Tag Archives: atheism

A lesson for us all, I feel

With the Atheist Bus Campaign now at £38,000 and climbing, Peter Black asks:

Wouldn’t all this money committed on both sides of the argument have been better spent on actually helping people have a good Christmas, the homeless for example?

Allow me to quote Matthew 26:6-13 (lolcats version):

6 So Jebuz was outside in Bethany, inside the house of Simon the lepr,7 Woman popped up wif can of tuna, and poured oilz on his head, as he sitted at cheezburger.8 But when his bfz sees it, thays angry, saying, Y to waste?9 Dis oilz might have been sold for much, and give to other kittehz wif no cheezburgerz.

10 Jebuz thinkz n sez, Y U freekn? she knows I like oilz.11 Always kittehz wif no cheezburgers; but I go bai, k?12 Thatz Y she pour on the tuna oilz, 4 2 bury mee.13 I sez 2 U, wen teh bibul iz told, it wil say wut shes dun 4 me. Shez cool. U suck.

Wise words, wise words.

Who says atheists don’t give money to charity?

I donated my tenner this morning, but I’ve been keeping an eye on the Atheist Bus’ Just Giving page all the same.

When I donated, the £5,500 target had already been met. At the time of writing, the target had hit £20,300 and counting.

My only concern is that with this coming in the run up to Christmas, it will almost certainly be used as a hook to pin the “atheists want to ban Christmas” annual story on the media donkey once again. Can I suggest that a small footnote is made at the bottom to the effect of “* And have a happy Christmas, too!”?

UPDATE: I’ve since been informed that the poster campaign is due to start in January, so that kills that idea.

Rowan Williams on religious hatred: quite silly actually

Before Thursday’s brouhaha about sharia law erupted, I had already intended to read Rowan Williams’ earlier speech about religious hatred laws, following on from the praise that Chris Keating garlanded it with on Monday. I’m afraid I don’t share Chris’ enthusiasm.

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. Academic background or not, Rowan Williams is a politician. He is the leader of a worldwide movement which is happy to roll its sleeves up and get involved in political matters on a daily basis. He is a member of the UK’s legislative assembly. So when he says something, it matters. And when he makes a speech about religious hatred laws, at the very least he must acknowledge the role in which he and his political party (in this case, the Bishops) personally played in getting those laws onto the statute books. In particular, it should be remembered that the neutered piece of legislation we have now is not the draconian measure that the Church of England actively campaigned for and which we would now have were it not for the ineptitude of Hilary Armstrong, the anti-Parliamentary instincts of Tony Blair and arguably the intervention of another Rowan. For Williams, two years later, to make a speech justifying an Act of Parliament he didn’t actually want in its final form is utterly shameless.

In terms of his speech on religious hatred (which is equally as long but in fairness not quite as oblique as his speech on sharia), it can essentially be summed up by two statements:

The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing; and the obvious corollary is that the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded.

and

It can reasonably be argued that a powerful or dominant religious body has every chance of putting its own case, and that one might take with a pinch of salt any claim that it was being silenced by public criticism; but the sound of a prosperous and socially secure voice claiming unlimited freedom both to define and to condemn the beliefs of a minority grates on the ear. Context is all.

These two principles are designed to guarantee what Williams refers to, both here and in other speeches as ‘argumentative democracy’ – the idea of the public realm being a marketplace of ideas where people can freely argue without fear of being shot down, moderated by restraint.

Superficially this all sounds fine. The powerful must not be allowed to drown out the powerless. The problem is, it is so subjective and his definition of ‘power’ is at best undefined, at worst to be taken to refer merely to the power of the state. It certainly is when he offers his critique of the Enlightenment – there we are asked to put it in the context of a few brave intellectuals standing up against an over-powerful church which influenced every part of public life. No supra-powerful church these days (thanks to the Enlightenment), ergo no real need to continue the Enlightenment project. Their work is done, time to move on, is essentially Williams’ argument.

But the power of the state is just one tool. There is the power of big money, something which religion continues to use around the world, from Saudi Arabia through to the US Presidential elections through to the bankrolling of UK Academies. There is also the power of violence.

Williams does not reflect on this and without wishing to sound like a neo-con this is pretty unforgiveable in the post-9/11 world where the asymmetry of conflict is now well understood (at least outside of Lambeth Palace). You don’t need to be a super-power to change the world these days, just enough people who are willing to die for your cause.

