On my first ‘big’ trip since March 2020, to London. Pleasantly decongested in the main, even the National Gallery seemed to be only 30% of its usual crowded self. The absence of tourists didn’t seem to make any difference to the galleries in Cork Street however—they’re always empty. On a secondhand bookshop visit I came away with Challenging Richard Dawkins: Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About God (2007) by Kathleen Jones, who at the time of publication was Emeritus Professor of Social Policy in the University of York, an Hon. Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a former member of the Church of England’s General Synod. She died in 2010. The book is a stirring attempt to put down the infamous atheist, and although the interminable debate about God these days probably bores many to tears I still, as a humanist consider it a valuable way to examine the human condition.
Jones’ background in psychology comes in handy when it comes to seeking to explain how her religion came into being, especially in the contextualisation of New Testament writings. She seeks to enter the minds of the key players. It turns out they were just ordinary folk like you and me, with aspirations, fears and dilemmas. It’s so long ago that I read Dawkins’ God Delusion that I can’t remember what he had to say about the authors of the Synoptic Gospels. In this respect Jones presents a very humanist perspective of Christianity.
One of the problems I had when reading Dawkins’ book was his focus on religion rather than God per se. In religion we can find many devils of course, and Dawkins ridiculed a great many of them. Some religions have produced degrees of absurdity and cruelty one wonders at the sanity of their followers. Religionists will often point to these failings as if humans were solely to blame for them. But on the other hand they pat themselves on the back for their moral systems and good deeds and it turns out that these qualities are divinely inspired. It takes a God, in other words to help you become altruistic. This necessarily leads to a problem, which could be called the Satish Kumar Problem. Kumar, of Resurgence magazine wrote that the word God, in all its manifestations, was merely another word for the ineffable, that which cannot be described. How one could build anything upon what cannot be described is surely a question for the birds. There is no way of knowing where to start.
But in this debate you have to start somewhere, and commenting on a question that has been pored over ad infinitum Jones takes the ‘Big Bang Needed God’ view. This is a major advance on the ‘stone age’ ruminations of Genesis, as it means that science can be wedded to a belief in God, since scientific enquiry simply examines what God has given us. Of course, if science penetrates the cosmos beyond the Big Bang, and finds a physical explanation, God merely has to retreat to an earlier stage—the infinite regression which begs the question who created God? Such questions are skated over here. Jones asks ‘Why does the universe exist?’ as if it ought to be answered in the same way as ‘How does the universe exist?’ Science largely deals with the second question, and so in the religionist’s mind it is ultimately inadequate to the task of explanation. Which is oxymoronically where the ineffable steps in.
It is Jones herself who compares the books of the Pentateuch to the Stone Age, the first five books of the Bible she infers are the earliest searches for meaning and order of primitive people, and so are the product of their age, and modern folk are permitted to move on, e.g. it’s now OK not to believe that the universe is just 5,000 years old (although many Americans detest the thought, as Jones makes clear). But what of more recent propositions in the Bible, those that are at the heart of Christian thinking? A virgin birth for example, or miracles. Jones obfuscates, as Christians tend to do, when one is asked ’are we meant to take this literally? As so often we will discover that such matters are poetic expressions, allegories, metaphors, ‘parables’ even, myths and illustrative examples. Rarely do we hear how God’s own son, or his servants so routinely broke God’s laws of physics. Having said which I am reminded of Padre Pio, an Italian monk of the 20th Century who showed stigmata and became a considerable attraction (and source of income for his monastery). His case was examined in detail (Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age, Sergio Luzzatto, 2007). It seems these ‘stigmata’ were helped along considerably with a secretive supply of chemicals from the local chemist. Padre Pio’s image can be found in many Catholic churches. He’s now a saint. I get the impression that Kathleen Jones finds the RC wing a little too naïve, and that may explain in her mind why Dawkins spends much time dwelling on the iniquities of the Catholic version. It could be that modern Anglicans find Catholics a wee bit dirigiste in their thinking. The Bishop of Durham, Richard Jenkins’ questioning the veracity of the Virgin Birth well and truly exposed the rift. My good colleague Gordon Prentice MPs’ question to the Church Commissioners, “Is it any longer necessary for a Church of England minister to believe in God?’ points to the post-modernist demise of the God of the Bible.
Perhaps I’ve wittered on a bit too long about this stuff. But as I said, the National Gallery was only 30% full and the Medieval galleries were sparsely attended. There wasn’t even a crowd of people gazing at Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist cartoon. One could examine it close up. It’s divine.