Rowan Williams, Lord Oystermouth and former Archbishop of Canterbury, faults Dawkins and New Atheists for damaging Christianity and not knowing theology

April 2, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Good God, here we go again! Rowan Williams, formerly a “sophisticated” Archbishop of Canterbury, now bearing the appropriate title of Lord Williams of Mealymouth Oystermouth, is still kvetching about Richard Dawkins and his supposed New Atheist posse, and on two grounds.

First, Dawkins (and we) damaged Christianity, and it needs to be repaired.

Second, New Atheists don’t know jack about theology.

As to the first, I say “GOOD FOR US! Christianity needs to be damaged, for it’s harmful and delusional, and enables the vice of belief without evidence—in other words, faith. As to the second claim, I’ve dealt with it many times before (it’s gone under the name of “the courtier’s reply“), and address it here only briefly.

Here’s the short article from The Tablet. Click to read, and shake your head about the lucubrations of poor Lord Oystermouth:

A few short excerpts:

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord (Rowan) Williams of Oystermouth, has made a scathing attack on Richard Dawkins and other “new atheists”, while cautioning that their negative impact on religious faith could still take time to repair.

“Many people who aren’t religious believers regard writers like Richard Dawkins as extremely bigoted and authoritarian, and I think their writings are less popular now,” Dr Williams told Polish Radio in an interview.

“But secularisation has also meant a lot of ignorance, and there’s a suspicion towards religion, sometimes intensified by anxiety about militant Islam. It’s as if every form of religion is the same and the local parish priest would like to cut your head off or impose some alien law on you.”

The 69-year-old theologian and poet, who was 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, from 2002 to 2012, said he planned to engage in a new debate during 2021 with Professor Dawkins, whom he viewed as a “very good biologist and absolutely brilliant writer”, but also as a “very bad philosopher” with virtually no knowledge of theology.

He added that a “rash of books” a decade ago by Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, AC Grayling and other “New Atheists” had damaged Christianity, by fostering an assumption that “the consensus among intelligent people was anti-religious”. [JAC: This is getting truer and truer every day.]

. . . He said: “The bad aspect of secularisation is that people forget what religious doctrine really is, and become subject to distortions and charicatures. It’s as if people have a very trivial picture of what religion is and why it matters.

I have news for Lord Oystermouth: yes, New Atheists damaged Christianity by turning people away from that delusional faith (is “delusional faith” a tautology?).  But no, Christianity will not be repaired. All over the West, and especially in the UK, Christianity is waning rapidly—so rapidly that I needn’t look up links to document its disappearance.

Further, none of the New Atheists named above think that all religions are the same, or are identical to militant Islam. Has Oystermouth even read Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett, or Harris? None of them say that all forms of religion are the same and, in fact, all say that different faiths are indeed different. In their writings they make distinctions between more harmful and less harmful faiths, but always emphasize that faith itself, as instantiated in nearly every “religion”, is not a virtue but a vice.

And bad philosophy? Who’s a worse philosopher? Who’s a bad boy? A guy who spends his life touting a deity for which he has no evidence, and bolstering the idea that it’s fine to believe without evidence, or a guy who simply points these things out? That’s not philosophy, but empiricism. For surely all theology, even Oystermouth’s “sophisticated”® brand, must begin with the proposition that there is a God of a certain sort. If you can’t even buttress that first assumption, the rest is commentary, and ridiculous commentary. As Dan Barker likes to say, “Theology is a subject without an object.”

Look: Here’s Oystermouth blathering on about the certainty that there is a deity, and, in fact, a deity of the Anglican persuasion (my emphasis):

Asked about the prospects for Christianity across Europe, the retired archbishop said he was “completely confident” the faith would survive.
“The Church exists because God wanted and wants it to exist, so we shouldn’t have any anxiety about its disappearance,” Dr Williams said. “Despite the New Atheists, people are not hostile to the Christian faith, nor do they regard Christianity as their enemy or as something completely ridiculous. They want to know and learn, and I think we have to be out there, arguing, persuading, doing what we can from a place of basic confidence.”

See? Some readers have defended the claim that bad things happen because “we don’t understand God’s ways” by saying, “Well, see, that’s just like what scientists do! What’s wrong with saying ‘We don’t understand?'” We had one of these commenters today.

