Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Nick Cohen vs the Institute of Ideas

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Did you hear Nick Cohen and Claire Fox, from the Institute of Ideas, on Start the Week yesterday? At one point Cohen, who is currently plugging his book What's Left? an astringent attack on what he sees as the hypocrisy of the anti-war left, suggests that Fox is from a 'very weird cult'. They had an amusingly scratchy interchange about fascism, intervention and the left. Interesting background to this is provided by this review Cohen wrote of an IoI book on humanism for a recent issue of New Humanist. Read it it's very informative and really quite funny...

Double Entryism
From New Humanist November/December 2006

The aims of the Manifesto Club must have struck many as laudable. At the launch in January, its supporters declared that they wanted to ‘renew the spirit of the Enlightenment: to champion our capacity to think and judge things for ourselves, and, insist on the need to develop human control over, and knowledge of, the world to the greatest extent possible.

Who can deny that the Enlightenment needs defending? Islamists, who reject everything it believes, want to kill us and suppress about 1.5 billion people. Postmodernists denigrate its values and hold democracy and human rights in contempt. All recruits to the fight back must surely be welcomed.

Only the politically literate will be wary, and notice that the Manifesto Club and this collection of essays comes from the Revolutionary Communist Party, the strangest and most strangely successful of the 20th century Trotskyist sects. It was once the most ultra of the ultra-left groups, and fully justified the old cliché about the far left turning full circle into the far right. What the RCP hated was reform that would prolong the capitalist system and avert the glorious moment when communism came.

Its members were ‘revolutionary defeatists’, in the old jargon of Leninism, who campaigned for the world to get worse so it might one day be better. RCP activists would disrupt demonstrations to protect the National Health Service or against apartheid and cry that saving hospitals from closure and ending white rule in South African were worthless palliatives. In the 90s, they belatedly gave up on communism. Nothing unusual in that, you might think, just about everyone else had, except that the party moved as a disciplined unit. The politburo instructed the rank and file to abandon Leninism and, as good Leninists, the rank and file obeyed and U-turned as one. The comrades regrouped first around the magazine LM (previously Living Marxism) and then a think tank called the Institute of Ideas.

They remained a part of a vicious movement – RCP members were the first political activists on the Left in Britain to imitate neo-Nazis and deny the existence of the Serb concentration camps in Bosnia – but they also became popular with the media class.

The advance of obscure trots into Broadcasting House and wapping isn’t as astonishing as it might appear. For if you strip revolutionary defeatism of its revolutionary content, you have what modern editors and producers want: contrarianism, the willingness to fill space and generate controversy by saying the opposite of what everyone else is saying – an affectation most people get over around puberty. Frank Furedi, the sect’s guru, and Claire Fox are all over Radio 4. Mick Hume has a column in the Times and the party can always get a hearing from Channel 4’s current affairs department. In fairness, the RCP isn’t completely useless.

Claire Fox has a rare ability to organise intellectually challenging debates, while Munira Mirza is a consistently interesting writer. But its leading men are as shallow as ever, and Debating Humanism shows why humanists should be as mistrustful of the RCP today as the opponents of apartheid and defenders of the NHS were in the 80s.

Remember that its typical tactic is to say it supports a cause and then try to undermine it. Many of the contributors to Debating Humanism, not all of them associated with the party, follow the old pattern, and not one of them wonders why humanism needs to be defended from the threat posed by Islamism and the potential of radical fundamentalist movements in Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism to imitate it. Instead of looking at what menaces us in the here and now, two of the essayists concentrate their fire on the perennial liberal enemy.

Dylan Evans and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn denounce “secular fundamentalists”,’ whose narrowly anti-religious version of humanism “mirrors the intolerance of the religious”. Yes, you’re right, our old friend moral equivalence is back. It’s as if he’s never been away. There is no difference between those who would subjugate women, kill the Jews and homosexuals, place the dictates of a seventh-century holy book above the parliaments of free peoples and establish a theocratic empire and those who wouldn’t. Each side is as bad as the other. We’ve no obligation to make a choice between them, and can indeed devote our energies to attacking the latter rather than the former.

Furedi provides a reason beyond their inability to grasp elementary principles for keeping our new friends at arm’s length. His essay shows in embarrassing detail the leader of the RCP isn’t very bright. First, he flirts with epistemological relativism while denying he is doing it. Then he makes a good point for bad reasons but lacks the courage to follow it through because its inevitable conclusion conflicts with the party line. He, too, insists that opposition to religious intolerance shouldn’t define humanism. Instead, we should challenge the environmental movement’s culture of misanthropy which denigrates the human race as greedy and destructive.

