By Simon Clare
Late last year, I was invited to a talk at King’s Church, Horsham (KCH), entitled What Would Jesus Say to Dawkins? I went along with my daughter to hear them out.
You can hear the sermon for yourself if you look up their website, and I suggest you do.
I was pleased that thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were being spoken about in front of an audience of 300 of Horsham’s faithful, but I came away from the talk feeling somewhat disappointed.
In focusing on a rather uncharitable interpretation of Dawkins and his reputation, I felt that the pastor, Phil Playfoot, was not giving his congregation a truly representative picture of what atheists believe.
Dawkins is easily caricatured – which is his own fault – yet it is often the caricature version of him that gets held up as an example of a typical atheist. He is certainly the most visible and famous of the godless, but he is only representative of those who agree with him.
In reality, atheists are as varied in their faithless views as the religious are in their faithful ones.
I felt that Phil’s assertion, that without God there can be no good, ignored the fact that atheists (particularly humanists) actively seek to make themselves better people.
There is a great value in seeking to be good for its own simple sake rather than out of obedience to or fear of God.
Phil cited the Dostoyevsky quote: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” It is a scary-sounding statement, but that is all. It is not something that any humanist would see as a guiding principle for life.
To respond to the KCH sermon, I invited Sam Fremantle from the London School of Philosophy to speak at Horsham Skeptics and I was very grateful that Phil Playfoot accepted my invitation too.
I wanted to demonstrate that those of us who do not believe in gods have many reasons for trying to be good people rather than evil ones. This loose assortment of ethical approaches to life is known collectively as humanism.
Far from being an amoral philosophy, humanism values many of the virtues that religious people do, but without the need for supernatural inspiration. As Sam demonstrated, there are numerous ways in which one can approach the quest to become a better person and none of them is perfect.
The writings of Kant, Mill and even Aristotle all have a part to play, but it is up to us which of these views are best suited to the situations we find ourselves in.
I would add Jesus Christ to this list of inspirational philosophers.
Being atheist does not mean you automatically dismiss good advice just because you heard it from a religious source. That would be silly, but just as I do not completely agree with Dawkins, I don’t agree with everything Jesus said either.
Humanists can take their inspiration from wherever they wish, trusting their own judgment to choose what is best.
Such a trust in humanity does require faith, but I am not afraid to admit this. I have good reason to have faith in humanity.