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Catholic Family News 3 June 2007

Book review

'Fathomless superficiality'

A Catholic Replies to Professor Dawkins, by Thomas Crean OP (Family Publications, 6a King Street, Oxford OX2 6DF www.familypublications.co.uk)

Dr Joseph Shaw, Tutorial Fellow in Philosophy at St Benet's Hall, Oxford University, writes : There has recently been a spate of books claiming to undermine the historical and philosophical basis of the Faith. In the company of the likes of Dan Browne, Jeffrey Archer, and Philip Pulman, Richard Dawkins, scientist, Fellow of New College, Oxford, and Professor 'for the public understanding of science', might be expected to stand out as at least offering some thought-through arguments for his dislike of Christianity in general, and the Catholic Church in particular: but alas, it is not so. His books setting out neo-Darwinism have been immensely successful, although as time has worn on after the publication of the first and most famous, 'The Selfish Gene', they began to look more and more like re-hashes, with increasingly bad-tempered glances towards Dawkins' bugbears, American Protestant Creationists. A few years ago, however, Dawkins decided to make the side-swipes at religion into the main theme, and has published two (interchangeable) books aimed, not at Creationists, but at religion as such: 'The Devil's Chaplain' and 'The God Delusion'. His lack of expertise in theology and Church history, and his apparent reluctance to do any research into those fields, has not deterred him from producing books of fathomless superficiality. Naturally, they reveal more about Dawkins's personal beliefs than about religion, but those beliefs turn out to be a dreary set of inconsistent but conventional moral views (racism is bad!), puerile philosophical speculations (nothing exists but matter, but perhaps thoughts 'emerge' from it!), and rambling thoughts on history untroubled by any contact with the facts (the canonical gospels were selected at random from a large number of equally ancient documents!). On this blancmange foundation Dawkins builds his anti-religious polemic.

Bad books can be the occasion for good ones, however, and Fr Crean's
A Catholic Replies is as cogent as Dawkins in confused. There is no reason to add to Dawkins' royalty payments; far better to cut to the chase and read Fr Crean first and only. For the significance of Dawkins is not in his originality (there isn't any), but in his being characteristic of the angry anti-religious bigotry which is invading our airwaves, airport bookshops and public houses. The snide remarks, attempting to imply scientific or historical knock-down arguments against the Faith, but never quite explaining what they are; the airy assumption of materialism and Utilitarianism, and therefore the falsity of what Catholics believe about the soul and morals, despite the speaker not really embracing the implications of those theories himself: all this actually requires real historical scholarship, real philosophy and real moral thinking to dispel. And it is this which Fr Crean provides for us, in the spirit of Ronald Knox's Caliban in Grub Street and Broadcast Minds.

So Fr Crean shows that Dawkins's only argument against the existence of God, that a creator must be more complex than his creation, is based on a fallacy. Since the idea of a cathedral is vastly simpler than the physical cathedral, it is not hard to see how a pure spirit could be simpler than His creation. Dawkins's arguments for the wickedness of Catholicism are so confused that it takes some effort to reconstruct them, combining as they do a sense of moral outrage of which the 17th Century Puritans would have been proud, an unargued rejection of Christian moral principles, and a refusal to understand the implications of Christian claims. But the patience is worth the effort, because confused ideas that the Church is too eager to burden people with guilt and let them off again with indulgences, still cloud the minds of many non-believers. Fr Crean's explanations of sin, original and actual, and Christ's expiation of it, are admirably clear summaries of Church teaching, and he clears away a series of worries about '
hard passages' of Scripture quite effortlessly. Equally, the way he sets out the extraordinarily confused debate about the historicity of the gospels is a real breath of fresh air, with the basic facts, clear argument, and common sense, in a lucid combination. Notably, the huge and indeed unparalleled collection of ancient manuscripts of the Gospels simply rules out Dawkins's paranoid suggestion that they have been distorted in the process of copying. His analysis of Dawkins's own moral views, which could stand in for the moral views of a great many newspaper journalists and BBC editors, is also perceptive and helpful, pointing out the implications of the idea that what we are inclined to believe is conditioned by what helped our distant ancestors to survive, rather than what is true.

My only criticisms of Fr Crean's book would be, first, that some positive arguments are made too briefly to be convincing. For example, he suggests that there must be a Mind to think about necessary truths, which is intriguing, but rather novel. Again, he explains that, in St Thomas Aquinas's
Fifth Way, some regresses can be infinite, but not regresses of motion. He doesn't explain, however, that one reason infinite regresses of motion are held to be impossible is that Aquinas believed them to be simultaneous (as both Aquinas's and Fr Crean's examples suggest). The compatibility of this idea with modern physics needs some explanation, at least. Second, his argument that the moral law needs a lawgiver does not seem compatible with his claim that the Natural Law follows from God's Nature, not Will. If God's Nature can establish moral principles, the nature of Creation, presumably, can do the same, as Aquinas himself seems to argue.

Overall, I recommend this book as an aid-memoir for Catholics faced with ill-informed polemic, and as an antidote to anyone, Catholic or not, who thinks that any of Dawkins's arguments, or others like them, hit their target. It is also a admirable example of the best Catholic response to Dawkins: calm and reflective, patient and charitable, not stooping to invective or getting carried away into side-issues: everything, in fact, that Dawkins's book is not.

['This review is simultaneously published in 'Faith in the Home: a Newsletter for Catholic Homeschoolers'. 'Faith in the Home' is available free from its editor Katherine Hennessey: <michael.hennessy4@btinternet.com>'] 1359.24

Interview with Dr. Joseph Shaw


Version: 6th April 2009

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