He has a case. Misanthropy undoubtedly informs the dominant strand in the post-modern European left. It takes a special combination of self-hatred and selfishness to insist that we can’t judge other cultures, place democracy higher than tyranny or say that brown-skinned women in Kabul must have the same rights as white-skinned women in Paris. A genuine humanist would notice that cultural relativism leaves its adherents naked before their fanatical enemies, but Furedi can’t acknowledge the logic of his argument because to do so he would have to admit that there are movements of the religious far right and it is the duty of humanists to oppose them.

The admittedly grim truth that we are going to have to fight the old Enlightenment battles for freedom of thought, the vote and the emancipation of women all over again – and not only for our own sakes – is too much for him to bear.

It’s easier for Furedi and his comrades to carry on as before and get in the way of people with serious work to do.

Nick Cohen

Monday, 29 January 2007

Hirsi Ali, Garton Ash, Buruma

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Interesting discussion this... from the excellent German website (translated into English) signandsight.com comes French nouveau philosophe Pasal Bruckner's stringent defence of Ayaan Hirsi Ali against the 'Anglo Saxon' equivocation of Ian Buruma and Tim Garton Ash. I’ve always found Hirsi Ali's virulent anti-Muslim views both admirable and troublingly simplistic (so easy to conscript into a racist far right worldview, and this only increases when you find our that she is now at the neo-con think-tank the American Enterprise Institute). But then maybe I’m just a wishy washy Anglo Saxon hypocrite with a romantic but illogical commitment to multiculturalism...

read Bruckner's piece here

Friday, 26 January 2007


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Here's a (rather slight) something I wrote fo the September issue of New Humanist...

Little Monsters

My son Saul’s favourite game involves him and a friend bouncing around on our bed in the dark while I, face covered with a luminescent mask roughly based on Munch’s The Scream and my dressing gown pulled over my head, roar and grope at the kids like a zombie. For Saul this is the purest joy. And I can’t help wondering whether his delight has anything to do with his own behaviour which, on occasion, can be pretty monstrous.

There have always been two conflicting notions of the nature of childhood. There’s the Hobbes school, holding that human beings are born savage and must be civilised by constraint, correction and social education. This approach seems to be supported by the recent spate of horrific cases – Jamie Bulger, the Columbine massacre, the murder of Damilola Taylor. One of the suspects recently charged over the Heathrow bomb plot cannot be named because he is still, technically, a child. A fear of feral kids in hoodies, real little monsters, has been building in our society for decades.

Then there are those who, like Wordsworth, believe that children are born innocent, touched by angels, “trailing clouds of glory”, and are gradually corrupted as they develop into adults. So when children are driven to crime, they would argue, it is because of exposure to noxious images and ideas, whether it’s death metal or gangsta rap, video nasties or the vile rantings of a preacher. In this scenario it is the adult world, populated by monsters real and imagined, that implants horrors into the pristine mind of the child.

Such a view has good humanist credentials. The Christian church has traditionally propagated the idea that children are born into sin. So to suggest otherwise used to be considered subversive. In his Confessions St Augustine wrote, “no man is free from sin even a child who has lived only one day on Earth.” Any pretence to innocence on the part of a baby was not because of the lack of will to do wrong – for Augustine crying and throwing tantrums were evidence of inherent badness – but through lack of strength. Calvin refined the argument somewhat, eleven centuries later, conceding that when children first arrive on the scene they are like animals, so not at first guilty, but they are born with the ‘seeds of sin’, which, if not rooted out will bear fruit. The solution was a rigorous ‘holy discipline’ which nipped those seeds in the bud. Such an idea formed the basis for the ‘hands on’ religious education that still flourishes today.

It was this view which the 17th century philosopher John Locke challenged in Some Thoughts Concerning Education, where he proposed the idea that children were born a tabula rasa, neither good nor bad, but an empty vessel, to be written on by the hand of Reason. Locke was critical of the harsh Puritan disciplinarianism of the day, and recommended a regime which combined diet and exercise with training in wisdom and virtue. It is not clear what his position on monster games would have been.

An extension of this view, which was also an argument against it, came from Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Emile or On Education. Rousseau agreed with Locke that children are born as a blank slate, but argued that being of nature they were in effect inherently benign. As opposed to the religious view of essential corruption, he held that it is society which corrupts. Before striving to pull children into the adult world of reason – something he agreed was necessary and desirable – Rousseau proposed they first be given a chance to learn the lessons of nature, which would endow them with goodness.

Though less of an ardent rationalist than Locke, Rousseau still distrusted the imagination, home to what he saw as corrupting adult fantasies. So he was opposed to indulging children with stories, or with anything that might interrupt the development of reason. Monsters, he maintained, are a product of adult corruption. “Everything degenerates in the hands of man…. He mutilates his dog, his horse, his slave. He turns everything upside down, he disfigures everything, he loves deformities, monsters. He wants nothing as nature made it.”

