Rowan or the New Atheists – who came out better?

AC Grayling launches New Humanities College

Well not one fire-storm this week but two!

Firstly, there was the fuss about AC Grayling setting up his college at the beginning of the week and then the fuss abouth what the Archbishop of Canterbury did or didn’t say in his editorship of the New Statesman this week.

What was rather amusing was the confusion for some as to what on earth they should think. So you get one union official who tweeted:

Richard Dawkins supporting elitist education and the Archbishop fighting the cuts with us. Oh, what a world, what a world…

Richard Dawkins in attack mode

Richard Dawkins

This summed up a good number of people’s thinking. The view that the church stands up for privilege and elitism and mumbo-jumbo and that the likes of Richard Dawkins stands for reason and rationality and equality.

The furore of the New Humanities college showed how much style over substance had really pre-dominated the New Atheist movement. I want to say here that I am NOT attacking atheists per-se but I am questioning the New Atheist end of the spectrum.

So on Richard Dawkins website in discussion of the New Humanities College the first comment from one of his “disciples” is:

Great idea and subject content, except for English Literature. Sorry but this seems to be totally misplaced in what seems to be a forward thinking and highly worthwhile program. In my opinion a course in International relations- how to deal with people from other cultures would be more useful and appropriate in today’s world

Others have noted the same type of worldview that doesn’t appreciate the richness and variety of life or different points of view. So in the New Humanities college we see that there is no space for Languages, Fine Art, Theology etc.

We also see that there are obligatory lessons in areas of science that people such as Dawkins wish to ram home to their students. Not such a liberal arts course then!

What has also caused widespread unease is the exclusivity of it. 14 academics – all white only one female – will own 1/3 of the college and seemingly only have to do a one hour lecture to receive their fees and dividend. On top of that are the fees – £18,000 – twice the top fees that are expected to be asked by most universities.

What has been fascinating is that being used to put the boot in themselves the professors of this new venture are struggling a bit to make sense of the furore. So Grayling in the Guardian says:

Grayling said: “Of course it is upsetting. I don’t like it at all. Having been, in some respects, for some constituencies, Mr Nice Guy for some time, it is hard work and upsetting to be Mr Bad Guy.”

The impression that Grayling, Dawkins and his friends are displaying is that they are on the side of money and privilege. As Terry Eagleton in his onslaught says:

The teaching of history, if the work of Dawkins and Grayling is anything to judge by, will be of a distinctly Whiggish kind. Grayling peddles a Just So version of English history, breathtaking in its crudity and complacency, in which freedom has been on the rise for centuries and has only recently run into trouble. Dawkins touts a simple-minded, off-the-peg version of Enlightenment in which people in the west have all been getting nicer and nicer, and would have ended up as civilised as an Oxford high table were it not for a nasty bunch of religious fundamentalists.

Now compare this with the onslaught by some on the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is asked to be guest editor of the New Statesman. So what does he do? Does he pack the edition with all his friends and allies? No. He asks Ian Duncan Smith to write about his proposed welfare reforms, he interviews William Hague about Britain and its role in the world, he asks the noted atheist Philip Pullman to write a piece on “my visionary journeys”, pieces by AS Byatt and Richard Curtis. In all of this he is showing his wishing to create the space for a broad and inclusive dialogue; respectful and sincere.

This depth and breadth of thinking in Rowan Williams is what makes him a fascinating person to lead the Church of England at this point in time. We need people who can think and discuss and who are unafraid to ask hard questions not only of others but also of themselves.

We are now seeing some journalists who have read and engaged with the article coming out with sensible and well thought through statements on Rowan. Both Jonathan Wynne-Jones of the Telegraph and Andrew Brown of the Guardian have come out best in this respect. Both engaging with what Rowan actually said rather than third hand reporting of it.

