Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Richard Dawkins: devil’s advocate or phantom menace?

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

I’ve just watched Richard Dawkins The God Delusion on the Mo’ Fo’ channel. Last week we had his Faith School Menace; he’s on a roll!

As a Christian in the liberal tradition I believe we need Dawkins. We may often accuse fundamentalists and biblical-literalists of shoddy thinking, but Dawkins is consistent in demanding reasoned answers for all of religion’s claims. In the same way that the traditional process of declaring a person a saint in Catholicism has used a devil’s advocate to ask hard questions to cut through the wishful thinking and groupthink, Dawkins, rather than being feared or scorned, should be appreciated as one who splashes some cold water on the face of sleep-walking religion.

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How Arab learning laid the foundations for the European Renaissance

Alcázares Reales, Seville

Alcázares Reales, Seville.

I’ve just spent a restful evening on my sofa watching the last of Bettany Hughes‘s somewhat epic series of documentaries The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes: When the Moors Ruled in Europe. It’s always tempting to criticize this kind of documentary (as I have done in the past; mea maxima culpa!) on what it simplifies or leaves out. However, Bettany Hughes has been helped by having a two-hour time slot on More4 (or Mo-Fo as I’ve heard it called) for each episode.

Never explicitly mentioned, When the Moors Ruled in Europe is clearly set against the 21st-century backdrop of the War on Terror. Aired on the evening before the general election in which two parties — UKIP and the BNP — have anti-Islamic policies in their manifestos, this episode serves as a corrective to the unthinking assumptions of white/European/Christendom superiority. For here we glide endlessly through the mesmerising earthly paradises of Al-Andalus, through Granada’s Alhambra and Córdoba’s Grand Mosque (and not to forget Al-Karaouine University, Fez, Morocco), all set against a backdrop of golden mountains. Here we have liberal, tolerant and highly educated Muslims teaching ignorant Christians about ancient Greek learning before finally falling to the Talibanesque Spanish Inquisition. Although this was a little overwrought in places, there are plenty of moments in the documentary in which the complexities of Christian and Muslim relations and politics are explored, especially setting the Reconquista in the context of stability and cooperation among the northern kingdoms and the reliance of the southern kingdoms on mercenary soldiers.

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Praising the philosophers: our place in religious intolerance

Tomorrow, 25 November, is the feast of St Catherine the Great Martyr of Alexandria (ἡ Ἁγία Αἰκατερίνη ἡ Μεγαλομάρτυς της Ἀλεξάνδρειας, hē Hagia Aikaterinē hē Megalomartys tēs Alexandreias). It is also the commemoration of Isaac Watts, famous hymnwriter, in the Church of England calendar (and surely those of other churches too).

Icon of Catherine of Alexandria

13th-century icon of St Catherine from Mt Sinai

Popularly, Catherine is associated with her eponymous wheel that makes it gyratory appearance at fireworks displays, symbolising the first attempted means of her martyrdom. Her legend tells of a young virgin woman who contended in dialogue with the pagan Emperor Maximinus Daia (308–13), successfully converting to Christianity his wife and courtiers, countering their philosophical arguments. The frustrated emperor ordered her tortured to death on the breaking wheel, which broke when she touched it, and so she was beheaded. Angels carried her body to Mt Sinai, where her tomb now lies. Continue reading