Rarely have I put my hopes in a Roman Catholic to defend orthodox Christianity and this week’s effort by Cardinal George Pell, in his debate with atheist Richard Dawkins, has done little to change my mind.
However, there is one who, if he were alive, I would gladly offer up to Mr Dawkins on such an occasion: GK Chesterton.
GK Chesterton was a genius. As an orator he was without equal, as an author he was prolific and as an intellectual he stood in very, very rare company.
Chesterton’s influence on Christianity is undisputed. It is enough to say that his book, The Everlasting Man, was the key human factor in the conversion of CS Lewis. Think about it: the book which finally convinced CS Lewis during his own search for truth.
As I watched Richard Dawkins and George Pell debate on Australian television this week1, I found myself thinking of Chesterton. He would have made mince meat of Dawkins this week. How can I say that? Because that’s what Chesterton did to the Dawkins of his day: Clarence Darrow.
Darrow, you will recall, was the famous American lawyer who defended John Scopes in the trial of the century which has become known as ‘The Scopes Monkey Trial’. Scopes was on trial in Tennessee for teaching evolutionary theory in a State funded school, which was against the law at the time.
Acting for the State was William Jennings Bryan, a committed Christian and equally famous lawyer. Both were US Presidential candidates on several occasions. It was a clash of the Titans.
William Jennings Bryan
To cut a long story short, Bryan won the trial, but that is little remembered. What is remembered is that Darrow actually put Bryan on the stand to defend the Bible during the trial. The Judge hearing the case put a stop to the exchange because it got the whole trial off track, but the damage was done. Darrow turned Bryan in knots as he lampooned God’s word and Bryan’s claim that it was infallible.
The trial was a watershed moment in American culture. The tide turned against the supreme reign of the Church over State schools and public sentiment swung inexorably toward “science” and away from “religion” as the source of truth. Western culture has never recovered.
Enter GK Chesterton. Just six years after the Scopes case Chesterton, knowing all about the trial and its effects, toured America. And guess who they arranged for him to debate? Clarence Darrow. So a date was set: January 1931 at New York’s Mecaa Temple. The topic – Will the world return to religion?
I’d love to tell you what they said in the exchange, but no one recorded it for posterity. There are a few newspaper reports and a significant article printed in The Nation, a popular magazine at the time. What we do know is that the lawyer, who so eloquently bamboozled William Jennings Bryan, found himself on the losing side as Chesterton engaged the audience, answered every question and defended the faith.
It should be noted that whilst Chesterton was a Roman Catholic, he did not seem to argue for the Roman Catholic faith as such. His cause was more a defence of Christianity as Augustine would have described it and as was found in the Apostle’s Creed.
Despite his great intellect, Chesterton’s approach was famously common sense. No matter what your intellect or educational standard, you could always understand what Chesterton was on about when you heard him speak. His books, however, are sometimes another matter.
When I first read The Everlasting Man, I knew straight away why people like CS Lewis & Ravi Zacharias were so profoundly influenced by it. It’s a heavy work which gives deep insight into the workings of a brilliant mind. Yet, it is still at the common sense level.
Consider his comment on the work (and hence the world view) of HG Wells, an ardent humanist and atheist.
The Time Machine destroyed in advance all comfortable conclusions founded on the mere relativity of time. In that sublime nightmare the hero saw trees shoot up like green rockets, and vegetation spread visibly like a green conflagration, or the sun shoot across the sky from east to west with the swiftness of a meteor. Yet in his sense these things were quite as natural when they went swiftly; and in our sense they are quite as supernatural when they go slowly. The ultimate question is why they go at all; and anybody who really understands that question will know that it has always been and always will be a religious question; or at any rate a philosophical or metaphysical question. And most certainly he will not think the question answered by some substitution of gradual for abrupt change; or, in other words by a merely relative question of the same story being spun out or rattled rapidly through, as can be done with any story at a cinema by turning a handle.2
Turning a handle at the cinema! Now that shows you how far back in time Chesterton wrote these words. Yet, have they been superseded in any real sense? Not at all.
Men like HG Wells or Dawkins are so fascinated by the process of science, they have forgotten what it all rests upon. Who invented the laws of physics? Isaac Newton codified them for the modern age, but what was he observing & who put them into motion?
Dawkins simply does not want to hear the answer “God” because it is an affront to his scientific mind. But it should not be, as Chesterton shows. If you leave God out of the picture, you can still observe the laws of physics, but you cannot trace them back to their beginnings. The best you can do is guess who put them there (dangerous for an atheist!) or conclude they were just there all along.
