Saturday, January 30, 2010

Squawkin’ Rich Dawkins Weighs in on Haiti and Christianity

Is Pat Robertson the Real Christian?

Every now and then there are writers on post-modern comparative religion such as Karen Armstrong (The Case for God) who prevail upon the evolutionary biologist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins to cool down his rhetoric a bit towards people of religious faith, arguing that there is too much heat being generated already in a world full of colliding fundamentalisms. He tries to tone down it down for a while, but he is what he is, and eventually he lets fly again.

Recently, in a response to Pat Robertson’s statement indicating that the Haitians were being punished by God for having made a pact with the devil, Dawkins came out swinging hard with both fists, not so much at fundamentalists like Robertson, whom he credits for being a real and unabashedly honest Christian, but at Christian moderates, whom he accuses of dissembling and duplicity.

His article Haiti and the Hypocrisy of Christian Theology is hard-hitting and lays down a provocative indictment and challenge towards all Christians. For all believers, it’s certainly worth reading in its entirety. Is he right? Are people like Pat Robertson the real Christians?
We know what caused the catastrophe in Haiti. It was the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature, sin-free and indifferent to sin, un-premeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery.
There are plenty of Christians who acknowledge this. I did so myself, along with a few commenters here not two posts ago. The world is built to change via the forces unleashed by volcanoes and earthquakes. They were essential for life itself to flourish to begin with, and shifting continental plates and volcanoes actually provide a means for the world to recycle and renew itself. As we learn more about these things it forces us to reconsider how we view God and our relationship with each other and with creation itself. It doesn't necessarily force us to abandon faith.
The religious mind, however, restlessly seeks human meaning in the blind happenings of nature. As with the Indonesian tsunami, which was blamed on loose sexual morals in tourist bars; as with Hurricane Katrina, which was attributed to divine revenge on the entire city of New Orleans for harboring a lesbian comedian, and as with other disasters going back to the famous Lisbon earthquake and beyond, so Haiti's tragedy must be payback for human sin. The Rev. Pat Robertson sees the hand of God in the earthquake, wreaking terrible retribution for a pact that the long-dead ancestors of today's Haitians made with the devil, to help rid them of their French masters.

Needless to say, milder-mannered faith-heads are falling over themselves to disown Pat Robertson, just as they disowned those other pastors, evangelists, missionaries and mullahs at the time of the earlier disasters.

What hypocrisy.

Loathsome as Robertson's views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. The agonized theodiceans who see suffering as an intractable 'mystery', or who 'see God' in the help, money and goodwill that is now flooding into Haiti , or (most nauseating of all) who claim to see God 'suffering on the cross' in the ruins of Port-au-Prince, those faux-anguished hypocrites are denying the centrepiece of their own theology. It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.

Where was God in Noah's flood? He was systematically drowning the entire world, animal as well as human, as punishment for 'sin'. Where was God when Sodom and Gomorrah were consumed with fire and brimstone? He was deliberately barbecuing the citizenry, lock stock and barrel, as punishment for 'sin'. Dear modern, enlightened, theologically sophisticated Christian, your entire religion is founded on an obsession with 'sin', with punishment and with atonement. Where do you find the effrontery to condemn Pat Robertson, you who have signed up to the obnoxious doctrine that the central purpose of Jesus' incarnation was to have himself tortured as a scapegoat for the 'sins' of all mankind, past, present and future, beginning with the 'sin' of Adam, who (as any modern theologian well knows) never even existed?
True, but that’s just one model of atonement. Loren Rosson, a Unitarian, does a fine job here (a much better job, in fact, than many Trinitarians would be capable of) of explaining how biblical texts can support not only this model of atonement, but several others besides (martyrdom, sacrifice, scapegoat, and ransom redemption).

Just a note regarding Dawkins' accusation of hypocrisy. It has to be taken seriously, there is certainly plenty of hypocrisy to go around, but he ought to consider if he’s a bit guilty of his own. How delicious it must be for him to throw an indictment against all Christians with his catalog of God’s genocidal misdeeds as described in the Old Testament. If Dawkins’ examples are to be culled from the Books of the Torah, why doesn’t he hew to his own standards of intellectual honesty and consistency by hurling his accusation against Judaism? Would he dare to? I tend to think not, because he knows the consequences of doing such a thing. How much safer it is from his perspective to attack Christianity instead.

To quote the President of one theological seminary, writing in these very pages:
"The earthquake in Haiti, like every other earthly disaster, reminds us that creation groans under the weight of sin and the judgment of God. This is true for every cell in our bodies, even as it is for the crust of the earth at every point on the globe."
You nice, middle-of-the-road theologians and clergymen, be-frocked and bleating in your pulpits, you disclaim Pat Robertson's suggestion that the Haitians are paying for a pact with the devil. But you worship a god-man who - as you tell your congregations even if you don't believe it yourself - 'cast out devils'. You even believe (or you don't disabuse your flock when they believe) that Jesus cured a madman by causing the 'devils' in him to fly into a herd of pigs and stampede them over a cliff. Charming story, well calculated to uplift and inspire the Sunday School and the Infant Bible Class. Pat Robertson may spout evil nonsense, but he is a mere amateur at that game. Just read your own Bible. Pat Robertson is true to it. But you?