But there are two basic flaws in Rousseau’s conception of monsters as something man-made and perverse. Firstly, not all monsters are unnatural. What were dinosaurs? What about the two-ton estuarine crocodile? Have you ever seen a viper fish close-up? Even the deformities of which Rousseau speaks are, of course, natural developments, however horribly fascinating we may find them.

Secondly, though, and perhaps more crucially, Rousseau offers a very one-sided interpretation of what constitutes a natural mind. He advocates that the inherent purity of children should be protected from negative influences such as misleading fantasies and grotesque fantasy creatures. For a start, anyone who’s ever had to spend more than a few hours with the average toddler will be aware that it’s not exactly akin to a weekend in the Garden of Eden. But even if you accept the pure innocence of the newborn child, it makes no sense to suggest that it can be preserved by cocooning the child from the real world, or indeed the grotesque world of fantasy.

Far from being an aberrant influence, monsters can be ferociously effective in helping a child to negotiate that world. Saul’s room looks like a voodoo shrine. Skulls, skeletons, fossilised bones cover the surfaces. There is a basket of snakes, a box of carnivorous dinosaurs, another for the miscellaneous baddies and beasts he has fallen for – Venom, Baal’s Minion, Skeletor, Darth Maul – not to mention the pictures of the monsters he has invented himself – Zogs, Agogs and Slugapuffs. Lined up on pegs an array of masks, Cyclops, ‘the goaty one’, Dracula and (a particular favourite), the devil.

He has learnt through his fascination with these macabre creatures to make a clear moral distinction between monsters which are animals and those which are not. The animals – dinosaurs, sharks, crocodiles, venomous snakes – should not be blamed if they should, say, eat a little boy, because “they can’t help it, they are only animals, it’s their nature.” Whereas if the devil, Mordred or Apocalyse, should, for example, swallow the planet, they would be entirely culpable, given that they are conscious beings. The degree of culpability, and of scariness, is related to the amount of humanness. Dracula, the devil, Roboticus (a cyborg) are scary because they are half or almost human, as opposed to the 25 metre long prehistoric sea creature, the liepluradon – the world’s largest ever carnivore, incidentally – which is awesome but not frightening. Saul is very meticulous about these distinctions and should we get them wrong he is quick to correct us.

Facing monsters gives children the opportunity to explore and think about danger – that posed by animals that could kill you – violence and responsibility. It also encourages the categorisation process so essential to humanity. Anthropologist Mary Douglas has argued that monsters, like the biblical beasts and Beowolf, are ‘border-steppas’, they are anomalous, refusing to fit neatly into any category, and are therefore of particular fascination to humans, big and small. In her reading of Leviticus Douglas shows how animals which defy easy categorisation are rendered ‘unclean’ (as in the laws of Kosher) and labelled abominations. It is these boundaries, and the way that monsters – also known as mutants, abominations, beasts, freaks – refuse them, that fascinates and captures the imaginations of children.

And monsters can also be a haven of danger and evil when children are so constantly and infuriatingly expected to shape up to goodness. “Parents and teachers are the enemy,” proclaimed Roald Dahl, the master of monstrous villainy, who gloried in the smelly, farty, visceral nature of children. “The adult is the enemy of that child because of the awful process of civilising this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.” Dahl instinctively understood that children can handle the idea of evil; that they need baddies and revolting monsters against which they can judge goodness, that of the other characters and their own.

Children don’t just like to look at monsters, though. They like to play with them, be them, make up stories about them, talk about them. One aspect of this is about measurement – the monsters are set in relations with other things and objects and baddies, compared, categorised, understood: How long are they, how high? Higher than daddy? Higher than the house? Which is taller: a liopleurodon or a T Rex, a Zog or the Devil? How sharp are his teeth, are they covered in bacteria like a Komodo dragon? In measuring the monster their power to terrify is tamed, mastered and neutralised.

A second aspect concerns story-telling itself. In the placing of the monster in a narrative the child can experience control and agency, a priority about what will happen which is unavailable in the parent-dominated world, for the first time. They can decide if the Teenage Mutant Ninja Guinea Pigs defeat the Sucubus and the Incubus, and if they do it with cunning or brute strength.

And it’s not just that children can use and learn from fantasies and monsters. In The Uses of Enchantment Bruno Bettelhiem argued that children need the dark materials of fairy stories because they need to make sense – in a symbolic displaced way – of their own feeling of anger, resentment and powerlessness. They also benefit from learning about violence and brutishness because it “counters the widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in our life is due to our natures”. Monsters, in this sense, are a vital resource for acquiring some control, for a being which is learning who and what it is.

So I’m not going to deprive my little monster of his monsters. If he can’t learn to confront and cope with evil, how is he going to learn what it means to be good?

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Gay Adoption

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Professor Udo Schuklenk is Professor of Ethics in Public Policy and Corporate Governance at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. He also a committed humanist. Here are his thoughts on the current row about Gay Adoption....