As Chesterton said, the thinking person will not be satisfied by an explanation that in the past things went slowly, but now they move fast (or extremely fast as in the Time Machine). That’s not the real issue.
Origins is the issue and no debate will prove or disprove that. All it will do is highlight your assumptions (Dawkins) or your inconsistencies (Pell). What Christians want is a spokesperson who will simply stand by God’s word, even if the world scoffs and persecutes, which it will.
Dawkins is just the latest in a long line of sceptics who have shaken their fist at God. He’s a very intelligent one, but then again, so were Darrow & Wells et. al. They have always been that way. And Christians have always been able to defend the faith. And they have pretty much always been outnumbered too, despite how today’s atheists might reconstruct history.
At the end of the Mecca Temple debate, slips of paper were handed out to the audience and asked for a verdict. Chesterton had won by more than 2-1 from an audience numbering over 3000. Of course, statistics can lie. For all we know, 100% of the crowd could have been ‘believers’ at the start & a third of them doubting by the end, but it is interesting to think back to the public reaction at the Scopes trial. In the end, public sentiment can be gauged & Chesterton was a clear winner.
Darrow should have known what he was up against. Chesterton had taken on the most famous atheists of his day; not only Wells, but George Bernard Shaw & Bertrand Russell amongst them. As I said, the man was a genius.
And without being too insulting, I think that is why Dawkins does not debate today’s “Chestertons”, whoever they may be. He is on record as saying he will not debate or creationists.3 He feels it will just give them scientific legitimacy.
How depressing. If you want to find someone with a low view of creation, you go to a religious leader.
George Pell is not a stupid man and says much we can all agree upon, but mostly they are in the area of ethics such as abortion or homosexuality. But Pell does not accept Biblical inerrancy & mingles it with Papal infallibility. He has to; he represents the Roman Catholic Church and that’s part of the dogma.
Mr Pell would probably not agree with that statement, but I cannot accept that you can claim to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and at the same time state that Adam & Eve were not real, historical persons. Jesus, I remind Cardinal Pell, is the last Adam. If the first Adam is just a symbol of a human life, then the last Adam is just a symbol of eternity. Both become nothing more than ideas which comfort us as we wrestle with where we came from & where we are going.
To be wishy-washy on the issue of creation makes you wishy-washy on the gospel. The God of creation is the God of the gospel. I am aware many mature Christians believe Darwinian evolution is compatible with Christianity, but if that belief system makes you want to alter the words of Scripture because they don’t fit, then I think there is a serious problem.
And I will leave it to Pell’s conscience to explain why he was able to quote without notes from “page 92” of Darwin’s autobiography to prove, in Darwin’s own words, that he was a theist, yet was not quite sure if the Old Testament said the Ten Commandments were inscribed by God himself (see Exodus 32:16, 34:1).
Pell is obviously well read and intelligent. Several times during the debate he was able to engage Dawkins on the very works Dawkins was citing and that gave him an enormous amount of credibility with the audience, but he let the team down badly by not showing a similar commitment to the Bible.
Had Chesterton been on the television debate this week, he would have jumped on several of Dawkins’ assumptions; such as his comment that he describes himself as “Darwinian” when it comes to explaining our origins, but does not support it as a model for how society should operate today. Dawkins gives the tick of approval to “survival of the fittest” for getting us here, but not for how things should go on from here.
That is just a flat out contradiction. If survival of the fittest purified the gene pool so we could arise, then why should it not continue and how could you possibly oppose it? Does human will power now overcome the laws of physics?
Dawkins has decided that he will take any favourable argument from any side if it suits him, even if the logical conclusion of those arguments don't support his cause. For example, his claim that atheism had nothing to do with Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia is ludicrous, but he said it anyway because he does not want those regimes flung in his face when he asks you to consider a society without God.
This is the man, I remind you, who praised the contribution of the King James Bible to English literature but added that we need to get it out of the hands of religious fundamentalists. Even the Bible is not ours, according to Dawkins. Chesterton would have had a field day.
So, once more we are at the mercy of public sentiment. Did Dawkins disprove Christianity this week? No, not even close. He did, however, show how your words will come back to bite you if you do not have a clear Biblical understanding of the issues.
2. Chesterton, GK. The Everlasting Man, 1925, Dodd, Mead & Co., pp4-5