Friday, June 24, 2011

A word for agnosticism

Dublin hosted a World Atheist convention not long before I arrived in Ireland. Apparently, arch-atheist Richard Dawkins featured prominently. The newspapers still reverberate with reaction, pro and con.

Dublin was not an unreasonable venue for the conference, given Catholic Ireland's spectacular recent fall from grace. The economic boom (and bust), and the ongoing scandal of child abuse (the Magdelene laundries are still much in the news) have put paid to the Church's stultifying grip on the hearts and minds of the people.

The faith is still very much alive, however, although more nuanced than when I first came here four decades ago. GL, writing in the "Knowing God" column of the Irish Times, insists that the God Dawkins rails against is a straw man, a childlike fiction of the dark ages that no serious Christian believes in any more. He quotes the fourth-century writer Evagrius of Pontus: "God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God."

Well, yes. But this comes just after our columnist has extolled God's "compassion," "generosity," "understanding" and "love," all of which are concepts easily grasped by the mind. He further insists that the universe is rational and intelligible, qualities that necessitate, he says, the existence of God. But if God is the source of the universe's "intelligibility," he is also graspable, and therefore, according to Evagrius, he is not God.

Oh, dear. How we want to have our "dark-age" cake and eat it too. If God is just a name for the mysterious defining force of the universe, then I suspect Prof. Dawkins would not seriously demur. But God is invariably more than that for believers. For example, for GL he is also incarnated in the God-man Jesus, in whom we are "given a glimpse of God in action."

I happen to greatly admire Richard Dawkins; he is an exemplary science explicator. But I know far too many theists I also admire to follow Dawkins, or anyone else, to a World Atheist convention. Sounds too much like another dogmatic gathering to me, with the genial Oxford don as high priest. The important distinction, it seems to me, is not between atheists and theists, but between agnostics and true believers. If there is anything in the world worthy of the august title "God," surely the appropriate response is silence. The monk in his cell, the naturalist in her wood, alone, rapt, and full of awe, is more to my taste than assembled drum-beating atheists or bible-thumping theists practicing their certainty.