Public Obligations and Private Preferences

Just a few weeks ago the Scottish Parliament did the right thing. It permitted adoption agencies to allow gay couples to adopt children. Frankly, this being the 21st century, I didn't expect anyone to bat an eyelid in response to this decision. And not many eyelids were batted beyond the usual suspects belonging to various church hierarchies. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, our local representative of the Vatican, predicted entirely predictably our descent into a spiral of immorality. Explain that take on the issue to thousands of well-cared for AIDS orphans in Southern African who have been adopted over the years by gay couples. Even the Catholic Church knows that there is no evidence that children brought up by gay couples are any worse adapted as children brought up by straight folks. So, it's not its concern for the children's well-being that drives them. Its take on the matter at hand is that a fairly old, logically inconsistent booklet forming the ideological basis for much of Mr. O'Brien's statements, tells us that gay adoption is wrong. Why anybody in government should care is something I truly do not comprehend. The Catholic Church, when stripped of all the bluster of titles and robes, has long ceased to be a credible arbiter of morality. It knows little to nothing about human sexuality and tends to limp from one home-made sexual scandal to the next.

Enter Ruth Kelly. The Communities Secretary is not your average church going Catholic, far from that. She is a card carrying member of Opus Dei. Opus Dei is a particularly fundamentalist arm of the Catholic Church. Religious views, you might say, and I would certainly concur are private affairs. We all are perfectly entitled to believe in any particular God (and as you will know, there are plenty of them on offer out there) or none at all. The golden rule in this regard is that we basically are entitled to do in our private lives whatever we consider appropriate in that regard. That certainly applies to Ruth Kelly as much as my Polish plumber. The trouble really began when Ms Kelly decided to create a loophole in said adoption rules. She plans, supported by regular Pope chum Tony Blair to permit religious organizations to discriminate against prospective adoptive gay parents. I am not surprised she would come up with such a strategy. The last Opus Dei member I came across advised my gay office manager that she would pray for him so he would be able to become heterosexual. I wish I could say 'just made that one up', but I didn't.

Ruth Kelly should have recognized that she has a clear conflict of interest between her public responsibilities as a communities secretary and her private-preference religious views. In John Reid's famous words (uttered admittedly in a different context), she is certainly not fit for purpose and should be replaced by someone who is not abusing government office to achieve religious ideological objectives. – And spare me the nonsense about the grave danger to children's well-being if the Catholic Church really closed its adoption agencies, as it threatened to do if anti-discrimination legislation would be applied to its activities as they apply to everyone else's. Leaving aside this demonstration of the Church's prioritizing of its ideology over the children's well-being as well as its clear attempt at blackmailing the democratic state, surely it should not be overly difficult to channel the public funding the Church receives for its adoption agencies to a charity that has its eyes on the ball (the children as opposed to the book). – Still skeptical as to whether the Church and its government minister might have a point? Just imagine the book would have said that black orphans may not be adopted by white people. Would you still think the Church has a case?

Udo Schuklenk

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

A book I really liked

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Since the whole point of a blog is to bang on about stuff to anyone who will listen I thought I'd tell you about a brilliant book I just read. It's called Karoo. It's a novel. It's about a man called Saul Karoo who is a very self-aware but dysfunctional alcoholic script doctor who dies in the end. It's by a man called Steve Tesich who, I believe, was a very self-aware alcoholic script writer who died before the novel came out. He wrote the script for The World According to Garp (a good movie) and Breaking Away (a brilliant movie). It originally came out in 1997 but it's being reissued in April by Vintage (I think because it didn't get the attention it deserved).

I've given it to Michael Bywater to review for the March issue of New Humanist. I hope he agrees with me that it's one of the great American comic novels (which as you know is the best kind of novel) right up there with Confederacy of Dunces and Portnoy's Complaint. You heard it here second (I presume someone else has said this all before somewhere).

Comic Timing

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By way of contrast to the highbrow Dawkins interview below, this second piece from the current new Humanist is from stand-up comedian Shappi Khorsandi. Try and catch her live show if you can, she's funny...

Comic Timing
Shappi Khorsandi

A few days ago I carried an elderly neighbour's shopping up three flights of stairs. Even when the lift in our block of flats works, it is so rickety that I mentally distribute my worldly goods. Actually, my (heavily mortgaged) flat is my only worldly good so I'd better see the lift gets sorted so my loved ones don't stand at the Pearly Gates before their time. Oh, look at me, I'm writing for New Humanist and already I've made a religious reference. Jesus! Damn! I mean oops.

My neighbour was very grateful and as I bade her goodbye, she thanked me again then spoiled our beautiful moment by saying, “That was very Christian of you.”

Was it? Is it just Christians who help with shopping? Do Muslims have a clause that forbids the carrying of Tesco bags? Is it written in the Torah, “Carry it yourself, what am I? Your butler?” What about Buddhists… too busy meditating to heave three bags of cat food up the stairwell?

