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Atheism vs religion: half time update


'The Magic of Reality' by Richard DawkinsRecently public interest in the aggressive form of atheism represented by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and in the religious response to it, seems to have waned.

This half time break gives commentators a chance to grab a pie and sauce, to say who is likely to win and to assess the success of the respective game plans. Casual spectators can also satisfy their curiosity about whether this is a preliminary match or the Grand Final.

Most observers would acknowledge that the Atheist team has won in a few positions on the field. Their aggressive attack on religious belief has appealed particularly to people who have separated themselves from their religious roots, but still feel marginal unease or resentment. They find support for the break they have made in the polemic and in the claim that a scientific world view is sufficient.

The debating skills of the Atheist champions, too, have made some Christians more hesitant in their belief.

Both teams have scored own goals. Catholic players, especially, have been distracted by the scandal of sexual abuse and the deeply rooted clerical attitudes to power that it has disclosed. But by their heavy handed polemic the Atheist team has also alienated many people who see in it the intolerance that it decries in its religious opponents.

The game plan of the Atheist team has been to keep the ball in their forwards and to batter their way downfield, forcing the Religious team to play the game on their terms. They rely on books and lectures by their heavy hitters that draw publicity and debates against weaker opponents.

The Religious team has generally responded by trying to slow the game down and to win penalties for unduly rough play. Interestingly, Dawkins has changed tack in his handsomely produced new book, The Magic of Reality, with its avuncular chiding of religious silliness.

The bookies have set the half-time odds slightly in favour of the Religious team. They are believed to have greater institutional depth. It is feared that the atheist team, which relies strongly on a few individuals, may tire towards the end of a long game.

The status of this game is more interesting. Despite the passion with which it is being fought, the game looks more like a preliminary than a Grand Final. This means that both teams must prepare themselves to meet an even more formidable opponent with seemingly impregnable defensive skills.

This opponent is a Western culture in which all affirmations of large meanings drown in a swamp. Whether it be the sole sufficiency of science or the divinity of Christ that is affirmed, the affirmation is heard with a shrug, and is smothered in uncommitted tolerance. Against such a defence both Christianity and atheism struggle to make ground with their assertions about the nature of reality.

The game plans of both the Atheist and the Religious teams are likely to be counterproductive in the main game. Negative attacks on each other's large claims will not win over the uncommitted, but will succeed only in confirming suspicion of all large claims about the nature of reality.

Polemic against atheism and analysis of the prevailing culture will have a minor role. Religious and Atheists alike will be reassured at seeing their champions go snorting into battle laying blows. It helps team morale. Broad analysis of the deficiencies and origins of our current culture, too, help underline the Christian commitment to the truth of its affirmations.

But both polemic and dismissive analysis tend to increase scepticism among the uncommitted. To win them other strategies are needed.

The challenge will be to find a point at which people with an inherited suspicion of large affirmations of truth might be drawn to engage with deeper questions of meaning. This point must touch what matters most deeply to people. For most it will have to do with their own and others' humanity.

The best way of engaging at this level will be through reprsentatives whose admirably human and humane ways of living are clearly and attractively animated by faith. An attractive life characterised by a practical concern for the most vulnerable human beings may commend the large vision of the world that underlies it. It may also encourage discussion about the kind of culture that might best sustain a humane society.

Finally, of course, any team that hopes to win over culture will also have to avoid own goals and demonstrate a match between its rhetoric and its on-field conduct. 

Tim KroenertAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, atheism



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Existing comments

I find your empahsis on the strident, in your face atheism not helpful. In any debate there have to be those who are over the top For some of us who choose the path of atheism it is a long and difficult struggle over many years After many decades the God I affirmed became meaningless so I searched for other ways to view the world. I read, marked and inwardly digested all I could I found that I was able to explore those deeper questions of meaning freed from the "God dimension" which had rarely met my needs over a long time There is a peacefulness about a considered atheism that allows me to enjoy my humanity. I am not strident but content with my journey. I am humane and caring and love life. Far from perfect and glad I explored the possibilities No battle field just a concerted effort to find some meaning for me

GAJ | 20 October 2011  

What about the intervention of Terry Eagleton who sought to reframe the debate and put some pointed questions to the new atheists about their stance. Highly entertaining and well informed theologically

Doug | 20 October 2011  

Andrew ,this article seems to be a mass of unrelated generalisms , that should , perhaps , be confined to the commercial breaks.