In a global world, does anyone have a legitimate claim to be a Goliath-fighting David? The brilliant film In the Valley of Elah explores this theme in the context of the Iraq conflict, showing how that metaphor can be applied and reapplied in different contexts. It’s an evocative image, and one which our global culture is in love with (from The 300 and the Seven Samurai through to Dad’s Army), but I would suggest in a world where everyone is both David and Goliath it isn’t a particularly useful foundation for law.

Ultimately, any such narrative is intensely political. Eurosceptics like to emphasise about how they are plucky Brits standing up against the immensely powerful monolithic Brussels. Nationalists, be they English, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish or Russian, flatter themselves that They have Us under their yoke. And of course it has now become a Christian tradition, each December, for people of faith to claim their celebration of Christmas is under attack from sinister secular forces.

The latter point is particularly relevant because of course Charles Sentamu, who is fond of denouncing the evils of ‘aggressive secularism‘, is the Ying to Rowan Williams’ Yang. Sentamu’s allegations are explicitly intended to limit atheist’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life – not only are his allegations about Winterval et al without foundation and highly inflammatory but he is lecturing people what they can or can’t have on their Christmas cards. Where does this fit in Williams’ picture of things? Ostensibly nowhere – the irreligious are not to have any of the rights he insists the religious should have. And if we are to believe the rest of his speech, the Church is no longer a powerful entity, at least compared to the aggressive secularist hegemony (which in reality has as much substance to it as the Elders of Zion). To not even begin to grapple with this issue, in a six thousand word essay, when his second-in-command is going around making such blood libels willy-nilly, is sinister indeed.

Williams mentions the Behtzi case, but laughably tries to have it every which way:

In the case of the bitter controversy in the Sikh community over the play Behzti in 2004, it was clear that many deeply intelligent members of the Sikh community in Britain were torn between the belief that the play would cement in the minds of audiences largely ignorant of the Sikh religion a distorting and negative set of images and the gloomy conviction that violent protest against the play would have exactly the same effect (c.f. Nash, pp. 34-6): very much a no-win situation. Once again, there is the disconnection between the firm claim of an artistic establishment that protest against oppressive systems is justifiable, even imperative (and Behzti had identified a real and too-often buried concern among Sikh women), and the counter-claim that this kind of representation of a religious culture in front of what was likely to be a fairly religiously illiterate audience would be experienced as a straightforward flexing of the muscles by a hostile, alien and resourceful power.

Or, to put it another way: Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was making valid criticisms but the hoi polloi is too stupid and ignorant to fully appreciate her argument. Therefore, on balance, her play should not have been performed.

This gets to the heart of it. Far from approving of an ‘argumentative democracy’ Williams wants to insulate the public from any argument it may not be able to fully appreciate the nuances of. The Ivory Tower of academia can have these debates but the rest of us must have it doled out in strictly vetted, bite-sized chunks. Given the events of the past 48 hours, I do hope the irony isn’t lost on anyone here. Given the enormous backlash that Williams’ speech has caused, and given his call a week earlier for people to exercise restraint, could he not be accused himself of knowingly “damaging believers’ freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society” and thus be restrained in order to “avoid the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded”? Or should such restraints only apply to anyone who happens to disagree with him? In reseaching his article I am reminded that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 would have made it an offence to stir up religious hatred if you were “reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up” if Williams’ had had his way: in a parallel universe his counterpart is currently sitting in a police cell.

Ultimately, we can’t agree who is powerful or weak any more than we can agree what is a valid criticism or not. In a global, information rich society, ideas about the powerful versus the weak are losing resonance in any case. The self-assured righteousness which religion imbues in its adherents and all too often descends into violence must be regarded as a powerful thing in itself – it doesn’t need the power of the state it had in medieval times to still cause oppression.

Laurence Boyce: j’accuse (UPDATE)

I had intended to respond to Laurence Boyce’s handbagging in response to me calling him a bigot a while ago. Not wanting to get dragged into the comments thread (which appears to still be getting longer and longer…), I meant to post a riposte here last week but I got knocked out by the lurgy for a few days. Not sure how of interest it is to people now and I’ll try to keep it brief, but here goes…

