We owe a certain debt to Dawkins which I suspect has until now gone unrecognized. Dawkins, one of the world’s foremost figureheads of atheism, coined the word “meme” in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.
These days, tech-savvy tweeters know a good meme when they see one… and we at Catholic-Link sure do enjoy creating them!
Three points of interest stand out from this engaging little video, a conversation between Richard Dawkins and Ben Stein: 1) Intelligent Design, 2) Freedom, and 3) The pursuit of Truth and Knowledge. Let’s consider each one separately:
First, Dawkins acknowledges the possibility that life on Earth may have been set in motion by intelligent life-force from an alien solar system. But if God the Creator is untenable as an explanation for the origin of the world, why is it easier to accept that we might come from the “seed” of a highly sophisticated alien civilization?
The proposition Dawkins offers strikes me as certainly no less far-fetched than the proposition that God exists and that He created the universe. The beautiful and awesome reality is that Dawkins is free to make his rejection of God.
As the great G.K. Chesterton – coincidentally another brilliant Englishman – once said, “I did not understand what was meant by liberty until I heard it called by the new name of human dignity.” It is the very divine spark, that we are created in God’s image and likeness, which allows Man the freedom to reject our origin and our creator – if we were not free to reject Him, then we could not be free to respond in love. The word FREEDOM echoes loudly at both the beginning and end of Ben Stein’s video. It’s most interesting that Dawkins uses the language of liberation to express his disdain for religion:
“I write a book; people can read it if they want to. I believe that it is a liberating thing to free yourself from primitive superstition. I think a lot of people, when they give up God, feel a great sense of release and freedom…I’ve had a lot of letters saying that.”
But Freedom is one of those loaded words… kind of like the words Love and Judgmental (to name but two)… those words that often mean something different, often something deeper, than the emotional reactions we attach to them.
Dawkins is quite pleased with himself as he rattles off one of his book’s juicier diatribes against the God of the Old Testament. Moments later, Stein actually does call him out, noting that Dawkins has made quite a name for himself (and millions of dollars) by trumping up these oh-so smug and articulate dressings down of God. Indeed, there is much profit to be gained these days in the business of atheism.
But we can take this irony one step further: Dawkins’s public raison d’etre, his fame and fortune have been accrued within a cultural framework of academic freedom, market-driven book sales, and free speech which are the very products of Judeo-Christian civilization he enjoys from his wood-paneled perch in Oxford. In other words, the very cultural and intellectual soil from which Richard Dawkins and his anti-religion platform have been so free to emerge was tilled – organically and over centuries – by a civilization built upon Christ that grew and thrived and taught the world how to live out fundamental ideas like freedom – ideas that are heavier and richer than suggested by the gold-spun sound-bytes from the tongues of intellectuals.
The Pursuit of Truth and Knowledge
I don’t think Richard Dawkins, no doubt a very smart man, would disagree with the characterization that he has reasoned himself out of a state of belief But indeed it is perhaps the ultimate irony that Dr. Dawkins holds a chair and fellowship at Oxford University, the very epicenter of a famous philosophical movement in the mid-nineteenth century. We have the Oxford Movement to thank for the likes of the brilliant Robert Hugh Benson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Ronald Knox.
For every powerful mind that has reasoned its way to atheism, there is an equally refined mind that has reasoned its way INTO the Catholic Church. Such was the case for many of these Oxford Movement thinkers. The most famous among them remains Blessed John Henry Newman. Take some time to read his series of lectures entitled The Idea of a University. They could be considered the greatest Catholic treatment on the philosophy of education in the English Language.
Yes, the academy has given the world some of the most intellectually harmful philosophies of despair and materialism, division and nihilism. But academia – Oxford in this case – has also given us John Henry Newman. And the Church has given the world much of what it understands to be essential to education – even and especially those elements we take for granted, such as freedom of inquiry.
Even the least scientifically inclined among us can warm to the idea that there is coherence and integration in the order of the cosmos – and therefore also of Knowledge and Truth. Ben Stein closes his gentle little video with – to my ear, a strong echo of the voice of John Henry Newman:
“If the Intelligent Design people are right, God isn’t hidden. We may even be able to encounter God through science… if we have the freedom to go there. What could be more intriguing than that?
Blessed John Henry Newman: Ora pro nobis
And may we all pray for Richard Dawkins and those led astray by the glamours of atheism.