I wanted to explain to her that I worked out all by myself that walking past a struggling neighbour wasn’t very nice. I've been known to put myself out occasionally. My parents never even had to warn me of eternal damnation for me to do a good deed.

I wanted to reassure my neighbour that, despite not being a Christian or any other religion, I have managed to steer clear of murder and adultery. I have never coveted my other neighbour's wife.

Of course, I said none of these things and instead smiled Christianly and said it was no problem.

I don't have a religion. That's not to say I'd call myself an atheist. Most atheists I know seem to have been raised with a religion, then, after considerable thought and discussion, gone, “Nahhhh, you're all bonkers” and rejected it. Some are so militant that they all but knock on people's doors on Saturday mornings and try to convert them to non-believing.

I wasn't raised with a religion or notion of God so have never had to explain to my parents that I wasn't going to Mass, Mosque or Synagogue any more. When I asked if my hamster was going to heaven, my grandma told me, “No, he'll become dust and be made into pots.” Poor Fifi.

If you are beige, though, people often can't accept that you were not raised in religion. The amount of times I have been asked by journalists my views on something “as a Muslim”. I bet Jo Brand is never asked to comment “as a Christian”.

Yet it was Christianity I was the most exposed to as a child through school. I sang hymns every morning in assembly and promised “to do my duty to God” in Brownies. In the nativity plays I was not allowed to be an angel: little blonde girls were angels, little brown girls were shepherds. The slightly slower kids were Wise Men to boost their self-confidence.

I loved Christmas carols and hymn practice and the “tea and biscuits” which seemed to be at the core of every Christian event. I never got past the refreshment stage, though. No amount of custard creams seems to make me see the light. I managed to learn very little about the nuts and bolts of the religion despite the best efforts of, well, pretty much the whole of my schooling. When I was sixteen, a devout Christian friend of mine told me she was going to Eucharist one Saturday. I nearly went with her. I thought it was a trendy club night.

An Asian cab driver once asked me where I am from. I never say “London” in that hoity-toity way that second-generation immigrants sometimes do. The question can be a useful start to a friendly conversation. I find it more interesting than “what do you do for a living?” Nine times out of ten these days the answer to that is “I work in IT” and that's pretty much the end of the conversation. Seeing as I was born in Iran, I told him, “I'm from Iran.” “Ah!” he said, “you are my Muslim sister.” It was early in the morning. I didn't want to get into this. I told him I was Jewish. He didn't seem as keen for me to be his sister after that. The rest of the journey was in silence.

I could have been Jewish; there are lots of Jewish Iranians (or 'Jeranians' as I call them). I was once asked to perform at a Jewish Iranian singles night in LA. The second I was off stage, I was paid, bundled into a cab and whisked home. I wasn't allowed to stay and flirt. I guess they didn't want me as their sister-in-law.

The other day, when the lift was mended, my nice old neighbour held the door open for me as I heaved my shopping bags in. I was tempted to say, “That was very Humanist of you,” but I held my tongue. She might have thought I'd eat her up then run outside to howl at the moon.

From the current issue of New Humanist. For a free trial copy go here

Thursday, 18 January 2007

In the beginning...there was Dawkins

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I'm going to start this blog as I mean to go - by posting some of the best bits of content from the magazine I edit - New Humanist - and anything else that takes my fancy. Feel free to comment.

First up you must read this long interview with Richard Dawkins from the latest issue of New Humanist Magazine (you can request a free trial copy from www.newhumanist.org.uk)

Gentle Rottweiler

Richard Dawkins’ attack on religion has been hailed, revered and derided. He talks to Laurie Taylor about the mixed reception of The God Delusion

Before I went to talk to Richard Dawkins in his Oxford home about the critical reactions to his best-selling book The God Delusion, I sat down and watched a quite extraordinary video of one episode from his promotional tour of the States. In this short film we see Dawkins reading extracts from his book and answering questions before an audience in Lynchburg, Virginia. This is already sensational enough: a no-holds-barred atheist standing up and strutting his evolutionary stuff in a town principally famous for the existence of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, a university which proudly announces in its prospectus that “Liberty’s professors integrate a Christian worldview into every subject area… They join Liberty only after completing a rigorous interview process that confirms a born-again relationship with Christ.”

But what is truly extraordinary about this video (here) is that although Dawkins is repeatedly confronted by students and academics from Liberty University, he never seems in any danger of losing the sympathy of most of his large audience. There are even moments when his replies attract not just generous applause but what sound awfully like enthusiastic cheers. As an exercise in consciousness-raising it may hardly be analogous to Stokely Carmichael arousing a black audience with the declaration that “black is beautiful”, but it does suggest that Dawkins was very astute when he described his new book as an invitation to atheists to come out of the closet and publicly declare their disbelief.