But the difference between scientists and believers, my brothers and sisters, friends and comrades, is that scientists say they don’t understand in a uniform way, not pretending that we understand some stuff but not other stuff, when there’s no evidence for either. Yet Oystermouth blithely tells us that he knows not only that there’s a God, but that God wants the Anglican Church to exist, so it won’t go extinct. How does he know that about God?

I get peevish when I read stuff like this, so I can’t resist commenting on his eyebrows, which have always freaked me out, making me fear that he’d take off in a high wind. 

Photo credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

h/t: Enrico, Barry

95 thoughts on “Rowan Williams, Lord Oystermouth and former Archbishop of Canterbury, faults Dawkins and New Atheists for damaging Christianity and not knowing theology

  1. “nor do they regard Christianity as their enemy or as something completely ridiculous”

    I can’t speak for all people, but I think Christianity is pretty ridiculous. But if it is any consolation, I think almost all religions are just as ridiculous.

  2. “The bad aspect of secularisation is that people forget what religious doctrine really is, and become subject to distortions and charicatures. It’s as if people have a very trivial picture of what religion is and why it matters”

    I got me some religious doctrine alright… I was subjected to “confirmation” in the Methodist church as a lad. The distortions and caricatures simply seemed to be the point. Every earnest question about “the faith” was met by a veritable shitstorm of hand-waving, magic tricks and obfuscation… or, lastly…a simple, and vaguely threatening… appeal to “faith”.

  3. The admission that “new atheism” has damaged Christianity is an own goal for Oystermouth, and I expect it to be rejected shortly by other theologians.

    It’s as if every form of religion is the same and the local parish priest would like to cut your head off or impose some alien law on you.

    Could be, Rowan, could be. Speaking as a descendant of Edward Wightman, the last person to be burned for heresy in England (1612), I would say the difference lies not in the inherent goodness of Christianity in general, or the Church of England in particular. It is civil mores which have changed, not religious ones.

    1. You talk like the Church of England wasn’t founded by a fluffy kitten with rainbows and lollipops. We all know it was founded by a happy kitten.

  4. I don’t think “delusional faith” is an oxymoron. It is just an old fashioned repetitive redundancy.

  5. . “There’s a continuing interest in religious, especially Christian, themes in the arts, and a lot of good work is being done. … Our church is still very much part of the national fabric: weaker, less influential, less numerically strong, but still regarded as the guardian of certain values and aspects of human life.”

    Is this the sort of response to New Atheism given by Christian experts who have “prepared to go out and argue in public?” We respond to the question Does God Exist with good reasons to think it doesn’t— reasons grounded in the humble approach of the scientist — and then they change the question to Are There Some Nice Things People Can Get Out of Religion?

    Jeez. Even Dawkins sings hymns.

    As always, “You don’t understand religion” says man who doesn’t understand objection.

  6. Hey, those eyebrows are GREAT!! WOW! That guy’s a cutie!

    But umm…the Anglican church exists because god wanted and wants it to exist?

    Y’know…ATHEISTS exist because god wanted and wants us to exist. We’re here because we serve some mysterious purpose that god has ordained.

    1. I was down at my mum’s in Cambridge at Christmas and we were visiting Kettle’s Yard art gallery when she pointed Rowan Williams out, walking around in his normal non-goddy clothes, his voluminous eyebrows gently flapping in the evening breeze.

      I felt like yelling ‘USING GOD TO EXPLAIN THE ORIGIN OF THE UNIVERSE IS AN UNNECESSARY EXTRA STEP IN THE CAUSAL CHAIN AND THUS VIOLATES OCCAM’S RAZOR”, but by the time I’d ordered the words in my head he’d wandered off.

    2. I thought the Anglican Church came into existence because Henry VIII wanted a male heir with secondary benefits in lust and a new revenue stream. Truly, God works in mysterious ways.

    3. Indeed. Part of that mystery are the many historical confluences which occurred at just the right time and the right place so the most sublime and holiest of books could be written. For instance, if the Massacre Of The Innocents had never happened, the Bible wouldn’t be perfect, and wouldn’t that be a tragedy?

