I was recently taken to task by a highly respected fellow “old boy”, an alumnus of Marist Brothers Kogarah, “not so much for peddling atheism as for the fact that you have forgotten, or at least chosen to eschew, a fundamental principle of argument”. He reminded me of a statement made by G.K.Chesterton in 1933 :”As a matter of fact, it is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer. That is why, in recent literature, there has been so little argument and so much sneering.” He dares apply the accusation, eighty years later, to Hitchens and Dawkins, and does me in passing the undeserved honor of comparing me with the masters, seeing in my writing, like theirs, “prime evidence” of GKC’s principle.
Readers may be interested to discover the following excerpt from my reply to the Lord High Commissioner, the Grand Inquisitor, in my autodafè (those last words just to bring a little water to his mill). We are here in what another famous Catholic author called “The Heart of the Matter” of this Blog :
“GKC was a genius who was once one of my personal reasons for believing. Master of the “bon mot”, he is, in my book (so to speak) up there with Mencken and Wilde, though on the other side of the divide. Articulating aphorisms is an art (alliteration is not). The one you quote is typically as clever as it is incisive. Some people sneer, mock and ridicule when they are short on arguments, or lack the capacity or the courage to use them. A bit like my story of the church-cleaner who after the Sunday Masses discovered the PP’s sermon notes in the pulpit (or the “bullpit”, as some of the irreverent clergy call it), revealing that that morning’s homily was a rehash of an earlier one : there were handwritten marginal notes alongside the typed text. One read : “Argument weak here; shout like Hell !”
“Dawkins never descends to sneering (or shouting), though sometimes he cannot conceal his shock at the absurdities he hears expressed by his opponent. A famous example was seen in his debate (ABC TV, “Q and A”, April 9, 2012) with Cardinal Pell, who at one point spoke of our Neanderthal “ancestors”, who were, as everyone else knows, in fact our cousins ! (This was not a “lapsus linguae” : the Cardinal went on, thinking to score a point, by asking Dawkins why, if they were our cousins we had never met a Neanderthal. His Eminence has a sense of humor, but he was not joking, just putting his ignorant foot in it !). Richard Dawkins, the gentleman, did not sneer – he just let it ride. As we say here in France, one should not shoot at ambulances.
“Hitch had an equally sharp mind (and impeccable accent), but not Dawkins’ politeness, and amused his fans, already won to the Cause – and infuriated his foes – by his sometimes venemous one-liners. However to suggest that either of them did nothing but sneer without presenting solid arguments for their atheism, is to do them and their oeuvre a gross injustice. But here the accusation, whatever about them, is that I apparently am content to sneer and am not ready (or probably qualified) to argue.
“If by “arguments” you mean yet another dissection of Thomas’ Five “Proofs”, or an analysis of the implications of the BEH boson, or debates about the historicity of “events” in the supposedly “inspired” Sacred Scriptures – subjects on which I touch, seemingly too briefly for you – I plead guilty, your Honor. It has all been said, brick wall to brick wall, before – and to no avail. Rather than engage in the exchange of worn-out arguments, I prefer to point out how silly religions’ beliefs, rules and rituals are, instead of pursuing interminable, dead-end discussions of First Causes, blind watchmakers, birds’ wings, the human eye and that damned molecular motor that drives the bacterial flagellum, all of which, by the way, are to be found in my book and blog. Nasty of me, you will say, but my principal choice of argument is reductio ad absurdum : I pity people like Bishop Robinson who believes that Mary really did achieve Lift-Off because his Mum told him so. Hard not to “sneer” at such highly intellectual argumentation (for more of the fun, check out my “From Illusions to Illumination”, page 67).
“I’ve got your back up enough, my friend, not to add more fuel to that fire beneath my stake (“well done, please”). You must find it difficult to believe that I sincerely respect believers, non-atheists like you, as persons, when I have no respect whatever for your beliefs. I myself shared those beliefs for half of my eight decades. I am now committed not to arguing with, and even less trying to convert unconditional, convinced and committed Catholics like you and Alan and Jim and so many others (1.2 billion !), but to reinforcing the doubts in people I call Believers on the Brink, who have already jettisoned many of the myths but hang on in there, trying to ignore how ridiculous their religion really is.”
Quod erat, amici mei, demonstrandum.