Fry, Dawkins, and picking on someone your own Sizer!

If social media is anything to go by – which it almost never is – then this past week has been something of a triumph for celebrity atheism, or a bit of a joke, depending on how you look at it.

There was that Richard Dawkins tweet wondering whether it might be a

good idea to beam erotic videos to theocracies? NOT violent, woman-hating porn but loving, gentle, woman-respecting eroticism.

After a barrage of mockery the tweet was removed, and some are claiming it was only ever meant as a joke anyway. Which to my mind only goes to show that when you can’t differentiate between Dawkins’ jokes and his genuinely absurd ethical pronouncements, alarm bells ought to be ringing!

As an aside, the tweet also came in the same week that Boris Johnson claimed that British jihadists are sexually frustrated, porn-obsessed losers who turn to extreme religious fanaticism as a result of their failure in relationships. And if that seemed like a rather childish putdown, apparently it’s not; there’s MI5 research to prove it!

It occurs to me that Dawkins and BoJo really need to be comparing notes on this, because if the latter is correct then the former may well only fuel further violence through his erotica distribution plan!

And then, as I’m sure you’re aware, there was that video from Stephen Fry raising the problem of suffering as an argument against religion and an explanation for why he feels such animosity against the very idea of God.

Much has been written on Fry’s unusually vitriolic video; the theological strawmen, the absurdity of his preference for the raping and murdering Greek gods, and the fact that atheism doesn’t have an answer to the very problem he raises, nor does the absence of God actually make life simpler, purer, cleaner and more worth living such that we ought to ‘stop worrying and enjoy your life’ – just read the earliest chapters of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic to put that notion to bed – and I don’t intend to rehearse all that again here, because the point I want to make is slightly different.

As many have noted, now and plenty of times previously, there is something laughable about many forms of celebrity atheism. Especially celebrity ‘new’ atheism, which actually detracts from the forms of atheism that genuinely deserve respect and thoughtful engagement. Check out Tim Stanley’s article in the Telegraph on Fry and Dawkins as one such example. As he concludes:

Celebrity atheism was a big thing ten years ago but now is old hat and rather tiresome. Oh, there are atheist thinkers out there whose opinions are worth hearing and there are eloquent people of faith ready to respond. But why must it always be the same old bores boring on about the subject? This yawnfest has to stop.

And here is the point. There are good arguments and bad arguers. There are points worth wrestling with and polemics worth rolling our eyes at. And sometimes the two get tangled up, particularly in the world of likes, favourites and RTs. That can be deeply frustrating for all involved, and I feel the pain of atheists who have good reasons for their position, but whose reasonable voices get squashed out by the facile rantings of Dawkins et al., whose material is click-bait and easily-retweetable by the largely-unthinking social media populace. I understand why the likes of Michael Ruse write:

The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist

And I don’t count that as a victory for theism, so much as a sad and lamentable statement about the calibre of popular atheism.

But let me put the shoe on the other foot and illustrate this by someone in my own camp, as it were.

You may have seen the controversy this weekend about Rev. Stephen Sizer, a Church of England vicar from Surrey who linked to an article via his Facebook page, which suggested Israel may have been behind the 9/11 attacks. Not an advisable thing to post on any day, especially not on the week in which Holocaust Memorial Day fell.

This is not the first time Sizer has caused outrage, and I have to say, he is increasingly sounding Dawkinsian in his racially insensitive, conspiracy theory ramblings.

Which causes me a problem… because I rather liked his book.

At a time when I was trying to wrestle with theological questions about what the Bible teaches about the relationship between Israel and the church, I read a lot of books on each side of the debate, and I found Stephen Sizer’s Zion’s Christian Soldiers to be pretty helpful in forming my own opinion. To be sure, it was forceful in places, and a little more aggressive about certain points than I would have been, but it was the theology that I appreciated: The dismantling of dispensationalism; the explanation of the biblical storyline and how promises about land, law and temple are fulfilled in the New Testament. The previously unpublished essay by John Stott was really helpful. I didn’t agree with everything in the book, but I found it gave me a framework for understanding Jesus’ teachings about the people of God far more clearly than I had done before.

I ate the meat, spat out the bones, recommended it to a few people, with appropriate caveats, and I moved on. And I didn’t think any more about Stephen Sizer until years later – in fact, probably only last year – when I noticed the amount of controversy that had grown up around him, the irresponsible use of social media, and the increasingly anti-semitic-sounding posts. I was shocked and disappointed, because the ill-advised actions of one man have created a link between fulfilment theology and anti-Israel conspiracy theory that is not necessary and simply should not exist. And as Ruse is embarrassed by Dawkins, I’m embarrassed by Sizer.

So I now find myself in a position not unlike that of many of my atheist friends, and here I try to spell out what that feels like. Read the following three paragraphs twice through: once imagining you’re an atheist who grew up on The Selfish Gene and is now embarrassed by The God Delusion, and once imagining you’re in my position in relation to Stephen Sizer. And a third time if you have your own personal equivalent.

I hold a particular theological view, which I think I have good reasons for holding, and which in no way has led me to acts of immorality, hostility, or racism towards anyone else. I have formed and modified my view over a process of many years, and am open to being convinced to alter my view. I have patience for those who hold a different view to me, so long as they are rational and non-sensationalist in their discussion, although of the alternative views there are of course, some for which I have more time than others.

However, I find that there are some high profile people who to all intents and purposes should fall into the same sort of camp as I do, but in recent years have become absurd caricatures of a position that once was reasonable. They are walking strawmen. I appreciated their early work in creating a foundation for my own thinking, but their latter work has become an embarrassment; somewhere between laughable and downright dangerous, and as such is not something with which I want to be associated. Whether it’s due to fame, or fortune, or senility or whatever, they have radically shifted such that person they have become is not the person whose thinking I found initially helpful. I do not believe their current position is the logical and necessary outworking of their earlier writings, and I believe it is possible to hold to some similar foundational thoughts, without bearing the same sour fruit. But honestly, they make me embarrassed to have ever appreciated or recommended their work.

And the thing that gets me most is that the ill-advised actions and tone of the author in question discredits the whole discussion and shifts the focus away from the important arguments, fixing it instead on peripheral issues. All anyone hears now is the ramblings of a once-cogent-now-nutty thinker whose own community wants to distance themselves from. And in the process the important discussions get silenced, such that we have no hope of moving forward.

Sound familiar?

So here’s my appeal, to atheists, Christians, Zionists, fulfilment theologians, and pretty much everybody:

Can we agree that ideas deserve a hearing and that all of our diverse positions have good reasons that need discussing and objections that need answering? I need to answer the serious questions posed by atheism, just as atheists need to take seriously the claims of theism.

Can we agree that there are people within every camp who bring the whole into disrepute, and can we extend to each other the courtesy of not mistaking the ramblings of crackpots for the authentic and sensible voices?

Can we recognise that benefitting from someone’s thought in one area does not necessarily mean we will forever more agree with everything they say and do. And can we also agree that the actions of an individual may not be inextricably linked to the particular view they hold, such that it is true that everyone who believes the same thing will necessarily endorse them or act the same way? I don’t for one moment believe that all of Dawkins’ ethical pronouncements would be shared by everybody who bears the label ‘atheist’ and I’d like you to offer me the same generosity of spirit when you next hear someone make distasteful comments in the name of Christianity. I don’t believe Sizer’s remarks are an unavoidable result of fulfilment theology; they’re more due to a cocktail of factors, including paranoia, a penchant for conspiracy theories and a gross lack of discernment. I’m more than happy to say that I think they are very wrong indeed – and I think almost all of us would agree on that!