Morality Politics Religion

Premier Zille, religious tolerance and atheist “fundamentalism”

Yesterday, the Premier of the Western Cape, Democratic Alliance (DA) Leader Helen Zille said:

Worst kind of fundamentalists

and that’s how the fight got started. For a number of hours after this tweet, Zille was drawn into debate (well, insofar as the medium permits) on the religious views of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot etc., the putative moral virtue of Mother Theresa, and various other issues relating to religion and/or the absence of it.

Zille apologised for and retracted the tweet above, and it must be said that many who jumped into the conversation didn’t follow it from the start, and were guilty of some over-reaction themselves. In fact, the over-reaction persists today, where some legitimate criticism is being mixed in with abuse and caracaturing of her views and motivations.

If you read her tweet in the context of the conversation, I think it clear that she was responding to Kevin King’s introduction of the idea of religion-bashing by atheists, albeit in a rather glib and unfortunate way, given that the conversation began with Mandy de Waal offering an example of religious fundamentalism causing deaths.

But given the context of the conversation, it was a foot-in-mouth moment rather than an expression of religious intolerance. Despite this, her defence of the tweet, and a few follow-up tweets, indicate that Premier Zille does appear to hold rather misguided views on what atheism is, and what atheists believe.

First, though, I will agree with her on a central point, and annoy many atheists in the process: it’s entirely possible for atheists to be fundamentalists.

If you understand “fundamentalism” in the classic sense, in other words strict adherence to some set of doctrines, then atheists can’t be fundamentalists, as we have no doctrines. (Atheism being simply, and only, the absence of a belief in a deity or deities.)

But language and usage evolves, and it seems entirely permissible to me for “fundamentalism” to be taken as referring to certain ways of being anti-theist, rather than atheist. One relevant category of action would be to ridicule, mock, or insult; another would be to hold your atheism dogmatically, in the sense that you find it impossible to entertain any claims regarding the potential value of religion.

I’ve read my Dawkins, and know that folk will disagree with me on the first category above, insisting that “passion” gets mistaken for stridency. And on the second, I suspect many will say that there’s nothing to entertain, and that those of us who do are simply being “accommodationists”, weasels or something like that.

I’ll not rehearse those arguments now, but will instead point you to an earlier post which deals with some of these arguments at greater length. Here, I just want to say that I agree with Zille on that point, but nevertheless think that she should reconsider her beliefs with regard to atheism and its role in both history and contemporary society.

Even though she made repeated references to her party being committed to religious freedom, and asserted that she is similarly committed, her expressed thoughts on Twitter indicate prejudice against the non-religious. For example:

Atheists commit mass slaughter

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 10.47.24

As my earlier post argues, these sorts of sentiments are thoroughly confused, in that none of these examples were motivated by their atheism (for those who were atheists). The first tweet above should refer to “psychopaths” or “sociopaths” or something rather than atheists, because none of the claims made (commit mass slaughter; believe they are God; have an ideology) are remotely true of atheism in general.

The second tweet again makes the mistake of thinking that atheism is an ideology, or something that informs the lives of atheists in some sort of fundamental way. We’re just like you, Helen, and our atheism is usually as much of an “ideology” as your disbelief in Thor is.

And yes, perhaps people who happen to have been atheists have indeed killed many people, but either that’s coincidental, or you’re making a causal claim about either atheism conducing to evil deeds, or religion conducing to good deeds. Evidence suggests the final option might be what she thinks is the case:


And here I’ll say “sure, maybe that’s true” – but we’ve got zero reasons for believing it to be true. It’s an empirical question, and someone like Zille, who seems fond of data-driven approaches to things, might perhaps know of some of the ways we can distinguish better and worse answers to the question.

For example, does criminality, gender discrimination, murder and so forth tend to correlate positively with religious or non-religious societies? (The former, i.e. non-religious societies are more pleasant.) Does thinking about morality as necessarily connected to religion make any sense? (No – read your Plato.)