David | 20 October 2011  

Male metaphors aside (footy and biffo), I find your emphasis here on 'taking sides' disappointing. The religious/atheist conversation (which it ought to be) highlights the fact that faith is required both to be religious and to be an atheist (neither can prove or disprove the existence of God). Also, the world's NGOs who are actually addressing human need are full of professing atheists who have rejected religious doctrine but are 'walking the walk', not just 'talking the talk'. This from one who does have faith in the existence of G-O-D - not according to Nicea, but according to Jesus!

Lorraine Parkinson | 20 October 2011  

Andrew, I dislike your overall metaphor of a football game. It smacks of dualistic thinking - the kind that dominates our western mentality: our way of identifying ourselves over against the other by putting that other down - leading to the scapegoating theory of Rene Girard. We don't have to live that way. Most affiliations to teams are an expression of this. It's all about who's right and who's wrong; who's good and who's bad; who's in and who's out? It has led the atheists to stereotype God and religions, and we believers tend to do the same to them. Jesus said 'love your enemies' and I think he meant have compassion - understand where they are coming from - they may even have something to offer. This equates to Buddhist compassion - they don't condemn anyone. Believing that we can end this 'game' with our minds and our arguments so that there will be a final score and one team wins and one team loses is simplistic, dualistic and very western. There are other ways of seeing things than just with our feeble, biased and inadequate minds. If anything, this seems to be what spirituality can contribute to the discussion.

John | 20 October 2011  

What utter rot! From the opening par' to the closing one.

The author should reflect on the Negus-Thatcher exchange, where Negus made wild assertions based on 'some people say', meaning himself, of course.

Thatcher shot the upstart down in flames in nano seconds by demanding 'nems them, who are these people?'

Like so here, dear author, writing a personal opinion under the guise of representing 'public interest' is a shallow and deceitful writing technique, and diminshes not just the value of this 'story' but also any claims to 'intellectual rigour' this e-rag seeks from its readers.

I see David (comments) has it in one, too.

Instead of pretending the sinful behaviour of hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholics put into positions of great trust over many hundreds of years is but a 'distraction' is the ultimate state-of-denial.

As for dressing this all up as some gormless sport analysis, you really should not have bothered- it is neither funny nor clever.

Just remember too, that Dawkins and Co did not 'invent' anything at all, and millions of people have worked out for themselves that the religion industry is as corrupt as any other industry and not worthy of any support.

Harry Wilson | 20 October 2011  

Excellent metaphor to look at how things are going. With the big question of how to get past the yeah whatever of so many people. Thanks mate.

Chad | 20 October 2011  

Excellent and timely summary in a game of long duration. While we may not survive to hear the final whistle, end-of-game, the need to encourage what can, and should be a deepening experience is well worth the energy to continue. The mystery embedded in the Matter-Spirit dynamic is of such power, it demands constant effort to unfold.

Without the Andrew Hamiltons of this embattled world to take the ball one important step further, many will stay on, or retreat to the uncommitted benches.

Jim Bowler | 20 October 2011  

Believers and athiests can have "humane ways of living" and both can disregard "the most vulnerable human beings".

Who are the "most vulnerable human beings? Perhaps it could be the victims of war.

The first atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, and this single weapon, killed "one hundred thousand women and children and men". The aircraft's crew had been sent off "with Christian prayers".

Canon Paul Oestreicher, in his keynote speech at the Opening Plenary of the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation this year points to the Christian commitment to the 'just war' policy which legitimates "collective murder".

