The standard of debate has declined rapidly since the age of Bertrand Russell. It's up to Catholics to restore intelligence to the God debate

Is atheism on the increase, and if so, can we do anything about it? This was a question put to me the other day, and I am surprised it isn’t asked more often.

In 1965 Pope Paul VI asked the Jesuits to take on the task of combating atheism (you can read about that here). I remember being with some Jesuits once who mentioned this, and wondered just what this meant in practice. One Jesuit said modestly that he had done his bit already, having debated the existence of God with Bertrand Russell on the radio. That had been in 1947, and there is a transcript, which is well worth reading, here. 

The debate between Fr Coplestone and Russell is terribly old-fashioned by today’s standards in that it was immensely civilised. Whether atheism is on the increase is hard to measure, but one thing is sure: the terms of debate have changed.

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Once upon a time, there used to be people called unbelievers with whom the Catholic Church sought dialogue. These sorts of people have faded from the scene to be replaced by a newer breed, people like Professor Dawkins; compare him to Russell, and you see how far we have come, and not in a good sense. There was a time when unbelievers made common cause with Catholics on certain social and moral issues – nuclear weapons for example – but that too seems a thing of the past.

What changed? The answer lies in the events of 9/11, which marked out religion as the enemy of modernity. Religion could from then on be identified as the root of all evil.

This is a huge oversimplification, though it does have a grain of truth in it. Fundamentalism is indeed the enemy of modernity, but not all religion is fundamentalist. Nevertheless, despite its long and distinguished intellectual history, there is a constant failure to make the distinction between Catholicism and fundamentalism.

And here is the problem: the Catholic faith requires a nuanced approach if it is to be properly understood; the sledgehammer assault from contemporary atheists is not interested in nuances, nor in rationality, nor in matters of the intellect. The sledgehammer assault chimes in well with our modern soundbite culture and makes sense to many who are quite ignorant – thanks in part to falling education standards – of the language of religion and religious culture.

The God Delusion is a ludicrous and laughable book. Terry Eagleton said: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

One can read his excellent review of the book here. But the sad fact is that Eagleton is an intellectual, in a way that the general public, for whom Dawkins was writing, is not. While Eagleton represents the best counter-blast to Dawkins to date, nevertheless, it remains a fact that Dawkins (and Dan Brown for that matter) is the media superstar and Eagleton is not.

When the public turns their back on subtlety of argument, people, believers or not, ought to be worried.

So, what can be done? How can we oppose atheism today?

I have written about this before: what we need is to learn from the past, particularly the success of the Counter-Reformation. 

We need to make sure we are passing on the content of the faith, whole and entire. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is useful, but we also need some good course books for use in the classroom, adapted for local use. We must not flinch from being intellectually coherent. Now is not the time to lose faith in reason. More than this, we need to demonstrate the intrinsic worth of the Catholic brand in education, but also in art, in music, and the quality of our community life.

In the end Communism failed not because someone out argued the Hegelians, but because people saw where it led – the Gulag. The single biggest weapon in the armoury of modern anti-Catholicism is the child abuse scandal. We need a moral reformation in the Church, we need new saints, and we need to communicate our joy in being Catholic.

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