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Dawkins has all the vitriol of Trevor-Roper – and none of the panache

The elegant Oxford scholar paved the way for Richard Dawkins

By on Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Dawkins has all the vitriol of Trevor-Roper – and none of the panache

Adam Sisman’s biography of the late Hugh Trevor-Roper has been dominating the reviews recently. It reminded me of how hostile Trevor-Roper was to the Church.

Why? Partly his upbringing, I suppose, and then his own intellectual stand as an Oxford man of the Enlightenment. But his hostility seems more visceral than strictly necessary. He had met Fr Martin D’Arcy SJ , then Master of Campion Hall, on several occasions and had listened to him expound the faith in his own erudite and elegant fashion. But instead of an outsider’s respect for a rich and ancient tradition, it seemed to produce nothing but repugnance. Harold Macmillan (T-R’s publisher, incidentally) came close to the Church through his friendship with Ronald Knox , as William Oddie has mentioned in a recent blog. For Trevor-Roper it was always the Enemy.

Looking through the book that made him famous, The Last Days of Hitler, I am struck by the acidic swipes at the Church. “Joseph Goebbels…the prize pupil of a Jesuit seminary, he retained to the end the distinctive character of his education: he could always prove what he wanted…As the Jesuits created a system of education aimed at preventing knowledge, so Goebbels created a system of propaganda…which successfully persuaded people that black was white.”

Himmler is compared to St Robert Bellarmine and “those gentle old bishops [who] went home to sup on white fish and inexpensive vegetables, to feed their cats and canaries and to meditate on the Penitential Psalms…”

It strikes me that it is scholars like Trevor-Roper who paved the way for the likes of Richard Dawkins. Dawkins doesn’t write so stylishly as the historian, but the vitriol is the same.

Ironically, a begging letter from Oxford came in this morning’s post. Packaged in the way advertisers know how, it shows a room of old books and a bust of some scholar (unidentified, but it could be Isaiah Berlin) with the words “Oxford Thinking is never cast in stone”.

The next page shows Logic Lane and the words “Oxford Thinking shows the way”. In the small print, we learn that “Many of the world’s most pressing problems cannot be solved in isolation. They need thinking that crosses boundaries between disciplines. Oxford Thinking.”

I have been thinking too: why doesn’t Dawkins stop wasting his considerable intellectual energy attacking Christianity and make the imaginative gesture that Trevor-Roper was never able to contemplate: cross the boundaries between his own discipline of biology and that of theology? Campion Hall is waiting.

  • Christopher Wright

    In my day, Dawkins was known as “keen student” for his habit of asking questions and always having his hand up.
    A mere attention seeker?
    I get the same stuff from New College. What a flash place Oxford has become!

  • Rohan

    Why doesn't he cross boundaries between biology and theology? I guess it's for the same reason that astronomers don't cross boundaries between their discipline and astrology – because the latter is not a science and the application of it would be completely incompatible with the application of the former. I challenge you to come up with a single example of how one could successfully “cross boundaries” between biology and theology (whatever that even means). Failing an example, at least explain what you mean by the statement.

    I would caution you against claiming that Dawkins needs to use “considerable” intellectual energy to attack Christianity. The arguments against Christianity pretty much write themselves. They all come down to a complete lack of proof to substantiate any of the supernatural claims that Christianity makes. “How do you know it's really true?” is something a 10 year old could ask. The man is a truly accomplished scientist and I am sure he did put considerable intellectual energy into his career in biology. Debunking Christianity on the other hand requiring his “considerable” intellectual energy – please, don't flatter yourselves.

  • Ajs261

    An “outsider's respect for a rich and ancient tradition?” Would that be referring to the history of mass murder of “witches” and Jews? Perhaps the initiation of the crusades? The entrenched misogyny and sexism? The ruthless homophobia? Institutionalised child rape covered up at the highest levels? Dissuading the use of condoms in HIV-ruined Africa? It's an ancient tradition best forgotten I'd argue.

  • Bart3

    Yes, it's such an inferior and benighted tradition when compared with the glorious history of atheism, which produced such noble leaders as Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot…

  • Darius35

    'The arguments against Christianity pretty much write themselves.' Well, they do when you're just repeating something you read in The God Delusion. Or was it God Is Not Great?