He suggests that since the time of Emperor Constantine "in the third century" Christian leaders and theologians of all denominations have "squared our conscience to kill the Emperor's enemies, and to do with this Jesus on our lips".

The thousands of refugees throughout the world, powerless to control their lives, are there because of violence and war. Thousands upon thousands of people, especially children, continue to be maimed by unexploded weapons in their "playground".

Those who profess to be Christian will only gain respect from athiests by living their commitment to a single humanity.

Maureen Strazzari | 20 October 2011  

I interpreted Andy's sport metaphor as being a wise reflection on the way the religion VS atheism debate plays out in reality - and it's born true in many of the passionate and sometimes aggressive responses in this comment forum.

The quiet faithful ones (whether believers or atheist) don't bother joining a team and have no desire to beat the other side. They just plod along and do their human best - follow their innate conscious (the voice of God/humanity within them). The faithful do not need to denegrate or diminish the view of another in order to validate their own value as a human being.

Also to Lorraine Parkinson - rejecting or questioning church doctrines is not atheism - and to Harry Wilson - the fact that religious institutions can be corrupt merely means that they are run by human beings. Their failure does not in any way diminish God, although it may sadly diminish people's faith in God.

AURELIUS | 20 October 2011  

When you take a metaphor and run with it, you sometimes find that the goal-posts have shifted during the analogy, and that you will be shown the reader's pink card. Having to listen to professional Bloke Tony Abbott using this same type of sporty language forever would be my idea of hell. More than a smidge of it makes me tune out, even when the intention is to amuse. That's just my 'impregnable defensive skills' at work.

Penelope | 20 October 2011  

The next international conference on atheism is being held in Melbourne, which says something about the unoriginal and uncreative thinking of the planners. The last one was also in Melbourne. Aren’t there any other cities in the world that can muster conferences on atheism? We read that Messrs Dawkins, Hitchens and two other heavyweights, as they are so charmingly described above, will style themselves the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for this occasion. Perhaps Dawkins will be Famine and Hitchens will be Death. They seem to want to turn this into entertainment, when any serious reader of the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse) comes to understand that the Horsemen represent temporal devastation and that this is a game for keeps.

Atheists aren’t the only ones, of course, who have trouble appreciating the literary devices of apocalyptic writing. Bloggers take exception to the Us vs Them trope of this article, and there is no doubt that the real conversation only starts when atheists and everyone else actually converse: unfortunately the contesting nature of this debate is one cultivated by the public atheists, not by everyone else.

My impression is that everyone else is only too keen to have a proper public debate. So why aren’t the atheists? I would extend the football trope by reminding readers that all teams have a chance at the premiership, there’s always another year and, as they say in Footscray, every dog has his day. The game also has Collingwood which, depending on your view, is either divinity itself or pure anathema.

Desiderius Erasmus | 20 October 2011  

There is no winning against a mind that has closed itself to reason and taken up religion. My own mother fell prey to a religious group last year that I'd class as more of a cult. It has divided our once close and caring family - whis is most surely the aim of this religious group, in order to bring them into the fold and ostracise anyone who tries to intervene. Truly grubby parasites who have wormed their way into controlling her life - they ensure that we are alienated and she becomes more dependent on them.

Religion is divisive | 20 October 2011  

I interpreted Andy's sport metaphor as being a wise reflection on the way the religion VS atheism debate plays out in reality - and it's born true in many of the passionate and sometimes aggressive responses in this comment forum. The quiet faithful ones (whether believers or atheist) don't bother joining a team and have no desire to beat the other side. They just plod along and do their human best - follow their innate conscious (the voice of God/humanity within them). The faithful do not need to denegrate or diminish the view of another in order to validate their own value as a human being. Also to Lorraine Parkinson - rejecting or questioning church doctrines is not atheism - and to Harry Wilson - the fact that religious institutions can be corrupt merely means that they are run by human beings. Their failure does not in any way diminish God, although it may sadly diminish people's faith in God.

