Tag Archives: richard-dawkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:

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

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

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.

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:

BRIGHTS/OUTIES
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


QUAKERS
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


CTHULHU WORSHIP
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

Prof Dawkins vs Prof Dumbledore – AND ONE MUST DIE!

Apparently Richard Dawkins thinks that Harry Potter damages children. Except he doesn’t.

Dawkins’ views on Harry Potter remain to be seen. Personally, I think the politics of Potter are slightly iffy (being a paean to meritocracy in which the bad old elitists get their comeuppances while the good new elitists get to inherit the earth and lord it over the “undeserving” muggles), but fail to see how anyone could describe it as damaging (that’s the role of religious nutjobs anyway). However, it does take me back to my undergrad dissertation in which I commented on Dawkins’ 1997 Reith Lecture (which, annoyingly, doesn’t appear on the BBC’s website and is misdated on RichardDawkins.net) where he said:

How do we account for the current paranormal vogue in the popular media? Perhaps it has something to do with the millennium — in which case it’s depressing to realise that the millennium is still three years away [it was four years away! Sheesh!]. Less portentously, it may be an attempt to cash in on the success of The X-Files. This is fiction and therefore defensible as pure entertainment.

A fair defence, you might think. But soap operas, cop series and the like are justly criticised if, week after week, they ram home the same prejudice or bias. Each week The X-Files poses a mystery and offers two rival kinds of explanation, the rational theory and the paranormal theory. And, week after week, the rational explanation loses. But it is only fiction, a bit of fun, why get so hot under the collar?

Imagine a crime series in which, every week, there is a white suspect and a black suspect. And every week, lo and behold, the black one turns out to have done it. Unpardonable, of course. And my point is that you could not defend it by saying: “But it’s only fiction, only entertainment”.

This of course is utter bilge. Generally speaking, the formula of the X-Files was that a rational theory and a paranormal theory was presented, both of which turned out to be cobblers, and a third, semi-scientific explanation was found. The monster wasn’t a figment of people’s imagination or a wolf, but it wasn’t a spawn of hell either. Generally speaking, these things were explained as freaks of nature.

In other words, while rarely ascending beyond its pulpy origins, the X-Files formula was the very epitome of scientific method. But Dawkins couldn’t see beyond the fact that it explored the supernatural and space aliens. He should have been celebrating a series which was, at its best, profoundly scientific and prised out these underlying themse. Instead he denounced anyone who enjoyed the show as lunatic irrationalists. Thanks a bunch.

So if Dawkins is to turn his attention to Harry Potter et al, I hope he will be paying a little more attention than he was back then.

Richard Dawkins loves the Baby Jesus!

Well, he might do:

Scientist Richard Dawkins, an atheist known worldwide for arguing against the existence of God, has described himself as a “cultural Christian”.

He told the BBC’s Have Your Say that he did not want to “purge” the UK of its Christian heritage.

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.

Dawkins: start growing a beard

According to the BBC, Jack Straw today is to announce plans “allowing MPs to scrutinise public appointments and choose bishops.”

Sounds good to me. I think it should be Lib Dem policy to make Richard Dawkins the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

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.