And, does thinking about morality as being intimately connected to religion impede moral understanding and thinking, by infantilising us, and making us unable to resolve moral issues through reason? (I think so.)

Zille does seem entirely sincere in her commitment to religious freedom, but that’s not much comfort when she appears to hold rather unsophisticated views on these matters. She’s endorsing dangerous stereotypes in tweeting these sorts of things, and furthermore, doing damage to the DA’s brand.

We’re living in a world where discrimination against the non-religious is quite a significant problem, and the leader of our only (quasi) liberal party should be expected to stand against discrimination, rather than offer it fuel.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

40 replies on “Premier Zille, religious tolerance and atheist “fundamentalism””

Rather ironic that Zille’s fundamentalist approach towards her perceived threat of fundamentalism is so, well, fundamentalist.

It’s true that the mass murderers thrown around were atheist, but this is incidental. They were fundamentalists first, and fundamentalist in their particular ideology (strangely more or less all the same ideologies of Marxism).

I don’t think she’s very clued up on the myriad of writings on atheist ethics. Suffice to say if the only thing that stands between you and committing genocide is the voices of your imaginary friends in your head then it says more about religious ethics than it says about atheist ethics.

I’m sorry, but I’ve just lost respect for Helen over this. Taken into context or not, it still smacks of prejudice, and ignorance (which I am SHOCKED to say of her or all people).

“Despite this, her defence of the tweet, and a few follow-up tweets, indicate that Premier Zille does appear to hold rather misguided views on what atheism is, and what atheists believe.”

However, suffice to say, this little cluster-fuck graphically explains WHY the Democratic Alliance has been failing to address the concerns of thousands of Pagans and other religious minorities in South Africa who are experiencing prejudice and persecution at the hands of State departments, while the “official Opposition” sits by idly and ignores requests and invitations to speak out on their behalf as their alleged mandate empowers them to.

Zille is a politician and by their nature, they are not concerned with minority concerns. Just like with the Eskom scandal, they just sit back and say our hands are tied because we don’t have the votes to do anything. Now if you voted us in power…

Oldest trick in the political book next to denial, denial and denial: Curry favour with the religious majority.

Losing respect for Helen Zille because she does not “address the concerns of thousands of Pagans” is like getting pissed off with Kim Jong-un because his favourite movie is Miss Congeniality 2.

Thanks Jacques. Your penultimate paragraph really sums it up. Ignorance and arrogance makes for a toxic brew and Premier Zille really does not and will not understand that her stance on such matters is such. Double double toil and trouble indeed. What would she say about science “fundamentalism”, false balance and liberatarian views on parents choice of healthcare for children? Is this the party line?

Somebody hacked that twitter account.

Wake up and smell the gerbils – it’s fake.


And what would that valid argument be? Look around you.. be sensible, and logic.. yea, stalin was an atheist, but Hitler was a Catholic. Muhammad was Muslim. Osama bin Laden was Muslim. Mugabe is christian. Bush was christian. Now come on… I am not pointing fingers here.. but be reasonable.

lol I definitely chose the wrong words xD

She was making a bad argument for the record. I meant that the argument definitely came from her and not a hacker.

Edited my original comment to make it is clear what I meant.

I am obviously not braining well today. xD

That’s completely implausible. Many of us who were in the conversation know her as going off on these tangents. Plus, she was tweeting ‘normally’ at the same time. Plus, you’d have seen an official statement from the DA saying that the account was hacked, if it was.

How come Zille hasn’t addressed the problem of men with moustaches? They’ve been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions! Ask Stalin.

Good one. Maybe Helen Zille could chat to Tim Noakes about “association” vs “causation” ?

“Atheists commit mass slaughter because they believe they are God, and that their ideology permits them to.” -Helen Zille via twitter. There’s nothing ambiguous or anything that has been taken out of context with that remark. She is a disgrace to her organisation.