He greeted me with his customary friendliness, proposed coffee, and then settled down to answer my questions with quite enough eagerness to allow me to forget that he had been through scores of rather similar interviews in recent months. I reminded him that last time we had met, during an IPPR/New Humanist debate at the 2006 Labour Party Conference, I’d expressed anxiety about the reception he might receive from god-loving Americans during his forthcoming publicity tour.

“Well, let me tell you, it was quite an agreeable surprise. Everywhere I went, including Kansas and Lynchburg, I got rapturous responses. Obviously I was preaching to the choir but I hadn’t realised that the choir was going to be quite so big or so enthusiastic. In Lynchburg they’d obviously bussed them in from Liberty University and so they tended to dominate the questions. They were asking what they thought were testing questions, but the home crowd really were roaring their applause each time I knocked them down. It was rather like a wrestling match.”

“You felt that there was a sense of relief that at last somebody was speaking out. Your analogy with raising consciousness really seemed to hold?”

“Oh yes. I think it really does hold. It was what everybody said in the book signing queues. Time after time, people would say, often in a whisper, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ And I now get so many letters from people in America who say that they were afraid to come clean and say that they really didn’t believe. Sometimes they are afraid of their family, their parents, or their fiancée. Others are afraid of being victimised at work or passed over for promotion.”
I’d decided to start with what I knew was the unexpectedly generous response he’d received in the States because I wanted the main part of my interview to concentrate on the far more critical reaction to his book from a large range of popular and academic reviewers. Had he been ready for this barrage of hostility?

“It was quite a shock to me. All my previous books have been pretty favourably reviewed on the whole. But this one is the exception. It got off to a good start with Joan Bakewell in the Guardian and an anonymous one in the Economist but not elsewhere. I think that because the book has the word ‘God’ in the title they get religious people to review it. So what do you expect?”

“But”, I suggested, opening my file of quotations, “there were some interesting consistencies in this criticism. As far as I can see nobody strongly objected to the way in which you used evolutionary theory to challenge the idea of an initial creator, but there was real concern about your subscription to the idea of moral evolution. Some reviewers quite clearly regarded your belief in the progressive nature of what you call the liberal zeitgeist as a serious departure from strict rationality. Although you admit that there might be temporary setbacks to this progression, the movement is always forward. Contrast that with the views of someone like John Gray, professor of political science at LSE and author of Straw Dogs, who is every bit as Darwinian as yourself but nevertheless reaches deeply pessimistic conclusions about the possibility of human progress.”

“Well, in fact, I could be very wrong about this. But I thought that the illustrations I gave of the moving zeitgeist were fairly convincing. I feel that you can more or less judge the decade in which a piece of prejudice was written by the nature of the prejudice. One can say that this or that piece of prejudice dates from, say, the 1930s. There’s a kind of time signature to social attitudes.”

But wasn’t this to ignore the evidence of the past? I reminded him of the rush of books in the 19th century, like Hobhouse’s Morals in Evolution, which had appropriated Darwinian theory in order to argue that the world was becoming incrementally more moral and that such a movement could only continue in the future. But then, of course, Hobhouse and the other moral evolutionists had been entirely confounded in the first half of the 20th century by the arrival upon the scene of Stalin and Hitler and their organised campaigns of mass extermination.
As I knew from our previous meetings, and from attending his lectures, he always pays close and almost flattering attention to someone else’s arguments. He never rushes in with a response but carefully acknowledges the point before gently countering. His tenacity is only evident in the manner in which he pursues the argument. This was no exception. He was happy to admit that fascism and soviet communism created problems for his moving zeitgeist but still wanted to stick by his thesis.

“We have to consider the advancing technology that made it so much more possible for a Hitler or a Stalin to do the horrible things they did. If you planted Hitler or Stalin back in the middle ages, would they have stood out as they do to us now, or would they have seemed par for the course in terms of their nastiness? I would still suggest that they were temporary setbacks. There is general progress. We don’t now have slavery. We have equal respect for women. A universal revulsion against Hitler. Nobody can now say what Hitler once said without being instantly shouted down.”

Was he really happy to describe a planned policy to exterminate an entire race of people as “a temporary setback”?

“But that belief in the extermination of an entire race, you can say that it was a last gasp.”
But wasn’t this, as his critics insisted, not so much a rational argument as a personal belief? Not so much science as good old-fashioned optimism, a readiness to admit to what could only be called a belief in moral progress, to an ideological optimism?

“Well, I hope that someone in your field is giving proper attention to this because the idea of progress seems to me to be plausible but I wouldn’t be able to argue it for very long. But, yes, I think that is a fair cop. I am an optimist.”

It’s this sort of readiness to concede which causes some of the ambivalence one finds among both Dawkins’ friends and enemies. Anyone who reads The God Delusion can hardly doubt that they are often in the presence of an out-and-out dogmatist. Religious beliefs are mocked, subverted and finally dispatched with an almost chilling logic. There are almost no concessions to agnostics or deists or even the gentler proponents of intelligent design. All deviations from thoroughgoing atheism are ruthlessly sacrificed on the altar of experimental science.

