Dalrymple on What Atheists Don’t See

If you are not yet familiar with the British writer and physician Theodore (Greek for ‘gift from God’) Dalrymple, I highly recommend that you familiarize yourself with his books and articles, one of which you will find by following the link by way of the title above. It’s a kind of hybrid review of the recent spate of books by hectoring atheists such as Hitchens and Dawkins, as well as a meditation on the both the personal loss of religious belief and the loss of religious sensibility in the West since the Enlightenment. Dalrymple is decidedly humble about his own non-belief:

I first doubted God’s existence at about the age of nine. It was at the school assembly that I lost my faith. We had been given to understand that if we opened our eyes during prayers God would depart the assembly hall. I wanted to test this hypothesis. Surely, if I opened my eyes suddenly, I would glimpse the fleeing God? What I saw instead, it turned out, was the headmaster, Mr. Clinton, intoning the prayer with one eye closed and the other open, with which he beadily surveyed the children below for transgressions. I quickly concluded that Mr. Clinton did not believe what he said about the need to keep our eyes shut. And if he did not believe that, why should I believe in his God? In such illogical leaps do our beliefs often originate, to be disciplined later in life (if we receive enough education) by elaborate rationalization.

It’s worth noting that this last sentence can apply to Dalrymple’s belief in God’s non-existence as well as the beliefs of believers. I should have written “understated humility”. Anyway, from this point much of the essay is devoted to castigating the intellectual sloppiness of his atheistic confrères and extolling the thoughtful elegance of two obscure seventeenth century churchmen, the painter Juan Sánchez Cotán and the bishop of Exeter and Norwich, Joseph Hall. I’ll return the gesture by saying that I’d much rather read Theodore Dalrymple than, say, Matthew Fox. Or Philip Larkin than Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

Philip Larkin is no Sam Harris, although it’d be interesting to have them both over for lunch and see what kind of conversation ensued. If Dalrymple were there as well, here’s what he might have to say:

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.

And I’ll finish by adding that “an existential shopping spree” is exactly what Christmas has sadly come to mean for many in 2007. Gifting and all the rest is entirely fitting – we have it in the gospels, after all. But let’s remember where it all comes from. Merry Christmas everyone!


  1. Quin Finnegan says

    Here Sam Harris responds to Dalrymple, and then Dalrymple to Harris.

  2. Rufus McCain says

    A fine Christmas homily, Fr. Finnegan! A merry one to ye.

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