs, upon the miserable offender. Neither, indeed, is she worthy of less: but, in the mean time, no man looks home to himself. It is no uncharity to say, that too many insult in this just punishment, who have deserved more. . . . Public sins have more shame; private may have more guilt. If the world cannot charge me of those, it is enough, that I can charge my soul of worse. Let others rejoice, in these public executions: let me pity the sins of others, and be humbled under the sense of my own.

“Who sounds more charitable, more generous, more just, more profound, more honest, more humane: Sam Harris or Joseph Hall, D.D., late lord bishop of Exeter and of Norwich?”

This article brought to mind my doctoral studies at Boston College (1985-92). The political science department there was a rare gathering of several political theorists and political scientists all of whom were either students of Leo Strauss, students of his best students, or deeply influenced by him. None of them was a Christian, nor even particularly religious (to my knowledge), but they respected the weight of the Christian tradition and the serious alternative that it presents to rationalism, both classical and modern. In other words, they respected the legitimacy of the Jerusalem versus Athens debate, as any seriously reflective person would. Of course, they opted for Athens, but there was nonetheless a fruitful conversation between Catholics, Protestants, Jews, agnostics and atheists. And the world is a better place for it.

Dalrymple is clearly an atheist with whom I could have a conversation, though with this particular atheist I would surely do most of the listening.

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