Unless you have deliberately turned off every last electronic device in your house, you’ve probably heard about Richard Dawkins’ embarrassing slip up this week.
On radio 4, he’d been championing a poll run by his organization, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, which showed that many people who call themselves Christian do not believe in some of the most basic of Christian doctrines, read the Bible or go to church.
In a debate with Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Dawkins was arguing that such people were not entitled to call themselves Christian if they don’t accept the doctrines of the church.
‘An astonishing number couldn’t identify the first book in the New Testament,’ he said - proof positive, to his mind, that they had no right to call themselves Christians.
Fraser’s response was that using a few ‘trick questions to trip people up’ wasn’t fair, and didn’t address the real point: the broad church that is spiritual faith, but Dawkins wasn’t having any of it.
So Fraser asked him, ‘If I said to you what is the full title of ‘The Origin of Species,’ I’m sure you could tell me that.’
Dawkins, replied, ‘Yes, I could.’
‘Go on, then,’ Fraser said.
Dawkins replied, a bit testily, ‘On The Origin of Species. . . Uh, with. Oh, God. On The Origin of Species. There is a subtitle with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.’
The exact words failed him.
‘You’re the high pope of Darwinism,’ cried Fraser. ‘If you asked people who believe in evolution that question and you came back and said 2 per cent got it right, it would be terribly easy for me to go, “they don’t believe it after all.” It’s just not fair to ask people these questions. They self-identify as Christians and I think you should respect that.’
Dawkins went away and licked his wounds on his own website, claiming to have been ‘ambushed’ by the question. (The full title of Darwin’s tome is, by the way, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.)
Dawkins is himself famous for setting up just these kinds of ambushes for those with beliefs different to his. Not long ago, I was asked to be on a television show with him as host. The producers swore up and down that this would be a fair debate and I would have the opportunity to present the evidence that supports my work.
My husband smelled a rat, and urged me not to participate.
My friend Rupert Sheldrake did start filming with Dawkins at his home. During the interview, Dawkins refused to allow him to put forward his evidence. Sheldrake stopped the filming and asked why not, to which Dawkins replied that the show was intended to be a ‘high-grade debunking exercise.’ Sheldrake escorted him out the door, and lucky for it. The end product was aired under the title: ‘Enemies of Reason.’
The opposite effect
What’s most interesting here is not simply the spectacle of the bully getting his comeuppance. It is the fact that all this recently self-proclaimed ‘militant atheism’ is having exactly the opposite effect to what is intended.
It is, in my view, a case of bad intention.
There’s plenty of good evidence to show that bad thoughts, as well as good ones, can have an effect on the world – and indeed sometimes are more powerful of the two.
Nevertheless, Dawkins and his band of sceptics and atheists are a bit like the pharmaceutical industry, not content simply to offer their wares, but out to pulverize the opposition.
The problem is that this kind of broadside intention to kill often simply backfires.
We know, for instance with healing, the most effective approach is not to destroy the source of the illness, but to move aside, let go of the outcome, and allow a greater intelligence to restore order. Without this careful approach, destructive intentions often blow up in one’s face.
In the case of alternative medicine, under the broadside attack of the most profitable industry on earth, it continues to flourish and grow. For some years now, in both America and Europe many more visits are paid to alternative practitioners than to doctors.
United against secularism
Several decades ago, the various religions and Christian denominations were in disarray, at war with other religions and dying on their feet. Left to their own devices, it appeared that the Christian church might simply quietly expire for lack of interest and attendance.
However, the militant atheists have put the fire in the belly of the churches. No less than the Queen, who is the Supreme Governor of the Anglican church, thought it necessary to appear before a gathering of the leaders of the nine main faiths in Britain this week and defend the ‘significant position’ of the church in the life of the nation.
Her point was that the broadness of the church lends religion a great sense of tolerance. The notion of faith is a glue that holds society together.
All nine faiths have put aside differences and are united in their belief in taking a stand against secularism and in the right of each one of us to believe in whatever spirituality we choose.
The right to the miraculous
What they were defending was the right of all of us to have faith, to have a miraculous view of the world, and not simply the world according to Richard Dawkins.
In America, the latest Gallup poll shows that the percentage of people who claim to be Christian of some variety is down by 13 points since 1948, but the percentage of people who claim an ‘other’ religion is up by 9 points – higher than the increase among those claiming to be atheists. Essentially, people’s desire for something beyond the material world has hardly changed in 60 years.
Whether you believe him to be the son of God or the son of man (as he himself once declared), Jesus obviously knew a thing or two about the power of intention.
Ironically, Larry Dossey once wrote that one of the most powerful antidotes to negative intention was the line in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘deliver us from evil.’
Richard Dawkins would do well to study the words – as well as the words Shakespeare gave Hamlet to deliver to his ‘rational’ friend Horatio: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’