The best novel for atheists and Christians

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Is there still any reason to worship God at Christmas?

Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens think not. In their view, Darwinian science has done away with any rational basis for belief in God, let alone the divinity of Christ.

Dawkins and Hitchens are the authors, respectively, of The God Delusion and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. They not only mock a caricature of the Christian faith, but also reject the traditional principles of Judeo-Christian morality.

This is not to suggest that Dawkins and Hitchens are amoral nihilists. Nothing, it seems, offends them more than the suggestion that there is no reason to be good without God.

A. J. Ayer, the celebrated British philosopher and atheist, once debated the scholarly Catholic Bishop Christopher Butler. Hitchens recalls: “The exchange proceeded politely enough until the bishop, hearing Ayer assert that he saw no evidence at all for the existence of any god, broke in to say, ‘Then I cannot see why you do not lead a life of unbridled immorality.’

“At this point,” adds Hitchens, “‘Freddie,’ as his friends knew him, abandoned his normal suave urbanity and exclaimed, ‘I must say that I think that is a perfectly monstrous insinuation,’ Now, Freddie had certainly broken most commandments respecting the sexual code as adumbrated from Sinai. He was, in a way, justly famous for this. But he was an excellent teacher, a loving parent, and a man who spent much of his spare time pressing for human rights and free speech. To say that his life was an immoral one would be a travesty of the truth.”

Note that according to Hitchens’ account, Butler did not accuse Ayer of immorality: The bishop only said he could not see why an atheist does not lead a life of unbridled immorality.

Hitchens’ book is rife with such sloppy thinking and misinformation. And Dawkins’ book is no better. In a devastating critique for the London Review of Books, Terry Eagleton wrote: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the British Book of Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

Granted, there are some excellent books that disparage Christianity from an atheistic perspective. One of the best is The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevski, a gripping murder mystery that has been much lauded as the greatest of all novels.

The late Susan Sontag, a prominent atheist intellectual, praised The Brothers Karamazov as “the novel I reread most often and love best.” She must have appreciated the atheistic arguments of Ivan, the most brilliant of the three Karamazov brothers.

However, like Bishop Butler, Ivan famously holds that if there is no God or immortality of the soul, there is no reason for virtue. Rakitin, an atheistic seminarian, dismisses this theory as a fraud. In his view: “Humanity will find in itself the power to live for virtue even without believing in immortality. It will find it in love for freedom, for equality, for fraternity.”

Dimitri Karamazov agrees with his brother Ivan. Both maintain that even idealistic atheists end up employing utilitarianism as a “social justification for every nasty thing they do!”

The third and youngest Karamazov brother, Alyosha, stakes his life on the truth of Christianity. How, though, can he know that God and immortality exist? Father Zossima, Alyosha’s saintly mentor at the local monastery, explains: “There’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it. By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul.”

Here, then, is an ideal Christmas present for any reader. However, atheists should beware: After reading and pondering The Brothers Karamazov, they, too, could end up with a reasonable and firm belief that the darkness shall never, ever overcome the true light that came into the world at Christmas.

Rory Leishman
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