First, it should be pointed out that when I originally called him a bigot, I was half-joking. Indeed, for me, I was being nice. The incident occurred, m’lud, at 11.15 on the evening of Monday 7 January 2008. The fact that I called him an “equal opportunities bigot” might possibly give the reader a clue about me having my tongue in my cheek at the time. The point I was originally making was simply that while Angus Huck didn’t like Islam, Laurence Boyce didn’t like any religion. It was as simple and as prosaic as that and I’m not convinced I particularly left myself open to interpretation. It is rather ironic, to say the least, to now find my target – an outspoken critic of fundamentalist religion – has interpreted me so literally. I certainly didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

But since I’m a repeat offender, I won’t try to wriggle out of it that easily. My objection was to Laurence stating that “Islam is a vile, pernicious, and utterly false ideology (just like every other religion).” If you find the word “bigot” a bit strong I will happily substitute it with “factually wrong and inflammatory” – it amounts to the same thing.

Why would I, as a fellow atheist, think such a thing? Because one of the things I least like about organised religion is that it tends to deal in absolutes, and this description is an absolute. However much Laurence might try to wriggle out of it, anyone who practices a “vile, pernicious and utterly false ideology” must themselves be vile, pernicious and utterly without merit; how would they be able to withstand the power that Laurence attributes to it? If religion is truly “vile, pernicious and utterly false ideology” then we surely have a moral imperative not merely to establish a secular state, not merely to try and stop people from being exposed to it and to “convert” people away from it, but to ban or at least severely restrict it. That’s broadly how I feel about Nazism. If Laurence truly believes his description, then surely he feels the same way about Sufism, Bahaism and the Society of Friends?

To assert something as being an “utterly false ideology” is also to imply that there is such a thing as a “true ideology” or at least an unfalse one. Again, isn’t this the sort of language we complain that practioners of religion adopt? Is it not also to suggest that a religion could hypothetically be founded on “truth” and therefore avoid the mistakes of all the others? Isn’t that pretty much what every single religious founder has set about doing since the dawn of time?

And where does this falsehood reside? There are obvious factual assertions made by various religions which science has shown quite comprehensively to be wrong, and there are those who cling onto these facts as if their whole faith is underpinned by them. But for others, this is less crucial. Indeed, both Lambeth Palace and the Vatican have, individuals aside, had very little problem adapting to the theory of evolution. The real challenge to religion was Galileo and Copernicus. Mainstream religion is rather adept at incorporating scientific theory into its world view. Fundamentalism (which I would broadly accept as being pernicious in character) is a modern phenomenon: Christian fundamentalism is a 20th century creed while Wahhabism only dates from the 18th. They have grown in popularity, and are growing, not because of something inherent in religion but because of something inherent in modernity (future shock?). Shouldn’t we be denouncing modernity?

And while we’re on the subject of modernity, can we really excise religion from all progress in science and philosophy? These spheres didn’t just evolve despite religion but frequently under the patronage of it. If religion were “utterly vile and pernicious” why did it so happily allow Greek philosophy and Islamic mathematics to flourish? The Renaissance was a complicated period in which religion showed its ugly side more than once, but it also inspired great art, engineering and architecture (hand in hand with capitalism of course, but that’s another story). You don’t have to be Tristram Hunt to acknowledge the important role that protestantism has played in the development of liberal democracy. Only the most crass analysis (step forward Mr Hitchens) can categorise all these leaps as somehow alien to religion rather than one of its many aspects.

Laurence also objected to my comment that “religions are ultimately what you make of them. Secular ideologies are too,” and my assertion that the fact that Marxism is what you make of it is “self evident”. Here I feel he has got completely the wrong end of the stick:

Let us get one thing straight: Marxism is not simply what you might choose to make of it. While the task of nailing down the principles of Marxism might not be entirely trivial, we can nevertheless be clear in the main about what Marxism does and does not entail. For instance, it is surely uncontroversial to assert that Marxism comprises a belief in the common ownership of property and the means of production (a terrible idea by the way). Now I suppose there is nothing to stop somebody from saying, “I’m a Marxist, though I don’t believe in the common ownership of property and the means of production.” But on the whole, I prefer the simpler, “I’m not a Marxist.” It’s brief and to the point, and has the compelling advantage of not stretching the meaning of words beyond the bounds of reason.

Note that I didn’t say “Marxism is what you want it to be” but “Marxism is what you make of it” – sorry to have to resort to semantics but there is a crucial difference as the former is how Laurence has chosen to interpret it while the latter is explicitly about action, not belief.

