Category Archives: Atheism

Theos Think Tank have been polling about religious violence

Theos Think Tank have been asking people whether they regard religions as violent. By their own admission, they didn’t entirely like the results.

Nearly half (47%) agreed that “the world would be a more peaceful place if no one was religious”. Fully 70% said that: “Most of the wars in world history have been caused by religions”.

Faced with that, Theos’s Nick Spencer took some comfort from the fact that “only 32% agreed that religions were inherently violent”. Only? So one-in-three British people thinks that religions are inherently violent and this merits an “only”?

Can one imagine people saying that Cancer Research UK or the Battersea Dogs Home are inherently violent? I mention two charities because “promotion of religion” still attracts charitable status in the UK along with tax exemptions. That should surely change given that half the nation now thinks the world would be more peaceful without religion.

I would concur with those saying that the Abrahamic religions, at least, have an inherent tendency to violence. That’s because they think that morality flows from the God and that moral conduct consists of believing in God and doing what God wants. From there, it’s a rather small step to thinking that anyone not of the right religious opinion is necessarily immoral for rejecting that religion’s beliefs and dictats. Hence one has a moral licence — or even a moral duty — to correct their errors, using force if sadly necessary.

The belief that obedience to God is morally paramount, even if it means killing someone, goes back of course to stories about Abraham himself. The Eid al-Adha festival is a public holiday celebrated throughout the Islamic world, honouring the willingness of Abraham to kill Isaac for no better reason than that God wanted him to.

Liberal Christians tend to squirm on this topic, changing the subject by saying that the important part of the story is that God rescinded the instruction. But do they go further and admit that Abraham’s intention to kill his own son was a moral failing on his part, and that a righteous man would have flat-out refused? No, they still laud Abraham’s obedience, and they even take that line in story books given to their kids (honest, they do!).

The story likely has no historical basis, but even so, if such stories are told as spiritual lessons, shouldn’t the supposedly peaceful Abrahamic religions now repudiate it? Until the mainstream religious opinion is moral condemnation of Abraham’s obedience, I submit that religions do indeed have an inherent tendency to violence.

Nick Spencer disagrees, saying that “You have to be pretty bone headed to believe — really and truly believe — that the great religions of the world preach violence and hatred. Go into any religious place of worship any day of the week and I would say the chances of hearing a kill the infidel sermon are vanishing small”.

So Imams in Pakistan do not preach in favour of their blasphemy laws, saying that blasphemers and apostates should be killed? No Imam has ever called for any punishment of Salman Rushdie? Friday prayers in Iran have never voiced hatred of the Great Satan, and mosques throughout the Islamic world never express any animosity towards Israel and the Jews?

Many Islamic countries prescribe the death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy. Several dozen people have been killed in Pakistan for mere accusations of blasphemy. In Bangladesh, multiple secularist bloggers have been killed by Islamists merely for criticising Islam. Other Islamic countries imprison, flog and outlaw secularists for speaking up.

This is not violence by lone rogues, but violence widely supported by mainstream Islamic opinion. Even voicing opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is itself considered blasphemous and so can get you killed, with wide swathes of that nation’s people openly supporting the murderer.

Nick Spencer’s claim reflects the gentle and anodyne theology of today’s Church of England, but Western Christianity has long been neutered by the Enlightenment and by secular values of church–state separation, individual rights, and religious liberty. This is tamed religion. But religion in the raw prevailed through much of the history of Christendom, and still blights the Islamic world.

Spencer continues: “Referencing the Crusades or the Inquisition is pretty poor work. Atheist regimes were more efficient and rather more recent in their genocidal efforts.”.

And yet the Crusades and the Inquisition were not isolated aberrations, they were manifestations of how the Christian churches were for much of their history. And on the recent genocidal efforts, Third Reich Germany must take the prize, and yet was thoroughly religious and theistic. The fact that it was a nation that was 94% Christian that murdered millions of Jews with genocidal intent is something that Christians still don’t want to admit.

