It seems, almost, that history is undergoing a reprise of the struggles of the Enlightenment. It is déjà vu all over again. The thought occurred to me as I was leafing this morning through Jonathan Israel’s very big book on The Radical Enlightenment, and I had the strange sensation that the Enlightenment may never have happened in the first place. It was just that history imagined it, imagined that people had criticised religion, even abandoned it, that they had formed governments based on the critique of religion, that they made efforts to exclude religion from the realm of political decision-making. Suddenly, it almost seems as though the idea that religion should be excluded from the public square, or that decisions regarding what governments can do and what laws they can pass should be distanced from the religious convictions of those who are making them, had never occurred to anyone, and that the wall between church and state had never been built — as if Christians had never themselves pointed to this separation as being a distinctive feature Western governments influenced by Christianity.
What about all the daring things that men (and women too) had said about religion — still nervously glancing towards the executioner, who might still burn a book or a living body or two – about their desire to be freed at last from religious beliefs imposed and monitored by the state, about their desire to think for themselves, to stand on their own two feet, instead of being confined in the intellectual Gängelwagen that Kant believed we could now dispense with? What happened to them that they need now to be defended once again? How is it possible, in this year 2012 of the Common Era, long after Spinoza’s Jewish confrères excluded him from the synagogue with ponderous execrations and condemnations, and erased him from the book of life, long after religion began to seem so unessential to the common good, whatever it might do for individual believers, who would not, as Kant bade them do, let go of their self-imposed minority, and grow to adult stature, able to think their own thoughts, dream their own dreams, and rule their own lives — how is it possible, after all this, that the criticism of religion should arouse so much alarm and despondency, so much heated rhetoric and condemnation? Have today’s Christians just emerged from snorting in the seven sleepers’ den?
It is like looking through smoked glass. Consider this from the Spectator, 20th February 2012:
How is it that such nonsense got to be written — and then actually published?! Who would publish such tripe? Well, the Spectator, obviously, but why? In what sense is any of this true or notable?
And here’s A.N. Wilson from the Daily Mail:
Wilson goes on to say, rather tellingly, regarding Dawkins’ failure to remember the long title of Darwin’s book:
The professor’s humiliation, in which he was skewered on his own argument, did not stop him from taking to the airwaves throughout the day to promote his anti-Christian agenda with its creed of intolerance and ignorance.
But who is being intolerant here? And how does Wilson get from Dawkins’ lapsed memory to ignorance? Perhaps he’s not thinking clearly, but isn’t Wilson’s response a sign of intolerance for Dawkins’ views about religion? Dawkins didn’t say anything intolerant about Christians. He just pointed out some of the results of a poll done by an independent polling firm, results which seem to show that Christianity, amongst many who call themselves Christian, is only skin deep. Is that intrinsically intolerant? Does criticism itself amount to intolerance? Or is not the failure to accept criticism without outlandishly personal attacks evidence of intolerance? Doesn’t this kind of critique happen all the time? Why, when it is religion, is the response so shrill and strident, almost unhinged?
What are we to say about Mary Ann Sieghart’s intemperate, not to say intolerant attack on Dawkins in the pages of the Independent?
The Church of England couldn’t hope for a better enemy than Richard Dawkins. Puffed-up, self-regarding, vain, prickly and militant, he displays exactly the character traits that could do with some Christian mellowing. In fact, he’s almost an advertisement against atheism. You can’t help thinking that a few Sundays in the pews and the odd day volunteering in a Church-run soup kitchen might do him the power of good. [my italics and bolding]
Consider the words I have emphasised. On what basis does she make such an outlandish personal attack? As one of her colleagues at the Independent, Amol Rajan, says, mentioning Sieghart’s attack, amongst others, one pays a brutal price for challenging faith. The intolerance displayed by Mary Ann Sieghart is stunning. As to the idea of “Christian mellowing,” this is an old, but pointless claim! Christians can be nasty too! Some of them even owned slaves, and justified it, as they still could, by reading their Bibles! My question for Mary Ann Sieghart is: Can one not have opinions like Dawkins’s about faith without being attacked so viciously, and with such personal animus? Who is being intolerant to whom?
Apparently personal attack is the order of the day. So Mary Ann Sieghart thought, just as Adam Lusher decided that this was the time to “reveal” that:
Does his fifth great grandfather implicate Dawkins in slavery? No. Then how is this is suddenly relevant to the question of whether or not Christianity is declining in Britain, and whether religion deserves to be privileged by governments in the way that they are, even in supposedly secular democracies? How one of Richard Dawkins’ great-great-great-great-great grandfathers made money is entirely irrelevant to contemporary issues. Besides, he had 63 more of them (fifth great grandfathers, that is), but Lusher doesn’t mention them. Perhaps, like Henry Dawkins (who died in 1744), some of them were like a onetime Bishop of Exeter, who himself, as did the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and its missionaries, owned slaves. Someone even made a statue of him. Perhaps, though, they were humble, hard-working souls, who busied themselves with study or coal-mining or helping the poor. But so what? What does it matter what one of my distant great-great-great-great-great grandfathers was or did? Or is this just a question for those who have the sheer gall and cussedness to challenge faith? If you do, some marginal journalist will accuse you of having skeletons in the family closet. Which family closet is without them?
The whole farrago began (as I have already mentioned) when Dawkins had a small lapse of memory — it’s easiest to forget when sound bytes are ticking away. This is how Stephen Pollard put it, over at the Telegraph:
But this is simply untrue. He wasn’t reduced to incoherent mumbling and spluttering, and the occasion was not central to the conversation at all. If Giles Fraser thought he had skewered Dawkins, and reduced him to slavering incoherence, it wasn’t in evidence for the rest of the conversation, where Dawkins accounted for himself well. The point, obviously, is that Dawkins challenged faith, and that, in this increasingly unenlightened age, will simply not be permitted. Challenge Christian faith, and you invite insult and defamation. Draw a picture of Mohammed, or insult the supposed prophet of Islam, and you’re likely to invite murderers to your door. However, given British libel laws which favour the appellant, it surprises me that the London papers have gone to such extremes. The principle seems to be that, when religion is criticised, anything short of a physical attack is justified. Did I miss the memo? Has the Enlightenment been cancelled?