I’ve just finished re-reading C. S. Lewis’s first Christian book, The Pilgrim’s Regress. Published in 1933, just four years after he “gave in and admitted the God was God … perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in England”, the book is an allegorical account of his own journey into Christianity, which was largely a philosophical rather than emotional or personal one.
I very much enjoyed the first three quarters or so; but as the book draws towards its climax, the characters display a regrettable tendency to break into poetry — a form which I have always struggled with.
But there is one part of one poem that struck me. It appears at the end of Chapter 6 (“Ignorantia”) of Book 10 (“The Regress”) and finishes with the following couplet:
Though they lay flat the mountains and dry up the sea,
Wilt thou yet change, as though God were a god?
That’s rather good — a sort of pun on the word “god”, making the point that the capitalisation makes all the difference. And it really does: the God that Christians believe in has essentially nothing in common with the gods that we find in Greek and Morse mythology and elsewhere.
And this of course got me thinking about Richard Dawkins, who famously wrote:
An atheist is just somebody who feels about Yahweh the way any decent Christian feels about Thor or Baal or the golden calf. As has been said before, we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.
Now this quote perplexes me. Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to matters theological will immediately see that it’s not comparing like with like. The God that Christians believe it (rightly or wrongly) is a transcendent being beyond both time and space who created both of those things and pre-exists them. Thor is a super-powered human, like Superman or Spider-Man or, come to think of it, the Marvel Comics version of Thor. He stands in the same relation to me that I do to a toddler. I am stronger and faster than the toddler; Thor is stronger and faster than me.
So far, so obvious. Here’s the part I don’t understand: how can Dawkins not see that he is comparing apples and galaxy superclusters?
As far as I can see, there are only two possible explanations. Either he truly doesn’t understand what Christians mean by the word “God” — in which case he is too ignorant to have any credibility when he speaks about Christianity in particular or religion in general. Or he knows perfectly well that he is promulgating a false equivalence, and doesn’t care — in which he’s knowingly using a straw-man argument, and so by his own criteria he’s hardly worth listening to at all.
And this disappoints me, because Dawkins is (or at least was) a truly brilliant writer on the subject of evolution, and I wish more people — especially more Christians — would read his very helpful explanations of this fascinating subject. But that’s not going to happen while he continues to systematically undermine his own credibility and alienate his potential audience.
For such a clever man, he can be very stupid.