Thy rod and thy staffJONATHAN KAY
Atheism has been an accepted creed in the West since the French Revolution. But surely its champions weren't always this obnoxious.
The intellectual leader of this in-your-face Godless horde is famed evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins, whose 2006 bestseller The God Delusion (No. 6 on The New York Times non-fiction list as of this writing) dismisses the deity we know from the Old Testament as "arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction? a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak, a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." South Park summed up the author's caustic approach nicely in a recent sci-fi-themed episode. "Dawkins knew that logic and reason were the way of the future," a futuristic cloud-city acolyte intones. "[But] he learned using logic and reason wasn't enough. You have to be a dick to everybody who doesn't think like you."
Anti-deist bigot though he may be, Dawkins has a sharp mind. And yet I wonder how even he would fare in theological debate against a certain longsuffering Dallas, Tx. Christian named James Waller.
Waller's ordeal began on Nov. 2, 1982, when a 12-year-old boy who lived in the same apartment complex was raped by an intruder described as black, 5' 8" and 150 pounds. Waller is 6' 4" and heavy-set. But in a trumped up judgment carrying the stench of Klan-era racism, Waller was convicted by a jury deliberating for a mere 46 minutes. He spent more than a decade picking cotton in a Texas chain gang before being paroled in 1993. Even once released, Waller was branded a pedophile and registered sex offender.
A few years later, things got worse: While driving to the airport, Waller crashed his car, killing his wife and their unborn daughter. "I don't want to live no more," he remembers thinking.
I normally don't read The New York Times crime pages, where Waller's story was reported last Thursday. But there was something about this particular tale that kept me gobbling up the words. It reminded me of the stories I'd heard of Jews being killed by their Polish neighbours after they survived the Holocaust and returned home: unthinkable horror layered on unthinkable horror.
And yet Waller's Christian faith stayed strong throughout, and he never gave in to his agonies. With assistance from the New York-based Innocence Project, which has helped free almost 200 falsely convicted criminals over the last 15 years, Waller's lawyers produced DNA evidence showing he couldn't have committed the 1982 crime. Last week, a Texas court formally declared the man innocent.
How did Waller respond? By lashing out at a legal system that had ruined his life and treated him like a 19th century slave? No. Last Wednesday, he told the court he wasn't angry — "because the Lord has given me so much." Despite everything he's gone through, James Waller is at peace with the world.
Waller's stubborn belief in God doesn't prove His existence any more than Dawkins' snide rhetoric proves the opposite. But it does illuminate how religious faith can help people draw meaning out of even the bleakest experiences.
It's something to think about, even if you're not sitting in prison or mourning a loved one. Life finds a way to break most of us long before death arrives. People get divorced; they watch relatives die; they lose their health, their friends, their money. According to my (admittedly casual) observation, the people who snicker loudest about God are either young or lucky — usually, both. And so they still labour under the conceit that mere cleverness will be enough to see them through life.
The atheists may be right about God. Who knows? But God or no God, it's clear that something in the human soul requires a belief that life has a purpose that transcends the material plane. One would think that a more-rational-than-thou empiricist such as Dawkins would recognize this unchanging aspect of human nature. Our Western faiths provide that spiritual nourishment — and in their modern form, do so without inquisitions, holy wars or, for that matter, suicide belts. For all his smirking dinner-party arguments against God, does Dawkins really think this world would be a more humane place if we all looked to The God Delusion instead of The Bible for truth and comfort?
As an agnostic who rarely cracks a prayer book except to be polite at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and high holidays, I find stories such as Waller's fill me with a mix of admiration and envy. I've been blessed so far in my own life — I've never had to reach for a higher power to make sense of things. And so I have the luxury of treating religion at arm's length — as culture, as sociology, as evolutionary psychology, as grist for journalism.
But it's a nervous, guilty indulgence. Like a lot of people — maybe even including Dawkins himself — I'm burdened by the knowledge that when life hits me with the inevitable body blow, I may well find myself reaching desperately for something James Waller found a long time ago.
Jonathan Kay "Thy rod and thy staff." National Post, (Canada) 23 January, 2007.
Reprinted with permission of the author, Jonathan Kay, and the National Post.
Jonathan Kay is Comment Pages Editor of the National Post newspaper. In addition, he is a columnist for the National Post op-ed page, and a regular contributor to Commentary magazine and the New York Post. His free-lance articles have appeared in Harper's, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and various other publications. In April, 2002, he was awarded Canada's National Newspaper Award for Critical Writing. In June, 2004, he was awarded a National Newspaper Award for Editorial Writing.
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