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.