Tag Archives: religion

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.

One pig flu over the cuckoo’s nest

We are officially now in the grip of a new panic. Quite how justified all this screaming and shouting about swine influenza is remains to be seen, but there is certainly a lot of secondary nonsense starting to form.

My favourite thus far is the Israel government’s insistence that it should be renamed “Mexican flu” on the basis that pigs are not kosher. Are we to infer from that that eating Mexicans is Okay?

I’ve written about this strange mutation of Jewish (and Islamic) dietary law into a perverted list of “animals which must not be mentioned” before. A couple of years ago there was the bizarre attempt to replace the Three Little Pigs with dogs in a school play (the council apparently “stepped in” and insisted the heroes were porcine). My favourite remains the finger wagging Labour got in 2005 for portraying Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin as “flying pigs” by, erm, the Ham and High (the local paper for a sizeable proportion of North London jews). None of this seems to have anything to do with religion and everything to do with people (either religious people themselves or silly people claiming to speak on their behalf) going out of their way to find offence in nothing. And it seems to be getting worse. I am quite certain that if Leon the Pig Farmer were made today, a combination of the media and a small bunch of hopping idiots would have lead to it being branded as anti-semitic. The idea that religious people have an inalienable right to not be offended is still only believed by a minority of people, but that minority seems to be growing, getting louder and become increasingly irrational.

There is absolutely no connection between pigs and Judaism (they aren’t actually mentioned in the Torah) except in the mind of someone who can’t get over the fact that the latter don’t eat the former despite the deliciousness that is bacon. It is no more offensive to Jews to talk about pigs as it would be to talk about rabbits or elephants (or indeed pretty much any animal which Jews can’t eat – i.e. most of them). Yet strangely, people like Yakov Litzman seem to now be making the connection themselves. Ultimately, the only thing that all this hypersensitivity seems to achieve is to give true anti-semites another stick to beat Jews with.

Go back a hundred years ago, and the images of choice for anti-semites were spiders and octopi. We were meant to associate Jews with alien, many tentacled creatures spinning webs of deceit. Portraying them as cute, wuddly piggy-wiggies – at least as far as I am aware – simply didn’t come into it. Yet start shouting foul every time a pig appears in popular culture, and you can bet the BNP et al will leap at every opportunity to goad.

Why on Earth would you want to arm your true enemies like that? And why on Earth would you want to muddy the water between your true enemies and your friends in this way? It is a perverse form of madness.

Addendum: I have to admit to being entertained by this related web page which I came across (I was going to make a gag about man flu, but the Mexican joke was better), for two reasons. Firstly, it seems unaware of the commandment against murder, which one would have thought prohibits most opportunities for cannibalism straight away. Secondly, Leviticus does in fact prohibit man from eating any animal from eating any animal which doesn’t have cloven hooves or chew cud but pointing that out would mean admitting that humans are animals and that most Christians ignore the Bible when it comes to dietary laws in the first place. And I love the conclusion that cannibalism is okay so long as there’s nothing else on the menu. Who writes these things?

Addendum 2: I’m a little uncomfortable, by the way, at this talk of equating references to usury with disguised anti-semitism. Usury has a lot to answer for – and is explicitly prohibited by the Torah. The only reason we historically find jews specialising in banking is that is one of the few professions Europeans allowed them to perform back in the day when the church actually enforced those particular laws. I don’t doubt that the BNP do use it in a coded way, but I hope that won’t be used as an excuse to stifle debate about economic reform.

More on faith schools

Following my piece on Sunday, I’ve written another article on faith schools over on Comment is Free:

It is a shame that the supporters of faith schools lack the faith that their ethos could survive a few children of atheists running around the playground. Ultimately, society as a whole is the weaker for indulging their insecurity.

Why do faith school supporters want them to be so awful?

I have to admit to coming out of the Lib Dem debate on 5-19 education feeling somewhat perplexed. After a complicated series of four amendments wrangling over the same bunch of lines, what the party has come up with seemed to be little more than a state commissioned figleaf scheme. Let me explain.

