Tag Archives: humanism

Terry Pratchett with librarian

On angels, apes and Terry Pratchett

I’m what you might call a lapsed Terry Pratchett fan. For most of my adolescence, his work was a huge influence on me. But, as was typical of my late-teenage self, I walked away when he hit his most prolific period out of indignation about “cashing in” or some such self-righteous bullshit (I like to think I have a more sophisticated and generous view of artists these days). I never went back because the backlog got overwhelming, although I still intend to at some point.

Like everyone else, I was saddened to hear of his death yesterday. Amid all the tributes and an affectionate quotes that filled my various feeds, one image particularly jarred with me. Intended as a tribute, it was this British Humanist Association image, repeating the oft-cited quote “I’d rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel”:
"I'd rather be a rising ape than a falling angel" Sir Terry Pratchett
There are several things I could say about this. The first thing is, that I thought it was a shame that the first thing the BHA reached for was the most divisive quote they could find. The second is that, the concept of a “rising ape” is nonsense. The enlightenment notion that we are on a progressive path from amoeba to divine being was actually pretty much refuted by Darwin himself, whose own views about evolution did away with concepts that were very much steeped in notions of progressivism such as Lamarckism. Of course, much of that was subsequently undermined by Herbert Spencer and his championing of the most un-Darwinian Social Darwinism, but we emerged from that intellectual cul-de-sac 70 years ago.

To be fair on Pratchett, this is an off the cuff quip he made, apparently inebriated, at the end of a very long answer he answered at a Guardian event at few years ago. It’s not a quote from Pratchett as much as it is a quote from the anonymous sub-editor who chose to give this clip that title. His full answer is much more nuanced:

For me, the far more inspiring quote is at the start of the same section, when he makes largely the same point in a much more sophisticated (and funny) way:

“I find it far more interesting; in a sense, far more religiously interesting; that a bunch of monkeys got down off trees and stopped arguing long enough, to build this; to build that; to build everything. And we’re monkeys. Our heritage is [unintelligible] to climb trees and throw shit at other [monkeys]. And actually, that’s so much more interesting than being fallen angels.”

But the third point I would make, via my friend James Blanchard, is that this in turn is an evolution of something Death says in The Hogfather:

“HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”

Both the last two quotes are classic, brilliant, wonderful Pratchett. The first one is not. It is such a shame that the former seems to be the one that is being parroted by the media today.

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.

Thought for the day: does Giles Fraser have a point?

The Vicar of Putney writes:

The problem is that atheism is defined by what it’s against, that it is not theism. And to introduce such a sense of “againstness” would fundamentally alter TftD’s character.

Some years ago, Richard Dawkins was offered a slot to experiment with a secular TftD. He told us religious explanations were “childish and self-indulgent”, “infantile regression” and “lazy”. The whole thing was one long assault.

Of course, lots of people will agree with Dawkins. And they absolutely must have equal access to the BBC’s airwaves. But this sort of denunciation is not what TftD is about.

On one level, I have to agree with him. “Atheism” is indeed defined by what it is against. Dawkins’ foray into the Today programme was indeed an attack on religion rather than a positive contribution. If the only thing non-believers could contribute to the slot was “againstness” then I wouldn’t want them doing it either.

With that said, you can veritably feel the tremble in Fraser’s writing; the hatred; the bile. It isn’t enough for atheists to define themselves as not believing in God, but then most – including Dawkins – don’t. Fraser might be able to cite a single essay penned for Radio Four, but anyone who has ever read Dawkins can testify that 90% of his writing is overwhelmingly positive and in awe of the world. Atheism may by definition be negative but you can’t apply the same argument to humanism, rationalism, pantheism or even (despite its inherent silliness) Brightism. By contrast, the same argument does apply to a monotheist (“our god is the one true god”). According to Fraser’s argument then we should restrict Thought for the Day to Hindus and the odd witch.

Is it really true that Thought for the Day contributors don’t denounce? Only yesterday, Richard Harries was tut-tutting the Atheist Bus Campaign (and its religious imitators) for telling people to not worry. At it’s best, Thought for the Day is often about denunciation – I always liked Antonia Swinson’s uncomfortable truths about the excesses of capitalism (perhaps that’s why she was only allowed to record three editions). At its worst, it is often about denunciation as well – I am surely not the only person in the world who has found himself leaping out of bed and shouting at the radio because the TftD presenter has just casually just damned half the population (in their usual polite, measured tones). As much as Giles Fraser might like to think otherwise, you cannot argue for something without implicitly opposing – and thus denouncing – something. This is what happens on Thought for the Day, day after day. Hasn’t he been listening?

It is a shame that Fraser doesn’t even try responding to Sue Blackmore’s points about TftD last month, also published on Comment is Free. The best he can do is denounce Dawkins for being denunciatory and to tell us all to “get a life.” All in all, it is a little lame and condescending.