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…
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?