Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Its been a long time..

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

I haven't posted for ten days, becuase I've been busy producing the next issue of New Humanist- which is out next Monday (March 5). Its going to be good– stuffed with dinosaurs, porn, politics, creationists, foreskins, fascists (I'm not making this up you know) and the Rational Response Squad....

There's lots going on in the world of the godless at the moment what with Hitchens' new book, of which more anon, further responses in the unfolding debate about mlticulturaliism at sign and sight and yesterday's peice in the Guardian about secualr fundamentalists - did ya see it? Since you've bothered to show up here I'll give you a sneaky peeky of the next issue in the shape of my editorial which responds directly to the Guardian piece which is here. [NB the page numbers refer to the magazine which doesn;t actualy exist yet...] More soon.

I respect your ignorance
Caspar Melville
Editorial from New Humanist March/April 2007

“Dogmatic”. “Evangelical”. “Fundamentalist”. It’s suddenly become fashionable to use adjectives like these to describe atheists and secularists. Equating us with religious fanatics seems to be the new stance of a particular breed of liberal intellectual who would like to imagine that they can stand above the fray and, wryly, adjudicate.

Typical of the new “reasonable” approach is a recent feature in the Guardian by Stuart Jeffries (G2, February 26) which claims that there is a vicious and uncompromising battle going on between two equally intolerant clans, “shrill camps shouting unedifyingly at each other”– the believers and the faithful. The core thesis is that rather than accepting the beliefs of others, secularists have become hysterical in their quest to “airbrush” religion from public debate.

The evidence for this claim is increasingly routine and shopworn. Jeffries quotes without challenge the preposterous assertion from Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark, that “atheists like Richard Dawkins are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube.” Jeffries also criticises both Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens for their “aggressive” attitude to believers, which, he argues, demonstrates that science has become just another faith. His piece concludes with an endorsement of the much-touted idea of a public sphere composed of groups “respectful of each other’s most cherished beliefs”. Or none, though this tends to be hastily added as an afterthought.

Jeffries is quite right to point out that these days secularists seem exasperated. But who can blame us when the case against unaccountable and undemocratic religious privilege is so misrepresented by articles like his? Nowhere, for example, does he make the point that while both Dawkins and Hitchens are polemicists whose aim is to challenge, stimulate and infuriate they do also make strong and serious arguments which should be engaged at the level of logic and reason. Are they wrong? If they are, where are the counter-arguments beyond calling them names, or equating them with book-burners and murderers? When Laurie Taylor interviewed Richard Dawkins for our last issue (January/February, 2007) he pressed him on several points where he felt the argument was weak, as well as finding much to agree with. And it is just this kind of critical engagement with ideas that is such a vital part of being a freethinker.

Underlying so much recent commentary on secularism is the false notion that secularists and atheists are driven solely by a blind conviction that God doesn’t exist. They are, we are told, obsessed with belief. This issue of New Humanist provides plenty of counter evidence, both local and global.

Uncovering the scandal of the Government’s City Academy project, for example, Francis Beckett has found that these academies provide a cheap backdoor route for religious interests to regain the influence they once had on education. In some cases creationism is finding its way on to the curriculum. His research suggests just how much faith we should have in the neutrality of the present government when it comes to religious special interests.

Our cover story (page 12) deals with the attempt by Angela Merkel and Pope Benedict to redefine Europe as Christian. Secularists find this unsettling not because they hate God but because, as Donald Sassoon makes clear, the current secular settlement is a hard-won, recent phenomenon, and one we should not easily let go.

A criticism frequently made against “hardliners” like Dawkins is that they criticise religion from a position of ignorance. The same argument could not be made against the American secularists featured in this issue. Chris Hedges, who reports from the soon-to-open creationist museum in Kentucky on page 24, is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a Christian. It is precisely because of the thwarting of science and distortion of truth being done in the name of Christianity that he is so appalled by the growing power of politicised religion. For him, the crucial point is that American Evangelicalism has now made it an explicit goal to acquire political power.

A similar fear motivates the young web-savvy collective behind the Rational Response Squad interviewed on page 22. This group, all brought up in religious households, have had huge success in gathering members and responses to their “Blasphemy Challenge”. Rather like the vast sales of Dawkins’ book, the response suggests that there is a growing appetite for such views. It is worth remembering that America is a country without any national politician who will define themselves as non-religious; a country where, according to a recent survey, an atheist ranks below a member of every single religious group, as well as blacks and homosexuals, as someone who can be trusted to hold public office.

Finally, Laurie Taylor’s reflections on the “reality slips” (page 16) that occur even to the most rationalist of minds should be a refreshing rejoinder to all those curmudgeonly religious apologists who like to caricature us as drab and soulless, without any sense of the sacred.

The idea that a rich spiritual life relies on allegiance to a particular religious creed is another bit of common-currency ignorance we are only too happy to jettison.

3 comments:

Vir said...
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Vir said...

I wonder what Caspar Melville (and Dawkins)would make of Hermann Bondi's advice. During an interview with BHA News in Spring 2002, Bondi cautioned against making atheism a central issue. He said: “I think in this country we are too impressed by the concept of God. Many religions, like Buddhism and Confucianism, don’t have a God at all. On the other hand, Communism in its heyday had a ‘sacred text’ which were the writings of Marx and Lenin, and you justified an argument by referring to these writings. So it seems to me that the important thing is not the concept of God - indeed we cannot quarrel with an undefined God, for how can we disagree with a concept that is undefined. No, what makes a religion is a “revelation”. And it is the belief in a revealed truth that is the source of religious problems - that the Koran is the word of God, or the Holy Bible is the judge of everything. So in arguments with Christians, when you come to the word God you have already lost the battle. You must stress the revelation, that’s where the real disagreement lies, because if you are driven to a position where you have to deny the existence of an undefined quantity you are in a logical absurdity.”

The Humanist Movement was founded to provide an alternative to traditional religions. The practical - and strategically important - question is: Given that Humanism aims to provide an alternative to traditional religions, which approach is likely to be more effective in helping those belonging to traditional religions to adopt a humanist world view? I believe understanding and persuasion are much more likely to be effective than rejection and ridicule.

24 September 2007 05:06

Vir said...
This comment has been removed by the author.