Spencer can rightly point to the large-scale atrocities of the communist regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (motivated, by the way, by totalitarian communist ideology, not by the irrelevant point that they were “atheistic”), but is that what today’s religious apologists are reduced to? “Yes, half the nation thinks the world would be more peaceful without us, but “only” a third think we’re inherently violent and … well, we’re not quite as bad as the totalitarian communist regimes”. As exculpation goes, that’s feeble!

Progress means accepting that we must not impose our ideology by violence even if doing so would be justified or even demanded by our God, our religion or our ideology. Because, judging by our religious history, we sure as hell cannot rely on Gods to be peaceful!

That Enlightenment principle is now widely accepted in the West, but can we hope that it will become accepted by those for whom the whole ethos of Islam, and indeed the very name itself, means “submission” to the will of God?

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“Sharing Reality” and how to persuade people

How does one best persuade people to favour a secular and science-based view of life? That’s the topic of Jeff Haley and Dale McGowan’s new book: Sharing Reality: How to Bring Secularism and Science to an Evolving Religious World (of which the authors kindly gave me a review copy). [Amazon.co.uk link; amazon.com link]

They start by discussing how not to do it. They quote Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remarks to Richard Dawkins:

“And it’s the facts plus the sensitivity [that], when convolved together, create impact. I worry that your methods, and how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective.” It’s significant that Tyson didn’t complain that Dawkins’s approach was unpleasant or disrespectful. He said it was ineffective. His argument is that Dawkins’s own presumed goal of convincing others that his ideas are worthy and important is short-circuited by a failure to consider the state of the mind on the receiving end of those ideas.

It’s a common complaint, that Dawkins is too acerbic and dismissive of religious opinion, appearing to talk down to people. For example, Emily Willoughby writes: Continue reading

What Christians believe about evolution and the supposed naivety of atheists

It is understandable that Christian commentators want to denigrate atheists. A common tactic is to claim that atheists think that most Christians are Biblical literalists and thus only criticise fundamentalist and literalist religion. The atheist is thus painted as naive, not very thoughtful and a bit ignorant. The tactic also implies that atheists have not managed to produce significant critiques of liberal religious theology.

This is mostly wrong; atheists are well aware of liberal theology, and nowadays most New Atheistic critiques address liberal theology (literalist theology is simply not a worthwhile target any more; I can’t think of anyone bothering since Tom Paine’s Age of Reason, as long ago as 1807).

But, Christians like to think otherwise, as exemplified by an article this Sunday in The Observer by “leading Catholic commentator” Catherine Pepinster. Continue reading

Deathbed conversions and the argument that Christians like best

Christians really don’t like atheists. Since their worldview is founded in faith (as opposed to evidence) the absence of faith worries them. Their defence mechanisms include denying that atheists exist (they’re just angry at God), or believing that when the chips are down atheists will revert to belief (“There are no atheists in foxholes”). Another tactic is to denigrate atheism as an intellectual position; it’s not enough to disagree with Dawkins’s God Delusion, it needs to be dismissed as puerile and lacking any knowledge of the topic. Or they try to maintain that atheism is a faith position just like theirs (“It takes more faith to believe that all of this arose by blind chance”). Atheism as a faith position doesn’t worry them, any more than other religions worry them, since that would accept the central role of faith. But atheism as a considered lack of belief, owing to the lack of evidence, is anathema.

Hence a favourite tactic: wait until a prominent atheist dies, and then declare that they had a deathbed conversion and died accepting Jesus Christ as their Saviour. The beauty of this tactic is that said atheist can no longer speak up and refute the suggestion. Further, if any other atheist publicly doubts the claim, they can then be accused of dogmatically rejecting the claim for ideological reasons. Christians thus invent such stories about anyone they dislike, from Charles Darwin to Thomas Paine. In fiction, such as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, they can do deathbed conversions for real (as it were). Continue reading

A “theology of science” debate with Tom McLeish

Last November I took part in a debate on science and theology at the invitation of the Keele University Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences. My fellow speaker (I don’t want to call him an “opponent”) was Professor Tom McLeish of Durham University, a leading soft-matter physicist.

Tom McLeish portrait

Professor McLeish is a Christian who has written a book, newly out in paperback, Faith and Wisdom in Science. To prepare for the debate I ordered a copy for the library. My first indication that this wasn’t a typical science book was that it got shelved with books on Biblical exegesis, and I thus found myself wandering to a region of the library where I’d never previously been!

