The religious situation today is not dissimilar to that of Christian Europe in the early 1500s. So is Richard Dawkins the modern-day Martin Luther?
Here’s the scenario. The church has overwhelming social and cultural power and influence through its incorporation into state institutions, its performance of ceremonies such as marriage and funerals, delivery of education and participation in legislative councils. But many of its adherents are unhappy at the failure of the church to live up to its precepts, or to include everybody within its communion. A rapidly growing population and economic expansion, coupled with globalisaion of trade, has fuelled inequality, undermining many of the basic social structures of which the church is a part. A growing humanist movement is critical of many of its doctrines and practices, and an explosion of scientific activity is threatening its world view. Meanwhile Islam threatens to make inroads into its European heartlands.
It is, of course, the situation in Christian Europe in the early 1500s, just before a driven and intellectually remorseless critic, Martin Luther, posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, setting in train what we now call the Reformation, which was to cleave Europe in two – not just religiously and politically, but socially, culturally and intellectually.
However, it could just as well describe the situation we currently live in. In Britain, for instance, bishops in the Lords, a head of state who is also head of the main church, leaders who claim to be guided by God; expanding numbers of faith schools and a compulsory act of Christian worship in all schools. On the other hand, gay people and women excluded from full communion and a church veto, through the Lords, on social legislation, such as gay rights and adoption. We have a population explosion, rapid economic growth and social dislocation caused by globalisation. Science is now a core academic and corporate activity, central to developed economies. And despite a widespread humanist commitment to race, gender and sexual equality, religious institutions refuse to incorporate these fully in their own practices.
On top of which, there is the fear of a worldwide Islamic revival, fuelling the “war on terror”.
So is a there a new figure on the horizon to decisively shift the intellectual paradigm among all this turbulence? The urbane – and venerable – Oxford don Richard Dawkins is a long way from the driven young monk from Eisleben, yet he seems to have travelled something of the same intellectual journey. From a searching quest in his scientific research to understand the world, to critic of conservative bureaucratic institutions which seem to deny that reality and reject its implications, to outright scourge of those organisations and all their works – from faith schools to creationists in education, to university theology departments. And now he has moved on, in effect, to proselytising for a whole new ideological basis to western society with his decision to actively campaign for atheism in the US.
While any historical parallel can only be approximate, this seems to fall down completely in that Dawkins in his atheism and scientism seems to be already well outside of the dominant religious framework of western society. A fringe heretic rather than a mainstream Reformer; a Giordano Bruno rather than a Luther.
But this is deceptive. The historian Tristram Hunt has argued persuasively in his current BBC4 series that western society has been driven since the Reformation by a dynamic conflict between radical and conservative Protestantism – from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525 (denounced by the politically conservative Luther), to the struggle between Cromwell and the Levellers, to the arguments over the American constitution between egalitarians and slave-owning landowners, and beyond.
In the contemporary world, it is obvious who the religious conservatives are: the fundamentalist evangelicals who back the neoconservatives and the born-again Bush. But where are the radicals?
While it is true there are many religious people who hold a commitment to values such as peace and equality and human rights, they have nowhere near the profile of the right.
However, this is deceptive, because, in the postwar world, what has happened is that radical Protestantism has slipped the anchor of religion altogether, becoming secular and humanist. (As the scientist Laplace is reputed to have said to Napoleon when asked the place of God in his theories: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”) But western secular humanists remain, even so, direct inheritors of that religious and intellectual tradition. Oxford, is after all, the heart of the Church of England establishment still.
But one man does not make a revolution – political or intellectual; Luther tapped into all the sources of dissatisfaction in his world and very quickly found enthusiastic adherents. And what is interesting about Dawkins is that there seems to be a growing following for his uncompromising views. Over the past two or three years, for instance, Dawkins’ assaults on religion have generated more letters to the Guardian by far than any other single topic. As the religious communities have united to counterattack, secularists and members of the scientific community have become increasingly strident about “superstitious belief in unverifiable beings in the sky”. From being passive a-theists, they are becoming active anti-theists; no longer just critics of the existing religious superstructure of our world, but iconoclasts seeking to radically change or abolish it.
As the religious of all persuasions put aside their differences and huddle together in defence of religious privilege and preference in face of this new intellectual predator, it adds an interesting extra dimension to our current “clash of civilisations”.