I wasn’t claiming that you can define Marxism however you want (although for what its worth I think Laurence defines it rather poorly here: Marxism is at its heart about class struggle and historical materialism more than anything else; Laurence’s definition leaves most Marxist academics out in the cold); I was arguing that what matters is what you do with it. It is possible to believe in common ownership of property and not feel compelled to take up revolutionary struggle in order to achieve it. Indeed, most Marxists don’t. Not every Marxist is a Stalin. Not every Marxist is even a Tony Benn. And not every Wahhabi Muslim is Osama Bin Laden. It seems remarkably obvious to write it but apparently it isn’t “self evident” so clearly I need to spell it out.

Why does this matter? Because if you’re a secularist and a liberal what matters fundamentally is what people do, not what they think. That isn’t to suggest that thoughts don’t lead to action or to endorse a mushy relativism where there nothing can be said to be wrong. I’d even agree that some ideas and creeds are very vile and pernicious indeed. But to claim, as Laurence does, that religion is somehow sui generis from liberal, enlightenment and secularist thought is to dismiss its origins, ignore history and flirt with notions about thought crime. Strip those noble ideals from their context and I would suggest you have something potentially very ugly indeed.

Ultimately, I think there is a better way than religion. The theos model really ceased to have any meaning once we realised Ptolmy was wrong. The fact there is good in religion (and there is plenty of good) doesn’t get away from the fact that it requires several logical backflips (the God of the gaps and its like) to fit in which what we have clearly established using the scientific method. While science can never disprove religion’s claims to be able to explain “why” we came to be, it superceded religion’s ability to explain “how” a long time ago.

That tension has lead to a culture clash with plenty choosing to deny modernity instead of accepting the moral superiority of honest intellectual inquiry. Those individuals are currently locked in an all-too mundane political battle across the world, from the US Presidential race, through to the Anglican Church and of course the Middle East. While I don’t expect him to man the barricades, I wish that people like Nick Clegg didn’t feel they had to apologise for their lack of belief, implicitly ceding the moral ground to organised religion which I do not believe it has any claim to.

But it is plain ignorant to label religion as a whole as evil. In doing so we perversely absolve the responsibility of those individuals who do evil in its name. And I am more comfortable with theists who do those logical backflips and manage to have a liberal world view than those atheists who seem to indulge in categorising the world into black and white in the very same way that they accuse religion of doing.

UPDATE: Laurence has chosen to elongate his already overlong and impossible to follow thread over on Lib Dem Voice.

There’s no way I can even attempt to offer a line by line rebuttal in the way he seems to have infinite time to do. There is something slightly bizarre in arguing with a “secularist” who lobs his own sacred texts by Dawkins and Harris at you rather than engaging in the debate itself.

He says “polls have show that around 36% of young British Muslims think apostasy should be punishable by death. As a matter of interest, how high would that figure have to go before ‘vile’ and ‘pernicious’ becomes about right?” This is of course to completely miss the point since if Islam were so vile and pernicious, 64% of Muslims wouldn’t be able to disregard this core belief. Of that 36% I have no doubt that most of them don’t really believe in apostacy beyond paying lip service to it. Certainly none of them seem to be in any hurry to start lobbing stones about. And of course what about all those Jews and Christians? If religion is so vile and pernicious, how come they don’t all support apostacy too? After all, it is as much a part of those religions as it is in Islam. How come you’re still alive Laurence? How come I am?

Laurence links to an article by Dawkins about religion being a Virus of the Mind. What’s most interesting about this theory of Dawkins is how unscientific it is. He’s on shaky ground to start with when he redefines religion not as analogous to a biological virus, which are increasingly being found to have all sorts of useful applications in medicine (d’oh!) but a computer virus. That is to say, it is like something that has been specifically designed, by a human, to parasitise on a computer system. He talks about computer viruses being unlike computer programs because they are “not useful” – but that depends if you’re the programmer or not; the only non-useful computer virus is one that do what it was intended to do. And of course, unlike either a biological virus or a computer virus, we can’t map the code of a “virus of the mind”.

It’s sad to see Dawkins do this because his idea about memetics really was quite innovative and forces us to think about the promulgation of ideas in a different way. He’s a victim of having his metaphors deliberately misunderstood in the past, the “selfish gene” for instance, so why he went out of his way to come up with such a sloppy metaphor here is anyone’s guess.

Back to Laurence, he makes the claim that “if a religious moderate espouses a belief that we perceive to be of disturbing consequence, we just keep quiet about it.” Er, really? When did I do that? Didn’t this debate start because I decided to criticise the Bishop of Rochester, a man whose views on Islam Laurence appears to find much common cause? I seem to spend much of this blog slagging off religious “moderates”.