      1. How does he know that God wants the Anglican Church to survive?

        Because God is an Englishman, of course.

  7. What gets me about these religious people is that they don’t understand sophisticated atheism. They claim to have read Dawkins and Hitchens, but have they read d’Holbach, Paine, Ingersoll, Rand, Marx, A. D. White, or even half of the prominent atheist writers you can easily find listed on Wikipedia. Until these religious proponents have read all these writers, they have only a naive knowledge of atheism, and should shut up.

  8. It may be argued that the real damage to Christianity started when it was printed in common languages.

    1. Indeed, no wonder people like William Tyndale were treated in such an atrocious manner. A loving g*d my @rse!

      1. I wonder what would have happened if the Book of Mormon had been left in its original “reformed Egyptian”?

      2. But your post makes sense anyway. Christianity was controlled by an educated elite who did everything (not just the Bible) in an arcane language that normal people don’t understand (I’m talking about the Western church here – the orthodox church uses Greek). When you translated it into a language people do understand, they found out the elite was telling porkies. Hence the Reformation.

        Now the church no longer uses a dead language to provide a barrier against people seeing through the scam but “sophisticated” theology and philosophy. The argument against the Christian god is pretty simple: there’s no evidence that it exists, but they would have you believe you need to do years of study to have a legitimate opinion about its existence.

  9. That these traditional religions are fading away is a good thing, although I doubt they will disappear entirely. This trend should reduce their influence in the public square, but in the United States, at least, the damage they have done may never be totally recovered from. Over the next couple of years, it will be interesting to see the effects of the pandemic on the number of the religious and their beliefs.

    Even if the number of religious continue to diminish, I fear that this will not usher in a golden age of rationality. From what I have observed personally, reading the news, and studying history, I have concluded that most people need some sort of delusion to get through the day. I don’t think this apparent psychological necessity will disappear anytime soon. But, personal delusions are much less dangerous than the religious ones that its adherents attempt to foist on others.

    1. I think it is the nature of religion to ever schism and, consequently, the number of them isn’t going to diminish, assuming it can’t be extinguished entirely.

      1. Yes, it’s remarkable that, in striking contrast to science, which converges on the facts of the case (by design of its method), religion, far from converging, has a long history of diverging and diverging and diverging on whatever aspects you care to name.

        The nature of their god(s)
        How they expect us to behave
        How they are to be recognized or worshiped
        What clothes one should wear
        What foods one should eat

        Clearly these are the hallmarks of Bullshit, not truth.

    2. You could argue that the USA is a special case where people (in the flyover states) live far apart and the social safety net of (that other countries have) is weak. Hence people value community and religious faith has been one of the main providers of a social safety net.

      As usual a religious boss thinks religion is the most important thing ever, just as dentists want you to spend much more time cleaning your teeth, and auto mechanics think you should spend more money having your cars cared for.

    1. When I initially scanned the title, I thought, why would Rowan Atkinson be in this list of intellectual thugs? 😎

          1. Good point. Charitably, a journalistic typo or an error in the air incident report; uncharitably, I’ve been suckered by the BBC’s website.

          2. Other news organisations (CNN, The Daily Telegraph, etc.) also reported the incident at the time citing the non-existent Cessna 202, but presumably all based their stories on the original article in The Spectator, which I can’t seem to find online. It seems that “family friends” were the source of the story and that Atkinson himself avoided talking about it. It could be a publicity stunt, I suppose.

        1. He’s very endearing as Mr. Bean. However, I try not to associate my celebrity heroes with their real politics. What’s the point of that?

          1. The question I had was, had the pilot not regained consciousness, would he have been able to land the plane successfully? Without instruction from the ground, I doubt it.

        1. It is gratifying to know he’s on the right side of the free speech issue. However, if he turned out not to be, I would still want to enjoy his great comedy.

  10. “The bad aspect of secularisation is that people forget what religious doctrine really is,

    I don’t know about the UK, but here in the U.S., AFAIK, the majority of current atheists started out as Christians. Millenials are likely the first U.S. generation with a high percent of kids growing up ‘none.’
    So no, we do know what it is. As sshort says, we’ve been through it.

