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The Fighting Atheists

April 27, 2009

In the UK’s Guardian forum, to which I contribute from time to time, the subject of atheism often crops up, and I have been puzzled by the huge responses to articles on this subject, and the allegedly “shrill” tone of the atheist response, an accusation made repeatedly by those fighting to assert or maintain the validity of institutional religious influence in a secular society.

While I do not find the atheist position shrill, I do find it to be on the attack. The reason is that to many observers, religion appears to be making a comeback. Some of us fear, with good reason, that as the world becomes more complex, when every social process becomes inextricably enmeshed with others, when all interactions and decisions are accelerated by technology and our anxieties about the progress of society heightened by the growing fear of “the other”; when we fear science itself, our reason and belief in secular order is sorely tested. Add to this the daunting and largely – for the individual – unresolvable global-scale problems like collapsing economies, terrorism, resource depletion, unemployment and climate change, there will be a strong desire to retreat from the increasing demands on our rationality (and the concomitant individual responsibility for the way we deploy our intelligence), reverting instead to the palliative comforts of the less demanding option: faith in something we did not need to figure out for ourselves, towards whose precepts we have no responsibility other than to follow them as best we can. In other words, organised religion is a comfort because we need ask no questions other than “what should we do?”, read the sacred texts and blame all misfortune on the will of the gods. How very convenient, and to be blunt about it, something of a massive cop-out.

Spirituality – however one defines it – is an understanding as unique to each person as our DNA. My own small epiphanies are entirely personal and both the path to them and the revelations revealed do not, and cannot, apply to anyone else. To think others should follow my path or discover what I have discovered is to rob them of their right to be individuals. But the individual path is lonely and fraught with personal failure. There can be no succour for me to be found in the group, the church, the establishment. It is not the easy path, but it is the most rewarding since I pay no obeisance to any doctrine, method or tract. And while I am denied the right to any form of superiority, moral or spiritual, through marching to my own drummer, I do gain the freedom of thought and action that, by effecting what I believe in those thoughts and actions, must also be granted automatically to every other person on this earth.

But religion is a consensual business, a political paradigm. A religion of one person is spirituality, a religion of more than one is a political process with a prayer meeting attached. A religion requires compliance, assumes moral authority, and exclusiveness that can only lead to bigotry, self-importance and the denial of the rights of non-believers. A religion cannot stop itself from becoming enmeshed with the temporal, the political, because all religions must espouse a moral framework that defines our relationships to each other. The results are clear to see in the UK where religion occupies a political position and enjoys influence and privilege that seems quite inappropriate in a secular society, while elected representatives like Blair and Bush are guided by religious conviction even as they take us to war on the basis of lies and disinformation.

And let me say the thing that rarely appears in such discussions, I think out of misplaced political correctness. I do not think Christianity is the real problem in the west, but the rise of Islam. All over Europe, the discourse is changing. When we see remarks from the likes of Rowan Williams regarding the application of Sharia law in the UK, perhaps many of us see an attempt to re-assert religious influences on secular life from which we have struggled to free ourselves. This is not a philosophical battle, it is a war for the hearts and minds of our children. Every faith school brings with it the kind of ideas expressed in this thread: creationism, the “need” for a superior being, the denial of science, the triumph of faith over reason. If our arguments seem shrill, it is because we fear the ignorance and manipulation that many religions foster in order to maintain their claim to moral ascendancy, and some of the posts on the Guardian forum demonstrate how that rhetoric is shaped.

I do not believe the liberal theists when they espouse their “tolerant” positions towards other faiths. Religion requires obedience to its precepts or it is useless and has no cohesion, and little spiritual value. For a Muslim or Christian to shrug off the exclusiveness of their faith is to pretend they have not chosen the “true” path, that their religion is merely one expression of faith that is interchangeable with any other. Are we to believe that choosing a religion is as arbitrary as deciding whether to have tea or coffee with one’s breakfast?

Behind religious belief is an agenda of certainty, where those who worship at a different altar, or none, are at best mistaken, at worst damned for all eternity. The history of religion is one of suppression, hypocrisy, intolerance, war, torture, murder and theft, racism and demagoguery. There is good reason to oppose a political movement whose guiding principle is exclusive to those who benefit from it. In the history of the world, one can find any number of examples of the destruction and mendacity of religious influence. Nowhere can one find a single sustained religious initiative that has benefited a greater part of any society. On its track record alone, religion is an abject failure as a force for good. We should  abandon it for something that actually helps us all, equally and without discrimination.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Tracy permalink
    May 14, 2009 8:27 am

    Graham, I’m going to disagree slightly with you when you say the real problem is Islam – the Christian Right, epecially in the USA, are just as much of a problem (still haven’t forgotten Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’). I think that the big problem is fundamentalism of any stripe.