But Dawkins in debate or conversation almost seems apologetic about the hard-nosed impression that he so assiduously invites in print. One radio producer recently told me of his astonishment at finding that in the flesh Dawkins did not so much resemble an ideologue as “a gentle country vicar”. It was, said the producer, a combination of his gentle voice and manner as well as his occasional admissions of uncertainty.

I drew upon the remarks of one of his great friends and admirers in an attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction. “Why,” I asked, “do so many of your critics complain about your dogmatism in The God Delusion? Even the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who describes himself as your ally and friend in his review, goes on to say, “some readers will probably come away from the book more impressed by Dawkins’s disrespect than persuaded by his arguments.”
“I think it’s almost a tactical point. You can see it starkly in the evolution debates. In America and elsewhere I am continually and very possibly rightly accused of providing real fodder for the creationists because in America atheism is such a no-no. If anyone stands up and says ‘I am an atheist because I am a Darwinian,’ which I sort of do, they think their birthday has arrived. It is wonderful for them. I had a meeting with Eric Rothschild, who was a lead lawyer in the Pennsylvania evolution case, and he said, ‘Thank goodness we didn’t call you as a witness.’ I would have handed the case to the other side. I don’t know what the answer is to this. There is such a double standard. If you use the same kind of language about religion that anyone else would use about politics, economics, architecture or the theatre, it would be seen as ordinary robust critical language. Yet the moment the same language is used against religion, it suddenly becomes obnoxious, intemperate and offensive. And that is so common among my critics. I don’t know whether I should moderate my language to woo the other side. Do I want to woo the bishops, people like the bishop of Oxford? He’s a terribly nice man and we have collaborated on more than one occasion.”

I suggested that perhaps his ambivalence arose because whilst he was more or less ready to concede, at least in conversation, that he might be mistaken about the role that evolution played in the development of morality, there could be absolutely no concessions when the issue at hand conflicted with the hard science upon which his reputation rested.

“Yes, that’s right. As a scientist I am only interested in the simple scientific question: ‘Is there a God?’ If someone wants to say that God started off evolution then that seems to me to be a total denial of everything that we have learnt.”

But was he always as true to science as he believed? Several of his reviewers had complained that he was too soft on bad science. Whereas his book was filled with examples of bad religion, what many believers would regard as deviations from true religion, he ignored examples of so-called scientific findings which had eventually proved to be quite unfounded but had led to quite disastrous consequences. Why, for example, had he not addressed such “bad science” as eugenics?

“Well, eugenics was a very fashionable science in the 1930s and nowadays it isn’t. Post Hitler there are people who say not only that eugenics is morally wrong but also that it doesn’t work scientifically. That is bollocks. It works with horses, cows and pigs and ducks. Of course it would work with humans. It’s quite another matter to say that it would be a good thing to do. It comes down to a moral and political choice. Just as the H-bomb. As for only giving examples of bad religion, that is not what I wanted to do even if I seem to have done it. I think I could have been accused of that not so much in the book but in the television programme I did for Channel 4 called The Root of All Evil. But a television programme does not have a single author. It was a kind of ‘over my dead body’ title, for example.”

But how would he answer those critics who attacked his persistent use of the loaded word “indoctrination” to describe religious education. As Terry Eagleton wrote in the London Review of Books, “Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief.”

“Of course, I recognise that it doesn’t always work. And that’s fine. I think it’s the labelling more than the indoctrination. I think the parallel with the feminists is extremely good. You can’t now say something like ‘one man – one vote’ without flinching. You should also flinch when someone says that here is a four-year-old Catholic. I fully accept that the child may not be made to say its prayers, it may not be indoctrinated in that sense, but society still labels that child a Catholic child and I would be content if we could just get rid of that labelling.”

This, I realised, was the awkward moment when I had to confront him with what one or two of my agnostic friends regarded as the most compelling part of Terry Eagleton’s scathing review of the book. How, I asked, did he respond to Eagleton’s taunt that reading Dawkins on theology gave one a rough idea of what it would be like to listen to someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject was derived from the Book of British Birds. “What, one wonders,” Eagleton continued, “are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?”
I could tell from his reaction while I read from the review that Richard had been stung by the ferocity of Eagleton’s attack but his response was positively cavalier.

“Look, somebody who thinks the way I do doesn’t think theology is a subject at all. So to me it is like someone saying they don’t believe in fairies and then being asked how they know if they haven’t studied fairy-ology. I think it is as simple as that. I’m all for professors of theology who write about little-known religious texts and study biblical history, but when theology turns to the study of the trinity, then I think it’s a non-subject.”

