Dawkins predicts religion’s early death: the Pope warns that ‘in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of being snuffed out’. But they are saying very different things

Benedict XVI leaves vespers at St Paul Outside the Walls last week (Photo: CNS)

I don’t suppose many of my readers are also readers of the Times of India, so most of you will not have seen the following, which appeared on January 24 under the headline “Look forward to the death of organised religion: Richard Dawkins”:

JAIPUR: Richard Dawkins – scientist, bestselling author and the world’s foremost atheist – comes across as mild-mannered and genial but doesn’t believe in pulling his punches. He certainly didn’t on Monday at the Jaipur Lit Fest as he blasted the “lamentable disgrace” of Salman Rushdie’s enforced absence. He also launched a broadside against the “virus of faith”, and said he looked forward to the “complete death of organised religion” in his lifetime.

Dawkins singled out various irrational beliefs, including “Santa Claus, baby Jesus and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer” and then homed in on the Catholic Church:

Dawkins pointed out that in the 16th century, some Catholics in England had written to a senior figure in the Vatican asking if it was acceptable to murder Elizabeth I. The answer was that since the Queen had led millions away from Catholicism, her murder would be a commendable act. Dawkins didn’t spell it out, but two points were clear- he wasn’t targeting a faith but all of them, and nothing much has changed in almost 500 years. “Religion is deadly because it makes people willing to die and kill for it without a shred of evidence to back up their beliefs,” he said.

Well, that needn’t detain us for very long. We all know that Pius V’s bull, Regnans in Excelsis (1570), which declared Elizabeth I a heretic and released her subjects from their allegiance to her, was a massive political blunder, since Elizabeth, who had thus far tolerated Catholic worship in private, now started actively persecuting Catholics, a persecution whose effects lasted for over 400 years and are with us still (Dawkins himself is in a sense riding on the back of it, as we saw in his campaign against the Pope’s visit to England). Dawkins claims to rule his life by the light of reason: but to say that Pius V’s disastrous blunder disproves his religion is entirely irrational. Regnans in Excelsis isn’t in any sense a religious or spiritual document: it’s power politics from beginning to end. As for religion being deadly “because it makes people willing to die and kill for it without a shred of evidence to back up their beliefs”, how about the willingness of the atheists Stalin and Mao massively to kill for it in the name of their own supposedly scientific but equally unproved anti-religious beliefs?

But this is the kind of thing we are used to from Dawkins. What attracts attention here is that prediction: that there will be the “complete death of organised religion” in his lifetime. Well now. He’s almost certainly wrong, and I wouldn’t bother to dignify his polemical sally with any argument against it, if it didn’t seem on the face of it to be not entirely dissimilar to a recent predictive speculation of the Holy Father’s, uttered three days later at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent plenary session. “We are facing,” the Pope said, “a deep crisis of faith, a loss of religious sense which poses the greatest challenge for the Church today”: he went on to warn that “In vast areas of the world faith risks going out like a flame that no longer has anything to burn on.”

It’s happened before, of course, this selective death of faith where once it flourished: where is St Augustine’s Hippo now? In North Africa, once a centre of the Catholic faith, that’s where. But to realise that the survival of the faith in any particular place or area of the globe is never secure is quite different from doubting the dominical promise that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. Whatever may be happening in Europe and North America, worldwide the faith is still advancing, not retreating.

And of course, that’s what the Pope is really saying: it’s the renewal of faith that he’s after, especially in areas of the world where it seems threatened. Fr Z’s translation of the relevant passage (which I didn’t find complete and in English anywhere else) is useful here:

As we know, in vast areas of the world the Faith is in danger of being snuffed out like a flame that no longer has any sustenance. We are at a profound crisis of faith, at a loss of a religious sense that constitutes the greatest challenge for the Church of today. The renewal of the faith must therefore be the priority in the undertaking of the whole Church in our times. I hope that the Year of Faith can contribute, with the cordial collaboration of all the members of the People of God, to bring God back anew to this world and to open to men an access to the faith, to a reliance on the God who loved us to the end (cf John 13,1), in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen.

Fr Z’s own contribution to that process is to say that “nothing of which His Holiness spoke is going to be accomplished without a renewal of our liturgical worship”; and I’m quite certain that he’s right. That’s where it has to begin: at the altar. I’m less sure than he is that this can be accomplished principally by homing in on Summorum Pontificum, though I absolutely agree that it remains “one of the most important acts of his pontificate”. This is what Fr Z would like to see:

We need more and more and more opportunities for people to experience the older, traditional form of the Roman Rite in our Latin Church parishes.

Younger priests: learn the older form. This is your Rite! Know your Rite! If you are a Latin Church priest, who are you if you don’t know your Rite? Just do it!

Lay people: band together and start requesting celebrations of Holy Mass also in the Extraordinary Form. Get organized. Form a schola and start singing chant so you will be ready when the time comes. Offer to take care of all the material details. Offer to provide vestments, books, money so the priest can go get training. Start thinking about forming a group of servers, perhaps even father and son teams.

I agree with all of that, and on Sundays I not infrequently hear Mass in the Extraordinary Form. But I still find myself more often attending High Mass in Latin according to the Novus Ordo. I am, I admit, exceptionally fortunate in my parish church, the Oxford Oratory, where I can experience every week what the Church’s liturgy could be everywhere. There’s no question for us of “the Faith [being] in danger of being snuffed out like a flame that no longer has any sustenance”. Fr Z concludes by saying that “Many benefits will flow from a side by side experience of both forms of Holy Mass of the Latin Church”, and I’m certain he’s right: I’m quite sure, for instance, that my clergy’s celebration of the Novus Ordo is deeply enriched by the fact that they all regularly celebrate the Old Mass too.

But I am also only too aware that when I am away from home Sundays can be very different, and that though the Mass is always irreducibly the Mass, the way it is celebrated can send a real chill to the heart. For every priest, everywhere, seriously to address this problem has to be seen as a first priority. Do the bishops understand how important this is? I wonder.