AURELIUS | 20 October 2011  

I hear that the next International Conference on Atheism is being organised/backed by 'non-prophet' organisations only. Is that true?

AURELIUS | 20 October 2011  

I know that 'rejecting church dogma is not atheism'. But it is often the start of the slippery slope away from organized religion and then away from belief in a God concept. This is a well worn pathway.

Lorraine Parkinson | 20 October 2011  

The sporting metaphor, always good for building a contest, turns a discussion into a debate. It is useful but it falls short because in this game there will never be a full time siren. The opposite nature of faith V no faith means there is very little common ground for discussion, only the ingredients for a debate. We can all agree on the peripheral issues but the very heart of the matter is God or no God and there is no midfield on that. There will not be a winner.

Brett | 20 October 2011  

To LORRAINE: 'Rejecting church dogma' is also often the start of a mature, questioning attitude to faith which leads people to a deeper appreciation of God/Jesus/higher power. It's as crying shame and injustice that people find faith too difficult and give up. We all have our dark nights of the soul, and these hopefully bring us closer to our divine unity with God in a personal sense rather than just seeing God as a concept to be discussed by theologians, bishops in dresses and atheists sipping non-fat soy lattes.

AURELIUS | 20 October 2011  

Andrew, I did quite enjoy your sport analogy and thought it apt for the entertaining jousts we see between the atheists and the religious. (I think most people are somwhere in between). But I think all the recent goals have been scored by the atheists: Hitchens, Dawkins, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett are all well known and very good performers, whereas I can't think of one good performer for the religious team - you need another Mother Theresa! I hope you agree that "An attractive life characterised by a practical concern for the most vulnerable human beings may commend the large vision of the world that underlies it" could mean that the large vision isn't necessarily a Church-sanctioned one.

Russell | 20 October 2011  

Here are some further thoughts on the contest trope employed by this author. It is gratifying to read correspondents here who remind us that contests are not how most people wish to think, that contests are an obstruction when an individual is endeavouring to get at the truth as they understand it. In my experience of all this talk, most people are not polarised into heavyweight atheists and heavyweight non-atheists. Most of us are in the middle, living with God and understanding God or not understanding God or rejecting God, and so forth. As an alarmingly religious person myself, I treat those atheists seriously and with great respect who are trying to find answers while living in this material wonderland, the universe, and who cannot connect it with God. There is a very serious need being expressed here and a very real intelligence at work. It has to be listened to, and won’t be while everything is just a dumb old contest. Indeed, I observe that it is the public atheists in particular who don’t help this search, because of their polarising polemic as well as condescension toward anybody religious. Searchers need to keep an open mind to the possibilities. More listening from everyone would help us toward the cricket season which, I note, is a game where the contest can end without a result. Indeed, both teams can sometimes come out looking pretty good. I am especially wary of anyone who opens a sentence with “We atheists believe this …” How can anyone speak for all atheists? It’s as absurd as someone saying they speak for all Christians, or all Muslims. It is the way toward fundamentalism, whatever you believe. Now for that pie, and a beer would be applicable after all that.

Desiderius Erasmus | 20 October 2011  

Andrew, you certainly drew a crowd with this game. I did enjoy the analogy and read it as a tug at everyone's behaviour when we become contestants. The main reason I took it so lightly is that I have never seen a field where the ground is even. Usually conversations around believe and non belief thumb into mounds of assumptions and most of us fall into voids where we secretly ache for companionship and respect. But on a serious note, I think the main flaw in the game plan on both 'sides', seems to me that we become lost together when our gaol is to describe God as an idea. A deadly impossible task as it is all based on something which is anathema to God, which is an attack plan.

Vic O'Callaghan | 20 October 2011  

Come now Russell, you have Jim Wallace, Cardinal Pell and the Jensen family telling us all how good they are and how terrible 'the other' is.

Surely, you are not questioning their oratorical powers?

Oops, forgot the Nile and Nahlia duo.

