What if Richard Dawkins is (partly) right?

I’ve thought for some time now that Richard Dawkins was starting to lose a lot of credibility as a spokesman for Atheism. Calling for the arrest of the Pope probably didn’t help, but I got the feeling that many middle-ground people were starting to see him as a kind of ‘fundamentalist’. While Hitchens certainly didn’t pull any punches, he did seem to have real friendships with those he disagreed and debated (as Larry Taunton’s book shows) and despite his wonderful wit and rhetorical flair, he thought about the things his opponents said. I don’t get that feeling at all from Dawkins. He seems dismissive of his opponents, and his comments indicate real vitriol (and a palpable ego). I was still surprised at the number of non-believers on Twitter “disowning” him after a couple of media appearances in the last week.

I have to admit that I found this recent radio exchange between Dawkins and the Rev. Giles Fraser (until recently the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) just a little amusing:

It’s amusing, because Dawkins is hoisted by his own petard.

While Fraser’s point is a good one: we need to respect people’s self-identification, I want to suggest that Dawkins’ point is also somewhat valid.

A fairly common argument from so-called ‘new atheists’ is that Christians are sometimes guilty of a No True Scotsman (NTS) fallacy when they try and say, for example, that someone acting in the name of religion is not a true Christian.

The point of the NTS fallacy is not that there is no such thing as a ‘true’ Scotsman, rather, it occurs when something other than the real criteria are used. Antony Flew, who coined the term gives this example:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again.” Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”
—Antony Flew, Thinking About Thinking

The point is that being a sex maniac has nothing inherently to do with being Scottish. Being a ‘true’ Scotsman is more simply about holding Scottish citizenship. There is, then, a corollary to this. I have red hair, and I have a Scottish rugby Jersey, and I can put on a half-decent Scottish accent, but none of that makes me a real Scotsman, no matter what I claim – I’m not a real Scotsman because I wasn’t born there and / or hold a Scottish citizenship. In other words, the NTS fallacy does not do away with the fact that there are things which makes someone a true Scotsman.

In one sense, Fraser is right in saying that we need to respect people’s identification, but this is at a sociological level. If someone wants to identify with belonging to a particular tradition, that’s fine, and will likely have implications on a sociological level. I suppose it’s a bit like the common practice of Americans to identify with their heritage (If you meet a person born in New York they might sometimes identify as “Irish”, for example, in reference to their familial heritage, though they are not Irish in any official or legal sense).

In another way, though, Dawkins is right. Though we might well question his criteria for being a ‘true’ Christian, there is a difference between identifying as a Christian, and actually being a Christ follower. It’s interesting then to see Dawkins’ undercut that common ‘new atheist’ argument mentioned above.

Does reading the bible, knowing the order of its books and attending church regularly make one a ‘true’ Christian? Jesus, in fact, had some sobering words to say:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’
And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
(Matthew 7:21-23 ESV)

Being a ‘true’ Christian is not about what we do per se but about who we know and follow, namely, Jesus. He continues:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
(Matthew 7:24-27 ESV)

What qualifies us is not that we read the bible, but that we follow what Jesus says to us within it. It’s not that we attend church, but that we hear the gospel and respond to it. Sometimes, identifying as a Christian is nothing more than having a good looking house, but one that has sand for foundations instead of concrete. It’s not that we call Jesus “lord”, but that we actually live like he is that shows that we are a Christian*.

So perhaps we should take a moment to heed Dawkins’ point, and ask ourselves if our identity as a Christian is based on a true foundation of following Jesus, or not.

* This is not to say that we saved by ‘works’. Jesus is talking about what it looks like to be a member of his Kingdom, and we don’t become a member of the kingdom apart from grace through faith. It is more akin to what John the Baptist – in Matthew 3:7 – called the bearing of fruit that was in keeping with repentance (which involves submission to Christ’s authority).

p.s. On a related note, I found this video rather amusing too – an hypothetical idea of what it might look like if Archbishop Rowan Williams responded to the debate challenge with Dawkins in the same way that Dawkins did with William Lane Craig.

One response to “What if Richard Dawkins is (partly) right?”

  1. tony says:

    My working definition of a Christian is…
    Someone for whom a state of unwellness
    *characterized as seperation from God
    *for which they blame their own selfisness and pride
    *is resolved by celebration and ritual centered on the life of Jesus
    *with hugely varying effects on their lifestyle and behavior.

What do you think?