You know, part of the beauty of the English language is that it is so widely versed. There is a word to describe practically anything, with accuracy. The word fundamentalist is strictly definable – but here you seem to be trying to redefine it on the basis that badly spoken people mistake it for something else. Sounds like pandering to me.

I don’t know how you can wrap a misrepresentation of fundamentalism around athiesm as a writer, it really strains my desire to read the rest of your article.

Helen Zille just proved that you certainly don’t need much upstairs to be leading in politics. Shove your religious bias right up there Helen where it belongs.

Thank you for writing a reasoned and fair response to Helen Zille’s tweets yesterday. I was more shocked at the depth of the vitriol, some bordering on vindictiveness, directed at Helen Zille than at what she actually said.

I honestly don’t think she was “Atheist bashing” at all, nor was it “hate speech and promoting inequality” as one person claimed. I’m an Atheist and not once did I feel she was targeting me, or others like me, or that she has an anti-Atheist bias. I thought that she was pointing out that not only “religious fundamentalists” have been responsible for mass murders, but also “Atheists”. Her choice of words “worst kind of fundamentalists” was misguided and unfortunate, and it is clear that she realised that after some people twisted those words into something that was obviously (to me at least) not her intention.

Her tweet “Atheists commit mass slaughter …” would have been better phrased as “Some Atheists, for example Stalin, commit mass slaughter …” which is what I think she meant, not Atheists in general.

But no matter what she says and does, someone will find a cause for outrage.

I have often lamented the way these things go.

On the one hand we are told that religion is evil. Look, they will say, at the Crusades! Or the inquisitions! If a Christian says that those acts weren’t really Christian in nature, we ask the rhetorical question: So which Christians are the real ones? (The answer is easy: These Christians have a book. They are people of a book. What it means to be a good Christian is adherence to what that book says. Same goes for the other people of various books. Go read those books).

On the other hand, when you point out that atheism has a much bigger death toll just in the 20th century alone, the tables are reversed. Now we’re told that atheism had nothing to do with it, COULD NOT have had anything to do with it as it makes no claims at all.

This has always come across as a cop-out to me. Could it be that atheists cannot do anything wrong?

To me it seems clear that any world view would have to account for both the things it told you to do, and the things it failed to prevent. Where those things are clearly denounced in the one system and the other one is silent, surely the silent one deserves the blame for that failure? To paraphrase Helen: It’s a bit more difficult to murder someone if you see the Imago Dei in them.

I’m not sure you’re posting this comment on the right site, Izak, seeing as I’ve not blamed religion for the things you mention, nor expressed the view that atheists can’t do anything wrong. But there are two issues that we need to avoid conflating here: first, the purely empirical question of whether *if* x is caused by religion or not, whether that religion is on the whole a force for good or not, regardless of x. In other words, it would be entirely possible for a religion to be a force for good on the whole, even if it causes a war and a certain number of deaths.

A separate point is whether “atheism has a much bigger death toll just in the 20th century alone”, where I – and no doubt many here – would say that this is factually incorrect. You certainly don’t get to count the Holocaust, for example, as I point out in the earlier post linked to in this one.

I just count Soviet Russia, Red China and Cambodia, regimes that were atheistic in their nature. I believe the number is somewhere on the other side of a hundred million. My point is precisely that people will say atheism didn’t cause these, despite it’s failure to prevent them. They will however claim that religion caused a number of atrocities even though it has clear preventative measures against it. My argument is really just how selective people are when it comes to world views. The sword cuts both ways.

Well, it’s at least tangential. And it is something I find lamentable. Do with it whatever you want 🙂

And the religious people who failed to prevent them must then be equally to blame. If we’re not being selective, that is.

That’s about the same as pointing out that they didn’t play a particular sport and therefore not following that sport is why they killed so many people. The fact is those regimes have done exactly the same if their leaders had been Christian.

The sword does not cut both ways because some religious books, the Bible included, have text that can be interpreted as actively calling for violence, cruel, brutal violence.