Those Dawkins types will shrink before the combined intellectual power in that lot of faithful.

The truth is that most people who are not in the 'believers' camp are neither interested in debating anything with religionists or feel there is a 'game' to be played.

Increasingly shrill claims are being made by religionists though, almost demanding they are debated.

If there's nothing 'there', then there is nothing to debate though, is there.

Aurelius, you may suffer 'dark nights' but you shouldn't assume everyone does.

Give The Jeff Kennett mob a call if they get too dark, and some practical help for your problems.

Now, not only are religious institutions run by humans Aurelius, they were invented by them too, to support the equally human created gods we humans have suffered over the years.

But discounting endemic bad behaviour as being 'merely human' is to fail to notice how the corrupt structures of religions so readily facilitates that behaviour.

Harry Wilson | 20 October 2011  

I didn't read it as literally 'opposing sports teams' as many others seem to. The memorable part for me, which repays ongoing attention, is the third para from the end. This section surely provokes thought and gives encouragement and hope to 'both sides' - if that is how you see it.

Julia | 20 October 2011  

The stridency of the "new atheists" will not see the demise of religion, as much as reinvigorate it. Rather, religions will decline as evidence that elucidates the processes driving observed phenomena accumulates.

There is no evidence for the existence of a deity - the various phenomena that were once profferred as providing such 'evidence' can be accounted for by without recourse to divinity.

Rather, we find that the universe is much more wondrous than the religious imagination allows.

What, then, of theology? In the absence of a deity, just what is theology's field of study? Perhaps it should look at both psychology of religious belief and sociology of religion. After all, there is a need for a field of study that recognises both humans as individuals, and humanity.

David Arthur | 20 October 2011  

the 'pit-bull' atheists, as they have been labelled, such as 'Hitchkins'..Terry Eagleton's label..have done themselves a disservice by their stridency and confected anger, but also by exposing themselves to the charge of dogmatism that they denounce in others.

Tina Beattie catholic feminist in UK, pointed out long ago that these are all classic Alpha Males, eye-balling their 'enemies', bristling with aggression etc. Here in Australia, where we seem to lack the high profile scientists who are also believers, like John Polkinghorne and other, we also have self-proclaimed atheists of no intellectual depth who appear at 'comedy'festivals etc. No one can take those people seriously. I can't see much point in trying to reignite any kind of debate. I suppose Evangelicals may want to convert them but I would think most believing Catholics are happy to ignore their antics. As one legendary (Catholic) bishop of Cork is alleged to have said, when hearing of the death of his Protestant Ascendancy counterpart: "well now he'll learn which of us is the Bishop of Cork!"

Ann | 21 October 2011  

I don't think we lack high profile scientists who are also believers in Australia. This very weekend there is a conference at UTC/School of theology Charles Surt university (North Parramatta Campus) with the title Questioning God: faith and Atheism in Australia. The same weekend Dr Val Webb, originally a biochemist and latterly a theologian is speaking for the centre for progressive religion and Theology at a seminar at Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney and she is the speaker for the Eremos institute at their AGM, Sunday 23rd at All saints Hunters Hill. The membership of all three of the institutions mentioned is made up of scientists and theologians at various positions in the spectrum of belief.Val Webb, and many of the speakers at the three conferences mentioned are outstanding in their fields, both in science and theology, and it is a pity they are better known.

Susan Emeleus | 21 October 2011  

Atheism is opposed to theism not religion. There are non-theistic religions such as Buddhism. One can be an atheist and religious. We tend to define religion by those we are familiar with. To Judaism and Islam a humanoid God such as Jesus is paganism.

M D Fisher | 21 October 2011  

Well, if this is a Grand Final, and it is half time, where's the fun show? The singing and dancing?

Must be a preliminary match. Neither the lead up or the intermission is really of note.

Can we start with a basic 'what is faith/religion' question? And then move onto speakers of renown - will they only be acceptable if they are Christian?

