Two English Lords take on the Arch-rabbi of the New Atheism

Jonathan Sacks, the soon to retire Cheif Rabbi of Great Britain, recently joked about how his country will cope with the loss of a much loved Cheif Rabbi and Archbishop of Canterbury at pretty much the same time: “There’ll be fewer beards and hairy eyebrows on television…” (I understand that Rabbi Sacks recently experimented with going beardless as a statement that Jewishness does not depend upon the beard – I wish Rowan would try the same experiment…)

Apart from being very hairy, Rowan Williams and Jonathan Sacks are also members of the English House of Lords. Despite one being Christian and the other Jewish, they have remarkabley similar approaches to theology. They have both engaged with the claims of Professor Richard Dawkins, who, though neither a hairy man nor a member of the House of Lords nor for that matter, a theologian, could probably be described as the “chief rabbi” or “archbishop” of the new (or “evangelical”) atheism.

I have already mentioned the recent “debate” between Williams and Dawkins. Sacks has responded in a book called “The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning”, in which he fundamentally rejects Dawkins’ approach which pits science and religion against one another. He was talking about his book to Norman Swan on a recent edition of “Big Ideas” on ABC Radio National. Having listened to the discussion between Dawkins and Williams just the day before, I found many resonances between what Sacks was talking about in this program and what Williams had to say in his conversation with Dawkins.

In these two programs, Williams and Sacks both challenge Dawkins on one some of his pet arguments against the existence of God. Here are two of them.

Dawkins has long argued that one problem he has with “the God Hypothesis” is that God is a complex being. Whereas theists posit a complex being at the very start of everything, the theory of evolution teaches us that creatures develop from the simple to the complex. Therefore something as complex as “God” could not exist at the origin of all things. Every theologian knows this is bunk, of course, and Williams points out the flaws of this argument in his conversation with Dawkins. For a start, God is not a part of creation. He is not a part of the evolutionary chain. The rules of evolution do not apply to God. Secondly, a central conviction of monotheistic theism is that God is fundamentally “simple” – which is what is meant by the doctrine of the Unity of God. But yes, God also encompasses all complexity – a truth that is revealed in the Christian idea of the Triunity of God. This is really a failure in Dawkins conception of the Divine, rather than a failure of logic.

Sacks takes Dawkins to task on the topic of those London Bus posters which declare “There probably isn’t a God…”. In his conversation with Williams, Dawkins denies that he is an absolute atheist in that he does not claim he can prove that God does not exist, he is simply convinced that there is very little probability that he does. Sacks pounces on this idea of “improbability”. He cites the figures for the improbability of the existence of this universe, and the even greater improbability of the existence of life in the universe (both facts which Dawkins himself acknowledges in his conversation with Williams). Given this enormous improbability, we nevertheless exist. How then, argues Sacks, can “improbability” be an argument against the existence of God, given that it would also logically be an argument against our own existence?

I find both Sacks and Williams more than capable of standing up to the arguments of the new atheists and showing where, more often than not, they simply fail to convince.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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5 Responses to Two English Lords take on the Arch-rabbi of the New Atheism

  1. matthias says:

    it would seem that ++Williams has also taken on the Government over in the UK over the gay marriage issue . Some UK Catholic bloggers are asking where are there bishops aside from having a latter read out at Mass last Sunday

  2. Adam says:

    Whilst what you say of the these two men is accurate, what is missing is the greater picture of the situation of the Anglican communion in Britain. Rowan Williams is caught in an ever-growing pincer movement within his communion by gay priests, who seem intent on undermining him and of creating a massive schism within the Anglocan fold. To watch the Synod debates broadcast on the parliamentary channel in the UK onl reveals to the public what massive divisions there are for Williams to cope with. The fact is he has no authority at all. He is really one of many, and is often outnumbered by laity and priests and other bishops of his communion. And just today a leading cleric has attacked his own Anglican communion saying it is the last bastion of prejudice, over gay marriages etc. The fact is the on going, noisy debate in Britain these days is focused on the ‘rights’ of gay men to have marriages. The PM supports this proposed change to the law, many Anglicans do, whilst WIlliams seems to be caught up in the middle, not knowing what to say. And it must have been awkward for him in Rome this past weekend as he met the pope for private talks. How the ecumenical dialogue can continue with an veracity and sense, whilst the two Communions are becoming even further estanged on theological issues, just baffles me.
    The fact is that Williams will probably retire later this year after over 10 years as Arch of Canterbury. Reports say he is tired of the job, at the age of 61. and yet Pope John Paul II was pope till 84 and had massive physical problems. Was he ever tired?
    Well, the signs of Anglicanism disintegrating as it ingratiates itself with the world, are there for all to see. The Britain of today is not that of a strong, vibrant Christianity. No it is the Anglicans who are caving in to the pressures of small liberal groups seeking to impose their misguided theological views on the Church. Dangers lie ahead and we will see more within the next 2 years.
    Catholicism has much to teach, much to forgive and yet cannot cave in to the forces of dissent that seek to undermine the very foundations of our faith.
    Williams will go and a new Arch of Canterbury will be appointed by the PM and the Queen. But sometimes as an observer I long for the day when a new a’Beckett will be appointed and who will have the tenacity to be bold and visionary in the mind of a martyred prdecessor.

    • Stephen K says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised if Rowan Williams was tired of his job. His thoughtful reflectiveness and constant endeavours to epitomise unworldly Christianity (in the best sense) and present a loving, forgiving theology seem to have been dismissed by all sides, not simply by those within his flock but by Catholics who see him merely as a Merlin-like figurehead of a failed establishment. The man is only human, after all!

      But he does have some unqualified admirers, and I am one of them. Comparisons are generally odious, but the last thing I would wish on him and the Anglican church is a John Paul II-like in-failing-harness-death. He has too much to offer, but it may be time for us to offer him some respite and freedom and face a post-Williams future with some courage, and the hope that he might be succeeded by someone equally spiritual and intelligent. I predict in years to come we will lament that we did not listen to him and encourage him as much as we should have.

      Catholicism is a way of thinking and praying and it has nothing to forgive, but many think that the Catholic Church, that is, Catholics of all levels right to the top, ought to do a lot of forgiving and even more begging for forgiveness.

  3. Adam says:

    Its just been announced in London (930am) Friday that Rowan Williams will step down at the end of the year. Obviously very tired man!! And that he will then go to Cambridge Univ as Master of a College there. Perhaps this is what Joseph Ratzinger wanted to do many times at end of JPII’s reign when he would have liked to go back to academia in Germany.
    So, now there will be months of speculation on who will succeed the 61 yr old as Canterbury’s successor. Will it be the black archbishop of York or perhaps he very charismatic Bishop of London and close friend of Prince Charles? Or then again someone as a total surprise as when Mrs Thatcher appointed George Carey? Yes the incumbent Prime Minister is the one who forwards the name to the Queen for acceptance. And she is the Supreme Governor who accepts the PM’s name. So there you have it – the political intrigue of an established Church that is really in a mess over gay bishops, women bishops, gay marriage and goodness knows what else. And the new ARch of Canterbury will be thrust into all that.

    Semper fidelis.

    • Schütz says:

      Today in class we rewatched the film of Paul Vi giving his ring to Archbishop Michael Ramsey in 1966 (46 years ago!). What high hopes there were back in those days. Nevertheless, for all the difficulties, if you compare how uncomfortable the Pope and (especially) the Archbishop looked in each others company then to the recent pictures of Benedict and Rowan together just the other day, you can see just how far we have come in our relationships since that first encounter.

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