A jokey blog post of mine on Friday about a dog with two noses, questioning whether it counted as “intelligent design” resulted in the furious response “Are you planning to purge the Lib Dems of Christians?”
This rather extreme reaction is remarkably common. An article posted on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website yesterday by one Gordon Lynch makes some unflattering comparisons between Richard Dawkins and a TV evangelist on the rather tenuous grounds that he uses the medium of TV to promote his agenda. I’m not convinced his argument holds up to much scrutiny. Dawkins is promoting ideas; other than encouraging them to buy his book, he isn’t seeking to get his supporters to donate money or tithe themselves. He isn’t claiming any methaphysical authority, or suggesting that people who fail to heed his words are condemned to hell, literally or metaphorically.
As I’ve said before, I (still) haven’t got round to reading Dawkins’ latest book. In his previous books however, he has an unfortunate tendency to set up straw men and easy targets. I’m sceptical of the merits of condemning “religion” rather than looking at the power and potential abuse of ideas more generally (on which point I will lament the passing away of Norman Cohn this week, and point you to an interesting article by Peter Thompson). But his knack of inspiring the most ridiculous venom against him is quite remarkable. You may recall my response to an article by Stuart Jeffries a few months ago in which he and his interviewees explicitly drew parallels between Islamist terrorists and support for secularism as if they were morally equivalent. We were expected to swallow the idea that militant secularism, which at its most extreme means calling for things like burkhas being banned from public places, was equivalent to flying a passenger liner into a skyscraper. Gordon Lynch, similarly, wonders aloud about a “future conflict between militant atheists and religious conservatives.” The unnamed horrors that these militant atheists might commit are of course unspecified, but Lynch goes on to warn that “the rise of the atheist movement he symbolises could do more than the alternative spiritualities he disparages to threaten the fragile cohesion of our societies.” In short, we mustn’t yearn for rationalism as it might lead to irrationalism.
It’s a serious charge that surely needs to be backed up by evidence, but of course it is just a thought that is left hanging at the end of an article. Of course, you could write that about anything and anyone. While, particularly coming from an academic, it has the veneer of serious intellectual inquiry and impartiality, it is a smear pure and simple. Every time I read a silly article like this, replete with vague, unspecified innuendo about the possible consequences of what might happen if atheism becomes too popular, I become more convinced than ever that Dawkins and co must be onto something. The apologists for religion protest too much.