Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams of Oystermouth
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The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord (Rowan) Williams of Oystermouth, has made a scathing attack on Richard Dawkins and other "new atheists", while cautioning that their negative impact on religious faith could still take time to repair.
"Many people who aren't religious believers regard writers like Richard Dawkins as extremely bigoted and authoritarian, and I think their writings are less popular now," Dr Williams told Polish Radio in an interview.
"But secularisation has also meant a lot of ignorance, and there's a suspicion towards religion, sometimes intensified by anxiety about militant Islam. It's as if every form of religion is the same and the local parish priest would like to cut your head off or impose some alien law on you."
The 69-year-old theologian and poet, who was 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, from 2002 to 2012, said he planned to engage in a new debate during 2021 with Professor Dawkins, whom he viewed as a "very good biologist and absolutely brilliant writer", but also as a "very bad philosopher" with virtually no knowledge of theology.
He added that a "rash of books" a decade ago by Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, AC Grayling and other "New Atheists" had damaged Christianity, by fostering an assumption that "the consensus among intelligent people was anti-religious".
Dr Williams, currently Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, told Polish Radio: "This will take a long time to shift, but it's important there should be some people in the Church who are prepared to go out and argue in public.
"There's a continuing interest in religious, especially Christian, themes in the arts, and a lot of good work is being done. It's reminding people the Christian faith is an intellectually and imaginatively rich reality, not the crude superstition the new atheists hold it to be."
Asked about the prospects for Christianity across Europe, the retired archbishop said he was "completely confident" the faith would survive.
"The Church exists because God wanted and wants it to exist, so we shouldn't have any anxiety about its disappearance," Dr Williams said. "Despite the New Atheists, people are not hostile to the Christian faith, nor do they regard Christianity as their enemy or as something completely ridiculous. They want to know and learn, and I think we have to be out there, arguing, persuading, doing what we can from a place of basic confidence."
Dr Williams said he believed British Christians should be grateful for the "excitement and energy" found in Poland, whose Catholic identity was "absolutely woven into how the national community feels about itself".
However, he added that official support for "one form of religion" was dangerous, since it confused "loyalty to God with loyalty to the state", and said Poland could learn something from the way the Church of England helped other religious communities "find a place in the public discussion".
He said: "The bad aspect of secularisation is that people forget what religious doctrine really is, and become subject to distortions and charicatures. It's as if people have a very trivial picture of what religion is and why it matters.
"But I wouldn't say we are a non-Christian country. Our church is still very much part of the national fabric: weaker, less influential, less numerically strong, but still regarded as the guardian of certain values and aspects of human life."