  • Rohan

    Bart3, that argument has been presented and shot down so many times but here goes…

    Hitler was a Roman Catholic for a start. Even if not, it's not the point. His alleged atheism is not what motivated him to murder all those jews, gays, gypsies, etc. Nor was Stalin's atheism what drove him to do bad things, nor Mao. There is nothing about atheism that advocates any course of action – it is simply a lack of belief in god. Therefore, there is no “atheist tradition” – what a ridiculous term. Two atheists can both have completely different views on each issue – there is no central body telling us what to think and how to act. So the suggestion that the alleged atheism of these three men is anything other than incidental just betrays your complete ignorance on this subject.

    When the church spread anti-jewish hatred for century after century in Europe, on the other hand, because the jews murdered your supposed lord, that was directly attributable to their religious beliefs. They wouldn't have had reason to spread that hatred had it not been for those beliefs. Furthermore, had the Catholic church not spread such hatred for so long, it is probable that the anti-semitic prejudices that were so prevalent in Europe and which made it easy for Hitler to rise to power wouldn't have existed. Without Hitler gaining power, there would have been no Holocaust, no subsequent creation of Israel and no war in the Middle East. One could make a decent argument that the Catholic church has significantly contributed to causing this war through demonising Jews for 2000 years.

  • Rohan


    Exactly which of my arguments was taken from one of those books? And even if they were, how does that make them any less valid as arguments?

    Pretty ironic really… being criticised by a Catholic for allegedly simply believing and repeating something that I read in a book. Priceless. You've really brightened my day Darius.

  • Darius35

    My pleasure, Rohan. Just one pointer: those who simply repeat what they read in a book are known as Protestants. We Catholics are the ones who believe whatever an old man in a white outfit tells us.

  • Rohan

    The implication of your comment is that I don't know the difference between Catholic and Protestant. You had better be careful – if you keep attacking my credibility with that razor-sharp wit, you may just hurt my feelings.

    Are you, perhaps, suggesting that Catholics don't quote the bible when arguing moral and ethical issues? That no core Catholic beliefs originate in the bible and that all core Catholic beliefs have some other demonstrable proof to validate them?

    My point was that Catholics belong to a faith (like all Christians do) that only has, as an original basis for its beliefs, the bible – absolutely nothing else. I used the term Catholic because we are discussing this on a Catholic news blog but I could have just as easily said Christian, or even merely believer.

    Could you answer my earlier question and support your assertion that I had ripped my arguments from a book by telling me what I had repeated and from which book? Or could you perhaps admit that you haven't read those books and don't know whether my arguments came from them or not, retracting your ad hominem attack?

  • john grosvenor

    If we are asked to list the evil things done “in the name of atheism” we find it very difficult. But if we are asked to list evil things done in the name of religeon were in for a long night

  • Herbert Wood

    What exactly are the boundaries between biology and theology? Can they be crossed? Dawkins as you say has considerable intellectual energy, precious little intellectual depth. But then he is a scientist. Science is an essentially low-minded activity for people who like spying on beetles, fiddling with test tubes, microscopes and the like. Leave them to it I say and don't listen when they start to spout about matters which they don't understand. If your loo springs a leak you call a plumber not a theologian, and if you want to deepen your understanding of the Trinity you turn to a theologian, not a beetle expert.

  • Rohan

    “Science is an essentially low-minded activity for people who like spying on beetles, fiddling with test tubes, microscopes and the like.”

    This must be a joke, surely?

  • Herbert Wood

    At the expense of whom?

  • Hoskyns

    Interesting. But Dawkins is by temperament and reasoning a fundamentalist, which Trevor-Roper was not. And NB Yes, Oxford does need new money to survive – and No, Dawkins is not employed in Oxford and hasn't published peer-reviewed Oxford scientific scholarship for 30 years or so.

  • Ion Zone

    So….all the churches they destroyed, and all the people they imprisoned, tortured, and murdered for believing in God….what about that? Atheism has no inherent morality, and, as much as atheists wiggle – these crimes were committed by atheists for atheistic reasons. There is no point denying this, it's a historical fact – atheist leaders regularly attempt to destroy religion by force of arms.

  • Guest

    If we are in for a long night it is because most of those so-called religious crimes have no basis in fact. The Spanish Inquisition was the most humane organisation at the time, and much more so than the way we deal with terror suspects. Their basis was also more political than religious – they were looking for traitors, rather than 'Heretics'. The Catholic Church acted to try and prevent the Witch Trials (they view magic as being nonsense). And the original Crusade was legitimate in its intentions – it was to stop an invasion. After that they pretty-much lost their affiliation with the Church.

