On Saturday we went to Shotover Park, which is a bit less than ten minutes drive from our house. One lovely thing about moving to Oxford from London is that the countryside is only a few minutes away, which Mim particularly enjoys. The children love being outside too, with both of them enjoying eating blackberries along the way.
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.