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Book Review by ANNE GARDINER

In his gross materialism and his suicidal aggressiveness toward God, the atheist Richard Dawkins puts one in mind of the Sons of Earth in ancient Greek mythology.

One of these called Antaeus forced travellers to wrestle with him and boasted he would build a temple with their skulls. When obliged to wrestle with this giant, Hercules discovered that his opponent drew his strength from touching the Earth, so he lifted him toward the sky and strangled him in mid-air.

In a spiritual sense, this is what Father Thomas Crean does in his new book, A Catholic Replies to Professor Dawkins, though he does it with consummate finesse. Throughout nine chapters, each taking up one of Dawkins' attacks on religion — such as on miracles, the Gospels, and the origin of morality — Father Crean lifts Dawkins toward the sky of Catholic philosophy and theology and leaves him impotent.

Matter and spirit

He begins by showing that Dawkins makes "matter the first of all things" and "the source whence flows life, intelligence, the arts, love, justice and all the desires that may fill the human heart." In fact, this atheist regards it as a "self-evident truth" that if there were a designer of the universe, he would have to be an extremely complex bodily thing that acted by material contact.

In reply, Crean adumbrates the difference between matter and spirit. Confusing the two is like saying "that the number two could be heated by a Bunsen burner." No amount of scientific research will ever provide grounds for denying immaterial reality, "just as no amount of research into the Alps can be a rational basis for denying the existence of the Sahara."

Father Crean notes that Dawkins rejects not just the wisdom of the Catholic Church, but that of Greek antiquity, for the names of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are not found in his index—and for good reason, since they too denied that matter is the ultimate reality.

Science, religion and miracles

Dawkins declares that "miracles, by definition, violate the principles of science."

Crean responds with a list of great natural scientists who were firm believers in miracles: Louis Pasteur (father of bacteriology), Gregor Mendel (father of genetics), Father Jean Baptiste Carnoy (father of the science of cells), Canon Rene Hauy (father of crystallography), Blessed Nicholas Steno (a founder of modern geology), and Father Lazzaro Spallanzani (a founder of modern vulcanology). Evidently, these eminent scientists saw no conflict between science and religion.

Father Crean maps out the two paths to the knowledge of God, the ordinary and the extraordinary: the ordinary, as in St Thomas Aquinas's five ways, can be followed by anyone free of "sophistry or prejudice," while the extraordinary starts from miracles.

The Catholic Church bases her entire teaching on the stupendous miracle of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and she also sets great store by miracles that have continued ever since.

Dawkins makes a special point of attacking the Fatima miracle of 13 October 1917, when thousands of people witnessed a great sign in the sky predicted by Our Lady months earlier. Dawkins admits that it seems "unlikely" that such a great multitude would be deluded or lying, yet he concludes that this is "more probable" than "the alternative" — that a miracle really happened.

Father Crean comments that on this basis if Dawkins witnessed a miracle, he would say: "However unlikely it is that I suffered a hallucination on that occasion ... it is more likely than that I really did witness a miracle." Faith requires an upright will, which is lacking in Dawkins. "if a man resents God, wanting Him not to exist or not to act, it will always be possible for him to say, 'Though I cannot explain what has taken place, I will not believe'."

The Gospels

The longest chapter in the book is a spirited defense of the gospels against Dawkins' charges that they give no reliable information, are a rehash of the Old Testament, and were compiled by deceivers.

Father Crean defends the gospels as "immeasurably better attested than any other historical, literary or philosophical work of antiquity." Where Tacitus has only twenty surviving manuscripts, the New Testament has something like 25,000 in Greek, Latin, and other languages; and whereas the earliest manuscripts of Aristotle are from 1500 years after he lived, the earlist complete manuscript of the Gospels comes from around 325 AD, with earlier fragments dating from around 125 AD. And besides, "all but fourteen verses of our New Testament" can be verified from the works of the pre-Nicene Church Fathers.

Father Crean calls Dawkins' charge that the New Testament is on a par with the Arthurian legends the "language of fanaticism," full of "sneers and insinuations."