Where does the esoteric sit? Can you play a footie match with three teams at once? Now, that would be a game and a half time to remember! Bet the commonalities between faith and atheism abound when the esoteric comes out to play...

SCOTT | 21 October 2011  

Thank you for the rich discussion of my article.

I admit that the football metaphor was a bit over the top. But if the value of any metaphor is to generate good conversation about why it is not precisely applicable, this one served its purpose. And I do think that a lot of the engagement between atheists and religious believers is in polemical vein. Not all, of course, as many of you point out.

Disagreement, too, is proper, as long as it is associated with respect for the other. I enjoy Harry Wilson's postings and suspect I would enjoy his company, but our views of the nature of reality do seem to be incompatible in this regard: that religious faith is integral to mine, and it is incompatible with Harry's. I would like others to share my view of the world, and I suspect that Harry would like others to share his view. And neither of us would appreciate others asserting that at a higher level we really share the one view of the world. The differences matter.

The heart of my article did not easily fit the football metaphor. It was that in our culture, to commend any view of reality in terms of truth is difficult. The differences between opposing views of reality are insignificant compared to the difference between those who engage at this level, and those who dismiss all such engagement as meaningless or unprofitable. How to move beyond the initial response of 'whatever' is the the biggest challenge.

Andy Hamilton | 21 October 2011  

I have to confess I went home at the beginning of the first quarter. I've tried to like football but get bored watching a bunch of men chase after dead pig skin. It's only when the crowd gets going that I'm engaged. A wild crowd is like brief respite from ordinary life.

bronwyn | 21 October 2011  

Wow, why do people who don't waste their time and lives talking to imaginary friends and going on about an uncredited old book get to be so abused. I am an atheist and manage just fine to be a decent person, in fact I am Frank Brennan's friend and favourite atheist. I don't question his faith, he does not care too much about my lack of it.

Marilyn Shepherd | 26 October 2011  

I think you're actually watching the wrong pitch. (that's where you play a football game, right?)

The game is being played on YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia and reddit. That's where the next generation lives. Watch the upvote/downvote pattern and you can see the future of religion in western countries.

Paul Prescod | 26 October 2011  

The general treatment of atheists in this article fails to capture any real picture of them or their goals. First atheists do not have a church or any governing body. They do not have sects or churchs. They have organizations, but usually the goals of such organization are to uphold the separation of church and state, as opposed to the idea that they are seeking to convert. Atheist do not battle for souls and conversions. They beseech others to use logic and reason and uphold the separation of church and state. Atheist do not have faith that god exists. They have reason, logic, and knowledge which indicates that it is unlikely any god exists whether it is Yahweh, Allah, or Zeus.

Faith is belief without reason or supporting evidence. This article is useless as it implies that both Christians and Atheist are struggling for the same things. The battles being fought are not for souls, but for science being taught in the classroom and for no religion having special treatment under the law.

Tom | 26 October 2011  

A good article and robust responses. For me as a practicing Catholic, the idea of god is a sharing of a way of life - ideals, moral philosphy and ethical behavior with similar minded people. This way of life is always more mature and robust when people continually question. I do not believe in god as some supernatural all powerful being. I also believe in the primacy of conscience and rational and logical thinking. People should not interpret things literally. Discussions between Catholics and Athiests always seem to be an us versus them situation.

I believe that both groups have similar ideals and beliefs in moral philosophy and ethics. The difference is that the Catholics are more community minded in wishing to share their way of life and the atheists are more individually focused.

Mark Doyle | 30 October 2011  

@Mark Doyle, I completely disagree that atheism is less focused on the community than Catholicism. Many community events are held without it being in the name of a religious belief, I don't feel the need for everything secular be declared to be done in the name of atheism.

Wouldn't you consider a convention on atheism to be an event to bring like minded people together?

Having said that, I do acknowledge that churches do hold many community groups and put on functions etc. I wonder how many people are unwilling to question their faith out of fear of losing their community connections.

Cath | 04 November 2011  

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