The motion as originally worded (negotiated on the Federal Policy Committee by, among others, Evan Harris MP) allowed faith schools but banned selection on the basis of faith. The amendment which was passed replaced this with the following commitment:

Requiring all existing state-funded faith schools to come forward within five years with plans to demonstrate the inclusiveness of their intakes, with local authorities empowered to oversee and approve the delivery of these plans, and to withdraw state-funded status where inclusiveness cannot be demonstrated.

As I snarked on the way out of the auditorium, what this amounts to is faith schools being free to discriminate, but will have their funding withdrawn if they discriminate.

In fact, however, it’s actually worse. Never mind the abstract debate, for me the acid test is the couple I know whose humanist wedding I attended who currently attend their local church every Sunday (along with their Orthodox Jewish neighbours) in order to ensure that their children are let into the local primary school. What would this motion, as amended, do about this closely observed hypocrisy? Absolutely nothing. My friends could stop going to church, not be able to send their children to the local school, be able to demonstrate the school is non-inclusive and have the school’s funding scrapped (in so doing, harming the education of lots of other children). Or they can keep quiet, go to church and act as a figleaf for the school’s “inclusive” policy when the inspection comes. Stick your head above the parapet, and you might be able to claim revenge eventually. But it is in your child’s interest to keep your head down and be a part of the lie.

What is most crazy about all this is that many of the best faith schools out there don’t have exclusive selection policies; ending discrimination on the basis of faith only affects a hardcore. Yet speaker after speaker in the debate claimed that the motion unamended was an attempt to scrap faith schools by the backdoor. It was a grotesque libel perpetuated by, among others, Vince Cable and Tim Farron. What did they hope to achieve by making such ridiculous claims?

I strongly agree that schools need an ethos, and a religious one is better than none at all. A total ban on faith schools while broadening the range of organisations which can help run schools would mean that the National Secular Society and even Microsoft could sponsor a school while the Quakers could not. There are much worse organisations than religions that could end up running English schools under this policy.

But here’s the thing: I’m constantly hearing religious people out there banging on about the Golden Rule these days, that “heart” common to all religions which we are to believe makes them vital and moral things. Yet when you go along with all that, and merely ask for the ethic of reciprocity to extend to, well, everyone, all that nice, woolly tolerance suddenly vanishes. Suddenly asking them to not discriminate is an unacceptable position. Suddenly, far from the Golden Rule, the core of religion they want to preserve is the right to shut people out. And they dress this neat little package of discrimination up in talk about the need for “inclusiveness.”

It is no wonder that the supporters of the second amendment, which called for all faith schools to be phased out, are not prepared to take them at their word. The movers of this amendment repeatedly raised the issue of homophobia in schools and how difficult it is to grow up as a homosexual in a faith school, yet this issue wasn’t addressed. Rather than deal with this fearsomely important point, in an act of supreme irony the movers of the amendment were branded extemists.

As I’ve said before, I would rather ally with a liberal person of faith than an illiberal atheist. But liberals don’t condone intolerance. The message I got from the supporters of faith schools on Saturday was that intolerance is an integral part of religion without which faith schools would not be worthy of the name. Keep saying nutty things like that and I’ll join the barricades alongside Laurence Boyce.

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.

Aborting common sense

Three examples of the zaniness of anti-abortion campaigners:

First of all, there was the curious case of the abortion doughnuts. I have to admit that when I first heard about “abortion doughnuts” my first thought was that Krispy Kreme had started putting marshmallow foetuses in the jam. However, the reality turns out to be much more prosaic. What happened was that Krispy Kreme issued the following press statement in advance of Barack Obama’s inauguration (emphasis mine):

“Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc. (NYSE: KKD) is honoring American’s sense of pride and freedom of choice on Inauguration Day, by offering a free doughnut of choice to every customer on this historic day, Jan. 20. By doing so, participating Krispy Kreme stores nationwide are making an oath to tasty goodies — just another reminder of how oh-so-sweet ‘free’ can be.”

The reaction of the American Life League was, well, over the top to say the least:

“Celebrating his inauguration with ‘Freedom of Choice’ doughnuts – only two days before the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to decriminalize abortion – is not only extremely tacky, it’s disrespectful and insensitive and makes a mockery of a national tragedy.

“A misconstrued concept of ‘choice’ has killed over 50 million preborn children since Jan. 22, 1973. Does Krispy Kreme really want their free doughnuts to celebrate this ‘freedom.’

