Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Should atheists be talking to believers?

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

Around the time of the Pope's visit to the UK, I wrote a couple of posts on here (notably this and this) in which  I questioned the tone of the Protest the Pope campaign and the debate around Catholicism and the Pope. As I expected, it divided opinion – some people shared my concerns, while others felt anger and indignation were entirely appropriate responses to the actions of the Vatican and the Catholic hierarchy.

An unexpected outcome of my posts was an invitation from the Central London Humanist Group to take part in a small round table discussion with representatives of Catholic Voices, an organisation set up to argue the Catholic case during the Papal Visit. Having wondered whether the differences between humanists and the religious could be debated in a calmer manner, it seemed like an interesting offer, so I agreed. I wanted to see how such an event might work, and whether it would feel like a useful exercise. All we did was debate some areas of disagreement – condoms, gay adoption and faith schools – for a couple of hours, then have a drink before going our separate ways. It was interesting but, while I planned to write something for our new issue, and it got a mention in the Catholic Herald, I expected that to be the end of it. I certainly didn't expect it to prove controversial, and I was surprised when Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society singled me out for criticism in a piece on their website entitled "The Vatican will not changed by persuasion, it has to be forced".
"Mr Sims is the kind of humanist who likes to compliment himself on being “moderate”, on taking the “middle ground” and not being one of the “aggressive atheists” of which his holiness so strongly disapproves.

He doesn’t like people being disrespectful to those they oppose. He is obviously of the opinion that something can be achieved by debating and negotiating with Catholic Voices. What exactly is to be achieved is not quite clear, because talking to the head of Opus Dei about any prospect of “change” in cruel Vatican teachings is an activity surely worthy of King Canute."
Leaving aside the fact that, while I do perhaps have opinions you could call "moderate", I don't tend to go around complimenting myself on them, what struck me about this was the suggestion that talking to believers in this way is a waste of time, and possibly counterproductive. I've responded to this with a piece in the new issue of New Humanist, in which I suggest that, while dialogue between believers and non-believers may not necessarily lead to concrete change on the big issues, talking to each other cordially (I explore the idea of "civility", which has been pursued in other contexts, such as dialogue over Israel-Palestine) might just help both sides to better understand where the other is coming from, and maybe even help to cultivate possible areas of agreement.

If you could find a few minutes to go and read what I have to say, I'd be very interested to hear what you think. I know that many of you will disagree, but, in my opinion, therein lies the strength of humanism – it's in no way a homogeneous "movement" that sticks to a party line. We all have different ideas about where we stand on religion and the changes we'd like to see to bring about a fairer, more secular society, and we're generally eager to debate them.

Indeed, we like to think we provide you with a wide range of viewpoints in New Humanist. Take the current issue – if you don't like my "accomodationism" (I'll call myself one, thereby pre-empting the first commenter to do so), read of Ophelia Benson's review of Karen Armstrong's new book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Would it surprise you to learn she didn't like it?
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