Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Nasty bilious oaf - Hugo Rifkind

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First it was Brendan O'Neill writing in Spiked; then Andrew Brown on Comment is Free, and today it's someone called Hugo Rifkind in The Times (no link, you know why) – all of them have made the same remarkable discovery: many atheists are very cross with the Pope and would have some pretty peppery things to say to him, if they got the chance. This leads all three to the same conclusion; atheist discourse is intolerant, irrational, smug and overly aggressive. Each use our feature about the Pope as their example.

Well, look. First of all we at New Humanist are well aware that some people can be shrill and irrational when it comes to religion – our news editor Paul Sims wrote critically about this in his report from a recent Protest the Pope meeting – and that a tone of relentless aggressive denunciation is not only childish and unproductive but boring. Which is why alongside the more strident contributions from Richard Dawkins and Claire Rayner, we asked liberal Catholics Conor Gearty and Tina Beattie what they would say to the Pope, and published some very sincere and powerful responses from abuse survivor Graham Wilmer, and writers Richard Wilson and Ben Goldacre. (Rifkind does mention these "quite reasonable" responses parenthetically though it doesn't derail him from his main point that we atheists are nasty, bilious and – say it ain't so! – "not nice".)

Part of the problem here is that each of these these fine investigative journalists track their stories down by clicking on a web link – which takes them to one article, from which they cobble together their thesis on the state of humanist or atheist discourse. If they took the trouble, for example, to pick up a print copy of New Humanist magazine they might get a different impression. Yes, our Audience with the Pope feature contains some rudeness to the Pope – though not much ruder really than what the Pope has to say about secularists, and given his record pretty well justified – but our current issue also features Christian novelist Marilynne Robinson arguing in favour of religion and the soul, and physiologist Harold Hillman saying that humanists and atheists are wrong to consider ritual slaughter cruller than conventional methods. Hardly evidence of irrationality or intolerance.

Forceful argument, satire, even the occasional bit of rudeness, are useful and effective tools against excesses of religious hypocrisy and irrational nonsense. But there are many other tools including reasoned argument, debate and open inquiry - all of which are also employed in "atheist discourse", at least as practised in the pages of New Humanist.

So, to all you paragons of reason and virtue who think we are rude and intolerant, I say this: Up yours!
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