“As of Thursday morning, communications director Brian Little could not be reached for comment. We challenge Krispy Kreme doughnuts to reaffirm their commitment to true freedom – to the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and to separate themselves and their doughnuts from our great American shame.”

Hat tip: Zoe Margolis, Miami New Times.

However, anti-choice reactionary zeal isn’t limited to the USA sadly. You might think that the Editor of the Catholic Herald would welcome the move by an MP to attempt to outlaw discrimination against Catholics, as Evan Harris is attempting to do. You would be wrong. Indeed, Damian Thompson would like to tell Dr Harris exactly where he can shove his bill:

You know something? Catholics don’t want to be liberated from this constitutional discrimination by a politician who advocates an end to the requirement that any abortion requires the consent of two doctors, arguing that the “procedure” can carried out by a nurse or even in the home.

I know I speak for many Catholics when I say that this man disgusts me… Let’s leave the constitutional bar in place for just a bit longer, shall we? It’s mildly offensive, but Catholics have more important things to worry about. Such as saving late-term unborn babies from the grisly fate that Dr Harris is happy to see inflicted on them.

Hat tip: New Humanist.

And finally, there is this video, which Iain Dale believes “even the most ardent pro-choicers will find some difficulty in countering.”

You know what, Iain? I might take that challenge. It would be tempting to respond with “when’s the Hitler version coming out?” but that would be to miss the point. The weakness of this argument is that it is essentially rooted in the unknowable. What is being argued is that Obama is a good man; Obama would not exist if his foetus had been aborted; therefore abortion is bad. But that argument is entirely contingent on Obama being not merely good, but the best president possible in all possible worlds. I’m all for saying nice things about him, but that is going a little too far Dr Pangloss.

If we’re going to talk about potentiality, let’s at least have an honest discussion and recognise that potentiality lies in everything not just in the decision whether or not to abort a foetus. The decision of a sixteen year old to have an abortion could lead directly to her completing a medical degree and discovering the cure for cancer. The decision of a woman to have an abortion could lead directly to her eventually raising a child in a more protective and loving environment, who subsequently goes on to build a fusion reactor which ushers in a new era of prosperity. And who knows what might have happened if Obama’s mother had aborted the foetus from which he grew? Her decision might have lead to the first black woman president being inaugurated this week – a woman who within her first 100 days solved the Middle East Crisis, global warming and the economic downturn in quick succession.

Sound silly? Maybe, but under the right set of circumstances all of these hypotheses are possible. And the fact is there are literally millions of people out there whose lives would have not happened or would be substantially worse if their mothers hadn’t had an abortion. Are we to automatically assume that these people’s lives are worth less than the foetuses they have benefited from the destruction of?

That isn’t to make the claim that because of this, abortion is good – that would be an equally fallacious argument. It is however to say that the value of a specific abortion or lack thereof is essentially unknowable both at the time when the decision is made and subsequently. We simply do not know what we do not know. Spending time worrying about what might have been is a shortcut to madness.

Due to the fact that we live in a vastly complex (read: beautiful, wonderful) universe, every time one possibility is closed off an infinite number of other possibilities arise. It doesn’t just apply to the few things that the Pope does or does not approve of. Indeed, CatholicVote give the lie to this by applauding Obama’s achievements despite being raised by a single mother – something that prurient Conservatives and Catholics spend the rest of the time assuring us will inevitably lead to children becoming drug crazed, gun toting thugs. Funny that.

I’m glad Barack Obama is alive but it is a simple fact to observe that if he had never lived, for whatever reason, I wouldn’t have known him to care.

Telegraph brands Christians as objectively anti-human

What the hell is Alex Singleton going on about? He has taken Christian Aid to task for using the slogan “We stand for humanity” on the grounds that it doesn’t “fit with the brand name.”

Now, it happens that I’m an atheist-pantheist-rationalist-secularist-humanist-whateverthemoodtakesmeist (I think that just about sums it up), but the last – the last – thing I would ever criticise a Christian group for being is pro-human. Quite the opposite; anything that emphasises the strong humanist thread that can be found throughout the Gospel (as opposed to the bits which get Mel Gibson all excited and quivery over) should be applauded. Without meaning to be patronising, well done chaps, you actually get it (millions don’t). Stick with that brand of Christianity and you won’t hear a peep of criticism from me.

