Monthly Archives: December 2008

Nine wishes for 2009 #2: A NEW new atheism

Most of this article was written on Monday but I’ve only just got around to finishing it.

I enjoyed the Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People enormously and 2009 will, by all accounts, be a bit of a party for atheists. Starting in January we have the Atheist Bus Campaign and then throughout the year people will be celebrating both the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. And yet, and yet…

If there was one thing that bugged me about the Carol Service, it was the level of reverence that Richard Dawkins was given by some of the performers, most notably Robin Ince. I suppose it would have been impolite to actually criticise the guy while he was waiting in the wings and the truth is he has provided a much needed corrective to the religious narrative over the past decade (and more). But he remains a deeply divisive figure, alienating almost as much as he engages. His call to arms and for agnostics to get off the fence leaves many ducking for cover.

The real problem atheists have is one of taxonomy. Atheism is just what is says on the tin – a lack of belief in God. To try and make it out to be anything more is frankly ludicrous and falls foul of the very naturalistic fallacy that people like Dawkins warn against. Secularism doesn’t help much either, although it still puzzles me why this has become such a swear word with the adherents of organised religion. That leaves rationalism – which is rather cold and too often veers towards positivism – and humanism – which is warm and fuzzy and often suspiciously so. Joining the British Humanist Association is on my to do list. My reason for not having done so already is rooted in me receiving an unsolicited copy of their newsletter a few years ago which had a bizarre article about a “humanist picnic” at which humanist families spent an afternoon bemoaning about how terrible religion is (I can think of more fun ways of passing the day, such as jabbing my eyes out with a rusty spoon) and urging me to buy humanist Christmas cards with all the crosses replaced with aitches.

I have been assured that they have come on a lot since then (although asking people to donate money so their Chief Executive can brand herself doesn’t exactly convince – can’t I donate money to prevent her from doing so?), but living caricatures of the humourless “militant atheist” are never that far from the surface. I adore New Humanist magazine for example, but the letters page is full of freaks. Then again, the letters pages of all publications are full of freaks – consisting as they do of blog trolls who lack the wherewithall to find the “on” switch of their PCs – but at least they aren’t always “our” freaks.

In this respect, finding a new voice for atheist comedy – which Robin Ince seems to have taken on as a personal mission – is a positive development. Laughing at ourselves is an absolute must for 2009 – something which, as I noted previously, is often sadly lacking.

One group we could do with hearing a little from is ex-Catholics. It has to be said that it doesn’t say much for a religion that creates so many of its most fervant critics. I mean, when the Pope says something stupid, I’m happy to join in the chorus of disapproval, but much of the anti-Catholic stuff out there borders on The Da Vinci Code in terms of paranoia (not that I’m obsessed with God Trumps, but the Catholicism one is a case in point). I’m always impressed at the way Catholics tend to choose the bits of their religion that they like and ignore the rest, as if it is some metaphysical branch of Woolies (RIP) – my favourites are the Catholics who are fine about having sex before marriage but think it is a sin to use a condom – but profound mass-hypocrisy does rather undermine the claims that it is simultaneously a vast conspiracy against mankind.

Fundamentally, we need a rational, reasonable voice out there to counter the rational, reasonable theist nonsense out there, of which Madeleine Bunting provides us with an excellent example today. Her claim that Darwin has been “hijacked” by atheists on the basis that he was probably agnostic is a crime of intellectual pygmyism, but one which many Guardian readers will have nodded sagely to today. But it is a ludicrous argument, similar to the sneering by Christian groups who thought it was hilarious that the Atheist Bus Campaign uses the less-than-forthright slogan “there’s probably no God” while ignoring the fact that the Alpha Course adverts which inspired it use the even less assertive slogan “if there was a God, what would you ask him?”

Yes, Darwin almost certainly sat on the fence when it came to the question of whether God existed or not, but to the extent that he believed in any God at all he was a deist. In other words, while he might have conceded the possibility of God, he was clear that there was no activist God playing a role in worldly affairs. Evolution is by definition a refutation of theism. Attempts have been made to square the circle – I spent many wasted hours researching panentheism for my undergraduate dissertation – but all of them reduce God to, at best, a “not dead yet” cameo role in the creation.