He goes on to include a long quote from the Book of Harris, which contains this insightful gem: “There is no telling what our world would now be like had some great kingdom of Reason emerged at the time of the Crusades and pacified the credulous multitudes of Europe and the Middle East. We might have had modern democracy and the Internet by the year 1600.”

Deep stuff, eh? Anyone notice the word “might” there? Because, you know, we “might” also have invented the nuclear bomb and we “might” also have destroyed civilisation before the internet even got a chance. The problem is Harris, and by extension his loyal disciple Laurence, are playing a silly game here where ideas can be shorn of their historical context. How would this “kingdom” (sic – think about it) of Reason have come about? Spacemen arriving with tablets of stone? If you can’t answer that question then resorting to counterfactuals is just pathetic.

I mentioned Aquinas in the comments below so I’ll mention him here: without wishing to over-egg it, this man is both one of the most important figures in theology but also philosophy. No Aquinas, no classical revival, no age of enlightenment. No golden age of Reason, monarchy or not. Yet the man was also a religious fanatic.

Martin Luthor, too, who Laurence chooses to quote, was a fanatic. Yet this doesn’t undermine the importance of protestantism in the Glorious Revolution whatsoever. For all its faults, the idea underpinning protestantism was intensely democratic.

I could go on, but it’s far too late. The point is that the history of thought is inextricably bound up with the development of religion. It is an incredibly rich and evocative background that we forget at our peril. Reducing this all down to “reasonable” white hats and “religious” black hats isn’t just reductionism of the worst kind, it’s downright unscientific. When Dawkins calls religion a virus, or a drug, my response is to demand hard, testable evidence. Talk of “Reason” as if it could have emerged without the hot and bloody crucible of religion, politics and economics is meaningless, frankly laughable, and smacks of mysticism.

It is notable that Laurence has avoided answering my fundamental charge, that he deals in the language of absolutes which is one of the main things that is wrong with the religion he criticises. Perhaps Sam Harris hasn’t written a chapter on it?

Dawkins’ influence over party politics

The Labour Humanists have been quite high profile at this conference and have been actively promoting their fringe meeting with A.C. Grayling on Monday. A year old, the group is mainly campaigning against faith schools. My erstwhile Doughty Street sparring partner Kris Brown is their Vice Chair and has been running around all week.

This is part of a growing trend. The Humanist and Secularist Liberal Democrats also only formed in the last few years. I have to confess to not joining this group when it was first set up. I remain wary of humanism in its more happy-clappy guise and the full page advert of the BHA in New Humanist this month, emphasising the need to “belong,” doesn’t exactly help (while recognising my own hypocrisy in that it is a sense of belonging that is one of the main attractions of party politics for me). But Richard Dawkins’ rallying cry, following the increasingly vocal anti-secularism of organised religions in the UK, has forced me to consider getting off the fence. It would appear that this is a cross-party phenomenon.

The BHA have also been high profile this past fortnight. I don’t remember them having a stand at the Lib Dem conference exhibition in the past and they are at Labour as well this week. Clearly they too are sensing the need to be more vocal and visible at the moment.

Where this will all lead is unclear. The anti-Dawkins’ backlash is already midflow, while a veritable anti-God publishing industry has taken the book world by storm. What is clear is that there is a lot of latent frustration out there. The emergence of these political groups is definitely a positive development but we need to be clear about our aims and I suspect will need to work together on a cross-party basis to be effective.

How the BBC gets it wrong over religion…

I got a response from the BBC today about my complaint regarding Jonathan Sacks’ programme on Rosh Hashanah a couple of weeks ago in which he lauded a Jewish school which had a multi-faith intake while, off-camera, doing everything he can to prevent faith schools from having to have a minimum intake of pupils of other faiths and none.

The response is as follows:

Dear Mr Graham

Thank you for your e-mail regarding ‘Rosh Hashanah 2007’ on 9 September.

I understand that you had concerns over how the issue of faith schools was dealt with in the programme.

This programme was an authored piece by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks’s which examined the British public’s attitude to faith and religion. During the programme he visited a Jewish faith school at which over 50% of the alumni were non-Jewish. His point here was that the fact that so many people wanted to send their children to faith schools showed (in his opinion) that people still have an appetite for religion. The programme was not intended to be a programme-long debate on the positives or negatives of faith schools. Sir Jonathan Sacks’s views on faith schools are well-known and BBC News and Current Affairs programmes have often featured debates on whether or not these schools have a place in modern society, how they should be funded etc. The views expressed by Sir Jonathan Sacks in the programme do not represent those of the BBC.