    Secondly, the fundamentals of Protestant – which includes Anglican – theology isn’t hard to understand. Read the Nicene creed, you’ve got the basic tenets of the belief. That’s what it really is. A whole bunch of “I believe…” statements…and guess what? None of them are backed up by good evidence.

    1. “the majority of current atheists started out as Christians.”

      You don’t become an atheist, you just go back to being one.

  11. Rowan Williams took his title from the name of a small community in Glamorgan, South Wales.

    The name of the next village along is Mumbles.

    Maybe he chose the wrong one.

  12. Nice of Lord Mealymouth to acknowledge the impact of the New Atheists. Interesting that he’s been reduced to appearing on Polish radio—perhaps he’d be more at home in Poland, since unlike western Europe it’s still very religious. But of course it’s the “wrong” religion for Lord Mealymouth. I wonder if he explained that to his Catholic hosts. As Lord Mealymouth says, not all religions are the same.

    “Many people who aren’t religious believers regard writers like Richard Dawkins as extremely bigoted and authoritarian, and I think their writings are less popular now.”

    Those people tend to be among the woke and/or far left. How exactly is the Church going to try appealing to them? And will these new attempts at outreach be as cackhanded as the previous ones?

    “The 69-year-old theologian and poet…said he planned to engage in a new debate during 2021 with Professor Dawkins”.

    I hope Dawkins will have the good sense to refuse. Why give the out-of-work Archbishop more publicity? Let him go back to ranting on Polish radio.

    “The Church exists because God wanted and wants it to exist.”

    Does this mean that Dawkins and company damaged the church because God wanted them to? Perhaps God no longer believes in himself either.

  13. All well and good to see a theologian worry about the decline of their religion. But the cause of that decline probably has more to do with good governance that produces general improvement of peoples’ wellness and happiness than with any one Atheist or any one of their books.

    A peoples’ sense of happiness and opportunity and hope is the greatest enemy of religion.

  14. For Christians say that bad things happen (floods, tornadoes, cancer.etc.) because God is punishing people is the same belief system of the pagans in the days of the Roman Empire who had to keep their gods happy to avoid disasters. Christianity = paganism

  15. “We don’t understand god’s ways.”

    How is it that every person who overcomes an illness or survives a tornado is unequivocal proof of the existence of god, but when someone dies of the same illness or from the same tornado it isn’t evidence of the non-existence of god — it just means we don’t understand god’s ways. Why does this sound EXACTLY like heads I win, tails you lose?

    1. “tornado” – Reminds me of the woman interviewed by Wolf Blitzer after a tornado destroyed her home. He says: I guess you thank God. She says: No, I’m an atheist. How exquisitely refreshing that was.

  16. I can’t resist commenting on his eyebrows, which have always freaked me out, making me fear that he’d take off in a high wind.

    Sounds like a pitch for a sequel to The Flying Nun (and you managed it in the requisite “25 words or less”).

    Have your people call Sally Field’s people; see if she’s available for a cameo. 🙂

    1. If Fields is equal to the sequel I propose she sally forth and make the “The Flying Abbess”.

    2. “Do these spectacle frames make my eyebrows seem fat?” “No.However,your forehead wipers make your lame remarks seem menacing.”

  17. Lord Musselhead, or Lord Shrimpbrain, or whatever it is, has alerted me to one of my many shortcomings:

    I know almost nothing about Jadeggupvaginology, not having read and absorbed the deep contributions to this intellectual behemoth. I have not even looked up the names of august professors of that ancient and powerful discipline. Perhaps universities ought to drop their mathematics departments to make room for this beside the theologists.

    So I better shut up, before the pope in Hollywood attacks me publicly.

  18. Not knowing theology = bad? Oh brother. Yeah, I don’t know astrology, alchemy, crystal energies or Wicca either…these endeavors and “organized religion” are all pretty much cut from the same cloth. Making shit up to explain unknown phenomenon and suffering is common for our species, but there’s no excuse to keep hanging on to all these man-made superstitions. I guess we’re slowly moving away from the folly, but it’s going much too slowly for me.

  19. Re: “the consensus among intelligent people was anti-religious”

    “All religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful” – Seneca

    Some things don’t change.