    Unfortunately, fundamentalism appears to be on the increase. Which is why atheists sound a little shrill (again, I think some of them appear to, just a tad sometimes – of course, that could just be how they are reported), and why so many throw the spiritual baby out with the religious bathwater. This extreme polarisation is seen wherever two sides are fighting for hearts and minds – neither side can be seen to give an inch to the other, not when our whole way of life is under attack (see any debate on Climate Change for numerous examples of this polarisation).

    And it feels as though we are under attack – with creationism being taught as though it’s science, effective methods of birth control being denied to women because sex is obviously the ultimate sin, some religions teaching their followers that it’s perfectly OK, in fact, it’s to be encouraged, to murder people who don’t hold the same religious views as you and men in some religions interpreting religious texts to mean that women are so inferior they have very few rights at all.

    I’m not about to tear up my membership of the Richard Dawkins Appreciation Society, but whilst I’m not religious, in that I’m not a member of any religion and neither do I intend to join one, I don’t think that precludes being spiritual. I would even go so far as to say that I think that pure spirituality is part of being human. And some people appear to be able to claim to be religious without demonstrating that they have a spiritual bone in their body.

  2. gpwayne permalink*
    May 14, 2009 9:31 am

    While I agree that fundamentalists of all stripes are the whole of the problem, the Christian right is in retreat. Islam is – I believe – the fastest growing religion in the world. It is this encroachment on secular society – talibanisation if you like – that is the concern. Where immoderate Islamic regimes have come to power, terrible injustice seems to follow not far behind. The extreme factions in the Muslim world – a tiny minority – are gaining power. Decent people of all faiths are being betrayed by those who use religion as a cover for the acquisition of political power, and the way they use that power is frightening because its precepts hark back to medieval times. I sometimes feel that there is a powerful movement seeking to wilfully undo all the intellectual and social progress we have made over the last several centuries, and they are doing so in the name of religion.

  3. Tracy permalink
    May 15, 2009 7:59 pm

    On what do you base your statement that the Christian Right is in retreat, Graham? (Name your sources, my dear 😛 – just teasing, but I’m curious).

  4. gpwayne permalink*
    May 15, 2009 8:40 pm

    It is a synthesis view, which is the way the book developed too. I pick up many strands of information from apparently discrete sources and add them up. So, in this case we have a centrist Republican defecting to the dems. Then we have stories about disaffection in the moderate right wing who feel the agenda has been hijacked by those whose interests are narrowed to the right to choose, creationism, belligerent foreign policy and so on. Bush helped this process by discrediting the party and being closely allied to right wing interests. Middle ground Republicans are said to be moving away from historic core values of the right, embracing notions of ameliatory foreign policy and of course climate change, which even the evangelicals are talking about now. Limbaugh is also said to be pushing centrists away from the hard-line Christian right.

    None of this is conclusive, but I think this is a logical reaction, where people feel betrayed by a party dominated too often by a powerful religious faction whose agenda is too extreme and a bit frightening – perhaps sensible Republicans were scared out of their wits at how close Palin got to the launch codes. I don’t know if the attendance rate at churches is declining as it is here, but the Christian right has lost a great deal of power, which is what I meant when I said they are in retreat. On the back foot in other words, and finding no purchase on middle America with which to regain their credibility and power. This is similar to the way I don’t think the UK would now vote in a Conservative party whose ideology was similar to that of – say – a Thatcher regime. It’s all blurry centrists like Cameron from now on – not really right, not really left, just sitting on every available fence.

  5. Tracy permalink
    May 16, 2009 8:09 am

    I certainly agree that the Christian Right is in disarray at the moment, very much like the Tories after 1997, the ‘Nasty Party’ as Theresa May called them. Was it Palin who deterred the sensible Republicans? Or was it that it was so obvious that John McCain wouldn’t have a clue how to deal with the global financial crisis that hit in the middle of the campaign? ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ is as true today as it was with Clinton.

    So yes, their influence is certainly waning at the moment – but I doubt their numbers have actually decreased, and they will regroup. Can they regain their credibility? They never lost it with some sections of the population, and peoples’ memories can be very short. It’s true that according to a recent Newsweek poll, only 48% of Americans think religion will help answer the US’s problems, the lowest proportion ever – but compared with Britain that’s still a huge percentage.

    Obama is a huge breath of fresh air. Long may he continue to be so. But twelve+ years in the wilderness for the Republicans is probably too much to hope for (and Obama can only serve for a maximum of eight years).

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