Earlier this year, the author and journalist Peter Hitchens took part in a panel discussion concluding the Melbourne Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The final question, posed by an audience member, was: “Which so-called dangerous idea would have the potential to change the world for the better if it were implemented?”
All Mr Hitchens’ previous contributions to the discussion had been met by sneers or laughter from the audience. But his response to this question held them, for a moment, in captive silence.
“The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead,” he said. “That is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter.”
For the generation I belong to, raised in a post-Christian culture, faith can too often seem something irrelevant and arcane. But when we are reminded that it is about ideas, about a radical and world-altering notion of what it means to be human, to possess freedom, and to love, it still holds an attracting power.
Peter Hitchens, who returned to the Christian faith he was raised in, having been shaken out of the complacency of non-belief in adulthood, knows this only too well. The reality of the Incarnation tells us, whether we want to hear it or not, that our lives are not a chain of ephemeral events but something imbued with meaning, capable of being aligned to the highest good. It is a message whose truth or power can never be fully hidden.
The loss of Christianity as a cultural mainstay in Britain has had at least one unexpected positive consequence: now it is no longer ubiquitous in public and private life, there are more opportunities for that message to burst, wondrously and unexpectedly, into the lives of people hitherto barely touched by it. They come to it through a combination of intense intellectual inquiry and grappling with the most profound and testing of human experiences, challenging modern atheism’s glib dismissal of the necessity of faith and bringing a fresh perspective to contemporary ethical debates.
Take writer, critic and recent revert to Catholicism Laura Keynes, a woman with surprising connections. She began to reassess her beliefs while studying for a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford and is now a speaker for Catholic Voices and regular contributor to the Catholic Herald. In an article chronicling her conversion, she explains how she ‘apprehended an echo of the Catholic imagination’ in her study of epistemology, while simultaneously finding herself having to confront questions of rights, responsibilities and human dignity in her personal life.
It was Catholicism, she writes, that provided the most credible answers to her questioning, whereas new atheism “seemed to harbour a germ of intolerance” and “could not adequately account for the problem of morality.”
Sally Read, an acclaimed poet and recent convert to the Catholic faith, also found that atheism could not satisfy her intellect. While writing her latest book, a collection of poems based on her experiences as a psychiatric nurse, she became preoccupied with the question of whether or not the soul existed. Debating the problem with a Catholic priest prompted a spiritual awakening which led her eventually to the belief that “the way to be closest to Christ was to be a Catholic.” Now baptised and confirmed into the Catholic Church, she hopes to incorporate her faith into her next anthology of poetry.
Finding Catholicism through a mixture of the experiential and the rational is a path I am also familiar with: having come of age in the shadow of 9/11, by my mid-teens I was wholly taken by the new atheist view of religion as destructive and anti-human. But having to grapple with the ethics of assisted suicide and abortion slowly convinced me that atheist utilitarianism did not have the conceptual depth to deal with these and other pressing ethical issues in any meaningful way. It was in the Catholic Church that I found the philosophical and spiritual tools necessary for life as an adult who perceived intrinsic meaning in the world and a natural obligation to love and care for others.
Laura, Sally and I are just three examples of recent converts who found there is more to human existence than a materialist conception of the universe can handle. But our journeys would never have taken us to the Catholic Church if not for the wisdom and eloquence of the Christians on our bookshelves and in our everyday lives.
In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes that “our challenge is not so much atheism as the need to respond adequately to many people’s thirst for God.” This should not be interpreted as merely a glib dismissal of the atheist case. But the fact remains that the Church, as the saying goes, is an anvil that has broken many hammers — and there is no metaphysical argument put forward by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett or Harris that has not already been made by, say, Hume, Marx, Feuerbach or Russell. There is no new challenge there.
What is new, however, is the considerable number of people who retain a persistent but nebulous sense of the transcendent with little to no idea of how to express it. A survey carried out earlier this year by the think-tank Theos found that the majority of Britons describe themselves as having spiritual beliefs, even as participation in organised religion wanes. These are people who the Church, as Evangelii Gaudium puts it, has the potential to lead to “a spirituality which can offer healing and liberation, and fill them with life and peace, while at the same time summoning them to fraternal communion and missionary fruitfulness.”
There is a growing need for the Christian perspective on a range of social and ethical issues where atheism, far from supplying a supposedly more rational and humanist alternative, has merely left a gaping hole.
One of the areas where new atheism tends to reveal its inadequacy most clearly is the darker, more difficult side of human experience. Viewing grace, mercy and forgiveness merely as human constructs sought by the emotionally weak disregards the hard truths of human life, as the author and revert to Christianity Francis Spufford has argued with scathing eloquence in his book, Unapologetic.
He singles out the recent atheist bus advertising campaign — which urged believers to “Stop worrying and enjoy your life” — as a good example of how the new atheist approach to doubt and suffering “parts company with actual human experience so fast it doesn’t even have time to wave goodbye”. The campaign’s message, he writes, “amounts to a denial of hope or consolation on any but the most chirpy, squeaky, bubble-gummy reading of the human situation. St Augustine called this kind of thing ‘cruel optimism’ fifteen hundred years ago, and it’s still cruel.”
Furthermore, the ethical issues of humanity’s place in the natural world and the sanctity of human life which biotechnological advances and the genomic revolution have forced us to confront are issues which the narrow moral matrix of new atheism has shown itself unable to adequately address.
As the philosopher Michael J. Sandel has argued in his book The Case Against Perfection, autonomy and individual rights as conceptualised by atheism are not enough for grappling with the ethical questions raised by many biomedical practices – questions which, in his words, “verge on theology”.
Cloning, genetic engineering, embryonic stem cell therapy and mitochondrial transfer tug at our moral intuitions in a way that requires a well-equipped ethical toolbox for us to fully understand and articulate. And it is the Christian tradition, with its teleological view of the natural world and rational defence of the existence of natural rights, which offers the requisite breadth and depth of ethical thought necessary for tackling these issues.
The new atheist axiom that the Christian faith has nothing of relevance to contribute to modern social or ethical debates is being dismantled by a new generation of outspoken converts. Having been raised to believe the “God debate” is over, those of us who have thought for ourselves, taken the plunge and committed ourselves to the arduous, fulfilling, uplifting adventure of Christianity are not willing to sit in silence. We have a dangerous idea, and we want to tell you about it.
Megan Hodder writes from London. Her blog can be found at Whistling Sentinel.