Tag Archives: atheism

Why we should take accusations of “militant secularism” seriously.

I’ve just been fuming listening to a ridiculous interview with John Gledhill, the Bishop of Lichfield and Alan Beith MP by Evan Davies on the Today programme. It wasn’t the interviewees who infuriated me, although Alan Beith’s argument that disestablishing the Church of England would lead to an aversion culture akin to “elf’n’safety” did come pretty close. What I found infuriating was the normally sensible Evan Davies’ repeated use of the phrase “militant secularism”.

I seem to remember being here before. Back in 2007, at the height of the rise of the so-called New Atheism as espoused by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, there was a similar counter push to present this new wave of assertiveness as sinister and extreme. I got particularly annoyed by a “balanced” (in the worst sense of the word) article by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian which leant people claiming that “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube” a wholly uncritical platform.

With the tube bombing now a more distant memory no-one has quite gone as far as Colin Slee, the now dead former Dean as Southwark, did in that article. Nonetheless, over the past week or so we have seen a whole slew of attacks, partially provoked by the National Secular Society’s court action against Bideford Town Council and the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s MORI poll suggesting that many people who define themselves as Christian don’t actually agree with basic Christian tenets (only 28% of people who self-defined as Christian said they believed in the teachings of Christianity).

It would be far too generous to credit Baroness Warsi with coining the term “militant secularism” – nonetheless, alongside “secular fundamentalism”, it was a term she used in her recent speech at the Vatican.

For someone as absurd as her (remember this is the woman who made a direct appeal to get BNP voters to support her when she was a Conservative Party candidate) to make such a statement is one thing; for the BBC to use it as if it is a legitimate term is something else entirely. Because the implication takes us right back to Colin Slee and his quite offensive notion of equating vocally expressing a desire to see Church and State kept separate with a desire to wound and murder.

Although I actually got on better with Dawkins’ The God Delusion than I was expecting, I don’t actually agree with him on a number of issues. I think he goes too far when he claims that raising a child as a Christian is a form of “child abuse” (I appreciate the point he is making about the important of allowing children to make their own minds up, and there are certainly disreputable practices worthy of condemnation, but you could the same thing about any parent passing on their beliefs to their impressionable offspring as child abuse – and yet it is an inevitable aspect of raising a child). I’m not a fan of the National Secular Society either, which tends to take things too far, and unlike Clive Bone I doubt I would have been sufficiently outraged by the idea of prayers happening at the start of town council meetings to take the matter to court. But none of these people can be described as extremist, militant or fundamentalist in any way which reflects the meaning of these words. At worst you could call them perhaps strident (although they are typically softly spoken), imposing or intolerant – and even then it is hard to see how they could be described as particularly more strident than, say a Giles Fraser, let alone a George Carey.

They are people with a point of view who express it. Not only are they not bombing tube carriages, but they rarely even employ the tactics of public demonstration – which would make them rather less strident than the majority of politicians (of all colours), trade unions or democracy campaigners (guilty).

In fact, the only palpable quality that these people have which warrants a term like “militant” is that their views provoke a fury in their opponents in such a way that in almost every other sphere we would consider extraordinary. It is akin to the heightened atmosphere that I lived through during the AV referendum campaign, except that it isn’t time limited in the way that was. That in itself is a subject worthy of further investigation, but in short, it suggests that opponents of secularists are playing the man not the ball. Nor is it limited to the religious. Plenty of non-religious people appear to be sufficiently provoked by Richard Dawkins’ voice alone to use similar terminology. Nonetheless, the implication of using such terminology for such unextreme views is, as it always has been, to keep the holders of those views in their place and to warn off others who might share them from expressing them. It is a framing device designed to chill debate.

That’s entirely fair enough in public square, so long as people don’t mind having their bluff called. But, like I say, it is another thing when a public service broadcaster decides to pitch in for one side. When they do so, they cross the line from referee to player. The meaning of words matter. The BBC ought to be more careful.

UPDATE:

Two things I should add to this post. On a happy note, Evan Davis responded to it on Twitter, saying:

On a more sour note, the Sunday Telegraph have today done a hatchet job on Richard Dawkins and attacked him for, um, being the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of slave owners. I suggest you ignore the article itself and just read Dawkins’ own account of the interview.

Performance -> Feedback -> Response

Just got back from Robin Ince’s Nine Carols and Lessons for Godless People which you, dear reader, may recall I attended last year as well and I am delighted to be able to report that all three of my suggestions were taken on board and as an overall package it was a massive improvement on an evening which I enjoyed immensely. Now I know what it feels like to use Windows 7!

What did I learn this evening? Well, apparently things really can only get better after D:Ream – Brian Cox’s science bit was easily the most mind-blowing of the evening. I got to experience another aspect of Alan Moore’s genius – in this case as an incredibly funny, thought proviking and self-effacing stand up comic. I learned that Ben Goldacre can speak incredibly fast and still make perfect sense. And I learned that rap is the best medium for explaining how evolution works (although Monty Python managed to make it even simpler).

And then there was Johnny Ball. After the previous evening, where Ball was reportedly booed off stage, there was a bit of a squeaky bum moment in anticipation of his act. I would guess that like around 50% of the audience, Johnny Ball was one of the main reasons why I was there that evening, a childhood hero whose absence on childrens’ television has been sorely missed. And it is a real problem when it emerges that your heroes have feet of clay.