  20. I think the best thing would be to have a thing before we have an “ology” of the thing. Horses before carts. 404 horsies not found.

  21. so we shouldn’t have any anxiety about its disappearance,” Dr Williams said.

    Rome + Nero x fiddle = burning

  22. He’s right, I haven’t read much theology. I also haven’t read much astrology. If only I were more open-minded.

  23. Dawkins had a discussion with Williams several years ago, which I think is on YouTube, where Richard asked him if he “knows” God exists, to which he replied, “I don’t know God exists but I trust that he does.”

  24. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say the following?

    “The Church EXITS because God wanted and wants it to EXIT, so we shouldn’t have any anxiety about its disappearance.”

    Mr. Williams, please blame it on your God.

  25. Jesus to Mo: You haven’t read enough Christian theology.

    Mo to Jesus: You haven’t read enough Islam theology.

    Stare at each other.

  26. You don’t need to understand theology, just weaponize your total fertility rate, brainwash the young, fleece the flock, and repeat ad infinitum.

  27. “faith itself, as instantiated in nearly every “religion”, is not a virtue but a vice.” It is also a vice in secular religions, such as socialism and climate doom mongering and gender feminism.

    1. ..and capital punishment, and unlimited capitalism, and ignorant labelling government social action as socialism, and ridiculous gun rights, and religious special rights, and US exceptionalism, and soft as well as hard racism, and belief the word ‘race’ has any scientific value whatsoever, and slavery/civil war historical revisionism, and regarding public health as a wonderful way to make a shitload of money, and omitting the last two words in asserting US has the world’s best medical system for billionaires, and belief that Drumpf is anything but a very dangerous, for USians and all the rest of humanity, criminal sociopath.

    2. Mongering is often good for society, and it doesn’t necessarily involve faith. It can be a scientific determination of probable outcomes.

        1. The climate change issue is pretty well understood by scientists around the world, although no one can tell you precisely what will happen and when, they now know that there is a very strong probability of very severe damage from increasing temperatures. If you call this mongering, then, so be it. The question then becomes do you want to take that chance? You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?

          1. I’m glad you’ve now narrowed it down. I don’t know, nor have I heard of any serious person predicting the “end of the world” or the “collapse of civilization”. What exactly do those terms mean? I’d say, very unlikely but not impossible that there could be a catastrophic result of current trends. With no further mitigation, millions could starve, wars over resources could break out, vast urban areas could be submerged. We really don’t know. Generally, it’s better to be safe than sorry. There are other advantages to going renewable anyway.

    3. Here in Sweden we haev, by popular vote, a social democratic led, feminist government that aim to become carbon neutral 2045.

      Because the alternative would be to have – based on known facts – rampant COVID-19 due to lack of general medical insurance so health care cost, have gender inequality and risk the welfare of society due to rapid man made climate change.

      Deal with it. Better yet, think about it.

    4. “ … is also a vice in … climate doom mongering”

      You are a blatant liar if you are accusing the vast majority of climate scientists of following ‘their faith’ rather than following scientific statistical evidence. That would be when they say that your children, grandchildren, etc. will suffer greatly if the USian electorate does not very soon get rid of the Republican Party, and Drumpf in particular (the really dangerous liars here), rid of them for a very long time.

      The latters’ descendants will also suffer, and undoubtedly theirs and yours will be much more deserving of that suffering than the large portion of the following generations of the human race who will be suffering.

      Well, maybe not: they can’t choose that their ancestors turn out to have been major historical villains.

        1. So “You are a liar if you are accusing xxxx..” is an ad hominem, whereas ‘It is a lie if you are accusing xx..” isn’t one?
          Enquiring minds are puzzled.

          Anyway, a ‘major villain’ should be a compliment for you, putting you in the category with Drumpf (and Hitler of course).

          I do think that selfishly shortening the lives by many years of billions of people, however much after you yourself are dead, is major villainy, don’t you?

          Your sum total argument, against the scientists claiming climate change to be virtually certain statistically, is at about the average level of such arguments, isn’t it?

  28. Methinks the retired religionist doth protest too much.

    Also, when did we need philosophy or inside expertise when dismissing, say, astrology?

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