Responding to Richard Dawkins’ Christmas message

Richard Dawkins guest-edited the Christmas edition of the New Statesman – beginning with an open letter to the Prime Minister attackng faith schools, and calling for governmental “neutrality” on religious matters.  In this festive blog, Centre Director Angus Ritchie offers a response.

Dear Professor Dawkins

Merry Christmas to you too! I hope the authorship of this letter isn’t too big a disappointment. When you write to the P.M., you don’t expect the reply to be written by a cleric.

(Just to be clear, I have no authority – or desire – to speak on behalf of David Cameron. The views here are very much my own.)

Time is short.  It seems we both have carol services to attend! So let me cut to the chase. Your letter to calls for “state neutrality” on matters of religion, and an end to any government support for faith schools.  I think your position is anything but neutral.

You imply that the “neutral” way to bring up children is to avoid religious practice until they can decide for themselves. Hence your analogy with economics. We don’t bring up children as Keynesians or monetarists; we let them decide which to be when they are old enough to grasp the arguments. You think we should do the same with religion.

But you can’t bring up children “neutrally”. The economics analogy doesn’t really work. Long before they are able to evaluate the arguments for and against our view of the world, we have to bring children up according to some norms. We teach them by word and deed, what kinds of things are right and wrong, what they should value and what they should dismiss. Some of those norms will have religious, or atheistic, implications. We either bring them up as if God is a living reality, worthy of gratitude and worship, or we don’t. If (as I believe) there is a God, then it is the most natural and right thing in the world to pray to him from the earliest age. If (as you believe) there isn’t, then such a practice is worse than a waste of time.  Neither choice is “neutral”.

“Neutral” parenting cannot be expected of anyone. Some parents will pray with their children, and will also take them to church, and even send them to religious schools.  While we can’t demand “neutrality” from parents or from schools, there are some things we should expect. Every parent and school should bring children up with an openness to other worldviews – and, as they get older, the freedom to draw their own conclusions.

Let’s turn to the wider issue of governmental “neutrality” on matters of religion. You and I agree that the state should not impose atheism or religion on its citizens. But government policy is inevitably, and rightly, shaped by values. That’s something we need more of – now more than ever.

Politics is about how we build a common life, and discern a common good. You can’t expect me to participate in that without bringing my faith to bear. It is the foundation of my convictions about what is good and just. You will have different foundations (a matter to which we must return if this correspondence continues).

Christianity is a holistic view of the world, not a detachable set of private convictions. For a Christian, the nature of God and the teachings of Jesus Christ have implications for economic policy as much as ‘private’ ethical choices. The recent statements by the Vatican and the Archbishop of Canterbury on the financial crisis are a case in point.  That’s why churches are at the forefront of both the Jubilee 2000 campaign (on international debt), and Citizens UK’s Nehemiah 5 Campaign (against exploitative lending). The very names of the campaigns are revealing.

Of course, if Christians are to turn their ideas into reality, they need to win support from others. This involves making arguments that appeal to non-Christians. There’s nothing underhand about that; building coalitions across differences is central to all democratic politics. Whatever your worldview, turning your convictions into government policy involves two things.  Firstly, you try to persuade people of the truth of your worldview. Secondly, you build alliances with those who remain unconvinced. So, in the Nehemiah 5 Challenge, churches advance some reasons for public policy which are distinctively Christian, and some which are not. As part of Citizens UK, they work with mosques and trade unions, tenants associations and student unions, on this and many other issues. (These include the Living Wage Campaign – with deep roots in Catholic Social Teaching – which has now won £70 million for low-paid workers in London alone.)

Of course, Christians disagree amongst themselves – on economics as much as anything else. How to understand and apply the teachings of Scripture and Church is a matter for discussion. That’s one reason we have departments of Theology as well as Religious Studies in our universities (just as we have departments which reflect on moral and political issues without reference to God).

You may ask: “Why should I be forced to live with an economic system shaped by your religious views?” A good question! To which I would answer: “That’s the price of living in a pluralist democracy. I’m forced to live with a system shaped in part by the moral convictions of atheists, and you’re forced to live with a system shaped in part by the convictions of Christians.”  Neither of us is “imposing” our worldview on the other.  What we’re doing is negotiating a common life in the midst of deep ethical and religious disagreement. That’s the challenge, and the joy, of politics.

The elephant in the room – in your letter and in my reply – is whether religious views can ever be reasoned and reasonable.  In the end, your desire to relegate religion to the private sphere is anything but neutral.  It only makes sense if you believe religion has no rational foundations.

If you are willing to engage in this correspondence, I’d love to move on to a more detailed examination of this elephant. There’s a lot more to be said.

In the meantime, this comes with my best wishes to you and your family for a happy Christmas,

Angus Ritchie

3 thoughts on “Responding to Richard Dawkins’ Christmas message

  1. [...] old posts on this blog that continues to generate interest is the Centre’s Response to Richard Dawkins 2011 Christmas Message.  In the intervening year, we’ve continued to engage with the ‘New Atheist’ [...]

  2. Rob says:

    The key way that faith schools are not neutral is in their admissions policy. Are you suggesting that a secular school with no faith based admissions policy is somehow discriminatory? How about a catholic school that allows in only 10% non-catholics?

    • Vaggelis says:

      For what it’s worth, other atheist wrteris have taken Dawkins to task for that attitude.Here is a good example, from :[T]here is one thing about this rally that bothered me: the intermittent lack of reasonableness evinced by its most famous participant, Richard Dawkins.[W]e both oppose a bill recently passed by the Tennessee legislature that allows teachers to challenge the theory of evolution–that is, to “teach the controversy.” But is Dawkins really pursuing our common goal in a reasonable way? [S]uppose you’re a conservative Christian in Tennessee, and a fellow conservative Christian is trying to convince you of the merits of that anti-evolution bill. You’re on the fence–you’d never really given much thought to whether your child’s religious beliefs would be threatened by the teaching of Darwin. Then you hear Richard Dawkins, probably the most prominent Darwinian in the world, advocating displays of contempt and ridicule for your religion.Mightn’t you sense a threat from Darwinism that you hadn’t sensed before? And is it really reasonable for Dawkins to expect otherwise–to expect that contempt and ridicule will be productive?I don’t think so.To turn the issue on its head, sometimes us Christians have a tendency to excessively ridicule those without faith. I personally have always been annoyed by the book title “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist” (merits of that book notwithstanding). My preacher yesterday made an excellent point I had never before considered (at least, not in exactly this way). Without God, human desires are evil and ultimately destructive. Of course non-Christians will believe things we think are wrong or silly or ridiculous. Likewise, we believe (by God’s grace) things that, to the world, are just as silly and wrong and ridiculous. We can’t be surprised by either of these outcomes, and we can’t demonize (or ridicule) others who hold those opinions. Even when they (like Dawkins) do it to us. And this isn’t a new “civility”–the ridicule and hate of the world towards Christians has always been there and will always be there. It’s sad that Richard Dawkins cannot be as reasonable as he claims to be. But it isn’t surprising.

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