He responds, however, to Dawkins's claim that the four gospels were chosen "more or less arbitrarily" from a dozen contenders, by pointing out that as early as the 2nd century, Tatian wrote a "harmony of the four gospels," and St Irenaeus declared that St Matthew the apostle and St Mark had each written a gospel, that St Luke had written down what St Paul had preached, and that St John the beloved disciple had written his memoirs. The Primitive Church Fathers evidently knew which four gospels they had received from the Apostles.

To Dawkins' charge that the New Testament is only a rehash of the Old, Father Crean replies with this challenge: show me a single book in the Old Testament that portrays a man acting "with the personal authority of God Himself." And to the charge that the apostles were deceivers, he demands to know what motive these "working men, with ordinary common sense and none too quick to believe" had for preaching Christ unless they truly believed in him, since their preaching brought them no worldly possessions, power, or prestige. Rather, just about all of them were brutally put to death: "Why would even one person, let alone a group of people, face such things for a lie?" No, the fact is that "since the time of the apostles, Christians have died for the historical truth of the gospels."


Dawkins asserts that "a Darwinian atheist, without being false to his own principles, can be a morally good man."

Father Crean replies that an atheist may have a "tendency," but does not have "a duty" to act morally. There is nothing binding and objective by which he must govern his impulses, so his morality goes no further than this: "I have no desire to do this," and "I feel distress when I see someone acting in this way." Indeed, the atheist can find no place in his philosophy "for a law obliging men to obey it, even if it should contradict all human laws." He has "destroyed the possibility of moral truth."

Dawkins also claims that religion leads to immorality because men have done bad things in its name, but Crean replies that this is "no argument against religion, unless crimes of passion are arguments against human love."

To Dawkins' fatuous claim that men have not done bad things in the name of an "absence of belief," Crean replies that in every state where atheism has become the official doctrine, as in the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions, "the result has been oppression and misery on an inconceivable scale."

Dawkins issues this revised "first commandment" — that everyone must enjoy a "complete sexual licence, 'so long as it damages nobody'." Crean remarks that if anyone thinks sexual licence "can be practised 'without damage' to human happiness, character or honour, he must be living in a dream world."

Darwinian fantasies

Yes, Dawkins does live a dream world, because that is where "materialistic Darwinism" inevitably leads, for as Crean explains: "It claims to tell us the truth about all living things, including the intellectual animals that we are. But by claiming that we have evolved minds whose property is to assent to useful beliefs rather than to true ones, it takes away our assurance that our minds are in contact with reality."

Dawkins cannot explain why religion, if it is so "irrational and pernicious," is a global phenomenon. He offers only "assertions, resting on nothing, leading nowhere."

For instance, he says that "religions are produced by the 'misfiring' of various human traits that are, in the abstract, beneficial," and that "the tendency to have irrationally strong convictions" is "evolutionarily useful," but he cannot explain why such "misfiring" and stubbornness should produce faith in God, rather than the opposite. So Father Crean concludes that Dawkins' "evolutionary psychology" is "as much a science as reading tea-leaves."

Comprehensive rebuttal

In a brief review one cannot cover all the finely honed arguments found in this book, but one should note one of Father Crean's eloquent parting salvos: he says that Dawkins' philosophy

"reduces all things to matter, and so can explain neither reason, nor freedom nor the desires of the human heart, nor morals, nor duty, nor shame. It leaves man without God, without hope and without honour:"

Well said!

Richard Dawkins, of course, is only one of a number of atheists who, in the last year or two, have been launching violent verbal campaigns against God.

They put one in mind of the War of the Giants in ancient Greek mythology, when the Sons of Earth turned nature upside down, piling Mount Ossa on Mount Pelion to scale the heavens and assert the supremacy of matter.

They were, of course, utterly and pathetically defeated. These new Sons of Earth should take warning.

The above review first appeared in the December 2007 issue of Christian Order and is reproduced here with permission.

Copyright ©; Christian Order December 2007

Version: 5th April 2009

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