Tom McLeish book Faith and Wisdom in Science

I liked the book, one can learn a lot about the nature of science from it. Tom McLeish emphasizes that science is a fundamentally human enterprise with deep roots in our history. Science is not just a modern phenomenon, newly sprung on the world with The Enlightenment, but is a continuation of age-old human attempts to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. It should not be seen as a separate, arcane and primarily theoretical subject (as it is often badly taught in schools), but as human exploration.

As Professor McLeish explains, science does not accept that anything is outside of its purview. And neither does theology. If the claims of the Abrahamic religions are true then theology must infuse every aspect of our existence. Thus the oft-stated and politically-correct claim that science and theology operate in different domains and answer different questions is deeply unsatisfying both to scientists and to theologians.

With a foot in both camps, Professor McLeish sees this clearly. He thus talks, not about theology and science, but about a theology of science. His book sets out that vision.

My role in the debate was to present the alternative way of reconciling two idea-systems that both claim to be all-encompassing — and that is to play the atheistic curmudgeon and simply reject and excise theology entirely. Continue reading

Critics of the New Atheists and the curious case of Vridar’s Neil Godfrey

voldemort The Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz calls it the “Voldemort effect”: we must follow Obama’s lead and refer to “extremism” and never mention that we actually mean “Islamist extremism”. For most people, the idea that Islamist theology contributes to the extremist nature of Al-Qaeda and ISIS is obvious. But, to others, this idea is anathema. Since criticism of ideas can be misinterpreted (deliberately?) as condemnation of people, any critique of Islamist ideology can be disallowed and dismissed as “racist”. For wanting to reform his own religion, Maajid Nawaz has, bizarrely, been labelled an “Islamophobe”.

New Atheists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris get called worse. Many people delight in denigrating New Atheists whenever they can, accusing them of everything from a lack of scholarship to being unthinking “fundamentalists”.

At this point, let’s state the blatantly obvious. The causes of ISIS-style extremism are never simple, with multiple factors always being involved. As Nawaz and Harris agree in this recent discussion, the factors leading someone to become radicalised are multiple, and some of them are: (1) Western foreign policy and interventions in Muslim-majority countries; (2) their own personality; (3) their friends, social groups and exposure to radical preachers; and (4) their theology and their interpretation of their theology. The combination of all such factors, and more, is important. It would be quite wrong to say that any one of these factors, by itself, would always lead to violent extremism. Human beings are never that simple.

If one is a critic of US foreign policy, as many liberals are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that US foreign policy plays. If one is a critic of religion, as New Atheists are, one might tend to discuss and emphasize the role that religion and theology play. That is all fair.

The problem comes from those who want either to exonerate religion entirely, or just to sneer at New Atheists for the sake of it. Such a person might then claim that Western foreign policy is the only relevant factor leading to Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and that the presence of religion is irrelevant. Continue reading

Secularism in the UK, a year-end round-up

sec_signAmericans are used to politicians openly mixing their faith with their politics, but British politicians usually “don’t do God”, to quote the advice offered by Tony Blair’s spin doctor. This convention, though, is breaking down, with David Cameron’s Conservative-led government increasingly being proud to “do God”. Such religiosity is meeting a mixed reception in a nation that is increasingly secular and which is no longer in tune with the traditional privilege afforded to religion by the British establishment.

It is said that Prime Minister David Cameron found consolation in his Christian faith after the death of his disabled son, leading to a much more overt Christianity. Further, the Conservative Party fears that the anti-EU, anti-immigrant UKIP will siphon off votes at the forthcoming election, letting Labour in. It is thus pitching its appeal at older, more-Christian, UKIP-leaning voters, and perhaps it is calculating that there are not enough secularist Tory voters to worry about losing any.

Cameron has declared the UK to be a “Christian country” while his Christmas message says that “giving, sharing and taking care of others” are “very Christian values”, adding that “we [the nation?] celebrate the birth of Christ”, despite the fact that only 13% regard Jesus as an important aspect of their own Christmas.

Continue reading