From Melanie McDonagh in THE TABLET, 19 September 2019
Our old friend, Richard Dawkins, is back in business, with a book called Outgrowing God, and at the age of 78, you can only salute his energy. It is intended, he says, especially to guard the young against the dangerous influence of religion. Lots of the tropes are familiar from The God Delusion – indeed, a little too familiar. If anyone else rehearses Bertrand Russell’s argument that you can’t disprove a negative, as in, “You can’t disprove my contention that there is a china teapot circling the sun”, I really shall lose it.
Just for the purposes of argument, could atheists not get their head around the notion that God is, as far as we are concerned, the reason why there are teapots, or a sun, or a universe to revolve around in the first place? When they reduce God to one of the gods, that is to say, an item in the universe – the Prof is fond of talking of the God of Abraham as our version of Thor – you realise that we’re not really talking the same language.
There remains in Dawkins, I think, a bit of the residual Protestantism in which he was reared. He remarks at one point that he really can’t be bothered as to whether Catholics believe Our Lady is a goddess or a demigod – ditto angels – a revival of the hoary old Protestant contention that Catholics worship the Virgin, which used to elicit indignant rebuttals from our lot about the distinction between veneration and adoration.
But fair play to the man, he has got his head round the idea of the Atonement and won’t let it go. Some years ago, in rather a funny essay in the style of P. G. Wodehouse, he wrote about the concept that, “He who smote/in man for man the foe,/the double agony in man/for man should undergo”. He returns to it here:
“The idea (don’t blame me; I’m just reporting the official Christian belief) is this. God wanted to forgive the sins of humankind, most prominently including the inherited sins of Adam (who never existed). But God couldn’t just forgive. That would be too simple. Too obvious. Someone had to pay for the forgiveness … Nothing would do except the torture and agonising death of God’s own son, Jesus … Nothing less than the blood sacrifice of God himself – for Jesus is regarded as God in human form – would be enough to pay for the great burden of Sin hanging round the neck of all humanity”.
And so on – a coarse paraphrase of Christian doctrine which stings. So, here’s a little challenge to theologians: to rebut Professor D.’s take on the Atonement, in language as accessible as his. My money would be on Terry Eagleton. But for a thoroughgoing demolition of Dawkins’ contention that you can have progressive morality without Christianity, I refer you to Tom Holland’s brilliant new book, Dominion. Someone should put it Richard Dawkins’ way.
The kindness of Tablet readers after I wrote about the death of my mother should not have surprised me, but I was enormously touched. I’ve had Mass cards from priest readers, and lovely letters, including from one gentleman who sent me a verse that he found helpful after the death of his child and which made me cry, in a good way. Another reader observed that there is a lot to be said for music while you’re dying, to cheer you up, and mentioned a pope who had insisted that his friends play him Beethoven when he was about to die, on the basis that God was just as much present in his work as in more obviously spiritual compositions. I was reminded of the story that Fr Ronnie Knox, the celebrity cleric, had a great deal of edifying reading during his last days, but took care to include with it the works of Wodehouse. Sound man. Thank you all very much.
To the dictum that you should be careful what you wish for, I would add, be careful what you pray for. The night before my mother’s funeral, I asked that I should manage to keep my mind off the enormity of the event, and generally hold myself together for the next day. And it worked. I didn’t spend the night dwelling on her being dead because I was bent double with unexpected agonies from … haemorrhoids. It was an extraordinarily effective distraction from larger things, like death. God did hear my prayer; He sent me piles.
Melanie McDonagh is senior writer at the London Evening Standard