Home Page    Fr. Thomas Crean. O.P. main web page 

A Catholic Replies to Professor Dawkins

Review by James Kelly in Catholic Times

23rd September 2007

Rational, reasoned retort for Dawkins

Acording to the dust-jacket of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins is "one of the world's top three intellectuals" and "the author of many classic works on philosophy".

Tellingly, as Cambridge-based Dominican friar Thomas Crean points out, these 'classic works on philosophy' are not named. This is hardly surprising as our humble Dominican author tackles this 'top brain' and shows him to be way out of his intellectual depth.

Crean's reasons for writing are to show that atheism is false and to defend the Roman Catholic faith from Dawkins' malicious attacks. After all, Dawkins wrote: "For all sorts of reasons I dislike the Roman Catholic Church." With such a claim, you wouldn't expect Dawkins to possess such a poor knowledge of the Church and its beliefs.

However, before getting to the Catholic side of things, Crean starts by questioning Dawkins' notion that atheism is correct and everything else mere superstition. The paucity of Dawkins' argument for atheism is striking, really only boiling down to his concern that he can't bodily prove God's existence. As Crean argues, Dawkins' argument is completely irrelevant Dawkins isn't even engaging with the theists' belief in a God that is not bodily and can act by will alone.

It is after these initial philosophically complex, yet no less convincing, chapters that Crean really hits his stride, explaining his position simply and succinctly. He matter-of-factly presents Dawkins' arguments as muddled, incoherent and often self-contradictory. At times, you even sense a hint of embarrassment at his having to point out the ludicrousness of claims such as no scientist can be a believer.

Throughout, Crean paints an image of a man floundering to explain morality, who doesn't just deny the Bible, but also the great philosophers of antiquity, including Plato, Aristotle and Socrates. Dawkins is exposed as inventing evidence to support his theories and source-mining, hardly admirable traits in a supposed academic.

The tour de force chapter on Dawkins and the Catholic Church demonstrates the deep mire of ignorance in which Dawkins wallows. His arguments are like some throw-back to the Reformation, demonstrating a total desperation on his part. He rakes up arguments that were done and dusted centuries ago as if he's just thought of them, underlining just how little research he has done. You can't help but think that surely Dawkins can do better than this.

As Crean rightly points out, what it boils down to is that Dawkins does not want to believe; no matter what the evidence he will refuse to do so. Crean's conclusion is resounding and stately. With calm precision and logic, he annihilates Dawkins' reductionist world view. Given the choices Crean lays out, only the shallow would choose Dawkins' whisperings to the dark nature of man, rather than Crean's appeals to the deep longings and feelings within him. This final conclusion is delivered with a calm that is devastating.

Overall, Crean's response is a credit to him. Without slipping into polemic and rhetotic, he nevertheless answers Dawkins head-on. Catholics who want a rational, reasoned retort to the increasingly aggressive atheistic attack need look no further. A splendidly dignified, confident and common­sense response to thinly-veiled hatred, you have to wonder Crean's position in the intellectual list if Dawkins can make the top three.

Catholic Times PROFILE

James Kelly meets author and Dominican Fr Thomas Crean, and discovers the voice a Church militant is still being preached loud and clear in the face of contemporary secular atheism.

7th December 2008

Priest is thorn in side of the 'new atheists'

Among the best books of 2007 was one originally released with minimum fuss and publicity. Since then, A Catholic Replies to Professor Dawkins has stormed through several print runs and been given an exclusive American release under the title God is no Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins. All of which seems to have bemused its author, Thomas Crean, a young Dominican friar of the Priory of St Michael the Archangel in Cambridge.

"I didn't expect any success at all. I didn't know if I would find a publisher in this country it didn't occur to me that it might be published overseas as well."

Like many Catholics, and Christians in general, Crean was concerned by the near inescapable presence of Dawkins and the new atheists'. It was this that encouraged him to put pen to paper.

"The Dawkins book was being advertised very hard," remembers Crean. "It was released simultaneously on several continents and put in the best place in the windows. I thought that so blatant an insult shouldn't just be ignored. After all, we are the Church militant . . ."

Crean's subsequent success may have surprised him, but it certainly didn't any of those who had read his fiercely intelligent riposte. To his credit, Crean never stooped to the insulting language of Dawkins, resisting the urge to return the infamous atheist's mud-slinging accusations and willful misrepresentations. Instead, the Dominican at times seemed almost embarrassed at drawing attention to some of Dawkins' more outlandish claims, such as questioning the professional validity of scientists who are believers.

"One thing which he seems not to know is how many advances in natural science are due not just to believers but to priests and religious. I give some examples in the book, but there are many more. For example, how many people know that the Big Bang theory was originally proposed by a Catholic priest-astronomer'? Not that I'm saying people should believe in this theory, but it's curious how little we hear of its authorship."

This leads neatly into another facet of the new atheist phenomenon; namely, that many of Dawkins' acolytes are so close-minded that they are willing to accept and hype some pretty garbled arguments just to fit their pre-conceptions. Meanwhile, they remain equally averse to any sort of sensible discussion about the issues.

