vestryview

A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Oy! Dawkins! You’ve got it soooooo wrong!

Neil Pickford gets feisty.

It’s been a depressing few weeks if you believe that my employer, the Church of England, is important. 
We’ve had judges deciding that it’s against the law to have prayers before council meetings. Then the magnificently smug Richard Dawkins pops up yet again to trumpet research which claims that most Christians don’t know what we’re talking about.
On that basis, he claims, Christianity should lose any special status that it has as the state religion. Stop teaching religious education, remove all traces of the Bible from public life, replace ‘Songs of Praise’ with ‘Science and Sensibility’ and all will be well. Once free from the shackles of outmoded superstition the new Age of Aquarius will dawn and everything will be tickety-boo.  
Well, I don’t accept Mr Dawkins’ conclusions, not least because my journalistic background makes me instinctively disbelieve every press release – especially ones claiming that research ‘proves’ whatever product or angle the sender wants to sell. 
“Survey shows bald people grow hair if they eat Winnalot”:  “Research reveals new houses in green belt increases virility”: – you know the sort of thing. So if Dawkins’ eponymously-named Foundation for Religions and Science claims their research proves most Christians actually don’t believe in God then I wouldn’t automatically accept this as gospel (ha ha). It’s much too easy to manipulate research and get whatever statistics you want.
Bear in mind also that Mister Dawkins’ increasingly virulent (and very specifically anti-Christian) campaign appears driven by someone motivated by emotion, not cool reason. Perhaps he is haunted by childhood memories of boring afternoons on the Sabbath or being forced to watch Thora Hird and Harry Secombe. He may very well be trying to get back at everybody and everything connected with this trauma = and with some justification in my opinion. However, whatever the motive I don’t take his conclusions seriously.
Some people do however, and so I think it’s time to go back to basics. Once upon a time Richard Dawkins wrote a highly readable and fascinating book called “The Selfish Gene.” This drew on his scientific knowledge of zoology to produce an elegant theory on how animals might have developed behaviour which appears to demonstrate selfishness or altruism. He postulated a consistent and highly believable explanation to account for why these responses had developed in many non-human creatures.
Later in his career Dawkins then made a leap of faith and started believing that humans are exactly the same. Our behaviour and morality is something we’ve just developed as survival techniques so there’s no need to invoke a big sort of ‘God’ who is concerned about humans. Left to our own devices we can get on with living together in a comfortable way, unhindered by religious prejudices that distort our behaviour. We’d be rational, in human terms. Our morality would be pure.
Well, that’s cobblers. 
Human beings do not all, individually, behave in a rational way that helps the herd. In any barrel there are a heap of bad apples but, on top of that, selfishness and a desire for the easiest possible life is the dream of many. You don’t have to believe in the fairy tale of Adam and Eve or Original Sin to see that humans can be tempted so very, very easily.
If the temptations were put on a plate in front of us, without any price being asked, which of us wouldn’t opt to have a free and fabulous car, instant weight loss, better looks, a bigger house, more toys, longer holidays, easier work, overwhelming approval among everyone we meet, a glittering career in movies, a best-selling book? 
If we were given great power over our fellow humans – if we were politicians, policemen, army officers, for example, then which of us could resist the temptation to indulge ourselves at the expense of others? Very few, I suspect, unless we had a sort of nagging feeling that this behaviour is wrong.
Well last Sunday we had the Legal Service in Beverley Minster. A good representation of what you might call the ‘elite’:  commanders, judges, sheriffs, mayors, etcetera was gathered together by the Church of England to be loudly reminded that they are: (and I quote from the order of service) “servants above all …. we present ourselves, imperfect before the throne of grace, to ask God’s forgiveness for our own sins…”
These are words that are supposed to humble the powerful, to make them think again about how they use the privileges and responsibilities that life has given them. They were spoken out loud in front of everybody because they are part of what it means to be an Anglican in Britain – they are there to make people behave better than they otherwise would. 
  
That’s got to be a good thing, surely – and a far better attitude than that displayed by the anti-Christians who pop up in the comments section of newspaper websites after almost any church news story. Reading these you are exposed to the opinions of people who claim to be rational and intelligent members of the anti-superstitious elite – and it’s a depressing repetition of rudeness, ignorance, prejudice and generalised offensiveness. 
Now you know that my wages are paid by the kind people who are church members at Beverley Minster but that’s not why I’m on my soapbox today. It’s because I would much prefer a world run by Christians who keep being prompted to improve their behaviour to one modelled on Dawkins and his uninhibited bag-carriers of hatred and intolerance. 
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