Back to the blog, some eejit has commented: “I think it’s fair to say they have somewhat lost the plot.” I think its fair to say that only someone who doesn’t actually know the plot of the Gospels would actually write that. Who needs Dawkins, Hitchens et al, when you have fellow Christians, eh?

Madeline Bunting has a point SHOCKER!

Madeline Bunting is atheist baiting again. In her Guardian column this week she makes one spectacularly silly point, one mildly silly point and one good point which is a genuine issue for secularists. But it is a problem for the religious as well.

Firstly, the really silly point – worth quoting in full:

At first I thought it just plain daft; why waste £150,000 putting a slogan on hundreds of London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It managed to combine so many dotty assumptions – belief in God as a source of worry or as a denial of enjoyment – that I couldn’t see who it was supposed to convince. Besides, how can “probably” change someone’s mind?

Then I thought about how it might look through the eyes of some of the people who travel on the buses I use from Hackney. The ones who look exhausted returning from a night shift of cleaning. Often they have a well-thumbed Bible or prayer book to read on their journey. And along comes a bus emblazoned with that advert. A slogan redolent of the kind of triumphal atheism only possible when you have had the educational opportunities, privileges and material security of the British middle class. The faith of this person is what sustains their sense of hope and, even more importantly, their sense of dignity when they are confronted every day by the adverts of affluence that mock them as “losers”, as failed consumers. Ouch, I winced that we can be so blindly self-indulgent to this elitist patronising.

Even reading it again makes me laugh out loud. Apparently it is “patronising” to urge working people on the Number 73 to “stop worrying and enjoy your life” but not for a middle class woman from a privileged background to presume to speak for them, oh no. Worse, we are to believe that this is an affront on their very sense of hope and dignity. So much for faith then, if it can be that easily challenged. And does she really mean to say that only the educated can be atheists? Isn’t that rather close to saying that religion rooted in ignorance?

She then goes on to pontificate how Barack Obama is religious and that his social conscience stems from his faith. On one level, I don’t quibble with that at all. As I’ve said before, I’ve always considered myself more of an ally of religious people of good conscience than secular people of bad conscience. Nor am I blind to the fact that many of the ethical teachings that Obama bases his principles on are the same ethical teachings I value. The Bible is indeed a good book (my only real difference of opinion is that it is no more than a book).

But Bunting over-eggs the pudding. If we are to credit Obama’s religion with his conscience, and not Obama the intellectual, then we should also blame Obama’s religion for his current seeming vaccilation over Guantanamo and Palestine. If Bunting’s logic is to be followed through, she can’t then go on to conveniently (to use her own phrase) “pick and mix.”

I would never dream of making a simplistic argument along the lines that Obama’s moral weakness over Palestine is rooted in his faith; Obama is responsible for Obama’s actions and choices – nothing else. It would appear, in this respect at least, that I pay religion rather more respect than Bunting.

Cheap cracks aside, this article isn’t entirely worthless. The core of Bunting’s argument is indeed a problem for atheists and secularists, and deserves consideration:

…Obama has not wavered in his passionate faith in the progressive potential of religious belief since he first encountered it in south Chicago in community organising. He was in his 20s, and for three years he was trained in a politics based on a set of principles developed by a Jewish criminologist and an ex-Jesuit with borrowings from German Protestant theologians.

Obama described these three years of community organising as the “best education I ever had”. Michelle says of her husband that “he is not first and foremost a politician. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.”

You don’t need to go to Chicago to find out what this is about. Try much closer to home, Whitechapel. Here London Citizens uses exactly the same training and principles as Obama did when he worked as a community organiser. The ideas originated in 30s depression Chicago, when Saul Alinsky hit on a way to organise the most impoverished and marginalised communities to win power to improve their lives. He spent the next 40 years building up his Industrial Areas Foundation and championing his methods in books such as Rules for Radicals – he was the subject of Hillary Clinton’s college thesis. His thinking influenced the civil rights movement and almost every subsequent progressive movement from feminism to gay rights.

