Tag Archives: new-humanist

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.

Godless carols

On Sunday, the gf and I went to the Hammersmith Apollo to see the final performance of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. By coincidence, albeit perhaps not that much of a coincidence given that both being plugged into a lot of the same networks, we hear about a lot of things at around the same time, Will Howells sat almost exactly in front of us.

A good time was had by all. I’m not much of a comedy night person (I did have a phase of going to pub standup before I moved up to Leeds in 2000 but I never got back into the habit), but this was a good example of what I was missing. Add to that a combination of quality musical acts and science writers and it was a splendid evening. The impression given by Robin Ince was that he’d quite like to turn this into an annual event; I sincerely hope he does.

Stand out moments:

  • Robin Ince himself was one of the strongest comedians, but Stewart Lee, Chris Addison and Dara O’Briain more than kept their respective ends up.
  • The musical acts, if I’m brutally honest, were often a bit meh, but St Jarvis of Cocker was fabulous (he did Something’s Changed and I Believe In Father Christmas by Greg Lake – my bid for the Christmas 2009 Number One). And Tim Minchin‘s beat poem about having a drunken row with a New Ager in a dinner party was a sensational way to round off the evening.
  • Sadly, Jennifer Aniston wasn’t available to do the “science bit” but Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre somehow managed to get by without her. Singh’s piece about the Big Bang Theory and Kate Melua was entertaining and Dawkins reminded us why, even if he does on occasion go off the anti-religion deep end, his writing has captured so many people’s imaginations over the years. But it was the passion and sheer moral force of Ben Goldacre which was the standout performance of the three, almost singlehandedly giving the occasion a sense of legitimacy by talking about the peddling of vitamins in South Africa. A normally witty writer, Goldacre didn’t make a single joke but his contribution was stronger for it.

Ricky Gervais, for whom a lot of people apparently turned up (the gf overheard a woman on the way out who was outraged that the event wasn’t merely Ricky Gervais and friends), was a problematic performer. The thing about Gervais is that he isn’t and never has been a standup comedian. He does this character, one not entirely dissimilar to the one in The Office and Extras (and, lamentably, Stardust). If you remember that, then his not particularly funny observations about getting a goat for an African family for Christmas makes a certain amount of sense, and his jokes about rape and paedophilia can, to an extent, be justified. More extreme things can be found in the League of Gentlemen, certainly, where it is clear that the actors are playing characters. The problem is, how many people still see Gervais as a character and how much does Gervais himself still see it as a character? Leaving aside whether you can ever justify rape gags, the simple fact is his skits on Sunday weren’t funny – or original – enough and too reliant on shock value to get a nervous laugh. This is a shame since he is capable of truly excellent standup such as his daddy longlegs skit.

As I said above, I really hope they do make it an annual event. But if they do, here is some advice:

1. If you’re going to use Powerpoint, remember the cheap seats. We weren’t in the cheap seats, merely the inner circle, but even we couldn’t see Simon Singh’s slides. It did occur to me that this may have been some kind of anti-God ploy – on the offchance the Heavenly Host does exist, let’s make watching it slightly annoying for them and see how they like it! hah! – but if it was it was a little counter-productive. It isn’t as bad as when I went to see Phantom of the Opera in the Manchester Opera House many moons ago when the shock entrance of the Phantom was somewhat marred by the fact that from our elevated angle, we cheapies could see him blithely walking on stage 30 seconds before, but that was Andrew Lloyd Webber – what did I expect?

2. If people are going to just recycle vaguely relevant old material for the occasion, tell them to not bother. There was an act that did a song about Peter Gabriel on the basis that he was sort of named after the angel, but I sort of stopped paying attention after about 30 seconds. The evening was long enough and didn’t need this sort of filler.

3. A bit less music, a bit more sciencey stuff. I liked the fact that it wasn’t just an evening of jokes about eeeeevil Christians but was a celebration of science. It could have done with a little more.

But these are minor quibbles at the end of the day. I had a great evening and look forward to what they cook up for next year.

God Trumps: Bonus Cards

The New Humanists’ God Trumps appears to be becoming a bit of a mini-phenomenon. Catholic Herald editor Damian Thompson has claimed it is Islamophobic because it pointedly refuses to make any Muslim jokes (the satirical point being made is rather lost of Mr Thompson).

Personally I found the feature quite amusing, but a couple of things irked me about it (both of which are common to a lot of what comes out of humanist stables). First of all, the anti-Catholic sentiment was a little over the top. The simple fact is, most Catholics don’t follow every word the Pope utters to the letter. Indeed, one issue that is ripe for mockery is the way Catholicism seems to accomodate that, allowing Tony Blair into the faith despite helping to start a war which the Pope opposed, and letting people off the hook as long as they confess every now and then. Follower Dedication: 9/10? You must be joking!