    Atheists have something like half a dozen so-called 'religious' crimes that they bring up again and again – all centuries apart and most with precious little to do with religion.

  • Rijl

    Or, instead of arguing about the beliefs of people who did bad things, we could look at certain behaviors as reprehensible, and then consider supernatural beliefs on their own.

    Why believe in a god or in any supernatural phenomena? It's unreasonable.

  • Rijl

    Two points:
    Dawkins isn't 'anti-Christian,' he's atheist.
    He isn't vitriolic. He calmly lays out arguments that belief in gods is unreasonable

  • Copyleft

    I suppose providing some support for this silly claim about Dawkins would be too much to ask of the writer.

  • Copyleft

    I'm sure there is “no point in denying this” to someone with a closed mind, but the facts show otherwse.

  • Godfrey

    Stalin, by the testimony of his own daughter, was a Christian. Pol Pot was a devout Buddhist. I don't know about Mao, but there's no question Chinese communism was influenced by Confucianism.

  • Godfrey

    The Catholic Church acted to prevent the witch trials? Have you ever read the Malleus Maleficorum? The church promulgated the orthodoxy that not believing in witches was heresy, and published methods for torturing witches. It sent out traveling inquisitors to root out witches and kill them.

    As for the Spanish Inquisition, I don't know how it compared to other organizations of its day (what organizations?) but it was far from humane. It used incredibly brutal treatments on the Conversos, possibly with the sole intent of extracting their wealth.


    I used to be Catholic but because of the treatment dished out to me as a child, I think the church needs a good shake up. This government is paying out a lot of money to protect the Pope while taking money away from the disabled…how disgusting is that!

  • Ion Zone

    You mean that book that the inquisition denounced within four years of it being published….?

    “but it was far from humane. It used incredibly brutal treatments on the Conversos, possibly with the sole intent of extracting their wealth.”

    You have to be kidding.

  • Ion Zone

    “Stalin, by the testimony of his own daughter, was a Christian.”

    That is the funniest thing I've read all week. I'd love to hear how you explain all the anti-Christian propaganda, the tearing down of churches, the attempts to force believers to recant their faith.

    Pol Pot a Buddhist? He waged war on Buddhism. He rounded up Buddhist monks and executed them. If Pol Pot is a Buddhist, then Hitler was a Jew (in actual fact Hitler hated Christianity, though he was not an atheist).

  • Ion Zone
  • Johnny Farrell50

    Dawkins may be Atheist, as am I, but he hardly lays out calm arguments or that belief in gods is unreasonable. His utterances rather resemble the same techniques of propagandisation that Goebbels utilised in his time – but without the success.

  • A Asomugha

    what are these evil things? the crusades, inquisition? what else..
    the crusades and the inquisitions are the most misunderstood subjects in history.
    better studies into these things and putting them in context would be tell different tales. – i support Guest

    Hitler and mussolini did not commit the Holocaust in the name of religion – otherwise, why were many priests, bishops and nuns killed (maximilian kolbe, edith stein), why were the polish and austirans, who were catholics also persecuted. why were churches in Poland desecrated and seminarians trained underground.. the pope John Paul hid under the bed in his seminary when they came at took others to their deaths..

    the greatest horrors have ALWAYS been committed by people who DID NOT CARE ABOUT GOD – even if for public reasons, they might have pretended to be faithful.
    and ABORTION the horror of all horrors is supported by atheist – who hug trees yet kill babies
    the first and second world wars were fought at a time when the catholic church was least influential.

    hitler was a true atheist – a soldier told the the young Joseph Ratzinger that God would not be needed in the new germany. that the nazis were atheistic in their ideologies is undeniable.. no matter what pretext they might have employed..

  • pearl pearl

    Would that be the same Trevor Roper  – acerbic critic of the church  – who was so easily conned over the Hitler diaries?
    The press interview he gave in 1983 with Stern in Hamburg is cruelly funny when Irving made him look like an idiot.
    Trevor Roper’s professional career was finished after that.
    So i don’t think I’ll be following the learned prfessor’s judgement on things.
    Dawkins is even worse – his knowledge of Christianity is risible.
    Betrand Russell – now THAT is an atheist, well worth powder and shot.