“But isn’t Eagleton complaining that because you don’t know any theology, your account of God is necessarily naïve and simplistic? It doesn’t do justice to the more sophisticated ways of conceptualising God, to such matters as his transcendence and invisibility.”

Richard clearly had no intention of going down that path. With what was the first hint of acerbity, he simply repeated himself. “I think that my point about fairy-ology entirely disposes of that.”

It had, I now began to think, seemed like an excellent idea to confront Dawkins with his critics in the pages of New Humanist. After all, NH readers were probably all familiar with many of the arguments for atheism in The God Delusion even if they had rarely found them made with such force and authority. But I could sense that my litany of reviewers’ objections to his thesis was creating a slightly melancholy atmosphere. During our opening small talk I’d congratulated him on the runaway success of his book and mentioned my delight at having already seen two people on the underground reading it with the sort of attention normally reserved for best-selling potboilers. In the thick of so many critiques, though, this was now beginning to seem like a rather token form of appreciation. I decided to introduce some gentler objections.

What, I wondered, did he make of those reviewers who had gone along with most of his scientific arguments for atheism but queried his ubiquitous references to reason? Some had wanted to argue that reason and science were not at all the same thing and could not be conflated. Others had suggested that his dismissal of faith overlooked its part in everyday life.

“I don’t see that at all. I don’t know what it would mean to say that we live by faith in our daily life. There is, I suppose, a sense that we are sometimes too busy to reason everything out but otherwise I don’t know what it means.”

I reminded him of the very personal moments in The God Delusion: the moving thanks to his wife, Lalla Ward, and the touching references to his deceased friend and collaborator, Douglas Adams. No one could doubt that these were expressions of deeply felt emotions. Would he want to say these emotions were entirely prompted by reason?

“Let me turn it around and say why I believe that somebody loves me. This might look like faith because I can’t really prove it. But I think it would ultimately be based on evidence. It would be based on subtle little signs, on certain catches in the voice, on particular looks in the eyes. And I know where this argument is going. I’ve met it before. It suggests that the reason we believe someone loves us is analogous to God’s love. It isn’t based on evidence. It is not subject to simple experimental verification. Nevertheless it does use real evidence that comes in through the senses.”

“You don’t think that by reducing love to experimental evidence you are losing something of its essence?”

“I’m happy to be governed by feelings and I suppose, in a sense, by faith. But that doesn’t mean that I ultimately believe there is something other than the material world that is causing those feelings.”

“But if you were to tell your wife that you loved her but didn’t have the time to write down all the reasons, would she not be a mite dissatisfied?”

“Life would be intolerable if you wrote down detailed reasons for everything. So I don’t have a problem with faith in that sense. But that is so different from going on from there to declare that there must be something supernatural about it.”

My list was nearly at an end. But I noticed with slight alarm that the next entry simply read in capital letters: RAISE THE SOCIOLOGICAL OBJECTIONS. Richard noticed my pause and looked as though he might be on the edge of devising an escape route. I pressed ahead quickly.
Wasn’t there a danger, I suggested, that his thesis might be playing into the hands of the conservatives in America? Couldn’t his book be misread as an attack upon fundamentalism, and therefore as a contribution to the current climate of Islamophobia? Perhaps some of his American applause was elicited by the sense in the audience that he was attacking an alien and hostile religion.

“That might be true for this country but America is not short of Christian fundamentalists. There are those that kill abortion doctors and those who use the rhetoric of all fags roasting in hell. There are people who believe that they are going to be raptured up to heaven any time now. People who believe that the battle of Armageddon will be a nuclear war in Israel and that this is to be welcomed. One of the main criticisms I get in this country is ‘What are you going on about?’ People need to go to America and see what is going on there.”

I entered my very last objection. “In the language of experimental science, isn’t there a danger that your attack upon religion suggests that it is the independent variable, the cause of all our troubles? But might it not be that the advance of fundamentalism, the revival of religious belief, is dependent upon another sociological development, upon globalisation, upon the spread of a materialist consumer ethic? In such circumstances religion provides a way of resistance, a way of affirming values other than those derived from capitalism and the market place. By alienating the religious we risk losing allies in that fight.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose it fits with people like EO Wilson. He’s an atheist and what you might call more of a religious appeaser than Dennett. But the reason for that is that he is terrified about the imminence of the planet’s self-destruction and wants all people of good will to join together to save the world. But I think you have made a very good point. That’s not what my book is about but perhaps it should be.”

It was too generous a concession to go unrewarded. I closed my objections file and thanked Richard for his time. Thanked him for sitting through so much criticism. Thanked him for his patience and good humour. Thanked him for his book. I forgot only one thing. Standing outside on the pavement waiting for my taxi, I realised that I had not thanked him for perhaps the most valuable thing of all. I had not thanked him for his courage.

Laurie Taylor from the current issue of New Humanist