The second weakness is the failure to see the funny side about the Godless. Agnostics come in for a hard time, which is well and good. But in lumping secularists, atheists and humanists together into a single category, you end up with a lowest common denominator mush. Do the Godless really only have a wealth rating of 1/10? Some of the richest countries in the world have secular constitutions and secularists have control over a lot of the world’s media? Sounds pretty wealthy to me. And there is a broad spectrum of the Godless. If you are going to mock the agnostics, then why not take a few potshots at the Brights and Outs. It seems to me we need some new cards:

Age: founded in 2003 – 1/10
Wealth: small, but growing – 1/10
Follower Dedication: try suggesting not all religious people are eeevil to them and see how they react – 7/10
Daffiest Doctrine: er, the name ‘brights’? The urge to slavishly copy evangelicals by having their own bumper stickers? Alvin the Chipmunk has a good look? – 8/10
Weapon of Choice: whining – 8/10
Easily Offended? oh yes – 10/10

Age: 17th century – 4/10
Wealth: Friends’ Meeting Houses and several foundations and trusts set up by Friends’ after spending a lifetime of rotting children’s teeth – 5/10
Follower Dedication: for goodness’ sake, you can even be a Buddhist Quaker – 3/10
Daffiest Doctrine: er, that people should experience the Holy Spirit for themselves and not believe in doctrine? – 3/10
Weapon of Choice: chocolate, porridge – 10/10
Easily Offended? haven’t managed to yet – 1/10

Age: 11/10
Wealth: when you’re going to be eaten, what need for material possessions? 1/10
Follower Dedication: absolute – 10/10
Daffiest Doctrine: there’s nothing daffy about believing God lies sleeping at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and will rise up and eat us all. But in this context – 11/10
Weapon of Choice: Great Cthulhu, of course – 11/10
Easily Offended? He has a thick skin – 1/10

Bad Faith Awards: it’s like being asked to choose between my children!

How on Earth is anyone supposed to be able to pick a winner amongst this set on bozos shortlisted in the New Humanist’s Bad Faith Awards?

It makes you realise quite what a year it has been on the culture wars front. Personally, on reflection, I’ve gone for the governors of St Monica’s School, Prestwich for the simple reason that their decision to deny their pupils access to the cervical cancer vaccination is so transparently mysogynist and so physically harmful that it deserves a lot more attention than it has been getting.

But New Humanist really ought to consider using a different voting system. As it stands, the high profile nominees are leading by miles while the others simply aren’t getting the exposure they deserve. Do we really need Sarah Palin to win? The good people of the USA have already found her wanting. What does it achieve letting her win, or for that matter someone like Ann Coulter who is just begging for the publicity? And wouldn’t it be better using a system which would better establish the consensus candidate?

Frankly, they should be doing a death match (or, to be more pretentious, the Condorcet method). Fundamentally, it is a shame humanists aren’t using a system which encourages deliberation rather than simple knee-jerk reaction. That’s for the other lot.

Cristina Odone: drop the martyr act

If you haven’t heard that St. Martins-in-the-Fields stopped Cristina Odone from using their pulpit to rant about how religious people are persecuted last week, you simply haven’t been paying attention. She was banging on about it on the Today programme and now has a column in the Observer saying the same thing:

When a Christian cannot speak out in church for fear of censure, alarm bells ring. The citadel that threatens to emerge from this new world order is like Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials in reverse: the dogmatic oppressor is no longer the omnipotent church, but the omnipotent secularist clique that demands total conformity.

What a very silly person. I have no idea what the capacity of St. Martins-in-the-Fields is but doubt it has a capacity of more than 1,000. By contrast, in going on about this via every media outlet available to her, she has had contact with millions. It was a church that banned her, not the high priesthood of Richard Dawkins. In what way is she subject to “omnipotent secularist clique that demands total conformity”?

In New Humanist this month, Richard Norman writes an important corrective to the recent outpourings of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I endorse it. But one thing I am in constant awe of is the ability of religious commentators to whip themselves into a frenzy that they are being persecuted. In the Guardian last year, at least one religious commentator compared Dawkins’ views to that of the actions of a suicide bomber, without a hint of irony. As Christmas is approaching, we can but wonder if the fever pitch will exceed last year’s nonsense about secularists plotting to ban Christmas, a throng which was joined by none other than the Archbishop of York (a diocese which knows more than a thing or two about blood libel and thus you would hope would go to rather more pains not to spout unfounded nonsense). I’m not optimistic.

Going back to Odone’s rehearsed charges, Shabina Begum wasn’t banned from wearing a veil, but an ankle-length jilbab; if she’d settled for a headscarf and long trousers she’d have been fine. Nadia Eweida wasn’t banned from wearing a cross by BA, but from wearing one on top of her uniform in a contrived way. The Portree Primay School scandal was resolved two weeks ago.

But these are all froth. Meanwhile a woman is imprisoned in the Sudan, with demands for a death sentance to be put on her head, for giving a teddy bear the wrong name. And we’re supposed to believe it is secularists that are having it all their own way?

So yes, I do happen to think that Dawkins and Hitchens rather over-egg their respective puddings, but compared with the people they are arguing with they are paragons of restraint.