Last night, just before going to bed, I took one last look at richarddawkins.net and came across a link to an article entitled “The tragedy at the heart of New Atheism.” It was a link to the Catholic Herald, so of course it would be, I thought, good for a laugh. But then it turned out to be so shallow, so intellectually insipid, that I thought it at least deserved some critical notice. Catholics keep telling us that they are, in some sense, the guardians of tomorrow, and then they go on to produce such palpably witless vacuities that it is hard –and I mean really hard — to believe that they intend it in all seriousness.Well, yesterday, our would-be guardians outdid even themselves in reaching for the abyss of mindlessness. In an article portentously entitled “The tragedy at the heart of New Atheism,” published in the Catholic Herald, Alexander Lucie-Smith, who is not only a priest (I refuse to accord him the accustomed courtesy by calling him “Father”, for he is no father of mine), but, we are told, also a Doctor of Moral Theology, the attempt is made to empty new atheism of meaning, and what we are given is, not bread, as Jesus suggested, but a damp and particularly nasty little squib — not even a stone! The sad part is that it’s written in a style that reminds one of the overconfident undergraduate, who clearly read only the titles of the books he was supposed to read, and then, as though that were sufficient, expounded on them at length.
The first clue, of course, that the man is an intellectual nonentity, Doctor of Moral Theology or not, is that Lucie-Smith spends a good part of his essay on wondering whether a quotation attributed to Dawkins was ever really uttered by him. He spends three paragraphs discussing this profound question, and then refers us to a collection of Dawkins’ sayings, and finds one that, he says, he finds “particularly problematic.” Now, notice, Lucie-Smith, so far as we can tell, has only read this much of Dawkins, a collection of quotations on the website Brainy Quotes. So much for due diligence. But surely, had he the moral expertise that his grandiose title ”Doctor of Moral Theology” heralds, he would have put the quotation in context, and tried to assess it with the kind of qualification that context generally provides. But, no, there’s nothing like that. Whether he thinks he can count on his Catholic readers to find such carelessness irrelevant, because, after all, they undoubtedly will accept the word of a priest, just on his say-so, is anyone’s guess. But to have written something, and then to have it published, without so much as a hint that the author knew whereof he was speaking, is a bit down market, one would have thought, for a Doctor of Moral Theology. Or is this just further evidence, if evidence were needed, that the ponderous title is meant mysteriously to self-authenticate everything written within its purview?
Hard to say… Anyway, here’s the quote to which this Doctor of Moral Theology takes such arch exception:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
As it happens, the same quote is also attributed to Charles Darwin (see here); however, Darwin did not say it. In this one thing Lucie-Smith is right. Now, notice what Dawkins does not say. He very well might have said: “The universe, we observe, has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” The added commas might have added a bit more empirical weight to the claim being made. It might make it seem as though it were a scientific statement for which empirical evidence was needed.
And of course this is precisely the problem that Lucie-Smith finds with the quotation. Let him say it in his own inimitably pedestrian style (don’t forget the lazy undergraduate):
First of all, notice the use of the words “precisely” and “observe”. It is surely impossible to observe the universe in its entirety. We observe parts, though we may intuit wholes. But these observations are not going to be precise – not if they are observations of “the universe”. So the use of the words “observe” and “precisely” here strikes me as giving the statement a scientific veracity that it cannot possibly claim, for this statement seems neither falsifiable or verifiable.
(I recall, in English 100, writing an essay which explained why the assigned subject was logically contradictory. The professor, at the time, with some justice, thought I was belittling him. It actually was self-contradictory, but I took his point.) A statement, not made as a scientific hypothesis so much as a general response to the way that life generally seems to go, is here being picked apart, as though it could stand the kind of pressure that a scientist might bring to bear. But, nevertheless, think about it for a moment. The part of the universe with which we are familiar, the life world in which we play our brief part upon the stage, does not give the impression of being a caring world, but rather a world entirely indifferent to our striving, struggling, or dying. If we want life to mean something, we will have to provide the meaning, and cannot expect that it will come down, like manna, from heaven.
Lucie-Smith quotes Shakespeare. Let me quote Wilfred Owen, for at least, one might think, trapped by his own perfidy, Macbeth had reason enough to think of life as
… but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
But the same cannot be said of Owen, who fought bravely on the Western Front, and died just a few days before the Armistice in 1918:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The old lie. It is not sweet or noble to die for one’s country. The wounds of war are deep, and make a travesty of youthful dreams of glory. But the same, surely, can be said of life itself sometimes. Think of Wilfred Owen, a man with a grave disorder, according to Catholic moral theology, of which Lucie-Smith is a licensed advocate, who would rather face the guns on the Western Front than contumely from religious self-righteousness at home — when that contempt was written into the very law that governed people’s lives, and hounded one of World War II’s great heroes, Alan Turing, to his grave. As if to the universe’s indifference life needed the mindless vindictiveness of the religious mind to fill its cup with sorrow. But life itself, with the bitterness of suffering, the burning tears, the sense that life, after all, has no meaning, as though we are worms struggling on the dung-heap of life: these feelings can overpower us at times. To suggest, after all, that there is, beyond the care of those we know and love, and who bring what little comfort may be brought when shadows fall across our lives, no overarching or ultimate meaning, no benevolent and loving purpose that will dress the wounds of life, and bring it to some glorious consummation, is no betrayal, but sheer common sense, dress it up as you will.
After quoting Macbeth’s “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow …” speech, Lucie-Smith, who has a real knack of misunderstanding, despite his apparently exalted perch, says this:
Is this what modern atheists believe? It does sound pretty close to the quote from Dawkins above. But if he believes this how can he believe in an ordered universe, one that is susceptible to rational and scientific observation?
But this is nonsense! Dawkins was not talking about life. Anyone who has read his books knows that Dawkins has a genuinely deep reverence for life, and the wonder that can be found in life. He’s talking, not about order in the universe, for which completely algorithmic processes account so beautifully. He is explaining that the universe itself is mindless and indifferent to our struggles as well as to our loves and sorrows. But the pitiless indifference of the universe is not Dawkins’ last word, and if Lucie-Smith had read his assignment he would know this; for while the universe may be pitiless and indifferent — which it undoubtedly can be — we are not, or at least we need not be. We are capable of great acts of benevolence, even love, and we can fill our lives with meaning. But we wrest that meaning from a universe that does not express itself in care, and crushes lives with what would be psychopathic indifference were it a living, conscious thing. But it is not. All we know of the universe is that it is, aside from little islands of life here, and perhaps otherwhere in that great ocean of stars and galaxies, inert and blind and indifferent to our fate.