I would like to assure you that we have registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for all programme makers and commissioning executives within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact the BBC.

Regards

Paul Wheeler
BBC Information

This is to completely miss my point, which was, as I put it in my complaint, “he was using this faith school to justify public expenditure on all faith schools, despite the fact that he believes they should be free to have a religiously exclusive intake.” This school was being used as a beard to justify the policies of other schools that have more restrictive practices. I’m a little surprised they went along with it to be perfectly honest.

The BBC’s justification is that this was just an “authored piece” by Sacks and therefore not reflective of BBC policy. But they are selective about who gets this free air time and don’t allow any response or debate.

This whole episode had lead me to look at the BBC’s religious coverage online. The first thing that struck me was that the religious broadcasting editor does not have a blog, unlike most other editors these days. So no dialogue there then. Secondly, their mini-site is called “religion and ethics,” which suggests that it is concerned with the wider philosophical debate. Indeed, it includes details about atheism and humanism – but they are listed as religions. Lest you think that they were getting equal treatment though, famously atheists are excluded from Thought of the Day.

So in short, the website claims to be about the wider debate about ethics, antagonises atheists by calling them a religion only to shut them out when it comes to actual programming. But it gets worse, because its section on “ethics” is restricted to the sort of ethical issues that religious people restrict themselves to. Thus, we have whole sections of the rights and wrongs of female circumcision (carefully balanced so as not to any child abusers who happen to stumble upon it), while poverty gets studiously ignored.

It seems to me that all this is hopelessly confused. The only policy that I can find governing all this are the BBC’s editorial guidelines regarding religion:

The BBC respects the fundamental human right to exercise freedom of thought, conscience and religion, this includes an individual’s freedom to worship, teach, practise and observe. At the same time, we recognise our duty to protect the vulnerable and avoid unjustified offence or likely harm. We aim to achieve this by ensuring our output is not used to denigrate the beliefs of others.

The guidelines are very clear about respecting people’s “religious views and beliefs”. The only time this rubric is not used is very telling:

Contributors should not be allowed to undermine or denigrate the religious beliefs of others.

Of course, Jonathan Sacks was entirely free to “author” a half hour programme denigrating the non-religious beliefs of others, but that then isn’t against the guidelines.

As far as I can see, the organisation has no guidelines whatsoever about what constitutes an ethical issue and how they are presented. The religion department appears to have co-opted “ethics” to suit its own ends, the clear implication being that religion is primarily about ethics rather than identity or politics. I would strongly question that equation; what’s more I would suggest that the subtext of that is that religion, of whatever flavour, is good. That godlessness means immorality.

Mark Braund, who I alluded to yesterday, has a lot to say in his book the Possibility of Progress that is of relevance here. I’m halfway through the book and don’t currently have it on me, so I’ll leave discussion of that for another time. Suffice to say he has plenty of interesting things to say about morality in pre-agrarian (and thus pre-organised religion) societies, and the tensions between morality and moral codes. But to bring this article full circle, and back to Jonathan Sacks’ programme, is it really any wonder that people seek out faith schools to educate their kids if they have it drummed into them that such schools will have a strong ethos which, by implication, non-denominational schools inevitably lack?

Secularism isn’t unethical – it is all about living with each other according to a shared set of universalist moral values. Those fundamental moral values are not only shared by religious people but by atheists too; they are the fundamental building blocks of civilised society. The only time we get into conflict is when principles such as equality and tolerance conflict with religious strictures such as the proscription of homosexuality. It seems to me it is those univeralist values we want schools to be teaching, not the exceptionalism of religion. Yet our national public service broadcaster seems to want to only discuss ethics in the narrow terms of how each religion differs in its approach.

Credit where it’s due therefore, Gordon Brown is therefore probably onto something when he talks about the need to develop a British set of shared values. A bit of universalism can’t do us any harm. Once such a set of values has been written down – even codified – it must therefore be up to public services to embrace them. If this lead to all schools becoming much clearer about their ethos, and the BBC suddenly finding itself having to distinguish ethics from religion, it can only be a good thing.

The proof will be in the pudding however.

A lack of proportion

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.