From what I’ve read, Balls’ arguments belittling anthropocentric climate change don’t really add up. Wisely he decided to drop this material this evening. Instead his piece focused on how Newton’s theory of gravity largely built on the work of Gallileo and Kepler and that a genius was only really someone who read more than one book and managed to join the dots. His message for the evening was that in the 21st century we have thousands of people out there doing what was regarded was genius-level work a couple of centuries out there and that we shouldn’t give into despair but instead be inspired by human ingenuity.

This resonated with me, mainly because of the way it so strongly contrasts with the basic message of George Monbiot’s Guardian column earlier this week. Monbiot’s argument could not be more different; as the subeditor writes “survival depends on accepting we live within limits”. Monbiot has a point; we can’t assume we can simply keep digging up more and more oil other natural resources and that somehow something will just come along and make it all right. But in dividing the world up between “expanders and restrainers” (which, ironically, does explain the great True Blood / Twilight controversy; something which I’m sure Monbiot will be delighted to discover), he asserts that for humanity to survive it must essentially give up that which makes us most human; the need to strive. In place of that, we should be content with mere survival.

“The summit’s premise is that the age of heroism is over” he asserts. What? Really? It seems to me that the one thing Copenhagen needs more than anything else is a bit of sentimental, schmaltzy, Hollywood-style heroism. If the world assembled world leaders were prepared to be a bit heroic, they could set in train a process which would avert possible catastrophe. Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of ruling out any meaningful progress before the talks even began, Obama came back from Copenhagen with a wildly ambitious plan that the rest of the world agreed with and made it his mission to get the US to accept it? He might not succeed, but he’d almost certainly carry the debate far further than it has gone in the US thus far.

The problem is not that world leaders are obsessed with being heroic; anything but. Are we really about to cede heroism to the denialist right? Is the anonymous bureaucrat really going to be our future role model?

Monbiot has set himself an impossible task: he wants to remould humanity in a way that is not only uninspiring but would be both incapable and undeserving of surivival. As misanthropic narratives are concerned, that’s quite an achievement. It is manna from heaven for the denialists who seek to present climate change activists in precisely the light that Monbiot is now basking in.

One way or another, humanity is going to survive the 21st century; of that I’m quite certain. We might do it by having a collective change in consciousness over the next five years and changing our current path of destruction. Alternatively, we might do it in an extremely painful way by witnessing catastrophic climate change, social unrest, entire populations literally walking into less climate ravaged parts of the world (i.e. Europe) and the destruction of 90% of life on earth. To avoid that, we will require ingenuity (Performance -> Feedback -> Response) on a heroic scale. By contrast, the Malthusianism that Monbiot seems dangerously close to here diminishes human endeavour. And once you start down that path, you start valuing human life as extremely cheap.

Johnny Ball is almost certainly wrong about the science behind climate change and George Monbiot is almost certainly right. But when it comes to inspiration and basic humanism, I’d rather have the former batting for my team any day of the week. Let’s not make him our enemy.

Giles Fraser, intolerance and double standards

I wrote this in the hope that the Guardian might be interested in publishing it in their “response” column in the paper – they weren’t. Waste not want not…

Reading Giles Fraser harrumphing about Ariane Sherine and the British Humanist Association’s latest campaign (“Choosing for oneself”, 2 December 2009), it occurred to me that the BHA’s next project should be to launch a range of posters with the slogan “motherhood and apple pie – we love them!” just as an experiment to see quite how much ink Christians would then go on to spill, condemning them for it in no uncertain terms.

For Fraser is not the only Christian to impugn sinister motives behind the “don’t label me” campaign. Writing for the Guardian, the most spiteful insult he could think of was to compare Ms Sherine to Thatcher; the Telegraph’s Ed West has decided that the campaign smacks of Stalinism and a quick Google search will reveal plenty of examples of Reductio ad Hitlerum.

This response represents a bit of a problem for a determinedly non-chippy atheist such as myself. I always used to detest the proselytising habit of some of my fellow non-believers. The BHA newsletter which I was sent a few years ago advertising Christmas cards with the crosses all replaced with a humanist “H” quickly went in the bin. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Dawkins and his religious critics in 1997[1] (long before it was fashionable) in which I took the man to task for suggesting in his Reith lecture that the X-Files’ weekly stream of monsters and the unexplained was akin to racist propaganda.

But something changed. I think it was December 2006 when the newspapers were filled with Archbishops claiming that “aggressive secularists” were trying to ban Christmas in response to a series of tabloid stories making inaccurate allegations about a few councils and a few government ministers’ Christmas cards containing the dread phrase “seasons greetings”. Up until that point I had naively assumed that secularism was something we could all agree on. Perhaps that was true 20 years ago but the rise of evangelism seems to have changed all that.

What I don’t understand is why so many “moderate” believers set the standard of acceptable behaviour more highly for atheists than they do for their fellow religionists. Just as Ariane Sherine’s plea for tolerance has been denounced by Fraser et al as extremism, so the Dean of Southwark compared Dawkins in this paper a few years ago for being “just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube.”

The “don’t label me” campaign is about consciousness raising. It isn’t about saying that parents shouldn’t be allowed to tell their children about what they believe, it is about letting them choose their identity for themselves. Many Christians – including my own parents – already do this. But it is an issue which resonates with many atheists because, sadly, many of them bear the scars of such an upbringing. It is a shame that Giles Fraser treats their plea for tolerance with scorn and not compassion.

[1] BA Hons (Theology and Religious Studies), natch.