It is a line from a World War II film in which a small group of commandos destroy a dam in Yugoslavia to stop the Germans from getting to a vital strategic place over an almost impossible-to-destroy bridge. Sergeant Miller blows up the dam with some explosives stolen from the Germans and placed in exactly the right places for maximum effect, and the water flow from the breached dam destroys the bridge. As one man congratulates himself and his mates for the success of the mission, the leader brings everyone back to reality:
But before we can start awarding ourselves Victoria Crosses and Congressional Medals of Honor and so on and so forth and such like… I think I’d better point out that one, we’re now on the wrong side of the river. That two, we have no hope whatsoever of rejoining the partisans. That three, this neck of the woods will soon be crawling with very bad-tempered Germans. And that four, I don’t think our little genius Sergeant Miller there has even got a box of matches left in his suitcase. And so I think we can take it, gentlemen, that we’re going to have a very long walk home.
In other words, the war ain’t won until we’re back in London! You don’t count your chickens until the eggs are hatched…
It is my reaction as I consider this article that challenges the opinion of the “New Atheists” than religion causes all the evil in the world. In other words, we believers may have truth on our side, but the war is not won and increasing numbers of people become convinced by the arguments of atheists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens among others.
Here is something worth reading. Dusting Off God – A new science of religion says God has gotten a bad rap (http://chronicle.com/article/Does-Religion-Really-Poison/133457/) by Tom Bartlett. I have said it again and again, the more we use religion to dominate others and enrich ourselves, the more ammunition we ourselves give men like Dawkins to spread his materialist “gospel”.
The standard assumption of the new atheists is that religion is basically malevolent, that it “poisons everything,” in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens. What is most convincing is not the idea that there is no God or that the bible is bunk, but that religion is bad for us and that we would be better off without it.
Enter the Christian apologists. Christianity abolished slavery, the death penalty in most western countries and many other violations of human rights. Are Dawkins and company more scientific in their criticism of religion that we in our “medieval obscurantism”? That is a good question, and does much to sway minds in favour of religion and belief.
The article describes scientific experiments in which it is ascertained whether people would be more altruistic under threat or invited with notions connected with spirituality and the “nice” aspects of religion. They are not without interest. But are these “comfort words” more something to do with the amount of dopamine in our brains than something about and outside ourselves? Is there less crime in countries where most people are religious than in mostly atheistic countries? Not always.
There seem to be no constant rules of cause and effect. Believers and unbelievers alike are guilty of similar crimes in history. It is impossible to say that either belief or unbelief is entirely toxic or blameless. There seem to be no winners in this game. Unbelievers have done marvellous things for other people and humanity, just as religious people have.
The atheists are very successful because they touch a nerve in all of us, anything who has been dealt with unjustly dealt with by a priest or a diocesan office, who has suffered abuse, who has read reams of diatribe from various armchair theologians and inquisitors as we come to recognise them in the blog columns. If we are confronted with the idea “Attacking obscurantic, cruel, lunatic ideas is always a good idea”. It can seem to us all that religion is rotten to the core. Then it is just a short step to saying that God is bunk and being done with it.
OK, the tit-for-tat argument. The Nazis were hardly pillars of the Church and it was science that produced the atom bomb and genetic engineering. So, atheists are bad too, and often for the same reasons as religious people. So what do you do, blow us all up? All that “proves” is that people are not bad because they are religious!
What about our use of reason? The way Dawkins writes is said to be repetitive and “dogmatic” and requiring more of an ideological adhesion than inviting us to use our own brains. But the fact remains that much of the “bathwater” of religion also is sectarian ideology requiring us to “go along” with it rather than discover its intrinsic truth. This is a point to which I am extremely sensitive.
In the end, we can’t defeat the atheists by calling them stupid idiots or whatever. The war is not won even if we can defend ourselves and survive. They seem to have us in the popular mind by convincing people that people are bad because they are religious, and because religion is an ideology in which there is no room for the use of reason.
What we can do is to retire from the political mindset or the notion of dominating and controlling even out of a motive of serving God and a good ultimate finis operis. Using evil means has been one of the most damning indictments against the Church over the centuries. Depriving man of freedom and the use of reason (some call it “private judgement”) is just one way to convince people that whatever is evil is so because it is motivated by religion. We become our own apologists for atheism.
So then, what? Spiritual experience through love, altruism, compassion, empathy for man in his weakness, things that provoke wonder and awe through beauty – not just the liturgy but the art that goes around it. If love has no part in this world, then life is just not worth living! Love is the αγάπη described by St Paul, the root of self sacrifice and empathy, but it is also expressed in what we leave behind in the wake of our life.
Surely, this was Christ’s way of showing us that there is hope. It is our only weapon against atheism and darkness. Only light can dispel darkness.
Thoughts to consider:
“Religionists”, including Christians have indeed been responsible for abuses and atrocities. Militant atheists have most certainly been responsible for at least equal abuses. I think history will also show that those with little real concern with religion one way or the other have been no better. For any to argue on the basis of how bad another is, is no more than the pot calling the kettle black.
Human beings, given the chance, have shown the capability of inventing and implementing all manner of evils, from the spectacular to the subtle, and do not demonstrate in the aggregate a really significant tendency to do real good. Theology, philosophy, and scientific inquiry all are all too often perverted to these ends. This is what traditional Christians call original sin – what a former pastor of mine called the only objectively verifiable doctrine of Christianity.
There is no evidence that human beings have the capability to rise above this tendency by their own ability. Neither humanly directed religion nor humanly directed atheism is sufficient to the task. As Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Jesus was quite obviously God-centered. Yet he spent his time as a “friend of sinners” and showed his anger only toward those who also claimed to be God-centered, to the religious leaders of his community. Religion does not save, but Jesus does. Paul’s argument is very clear, that Christ came into the world because the world was not able to save itself – not by good works, not by religious observance, not by human philosophy, not by any manifestation of its own strength
Without a living connection with Christ religion and irreligion lead to the same result. He came into the world to make it possible to avoid that self-condemnation and to become what we can be but have steadfastly refused to become.