That’s how one online commentator reacted to ACU Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven’s piece in The Age today “A plague of atheists has descended, and Catholics are the target”.
Last week, The Age’s sibling, the Sydney Morning Herald, ran a couple of articles on the same topic, leading off with Jewish historian Dvir Abrahamovich’s piece Celebrity atheists expose their hypocrisy, followed by a “right-of-reply” piece by Melbourne University physics tutor James Richmond, Atheists are good humans too. Both pieces are very polite, but rather pedestrian. Abrahamovich recites (in catalogue order) every complaint that any theist anywhere has ever filed against the New Atheists. It is a text book rebuttal – and quite right in practically every point – but not very exciting nor original. Likewise, Richmond’s piece is worthy of a high school debating reply.
Dr Craven has attempted to come at the subject from a different direction. I seem to recall that soon after he was appointed as Vice-Chancellor, he made a speech decrying the lack of “public theologians” today, after the manner of Chesterton and Santamaria – people who used intelligence and wit to make their point, and who were not afraid to take up the pen and fight the good fight. (I cannot locate that speech on the internet now – does anyone know the speech to which I refer?). In this piece, as in a similar piece he did last year during World Youth Day, he aims for a tone which is “clever, witty and funny”.
Unfortunately, he is no more successful at this than his opponents. You can see him making the effort, but it all falls rather flat, and he comes out sounding just like a mirror image of Christopher Hitchen’s on a bad day.
I think the piece fails on a couple of grounds. For a start, he is wrong to say that the New Atheists are fixated on the Catholic Church. They are just as scathing of the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. Secondly, his humour is more in the Catherine Deveny style than the Chesterton style. If I were a Christadelphian chartered accountant named Algie who lived in Birchip, I would find some of his jokes at my expense a bit off. And then, unlike Abrahamovich’s piece, it doesn’t really contain much of substance.
Still, he makes one good point: the New Atheists are not especially “bright”, despite Dawkins’ own claim to that description. I could name any number of theologians or philosophers who plumb greater depths of the human situation than Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. Neither of them matches the sublimity of Joseph Ratzinger, just to take a random example. They are what a friend of mine calls “deep thinkers in the shallow end of the pool”.
But back to the comment that I started with. I believe Dr Craven has overstated the “case for hate”. I think the commentator has it right: the New Atheists do not hate us so much as pity us. And personally, I would rather they hated us so that we could stage a few good martyrdoms. The ignominy of condescension which results from pity is, I would argue, harder to bear.