Educated apologist, how dare you weep Christian tears, when your entire theology is one long celebration of suffering: suffering as payback for 'sin' - or suffering as 'atonement' for it? You may weep for Haiti where Pat Robertson does not, but at least, in his hick, sub-Palinesque ignorance, he holds up.
You may weep now too, Mr. Dawkins, but where have you been up until now? You make an ostentatious donation and urge your atheist followers to do the same in order to prove that you are as compassionate as the religious, but where have you been and what is your answer to evil, but nothing?

I reiterate what Sean Michael Winters recently wrote
My friend Christopher Hitchens says that the suffering of one child should force us to question the existence of God. And so it should. But, it is more than a little ironic that Hitchens’ robustly secular worldview does not require anything in the way of solidarity with the suffering of a child and the religious worldview he questions not only demands such solidarity, it already had people on the ground before the earthquake. The Church’s concern and care for the poor does not need a headline to become manifest, it is on-going, and has been from that day when the Master fed the hungry multitudes with five loaves and two fish until today.
I’m not really trying to be confrontational here. I actually do have some respect for flat-out atheists, even the new radical variety we see in people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and PZ Myers, etc… At least they come by their skepticism honestly. They trust in empiricism and nothing else, and that’s understandable . Arguments crafted around the Bible, apostolic witness and succession, Aristotle’s First Cause and Unmoved Mover, Anselm’s Ontological Argument, and Pascal’s Wager are unconvincing and unpersuasive for them. OK. Fair enough. In addition, it has to be admitted that theodicy is certainly a problem for Christianity. It’s always been there, it’s nothing new, but at least we grapple with it. One thing I’ve noticed about the new atheists, however, is that no one looks to them for comfort or for an explanation when their children die. They have none to offer in either case.

When he posted this column on his website, he got plenty of accolades and “attaboys” from his admirers, and some counter-arguments from religious believers, but of the thousands and thousands of comments that rolled in I appreciated this humble and cautionary note I happened to notice that came from a humanist, a certain Luis Cayetano:
Good article, but there is an important qualification that needs to be made: the Haitian disaster wasn't simply the result of plate tectonics, it was also the result of economic fundamentalism. A similar earthquake that struck California killed 63 people. In Haiti, they've registered 170,000 bodies in Port-au-Prince. We should be asking why Haiti doesn't have any building codes, why its government isn't empowered to make sovereign economic decisions on behalf of its people, and why so many people live in slums in the first place.

The religious exploitation of the tragedy should be treated with the contempt it deserves (this is of course something that shouldn't even need mentioning), but let's not miss the most important factor here: how WE might have contributed to this disaster. We already know that Robertson is a sorry excuse for a human being. That's easy to acknowledge, and easy to deal with in the sense that it doesn't provoke any cognitive dissonance within us. What's harder is to challenge doctrines that WE'RE responsible for allowing to be perpetuated and implemented. If we miss the elephant in the room, then we effectively endorse doctrines just as pernicious and harmful as anything being spouted by Robertson, and our critiques of Robertson, while justified, won't be as principled as we would like to imagine. As Dawkins has said on so many occassions, ideas have consequences. Let's not overlook that when it comes to secular mythologies. If anything, we should hold ourselves to standards far higher than we would ever dream of holding religious fanatics up to, if we dare to call ourselves rationalists and humanists in the fullest sense of those terms.


Julia said...

Thank you for your thoughtful and thorough post, responding from a Catholic perspective to these two controversial figures.

I found your blog by clicking the icon "Next Blog." I expect to visit often.

Jeff said...

Thank you, Julia, for your kind words, and thanks for visiting.

Steve Bogner said...

Thanks for quoting Cayetano's comment at the end - it puts a good perspective on it all.

Some people - Robertson & Dawkins alike - seem to look for things to help them grind their axes. While those axes are being ground, there's a lot of other stuff going on that needs attention, and real work.

Jeff said...

Thanks Steve.

You know, sometimes I enjoy reading Frank Schaeffer, son of the evangelical culture-warrior Francis Schaeffer. I noticed today that he's written a new book called Patience With God, which takes rigid fundamentalists of all stripes to task, including atheistic fundamentalists. Looks like a good read.

Garpu said...

So what would happen, were we to lock Robertson and Dawkins in a room? Scary thought...

Jeff said...

Hi Jen,

It would probably be as mutually venomous as the time Dawkins visited Ted Haggard at his church.