"St Paul says that we can all know God from the things He has made, and that atheism is therefore a sin. But we also have a natural tendency to look for reasons to believe what will be most immediately convenient. Some people, unfortunately, don't want God to exist. Hence the danger of arguing with 'bad faith' in this domain, as well as in others. Even believers, of course, have to pray to the Holy Spirit to ask Him to clear our minds of error, not least errors of self-deception."

"Real debates seem to be rare on all great subjects. I mean debates where the aim is really to find the truth, not to beat the other man. In general, I think there is the need for a revival in Catholic apologetics and that it would be good for it to be taught not only in seminaries, but also in Catholic secondary schools, as used to happen."

Perhaps it could be ventured that Dawkins' success is the result of 'preaching' not to just a theologically illiterate nation, but one that is equally ignorant of philosophy. In many ways, the fruit of this situation is the passing of questionable legislature like the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

"We can't expect that the mass of a nation will ever be philosophers. Even Plato's more modest desire that the rulers should be true philosophers seems rarely fulfilled. But in the past, when our laws were still informed by Christianity, this didn't matter so much. Whether or not one could argue with logical rigour against divorce or abortion, one on the whole didn't practise them since the laws forbade them. As St Thomas More is meant to have said, good laws are like trees by which we're sheltered from the devil. Today, when so many Christian laws have been felled, people are left exposed. There are no remedies that I can see, except for prayer, penance, and doing one's duty of state and for those who have the vocation, political action."

One possible response the re-awakening of Catholic culture has recently been highlighted by Crean's fellow Dominican, Aidan Nichols, in his book The Realm: An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England. Would Crean agree that this is an appealing idea?

"Certainly! I should be very happy to see more public and domestic signs of Catholicism, such as Corpus Christi processions, shrines and crucifixes in family homes. As for 'high culture', well, we can't will genius into existence. But we can preserve the treasures that already exist."

"I think in particular of Gregorian chant. What if some of the money now spent by dioceses for other purposes was used to pay musicians to go around the parishes, forming a decent Gregorian choir in each one? If it is true that beauty serves to purify the soul then this would be for the sake not just of 'culture', but for the good of souls."

Crean's latest book, The Mass and the Saints, focuses on such considerations. A more meditative book than his previous one, The Mass and the Saints collects together quotations and thoughts on the Mass from various saints, each part of the liturgy being considered separately, including the use of Latin and Gregorian chant. As such, it chimes with many of the Pope's recent actions, such as the motu proprio freeing up use of the Latin Mass. Does Crean think that the Pope's initiatives are an expression of the calls to re­awaken the Catholic imagination?

"Yes, that's exactly right. My aim in writing this book was to go behind the sometimes acrimonious discussions about the sacred liturgy, and let those who have understood it best the saints speak for themselves. I envisaged the book as a kind of symphony in words, in which many different voices would make a whole, some giving literal, historical or mystical explanations of the liturgy, others moral reflections."

"I think that Pope Benedict desires very much that 'the people should pray in beauty', as his predecessor St Pius X said about a hundred years ago. It's perhaps worth pointing out, though, that this is a perennial concern of the papacy. Thus, in the sections on Latin and Gregorian chant, I present some powerful words of both John XXIII and Paul VI."

As well as the fundamental and awe-inspiring nature of the Mass and the Eucharist, two of the overriding elements conveyed by The Mass and the Saints are the importance of tradition and the priesthood.

Fortunately, both are currently going through a much needed process of rehabilitation.

"Tradition and the priesthood are two of the pillars supporting the Church. Whatever weakens them, weakens the Church. I think that priests will benefit from the so-called 'Benedictine reforms' the example that Pope Benedict is setting in the celebration of the sacred liturgy."

"As for tradition, this is a word with many meanings. The ecclesiastical traditions involved, for example, in the liturgy are rightly precious to Catholics St Theresa of Avila said that she would gladly give her life for the least ceremony of the Church. Yet doctrinal tradition is even more important, the fact that we hold the faith and morals 'coming to us from the Apostles'. That is why past encyclicals are still authoritative for us today: magisterial texts don't come with expiry dates!"

As well as Crean and Aidan Nichols, the Dominicans are currently having something of a revival in the country's consciousness, what with the continued writings of Timothy Radcliffe and the presence of a Dominican bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham. Bearing in mind the old adage that the Franciscans talk to the heart and the Dominicans the head, is it fair to suggest, slightly tongue in cheek, that their growing status is indicative of the times?

"Naturally, I'm glad if the Order to which I have the privilege to belong is holding its own. Yet it doesn't exist for its own sake, but principally, according to our Constitutions, 'for preaching and the salvation of souls'. So our talking has to be addressed both to the head and to the heart. By explaining the faith and morals that have come to us from the apostles, we can help people to love God more. If we are doing that, then listen to us!"

One gets the feeling that if Crean keeps producing works of such a high standard, that last piece of advice is going to prove somewhat unnecessary.

A Catholic Replies to Professor Dawkins and The Mass and the Saints are available in the UK from Family Publications (Tel: 0845 0500 879).

Version: 11th April 2009

Home Page   Fr. Thomas Crean. O.P. main web page