His concept of organising can be boiled down quite simply: its aim is to move the world from how it is to how it should be. Its methods are entirely pragmatic: look for where people gather (churches, unions?), identify where those institutions have mutual self-interest and build on it for local achievable campaigns. Develop relationships – nothing can substitute for the face-to-face encounter. Listen. The paid community organiser (like Obama) is a talent scout for natural leaders and teaches the political tools.

Now, there are caveats I should add to all this. First of all, while I have deep respect for London Citizens, it is fair to say that despite having been around for a while, it has not exported particularly successfully outside of London. The only place where this model has been exported is Birmingham. I met up with a small group of Birmingham Citizens years ago when I worked in the West Midlands and by all accounts they appear to have a much smaller organisation than any of the London groups (not even having their own website for example). Why is this, when London is no more religious than any other part of the UK (again, I suspect this boils down to individuals being rather more significant than religions)?

Neither is the concept of civic activism uniquely rooted in religion. As a Lib Dem I would want to big up our own record in community politics, but the truth is that all political parties organise within communities in a secular way. Bunting and co might be tempted to argue that political parties only empower the middle classes. All I can say to that is that the places where I have personally seen community politics work best is in some of the most deprived parts of London, Manchester and Leeds. Reading up as I have recently on the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain, I was particularly struck by how that party’s emphasis (leaving aside the splitters) was on civic-minded republicanism and empowering the working classes at the expense of electoral success. Ultimately more Marxist than Leninist, their view was that the revolution was going to happen anyway and their job was to prepare for it.

But Bunting has a point: it is no good for atheists to harp on about the dreadfulness of religion if they aren’t contributing something positive themselves. We’ve had our little victory with the Atheist Bus, we’ve had our Christmas knees’ up. But it isn’t enough to be better than the worst of religion; isn’t it time to aim higher?

Nor is this about charity, as Bunting makes clear. We’re not talking about some pissing contest about who donates the most (we’ve got Richard Curtis – nyer, nyer, nyer-nyer, nyer). The challenge for the new new atheists is whether it can be a positive force for good in society – not just by campaigning for healthy minds, but full bellies and social justice too. Bunting’s allusion to the religious cleaner on the Hackney bus is patronising in the extreme, but do we really currently have anything to say to a poor working person in that position? Would making an atheist out of her really be a worthwhile victory?

Before we concede too much to Bunting here though, it should be pointed out that the links between civic activism and religion are problematic for religion as well. I’ve come across a lot of avowedly religious people in my time and I have to admit that a lot of them don’t appear, well, that religious. Rather, the religion – more precisely the religious community – is the conduit they use to do good in the world. It’s great that they have found such a conduit, but how many people does religion make into liars by effectively insisting that the good deeds cannot be done without the religious observance? And how many good people end up disempowered because they feel that getting involved in their local church group would make them into hypocrites?

Unless you genuinely believe that having a good conscience is impossible without religion – and I wouldn’t accuse even Madeline Bunting of that – then that is a real problem. Less so in the inner city; much more so in the village where it boils down to a choice between the church hall and sweet f*** all.

The solution for both the secular and the religious – surely – are civic minded institutions that don’t depend on faith as a precursor (either explicitly or implicitly) for involvement. One of those institutions, currently in decline, is party politics but that alone is not likely to be enough. Creating exclusively atheist institutions is likely to be pretty self-defeating as well. What we need are inclusively secular ones.

The good news is that we have plenty of those. Amnesty is one such organisation. Action Aid and Age Concern is another (and that’s just the As). Wouldn’t Madeline Bunting concede that this is ultimately a better way to organise? And shouldn’t atheists, secularists and humanists concede that playing a positive role in society is something that should be encouraged?

Heretical Thinking

Sue Blackmore reports on a pledge which I hadn’t heard of but certainly will comply with, undertaking to write to the BBC and request that they allow atheists, humanists and “brights” (sorry, cannot bring myself to use that term unironically) to speak on Thought for the Day.

The difference between Blackmore’s sensible approach, and the rather more incendiary wording of the pledge itself, is what I’m getting at when I express my wariness about “new” atheism. I’m all for forthright views, but not angry ones. The Atheist Bus Campaign is great because, fundamentally, it is a lighthearted response to something quite genuinely offensive. Blackmore’s emphasis is not on banning Thought for the Day but expanding it – and in the process appraising what it is there to do.

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.