Friday 31 August 2007

A third way between fundamentalism and atheism?

As mentioned here and here, the public reaction by religious believers to the recent spate of books in defence of atheism (by Dawkins, Hitchens, et al) has often been characterised by defensiveness and a sense of victimhood. So it's a relief to see a Christian writer offering a more thoughtful response, as John Cornwell did in an article in yesterday's Guardian. I reviewed Cornwell's excellent memoir Seminary Boy here, and the article is a taster of his forthcoming book-length riposte to Dawkins (Cornwell is director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge).

Cornwell's main argument is that Dawkins reductively confuses all religious belief with fundamentalism and overlooks the part played by doubt (but also what he calls 'doubt of doubt')in the faith of even the most fervent believers (he cites Graham Greene, but also more surprisingly Mother Teresa, as examples). Between the authoritarian extremism of some religionists, and Dawkins apparent desire 'to eliminate belief with a dollop of science', Cornwell advocates 'a third well-tried way':

which is to tame religion of its excesses by encouraging believers to respect, and to coexist with, all those they regard as dissidents and heretics, as well as agnostics and atheists. The fact that religionists already do this in vast numbers, in many parts of the world, notably most of Europe and North America, brings us to what I see as not so much a flaw as a vacuum in Dawkins' thinking: he simply does not get the point of pluralist societies under secular auspices. Nor does he credit believers with the capacity to be pluralists and democrats, even though members of the great world religions have contributed to the formation and preservation of pluralism, and resistance to its opposite - totalitarianism - in the modern period. Dawkins' failure to accept that religious believers are capable of respect, a healthy measure of doubt and latitude of imagination, needs examination.

It's refreshing to see this restatement of a liberal, pluralist strain of religious belief, with its reminder that believers can be allies in the fight against intolerance and totalitarianism.

There was another thoughtful discussion of the nature of belief earlier this week, in Darcey Steinke's New York Times review of Mary Gordon's memoir about her mother. Like Cornwell, Steinke wants to propose a third way, this time between religious books which 'insipidly set out conservative precepts, encouraging us to join churches, obey their doctrines and center our spiritual lives around them, no matter how limiting those lives might be in that context alone' and 'gleeful repudiations of religion' like Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great : she believes that Hitchens' definition of religion 'is childlike and reductive; he completely discounts the longing many of us feel for divinity'. Steinke suggests that Gordon's nuanced account of her mother's complex and often contradictory faith offers an alternative approach to understanding the persistence of belief.


Anonymous said...

There are some thoughtful comments on the Cornwell article over at the Dawkins site. As ever some of it is too aggressive, but there's good stuff in there too.

Steven Carr said...

Richard Dawkins writes a book and John Cornwell draws comparisons to Hitler and Stalin.

Just what will Cornwell say after Dawkins has invaded Poland!