LONDON – It’s been a better year for God. After withering literary assaults on the Almighty from the Oxford academic Richard Dawkins, the essayist Christopher Hitchens, and others, believers have hit back.
Best of all has been The Case for God by the brilliant religion writer Karen Armstrong. More important still is the news that more people (certainly in Britain) are going to Christian churches of all denominations. Moreover, the Pope made a very successful visit to Britain in September. We know already about heavy attendance at the country’s mosques.
At this time of year, of course, many Christians who are not regular churchgoers attend the Nativity services. Carols, church bells, and mangers are still at the heart of mid-winter festivities, alongside the consumer binge. This year, however, the “big spend” in Europe may have been inhibited by the big winter freeze and the big austerity programs across most of the continent.
Even in the most Godless households, most children in Western societies probably know the details of the Christmas story. The travelers who can find no room at the inn. The birth of a baby in the stables. The arrival of the wise men bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
We learn about all this at the same time as we are told about Father Christmas, his Lapland reindeers, and his sacks full of presents. We rapidly lose our belief in that winter myth. But we tend to retain into adulthood the same views of God that we formed in childhood. An old man with a long beard watches over us, and most of us retain a pretty literal opinion of the stories about his Son told in the Bible’s New Testament.
It is this God that atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens attack. And, with such a target, it is not very difficult to poke holes and pile on the ridicule. Leave aside the fact that you can make an even stronger case against Godlessness – remember the atrocities of atheist totalitarians in the twentieth century – and consider the assault on those whose commitment to literal interpretations of religious texts means that they deny science and reason. To them the world was made in six days; evolution is a fanciful tale.
Those of us who think that science and religion dwell in different domains, and who recall that Socrates argued that science did not teach you about morality or meaning, find that our case is undermined by the literalists and fundamentalists in every religion. There are Christians who know all about the fire and brimstone of the Book of Revelation, but seem not to have heard the instructions about generosity in the Sermon on the Mount.
Likewise, there are hard-line Jews, such as the settler groups who drive Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem and Hebron, who have forgotten the early teachings of Jewish scholars who argued that strangers should be treated like your own people. And there are Muslims who ignore the Koran’s commands of pluralism, tolerance, and peace.
Where the atheist assault is often correct is in pinpointing the amount of harm frequently done in our world by such fundamentalists. Right-wing American attitudes about their country’s place in the world are invigorated by fundamentalist dogma. The United Nations is the devil’s own creation. President Barack Obama is an un-American Muslim. Palestine from the Jordan River to the coast should be handed to Israel so that the world can end with a cataclysmic Christian triumph.
Jewish fundamentalists obstruct any peace process that is left in the Middle East and build more illegal settlements. Islamic fundamentalists define jihad as a war of terror against the West and call for an Islamic caliphate from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
The strident and damaging dogmatism of fundamentalists of every stripe has a common feature: a truculent sense of grievance, rooted in fear and resentment of modernity. Christian fundamentalism in America harks back to nineteenth-century populism and anti-intellectualism.
Members of evangelical churches associate their beliefs with the rugged individualism of the early pioneers. They are contemptuous of the establishment.
Jewish fundamentalists believe that Israel’s critics are anti-Semitic or, in the case of Jewish opponents of Israel’s harder-line policies, “self-hating Jews.”
Islamic fundamentalists reckon that what the rest of us regard as the liberalizing influence of technological progress and globalization is a brash re-run of Western colonialism.
For a happier New Year, we should listen to the core messages of all these great religions, above all the Confucian golden rule that we should never do to others what we would not like to be done to us. What religion should teach us is not how to hate, but – to borrow again from Confucius – how to develop societies that look after and welcome the poor, the stranger, and the oppressed.
That is the most important message for everyone, atheists included, to take from the Christian story of Christmas.
Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a former EU Commissioner for External Affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.