Many of the critics of the “New Atheist” books claim they attack a “straw-man” religion – that they describe an extremist, minor religious faction and then use this to characterise and attack all religion.
Bishop Randerson in New Zealand, for example, said that the beliefs criticised by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) are not his (Randerson’s). Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says: “Whenever believers pick up Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens we may feel as we turn the pages: ‘This is not it. Whatever the religion being attacked here, it’s not actually what I believe in’.” Many Christian spokesperson reject fundamentalist beliefs and biblical literalism and claim it is unfair to criticise religion for these beliefs.
A fair comment. But the problem I have with these sort of rebuttals is that actions and word often differ. Bishop Randerson may claim he believes in a god as the “God of love” rather than the biblical god. However, he then spoils it all by officiating at Christian ceremonies which do imply belief in a biblical god and goes so far as to hold conversations (prayer) with this god.
Minority beliefs held by the majority?
The claim that the relgious beliefs criticised in these books are minority beliefs also needs critical assessment. Dan Gardner, in his Ottawa Citizen article For the glory of God claims this criticism is out of touch with reality. Quoting survey data he points out that about 65% of Americans believe young earth creation is definitely or probably true. Only 15% of Americans agree that “the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by man.”
The position in New Zealand is better, but even here 47% of believers in a god reject the scientific evolutionary theory of origins (see New Zealand supports evolution).
I conclude that the religious beliefs criticised by the “new atheists” are not as rare as these apologists claim. These religious spokespersons adhere to a more modern, less aggressive, less fundamentalist belief system. I applauded this – I wish this outlook was more common. I wish, also, that these religious leaders took a more determined role in countering the arguments of religious fundamentalist and arguing for more humane beliefs in their religions.
“Miracles” and the greater glory of God
Dan Gardner, in this article, also draws out the irony of how relgious slogans can be used for evil as well as good. He was interviewing Richard Dawkins on the 40th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper looking down at Ground Zero – the site of the twin towers destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 2001. He asks Dawkins what Ground Zero symbolised. His answer: “Religious bigotry.”
Gardner discusses further the symbolism of the site – “the Cross at Ground Zero,” for example. These are steel beams in the shape of a cross discovered in the wreckage. They seem to have inspired some religious reverence and comfort (Chrisitan only of course), even being described as a “miracle.” (As Gardner says: “A Star of David would have been quite impressive, but probability alone can explain crosses.”)
Finishing his article Gardner says: “Across from Ground Zero, in the tiny cemetry of St. Pauls chapel, there is a bell given by the people of London on the first anniversary of 9/11. ‘For the greater glory of God,’ the inscription begins. When I tell Dawkins this, he shakes his head and points to the ground far below.
‘It was precisely for the greater glory of God that that terrible deed was done,’ he says.”
Dawkins responds to his critics
Intelligent design – a war on science
Faith – against all evidence
God’s not as popular as we thought
Why do we believe?
New Zealand supports evolution
Thank God or Thank Goodness?