Those of you who read the first installment of my response to H. Allen Orr’s New York Review of Books review of The God Delusion will have noticed that I simply ignored the last two sections of the review, Sections 4 and 5. Perhaps a good way to start with an assessment of these sections is to quote Orr’s astonishingly dismissive last sentence:
But if such discussions are to be worthwhile, they will have to take place at a far higher level of sophistication than Richard Dawkins seems either willing or able to muster.
Ouch! Orr is talking about discussions between religion and science, and his completely unnuanced judgement is that Dawkins has nothing to offer. This man takes no prisoners! Indeed, throughout the review there is a barely contained contempt for the author of The God Delusion. Dawkins is not only wrong. He is shallow, repetitive, Victorian, middlebrow, unable to sustain argument and not very good at it, has nothing new to offer, his project is probably not even meaningful, he lacks metaphysical imagination (whatever that is), has avoided religious thought “(he cannot … tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians)”, and, just to add the crowning touch, he’s wrong on practically every major point that he addresses. It’s a remarkable piece of intellectual demolition — or, at least, attempted demolition.
But is he right? Certainly, there are aspects of Dawkins’ book which appear to someone who has, say, read theology and philosophy for fifty years, simplistic and superficial. When I first read the book I reacted much as Orr does, though a little more positively, and even, dare I say?, modestly, since I was going through the process of abandoning faith at the time, and for someone like that, sophisticated theological argumentation would have been no good; it would merely have thrown qualifications into my way, instead of solid obstacles, and so would have encouraged me, as no doubt I had for years, to vacillate a little longer. But I received a copy of The God Delusion shortly before I read Rowan Williams’ (the Archbishop of Canterbury) Christian qualifications, in his speech to the House of Lords, regarding assisted dying. Of course, one would never accuse Williams of being deliberately clear, where opaqueness is possible, but on this issue he seemed definite and disastrous enough to demand an unqualified response: anyone who could speak thus about suffering cares not a whit for those who suffer because his god will not permit him to express compassion or to act with reasonable charity.
It is interesting that Orr should mention the meticulous reasoning of theologians. Here was a theologian, a former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, using all his theological skills to ensure that people suffering intolerably should continue to suffer without the option. That sort of reasoning soon puts the meticulous reasoning of theologians in perspective! It never occurs to Orr — perhaps through lack of imagination — that theologians are party men, whose purpose is to keep the institution running, and to provide the ideological groundwork which will enable ordinary folk, like Orr, to believe that this is being done with all the careful thought and the prodigious imagination of those who really know, and have close acquaintance with the subtleties and profundities of powerful religious experiences. Did it never occur to him that those sophisticated theologians are, like so many bureaucrats, bound by life decisions made long ago, and are not fit to do anything else now, and so are bound to the wheel of meticulous thought until they can fade gracefully from the scene? Like many other intellectual disciplines, theology is a skill, one which is, to a greater extent than other such pursuits, almost consciously isolated from other disciplines, since it is only an intellectual discipline on sufferance. It has no essential relationship to any other field of knowledge, and is only out of politeness referred to as knowledge at all. Jefferson was right to exclude theology from his university.
Perhaps Dawkins could have profited by a deeper acquaintance with the thoughts of theologians — even meticulous ones — for then he would have had graphic evidence of the irrelevance of so much that passes itself off as profound and important. If Eriugena has something important to say about subjectivity, as Terry Eagleton alleges, then it belongs to philosophy, not theology. But Rahner on grace? In the absence of some reasonable assurance that there really is a god, and that this god visits the faithful with his/her/its grace — well, there’s not much room for fruitful discussion here. I can recall, many years ago now, deciding that, since we talked about God’s grace all the time in the church, in the liturgy, in the readings from the scriptures, we would have a “study group” on the subject of grace; and while I do not now remember what we discussed, what books I used in an endeavour to understand this elusive concept, the result was profoundly dissatisfying. The study raised far more questions than it answered, and encouraged doubts about the meaningfulness of religious language, instead, as I had hoped, of deepening people’s religious experience and the sense of the presence of god. Though I cannot say for sure now, since the process was a subtle one, my path out of religion may have begun with this study, initiated with such hope, and concluded with so much uncertainty. These were early days with Elizabeth then, when we were, as she said, “courting” (something that is difficult for a married man to do (even though separated) under the watchful eyes of bishops and parishioners), and Elizabeth was not a believer.
But back to Orr. Section 4 of Orr’s review addresses the question of the evil of religion compared with atheism. I think it is fair to say that Chapter 8 of The God Delusion, “What’s Wrong with Religion? Why be so Hostile?” reflects some of the very disturbing experiences that Dawkins had during the making of the documentary film, Religion: Root of all Evil? Whatever the source of the name, the film speaks for itself. Some of the clips are profoundly disturbing: the Jewish convert to Islam in Jerusalem who dismisses all non-Muslims as kafir who have no right to live in the land of the Muslims; the Christian fundamentalist who does not shrink from applying Old Testament penalties to those who work on Sunday (stoning), homosexuals, or those who worship other gods; the boldly arrogant Ted Haggard, who counsels Dawkins, arrogantly, not to be arrogant; the Christian who justifies the murder of physicians who perform abortions; the children who are brought up to affirm lies because they are religious, and to dismiss the truth because it contradicts scriptures written, variously, thousands of years or 1300 years ago. I think I would have found it difficult to maintain my rational cool while interviewing people with such truly repugnant beliefs, as Dawkins did, but, whether controlled or not, coming face to face with such people would have changed me. It would have convinced me that we would be better off without religion.