What is also fascinating is how much notice has been taken of it. On the World Tonight there was an interview between the editor of the New Statesman and someone from the Humanist society debating about whether the Archbishop should have been involved in this. How bizarre to see that combination and to see someone from the mainstream left passionately defending Rowan’s right to comment on political issues.

Indeed we are now seeing even Conservative MP’s welcome his intervention.

So in my humble opinion I think that the fire-storm has helped grow the stature of Rowan Williams; it has surprised people and given him a voice with people who wouldn’t normally have listened. It has also ensured that the church is again shown to be siding with the poor and the marginalised – always the right place to be.

On the other side I think the fire-storm has diminished the likes of Grayling and Dawkins. It has shown them to be siding with the privileged, the well off and shows a lack of awareness of the underprivileged and the marginalised. It also raises questions as to their vision for humanities overall.

What do others think?


2 comments on “Rowan or the New Atheists – who came out better?

  1. Rosie Edser
    June 10, 2011 at 7:19 pm #

    I’m not sure that one can make an argument from the fact that there are missing curriculum subjects in a specialised university.. but you def can from the fact that some courses are obligatory!

    • Esther Somerson
      June 11, 2011 at 11:49 am #

      You note race and tokenistic female employment re the new college. You also talk about St. Paul’sRoundshaw and ‘being kind’. People in all walks of life now adopt the phrase ‘political correctness’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’. It is alright to use that term when it suits us but for those who are more academically aware – and religious study includes ‘social justice’ – to be respectful and informed of how we do, but should not offend, individuals or groups is important. Christ in micro and macrocosm of life. All humankind has prejudice of one sort or another – I have come to believe that that is what makes us sinners, in a state of sin, that only Christ can and has redeemed us from in and outside of ‘Church’ – that the commandments point to added sin in which we indulge or fight against with free will. Am sure u could offer a tome of reading to critique….ditto!!
      The college should have access for all, plainly it does not. Oxbridge should – plainly it does not. Both built on wealth and privilege. .. and not saying some fine work has not come from them from a Christian perspective… but not equal access.
      A GP and a consultant cardiologist neglected their young child and their twins, sitting miles away ( might as well have been!)indulging themselves – or just ‘chillaxing’ and someone or people kidnapped their child – terrible consequences of child abuse..but they do not live on a ‘sink’ estate. Are they less culpable (TWTAIN) than the woman who tried to get sympathy and ‘votes’ when she allowed her daughter to be held hostage by an ‘uncle’, that little girl and her siblings will probably be in ‘care’ now. Two little girls both from completely different backgrounds, two little girls let down by those whom they innocently trusted to care for them.
      St Paul’s hasn’t a ‘state of the art ‘ web site – just plain facts for contact & services. .. somewhere there and in all similar ‘estates’ there is a mum, with very little to live on, struggling to keep her children safe, over protecting them because she loves them, promoting God’s love and being watchful, a father who has lost confidence in his abilities and wants the best for his children, to do well, to achieve. Of course there are a few bone idle/ scroungers in the ‘sink’ / ‘local’ estates and alongside them (dreadful for the NIMBYs ) some privileged and articulate who are also lazy and don’t tell lies but don’t tell quite the ‘whole’ truth about their circumstances. And ( gosh my English teacher in my all girl’s grammar school would frown at a girl from a sink estate starting a sentence with ‘And ‘ ) lots of what you might call ‘robots’ in yr flow chart, ….your ordinary every day ‘law abiding’ folk – communion under both kinds.
      And it all got politically steadily worse since 1979, only now, due to corrupt banking and selling debt to the vulnerable, the anihilation of industry and its dependent other employment is hitting the wealthier. Those oppressed and those well informed by history of M Thatcher’s policies and most ‘New Labour’ policies may ponder , why in2011 in churches across the country, there are services being held about unemployment. ..are some disadvantaged more deserving than others of prayer. ..thank God for God .. TAIN!
      ‘When people say you can’t mix religion and politics I ask them “what Bible are you reading?” Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
      P.S. Is there life on Mars, do you think?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s