It’s rather simple Izak.

Due to a number of athiest’s views of what religion has brought the world, they are attempting to dismantle it by dealing with the stories those said religions preach as truths and history. In their view, their mission is enlightenment of the human race through the destruction age-old mythologies. Because believing those mythologies often stifles one’s rational abilities and therefore results in all sorts of inequalities and misplaced hatred.

Under the pressure, you’re seeing religious speakers attempt to defend their beliefs – often doing catastrophic damage to their doctrine in the process. You’re also seeing a number of religions finding common ground to defend against the atheist viewpoint.

The idea of athiests doing nothing wrong is simply a misunderstanding on your part. Nobody said that, nobody even gently implied that. The point being made is that being athiest has nothing to do with your ideological standpoint. Because it doesn’t come with ideology. It is merely the vacancy of a belief in a god of any sort. It would however permit the belief that we were created by aliens or that the universe is non-physical for example. But it does not require any sort of belief system. It’s basically a term for rounding up all non-god believers into one word. I’m sure you can imagine, that includes a lot of people of a lot of mindsets.

The difference pointed out is that atheists don’t often do things like murder people in the name of atheism. It has happened, of course, but Helen’s position (and yours, it seems) is essentially that an atheist murdering someone for their wallet is the same as a religious person murdering someone because they don’t share the murderer’s religious beliefs. Atheism does not have a higher death toll in the 20th century because correlation is not the same as causation. Even the commonly used Hitler example is a red herring – the Jews weren’t targeted for their religion. They weren’t targeted for not being atheists or for not being Christians or for not being Muslims. There was anti-Jewish propaganda that really had little to do with the Jewish faith.

Anyone claiming that atheism cannot be responsible for something because atheism makes no claims is quite simply an idiot. I didn’t see anyone making such claims in the twitter conversation, but perhaps I missed something. If I did it doesn’t make the author of the claim any less an idiot.

It is true that a person who does nothing to prevent something bad or doesn’t speak up when bad things are done must bear some responsibility for their silence. To say that they are to blame for whatever act it was if they failed to prevent it is ridiculous, though. How can I be responsible for every crime committed because I failed to prevent it? Atheists, in my experience, are as likely to speak out or take action against crimes committed by the likes of IS or the oppression of Palestinians by Israel or an atheist attempting to oppress those who wish to express religious beliefs (I know plenty of atheists who find Richard Dawkins embarassing, speak out against him and encourage others to speak out and actively stand separate from him, for instance).

Your final statement paraphrasing HZ, just isn’t true, however. You evidently make the same mistake as HZ does – assuming that because someone doesn’t believe a divine being created anything means that that person assigns less value to life. Apart from being obviously false given the plethora of examples of atheists who value life very highly, it demonstrates the self-righteous assumption of moral superiority over those who don’t believe what you do.

You’ll have a hard time finding any Christians that follow their book to the letter. The reason being that many of the rules in there are silly, and recognised as such, while others will have you sought for various crimes including rape and murder.

Atheism isn’t a system. It’s a bit silly to have the expectation that it means anything more than what the word describes – lacking belief in gods. It tells us nothing more about the person. The self-proclaimed religious have shown no difficulty in persecuting and murdering. Zille herself is enthusiastic about persecuting a marginalised group that she disagrees with. So religion appears to provide no prevention. It’s not truly a cause of bad behaviour.

She has annoyed and offended many of us with her stupid uninformed remarks. Take a Ming Dynasty plate, drop and break it, glue it together again. Is it still the same ???? NO, SHE will have to do a hell of a lot more, to get my vote in the next election. I WILL vote for the EFF, as she clearly shows that she lacks intellect. At least voting for the EFF, I don’t expect ANY intellect.

It seems like this post has turned into the inevitable baiting of religious vs. not, which was never the point. So apologies to those who wanted to contribute on-topic, but I’ll be shutting comments down.

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