The new new atheism would be self-confident, not too concerned about what people think and far more concerned about how people act (yes, the two are related but no, the two are not causal). It wouldn’t tolerate the sort of argument advanced by Bunting above, but it would at the same time accept that a lack of religion by itself can never be a substitute for an ethical system. Ethical systems needn’t come from religion – indeed at some point I may find time to write about how the much-vaunted “golden rule” predates religion and is in many ways hindered by it. But ethics and morality are a) important and b) not informed by atheism per se. The answers are not easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t search for them.

Nine wishes for 2009 #1: Lembit Opik to prove me wrong

Partly, admittedly, because I set up a Google Alert of his name earlier this year during the Presidential election, Lembit Opik never stops getting in my face. His latest interview was in Wales On Sunday yesterday (odd since just a week ago Lembit was dismissing the same paper as “poor use of [his] time“). Regarding the presidential election, to the surprise of no-one, he is utterly unrepentent:

“I’ve been thinking about why the party establishment did not support me for the presidency. I put forward a new agenda, painting politics in primary colours, and perhaps they’re just not ready for it.

“I do politics in quite a distinctive way, and maybe they’re not comfortable with that kind of approach.

“I want us to be a party where we can express a strong corporate personality and strong individual personalities.

“Perhaps I frighten the horses, but the point is that, if you don’t, you’ll never create a political stampede.

“I do my best to reach out to the kind of people who don’t watch Question Time and Newsnight, and I think it would help politics if more politicians did so.”

But it wasn’t just the party establishment that didn’t support Lembit – it was 70+% of the party. Chris Huhne wasn’t supported by the establishment in either leadership contest he stood in, yet managed to leapfrog Simon Hughes in the first and came within 500 votes of winning the second. Are we all supposed to be mindless automatons?

What genuinely perplexes me about all this is that if Lembit could point to a single tangible fact which proved his hypothesis that appearing on Have I Got News For You was actually beneficial to the party, much of the criticism would be muted. The counter hypothesis is that a) most of the programmes he appears on either ignore politics altogether or advance an anti-politics agenda which Lembit himself does nothing to address and that b) while no-one can dispute the rise of Boris “LOL!!1!! LOOK AT HIS FUNNEE HAIR!!?!!” Johnson, Johnson never went within a million miles of half the paper-bag-opening-level programmes that are Lembit’s meat and drink and, frankly, when it comes to personality, Lembit is no Bozza. Have you ever seen a more polite, well-spoken individual on HIGNFY, Big Brother’s Little Brother or Celebrity Apprentice? The fundamental problem with Lembit’s celebrity appearances is that he doesn’t even make the most of them. In that respect, those who compare him to the Cyril Smiths and Clement Freuds of the past are missing the point.

But go on Lembit, prove me wrong in 2009. It is put up or shut up time. Because I can see how his grand master plan might work, I just don’t see it actually working.

If he is to do that however, he will have to embrace technology – something he has thus far managed to avoid in the way that 8 year old boys avoid baths. Oh, he bragged about his supporters on Facebook, many of whom appeared to be of the “LOL!!!1! LOOK AT HIS WONKEE CHIN!!!?!?!” variety, but that is a dead giveaway of someone who just doesn’t get technology. He doesn’t even have a website, or rather, he has *snigger* an ePolitix one, which is almost even worse. Even his Daily Sport column isn’t published online. So where do all these people who see Lembit on the television have to go? If they Google him, they’ll find a Wikipedia Page, a bland profile on the official party website, his defunct Presidential campaign website and a couple of videos. After that, it’s girls of a weathered and Cheeky variety all the way down. Lembit’s online “narrative” is written almost entirely by other people.

Iain Dale boasted 65,000 absolute unique visitors in November and 578,000 unique visitors in 2008. Given that only a fraction of Daily Sport readers will read Lembit’s column whereas almost all of Dale’s visitors are there because they want to be, those are figures that should give him pause for thought. If Lembit’s media appearances really do help him to reach out to people who would otherwise be unengaged, then he ought to be able to match and even beat Iain Dale’s readership in very little time at all.

It isn’t as if his target audience are somehow not online. Indeed, the people who Lembit claims to be reaching out to are over-represented on the web.

So what I’d really like to see in 2009 is a Lembit Opik blog to put us all in our places. If Lembit is right, then such a blog would climb to prominence quite quickly. What’s more, it would bridge the gap between the programmes he appears on and his politics. He’d win, his critics would be proven wrong but wouldn’t mind and the party would gain a major new asset. So how about it?