And so we come, at last, to the balance sheet of horror. Which is worse, religion or atheism? Which has killed more people? Here we can begin to argue whether anyone’s motives are really purely religious or purely atheistical. “Does anyone really believe,” Orr asks parenthetically, “that the Church’s dreadful dealings with the Nazis were motivated by its theism.” Well, actually, I think I do. Does anyone believe that the coverup of the massive sexual abuse of children by catholic priests and bishops was motivated by theism? Of course it was. The church is all about god. The dignity and the good name of the church are of the first importance in the church’s mission to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to the world. To the extent that the church is discredited, to that extent the church’s mission is impaired. The same thing goes for its relationship with Nazism. At the time it was a widespread belief in church circles that Nazism was a better bet than communism. Besides, communism was largely Jewish — the church did buy into the Nazi myth about the Jewishness of communism – and, in any event, Christianity was profoundly antisemitic anyway. So a concordat with Hitler was, of course, a benefit to the church, and anything that benefits the church benefits its mission. Hitler may have been disingenuous in agreeing to the concordat, but it gave his government credibility in the eyes of the world. After all, the Vatican had given its nihil obstat. To suppose that this had nothing to do with the church’s theism is simply to misunderstand the church.
What, then, about Stalin’s atheism? According to Dawkins:
What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does. 
Is this convincing? Orr says no. “Dawkins,” he says:
has a difficult time facing up to the dual facts that (1) the twentieth century was an experiment in secularism; and (2) the result was secular evil, an evil that, if anything, was more spectacularly virulent than that which came before.
Yet I am not convinced. The real experiment with secularism is taking place right now in Western democracies. The communist experiment in Russia, China and Cambodia scarcely qualifies as a secular experiment. They were historicist absolutisms which developed in a straight line (through Marx and Engels) from Hegel’s belief that history is the unfolding of Absolute Spirit. In a moment Orr is going to question whether “Dawkins’ project is even meaningful.” And he questions this on the basis of a belief in the idea that historical periods are organically related to periods that have preceded them. Listen:
As T.S. Eliot famously observed, to ask whether we would have been better off without religion is to ask a question whose answer is unknowable. Our entire history has been so thoroughly shaped by Judeo-Christian tradition that we cannot imagine the present state of society in its absence. [my emphasis]
And then he goes on to up the ante just a bit more:
Even what we mean by the world being better off is conditioned by our religious inheritance. What most of us in the West mean — and what Dawkins as revealed by his own Ten Commandments, means — is a world in which individuals are free to express their thoughts and passions and to develop their talents so long as these do not infringe on the ability of others to do so.
Here he interjects the surmise that this would not be a better world from a Confucian point of view. However, this does not make Eliot’s point. Eliot was an Anglocatholic Anglican and had developed a whole theory of cultural erastianism in which Christianity, while subordinate to secular law, was organically related to the whole concept of the nation. For Eliot Christianity and England were inseparable. But Orr can’t have it both ways. He can’t both say that the values that Dawkins celebrates are so rooted in Christianity that his atheist project is meaningless, and that the secularism of Soviet Russia was not also rooted in Christian values, so that the Soviet experiment was meaningless apart from its cultural rootedness in Orthodox Christianity.
Orr is simply confused. The values that (according to Orr) Dawkins approves are not obviously Christian values. Certainly Christianity is keen to take credit for democratic freedoms, the right to express our own views, and to follow our own preferences as to how a good life should be lived, but there is no evidence that Christianity, without the Enlightenment rejection of Christian supremacy, would have led ineluctably to the values that most people in the West now treasure, and treasure so much that Christians are compelled to consider them parts of the Christian heritage itself. John Haught suggests that, were we to drop God like Santa Claus the whole of Western culture would collapse, “including our sense of what is rational and moral.” (God and the New Atheism, 22) This kind of hyperbole is common amongst the champions of theology, but, if true, it simply means that we cannot escape religion, and everything that is done, is done in religion’s name. It seems that Orr paints himself into this corner.
The truth is, I think, that atheism has never really been tried. No reasonable person could consider communism the practical application of atheism. Certainly, it shows something that needs no showing, that people, whether they do or do not take religious beliefs seriously, are capable of the most dreadful inhumanity. But this is not in question. I think Orr is right in supposing that culture is still too integrally tied up with religion to make the secular experiment fully secular. Religions continue to threaten the experiment, and many want to overturn it, even where it seems to be showing signs of significant success. Places like Switzerland, for example, which have adopted, against the grain of religion, compassionate laws respecting the right of people to choose how they will die, are being constantly challenged by religion, as was the case in the recent referendum in the Canton of Zurich over whether assisted suicide should remain legal, and whether non-residents should have the right to come to Switzerland to die. Fortunately, the religious forces took a drubbing, but, as Dawkins says, such places are rare “[m]ostly because of the influence of religion.” (357)
Bringing this already too long post to a conclusion. Orr is simply mistaken in my view. He takes theology altogether too seriously. He accuses Dawkins of not paying enough attention to the meticulous argumentation of theologians, but he has not given us one example of how attention to this meticulous argumentation would have contributed to his project. He peremptorally dismisses Dawkins’ attempt to compare the world that atheism might produce with the evils of the world that religion has wrought, without noticing that he inconsistently argues that secularism has not yet been tried, and that therefore Dawkins’ project is meaningless. Orr is, in short, desperately confused, and I think he is confused because religion has confused him. Religion presents itself as rational, but it is not, and a defence of religion is bound to end up saying silly things. Orr’s review is no exception to this rule.