Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Marilynne Robinson, she of the fine Pulitzer-prizewinning novel Gilead, has like everyone else entered the science/religion fray, taking on the New Atheists and making the case for religion. Her book is Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self -- whatever that means. Richard Dawkins has given the publishing industry a new lease on life.

Let me say at once that I haven't read the book, and probably won't. The whole issue is getting rather stale, and every time I write about it my wife groans "Not again." But I did read Gilead and enjoyed it, so I know Robinson is a smart cookie. And I've read several reviews of her new book, all highly favorable. So let me just comment on one of her points, presumably the main one, that comes up in all the reviews.

She takes Dawkins et. al. to task for their "omniscient posturing" and "pompous declarations of infallibility," as one reviewer puts it, and I suppose there she has a point. But then she goes on to task the New Atheists for imagining that they know more about what it means to be human than Herodotus, Dante, Michelangelo or Shakespeare.

I dare say that Dawkins and kin appreciate the great artists and writers of the past quite as much as does Robinson, and I doubt any of them would deny that we could learn much by spending an afternoon with the poems of Wordsworth or the music of Palestrina. But do we know more today about what it means to be human than did Herodotus, Dante, Michelangelo or Shakespeare? You bet.

We know that women who act a bit odd are not possessed by the Devil and deserve to be burned at the stake. We know that pubescent boys who touch themselves and don't properly repent won't burn in hellfire forever. We know that the Creator of the Universe doesn't insist on the genital mutilation of girls. We know that unbaptized babies won't rot in Limbo. We know that only born-again Christians will not be raptured into heaven while the rest of us are left behind. We know that writing a novel about the Prophet or drawing his picture does not deserve a death sentence. We know that the concept of a Chosen People or One True Faith is fraught with mischief. Etc., etc., etc..

In short, we know one heck of a lot more about the world and what it means to be human than did our ancestors, and no doubt we have much more to learn. We can be moved by the image of God as a gray-haired old man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and still get beyond the notion of a God who is, in all of his (his!) qualities, a projection of ourselves. And that, after all, is the point that Dawkins, et. al., are trying to make. I'm happy to live in a world that includes an atheist scientist like Dawkins who wants to sweep away the parochial and half-baked detritus of the past and a fine novelist like Robinson who explores the yet-unexplicated corridors of human mystery.