God books are back

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • September 25, 2009
{mosimage}In bookstores across the country, award-winning author David Adams Richards’ new book God Is: A Search For Faith In A Secular World stands out on the shelves. It is a sharply argued and closely observed testament to a civilization that thinks it is cool to diss God and believers of any stripe. But more than that, the book is part of the evidence that a tide has turned.

In Ecclesiastes, the wisdom is “To everything there is a season.” It is an insight the publishing industry knows very well. If the trend of the last few years has favoured the militant atheist, the polemical humanist and the over-reaching scientist, the current publishing catalogues say the backlash is on and, as one title aptly puts it, “God Is Back.”

The arrogance of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was not a new phenomenon. After all in 1882 Frederick Nietzsche in “The Parable Of The Madman” from his book The Gay Science declared “God is dead.”

Eighty-four years later, in 1966, Time magazine startled the world, asking “Is God dead?” Adding urgency to sensationalism, the issue concluded, probably, and if not the debate was proving to be widespread.

Forty-three years on we might align ourselves with Ecclesiastes and accept that the effort to kill God off comes in waves and no sooner is the death certificate signed than there comes a whack of evidence to the contrary.

Dismiss faith at your own peril, says David Adams Richards

Written by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

David Adams Richards says his 21st book was necessary.

“When Chris Hitchens went on Larry King Live and started making fun of Mother Teresa, I think that’s when I decided somebody has to answer this,” Richards told The Catholic Register.

God Is: A Search For Faith In A Secular World is a thin book, but it argues for much more than the mere existence of God.

“This was a polemic about the idea that a universal God doesn’t matter,” he said. “I say it matters very much.”

His central idea isn’t really God’s existence. Rather, the author is interested in how the reality of God gets hold of our lives.

“What I try to say is that we don’t have faith, that we are faith. Even the most cynical of us wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have faith,” he said.

Richards is one of Canada’s most celebrated men of letters. He’s won the Governor General’s Award for both fiction (Nights Below Station Street) and non-fiction (Lines on the Water). He has 13 published novels, two plays, five books of essays and a book of poetry to his credit.

He’s also clear about what he isn’t.

“The last thing I am is a theological scholar. I’m just a guy who writes books,” he said. “But I think it’s important to recognize that there are things beyond our own self that are vastly important and to dismiss them is to dismiss them at our own peril.”

Though he has been inspired by theologian and literary critic Rene Girard, most of Richard’s argument is based on his own life story — from his childhood semi-paralysis to his years in the bottle. But he places a limit on his personal testimony.

“I was writing a general book on faith. I wasn’t writing about the Eucharist or the Catholic Church, which is where I find my idea of God,” he said.

In a secular age is there a public willing to read God Is?

“I write this book the same as when I wrote Mercy Among the Children, knowing that it’s not going to be in the mainstream of current thought — and if it was I probably wouldn’t bother writing it.”

But there might be something different going on this time. While the anti-God books of recent months were marked by arrogance and a certain disdain that any thinking person might believe, the new books on God tackle the issue from numerous perspectives — scientific, sociological, contemplative and testament.

God Is Back: How The Global Rise Of Faith is Changing The World by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge is a near total rebuttal of the underlying thesis of Dawkins and Hitchens. The authors, both senior writers for The Economist, assert with a flood of evidence and anecdote that modernity doesn’t entail the death of God but rather goes hand in hand with the strengthening of faiths of all kinds.

The Evolution Of God by Robert Wright agrees with the premise of God Is Back, but argues our understanding of the idea of God and the message of faith has evolved. In a contrarian and controversial analysis, Wright argues that despite the enmity between the Abrahamic faiths that mark world affairs the ultimate result will be a more peaceful world. Wright is a non-believer who argues that taking a long view — as any evolutionary argument must — the peaceful co-existence of faith and reason, in fact the mutual support of faith and reason, will win out over time.

The Case for God
by religious thinker Karen Armstrong, due out this month, is the philosophical underpinning of the straight ahead factual musings of Wright, Micklethwait and Wooldridge. Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, understands and explores the need and power of faith to bring meaning and understanding to existence. While not claiming the title of the anti-Dawkins, Armstrong’s approach and perspective tackles his idea that God is a delusion straight on. She asks why, given the power of faith to animate and energize people, anyone would assume that by simply asserting belief to be irrational the argument is done? Armstrong knows and shows that faith is more universal, lasting and fulfilling than atheism.

Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate tackles similar territory but in a much more polemical style. Eagleton, a literary theorist and Catholic turned Marxist professor in England, may be proof positive that no one ever actually shakes the Catholic experience.

In this book he dismisses the Dawkins and Hitchens of the world for being simplistic and out of touch. He asserts they don’t understand faith and are too lazy to try. More damaging perhaps, their understanding of reason is too simplistic and cartoonish to explain human history and the meaning of God.

At the heart of the God-is-dead-or-should-be movement is the somewhat twisted — Eagleton might say naïve — assertion that science has done away with God and left no room for any sense of the divine. Fingerprints of God: The Search for The Science of Spirituality by National Public Radio science journalist Barbara Bradley Hagerty is simply the latest effort by those who both understand science and get God. She travels the border where the two meet. 

Hagerty, a believer, spends lots of time in the world of neuroscience where people who experience faith meet folks in lab coats with MRI machines who try and explain faith as synaptic firings. The result is a marvellous account of where faith and reason collide in a manner conducive to both.

Polemics are not the sole preserve of the militant secularists. William Donohue, the feisty, provocative head of the American Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights , has never been shy of mixing it up in the public square and does so in a style that matches the acerbic tone of Hitchens and Dawkins. His Secular Sabotage: How Liberals are Destroying Religion and Culture in America is a warning shot, proclaiming the culture wars that have dominated American political life for two decades are far from over. 

Arguments about the role of God, the meaning of spirituality and the place of religion in society are by no means over. What clearly has ended is the one-sided sense that religion is the last refuge for the weak-minded.

Nietzsche was wrong, Time was wrong and there is a growing number of writers who can and do demonstrate Dawkins, Hitchens and their allies are equally wrong. 

(Kavanagh is a producer with CBC Radio.)

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