Archbishop Williams on misunderstanding religion

Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are in the news as much as, if not more than, Focus on the Family and Pat Robertson lately. The Archbishop of Canterbury examined this surge of antireligiosity in a recent lecture, held Oct. 13 at Swansea University in a response to Dawkin's position, which he summarizes neatly.

He quotes Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, noting Prince Mishkin's statement that the atheist always seems to be talking about something else. (I should add, having had some run-ins with a past president of American Atheists at my few speaking engagements, that the Princess Bride quote "You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means," can also often apply when Atheists paint with too broad a brush.)

Williams said:

think that Prince Mishkin’s response is one that a great many of religious believers are likely to feel when they pick up the works of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or any of those prominent critics of religious faith in our own day. We may feel as we turn the pages that ‘this is not it’ whatever the religion is being attacked here it’s not actually what I believe in. And along with that instinctive response of not recognizing, there may also be a touch of, let’s say, resentment at somebody trying to tell us what we really mean. (Because as we all know there are few things more annoying than somebody else saying ‘I know what you mean’!) More seriously, that is one of those features of a certain kind of exercise of power which is itself open to moral challenge.

Simon Barrow, an Ekklesia editor writing at his other blog, Faith in Society, attempts to highlight one element of the speech (noting that such an attempt is folly because of how the Archbishop structures his sermons), and in so doing, gets to the heart of the criticisms that atheists often level at faith--and, implicitly, at people of faith. We are often dismissed as, at best, eccentric, and at worst, irrational and incapable of self-determination. This, says Williams, is a fundamental flaw that undermines the entire debate:


We have no obvious knock-down arguments. But we say to the critic ‘look at how the focal practices of religion – not seen as survival strategy or explanation - as they actually exist. Look at how they work to create self-questioning and trust. That self-questioning and trust may be going forward on a truthful basis or not. No external force is going to settle that for us. But before writing off the religious enterprise watch, watch what happens as persons of faith grow in these habits of self-questioning and trust; in the understanding of what the Christian would undoubtedly call justification by faith.

Self-questioning and trust are not peculiar to religious people. Just as impressive moral integrity is not – God knows – the preserve of religious people. But for the secularist, for the systematic critic of religion, moral integrity, self-inspection, fundamental trust must either be reduced to a personal option (I do this because I choose to do this) or it must be reduced to another form of survival strategy. And some of the problems with that, I’ve already touched upon. The religious believer says in contrast, that moral integrity, self-inspection, honesty, openness and trust are styles of living which communicate the character of an eternal and free agency, the agency that most religions call God. Agree or disagree, is what I would want to say to our contemporary critics, but at least grasp that that is what is being claimed and talked about. Don’t distract us from the real arguments by assuming that religion is an eccentric survival strategy or an irrational form of explanation.

Archbishop Williams entire speech is here, alas without decent paragraph breaks, but worth reading nonetheless. And a hat tip to Simon at Faith in Society for bringing it up in the first place and his commentary, which you can find here.

Comments (2)

Thanks, Helen. I've often felt, particularly with Dawkins, that he was arguing with someone else's ideas, ideas that haven't been in the mainstream of Christianity for hundreds of years. It strikes me that it would be like me criticizing a contemporary physician for believing in humours, or an astrophysicist for believing in astrology. Dawkin's attack is upon a "straw God" that most modern Christians don't believe in.

Unfortunately, I think Dawkins is necessary because there are many people who believe in nonsense, even and especially within mainline Christianity. Even worse, there is no progress in religion because religion is not about knowledge. To accuse Dawkins of attacking more primitive versions of the faith begs the question as to what kind of progress has been made.

I think both Dawkins and traditional defenses of religion are misguided because they assume that one can know things.


Gary Dasein

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