The other day in the Times I noticed a column by Hugo Rifkind which struck a bit of a chord with me, about the nasty tone which often dominates the conversation of the New Atheists. Of course, Christians are not always guiltless in this department, and we ought to be better given what we believe. But I think that on the whole these days, in England at least, Christians make every effort to be gracious and persuasive about our message instead of ranting and being rude. The New Atheists don’t seem to realise how deeply unattractive their approach is, and I think Hugo Rifkind’s article is interesting because it picks up on that:
You know what bothers me about the most passionate advocates of atheism? Why they aren’t nicer. Personally, if I were desperately keen to convince the world that faith wasn’t required to be a loving and benevolent moral agent, I’d be at pains not to act like a nasty, bilious oaf.
…the overall tone is one of a sort of pious, gleeful, sneering. This is pretty much the same tone that seems to predominate in most atheistic discourse, and I’m not just talking about Dawkins. If you don’t believe me, Google some of the online forums he’s inspired, which will doubtless have picked this up by now, and be busy proving my point.
Obviously, atheist hate isn’t a patch on religious hate, and the things that Pope Benedict has covered up are considerably worse sins than blah, blah, blah. But guys, you’re supposed to be above all that. You’re supposed to be the rationalist pinnacle of humanity, showing us all the glorious future the world will enjoy once it casts off its silly superstitions and finally realises how clever and right you are. I’ve got to say, you’re not really selling it.
Original article at the Times website though you’ll need a subscription to read it (as will I once my subscription runs out in a few days).
My friend Andrew Killick wrote a blog article on the nature of man recently, which I’ve been meaning to reply to for a while. He draws together a quote from Pascal’s Pensees, and a quote from Psalm 8.
However, it seems to me that Pascal and the Psalmist are talking about two different aspects of human nature. Pascal is comparing mankind’s innate desire for truth, and innate sense that truth must exist and be discoverable, with our inability to perceive truth on our own or to find certainty in the truth we do uncover through our own investigations of the natural world. He argues that mankind is both great, in our capacity and hunger for truth, and wretched in our inability to find it ourselves. Here’s the quote in context:
What, then, shall man do in this state? Shall he doubt everything? Shall he doubt whether he is awake, whether he is being pinched, or whether he is being burned? Shall he doubt whether he doubts? Shall he doubt whether he exists? We cannot go so far as that; and I lay it down as a fact that there never has been a real complete sceptic. Nature sustains our feeble reason and prevents it raving to this extent.
Shall he, then, say, on the contrary, that he certainly possesses truth–he who, when pressed ever so little, can show no title to it and is forced to let go his hold?
What a chimera, then, is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!
Who will unravel this tangle? Nature confutes the sceptics, and reason confutes the dogmatists. What, then, will you become, O men! who try to find out by your natural reason what is your true condition? You cannot avoid one of these sects, nor adhere to one of them.
Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Humble yourself, weak reason; be silent, foolish nature; learn that man infinitely transcends man, and learn from your Master your true condition, of which you are ignorant. Hear God.
For in fact, if man had never been corrupt, he would enjoy in his innocence both truth and happiness with assurance; and if man had always been corrupt, he would have no idea of truth or bliss. But, wretched as we are, and more so than if there were no greatness in our condition, we have an idea of happiness and can not reach it. We perceive an image of truth and possess only a lie. Incapable of absolute ignorance and of certain knowledge, we have thus been manifestly in a degree of perfection from which we have unhappily fallen.
Pascal goes on to point out that only by God speaking directly, by God revealing truth to us, can we ever find truth or have certainty.
The Psalmist is I think talking about something quite different. Psalm 8 is a song of praise to God because, despite mankind’s physical insignificance in the universe, he cares for us and has given us a position of great honour in the world. Here’s the Psalm with a few more verses:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet…
The Psalmist recognises a different tension, between the physical insignificance of our existence in the universe, and the place and role God has given us in the universe. In the Psalmist’s eyes we have significance as human beings because of how God views us, not how we see ourselves.
My sister, Robyn, just graduated from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine with a Masters degree in Medical Statistics. Mim & I went along to the graduation ceremony, which was thankfully a bit shorter than our own had been as it is an entirely postgraduate institution (hence fewer students to get through). We left Joshua in the free creche they provided, and he was apparently completely happy to sit and play for the whole two hours. He seems to like being around older babies & toddlers.
The BBC believes most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here.
How do your reading habits stack up?
Look at the list and put an ‘x’ after those you have read. Make sure you delete my x’S!
1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen – x
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien – x
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte- x
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling – x
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee – x
6 The Bible – x
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte – x
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell – x
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman – x
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens – x
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott – x
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy – x
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller – x
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare –
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier –
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien – x
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk – x
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger – x
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger –
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot –
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell – x
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald –
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens –
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy –
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams- x
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh –
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky – x
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck – x
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll – x
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame- x
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy –
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens – x
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis – x
34 Emma – Jane Austen – x
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen – x
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis – x
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini –
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres – x
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden –
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne – x
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell – x
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown – x
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez –
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving –
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins –
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery – x
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy – x
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood –
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding – x
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan- x
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel – x
52 Dune – Frank Herbert – x
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons –
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen – x
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth – x
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zifon –
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens – x
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley – x
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon – x
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez –
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck-
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov –
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt –
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold –
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas – x
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy –
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding – x
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie –
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville – x
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens – x
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker –
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett – x
74 Notes From A Small Island – Andrea Levy –
75 Ulysses – James Joyce –
76 The Inferno – Dante –
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome – x
78 Germinal – Emile Zola –
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray –
80 Possession – AS Byatt –
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens – x
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell – x
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker –
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro – x
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert –
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry –
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White – x
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom-
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – x
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton –
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad – x
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery –
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks – x
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams – x
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole-
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute – x
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas – x
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare – x
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factoy – Roald Dahl – x
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo –
I get 60, which I guess isn’t too bad, though there are some absolute classics in there that I haven’t read at all. It’s a funny list: for example, why include the complete works of Shakespeare and Hamlet?