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:

Murder

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.

The @IHEU Freedom of Thought Report 2014

iheu-logo-2013-w300Published today [10 December] by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the third annual Freedom of Thought Report offers a survey of persecution of and discrimination against non-religious people, with an entry for every country across the world.

In 2014, in addition to laws such as those targeting “apostasy” and “blasphemy”, the report shows a marked increase in specific targeting of “atheists” and “humanism” as such, using these terms in a broadly correct way (the users know what they are saying) but with intent clearly borne of ignorance or intolerance toward these groups.

To put it more plainly, nonreligious people are being targeted as a distinct minority group in various countries around the world. The report also indicates that hateful speech against atheists does not come exclusively from reactionary or radical religious leaders, but increasingly from political leaders, including heads of state.

Cases covered in the report include the Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who this year labelled “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” as “deviant” and a threat to Islam and the state itself, in a speech where he also denied that Malaysians had any right to “apostasy” (leaving Islam).

Saudi Arabia is criticised for a new law equating “atheism” with “terrorism”. The very first article of the kingdom’s new terror regulations banned “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion”.

Even the supposedly secular regime of Egypt’s president Sisi was found to target atheists directly, through what the report calls “an organized backlash against young atheists”. Beginning in June, Nuamat Sati of the Ministry of Youth announced a campaign to spread awareness of “the dangers of atheism” and why it is “a threat to society”, so that young atheists in particular, who are increasingly vocal on social media would be given “a chance to reconsider their decisions and go back to their religion.”

In the past few months, Egyptian authorities have detained young atheists who appeared on TV media and Youtube videos talking about their right to express atheist views, and in a worrying an unusual development in November, Christian churches actually “joined forces” with Egypt’s AlAzhar in another anti-atheism campaign, saying that “Society should resist this phenomenon [of atheism]”.

Previous editions of the Freedom of Thought Report, which considers and rates every country in the world for anti-atheist persecution, found that almost all countries discriminate against the nonreligious, in some cases through religious privilege or legal exemption, with the worst countries refusing to issue identity cards to the nonreligious, taking children from atheist parents, or sentencing “apostates” to death.

The 2014 edition of the report notes: “This year will be marked by a surge in this phenomenon of state officials and political leaders agitating specifically against nonreligious people, just because they have no religious beliefs, in terms that would normally be associated with hate speech or social persecution against ethnic or religious minorities.”

Fortunately, the situation in South Africa is nowhere near as serious as the examples given above. However, this does not give South Africans cause for complacency. Our schools routinely violate the National Policy on Religion and Education, to the extent that the organisation OGOD has recently instituted court proceedings against six public schools who assert their “Christian character”, despite our public schools having an obligation to be secular.

It is not only school principals and governing boards who privilege one religion over others, rather than supporting religious freedom through remaining neutral and encouraging a secular approach to religion, whereby religious education is welcome but religious indoctrination precluded.

The MEC for Education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lefusi, boasts of having distributed 50 000 Bibles to schools in his first 100 days in office – with no mention of also having distributed Korans, or books on Humanist ethics and thought. This constitutes not only a violation of the Policy, but if the Bibles were paid for with public funds, also a clear abuse of those funds in that revenue from the taxpayer cannot be used to support what amounts to State-sanctioned religion.

The Freedom of Thought Report is published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) with contributions from independent researchers and IHEU Member Organisations around the world. The South African Member Organisation is the Free Society Institute.

Websites:
freethoughtreport.com and iheu.org; fsi.org.za (South Africa)

For further information, interview or comment please email:
[email protected]; (Free Society Institute, for South Africa-specific issues) or the IHEU ([email protected]; +44 207 490 8468.

A year without God

imagesYesterday, I was alerted to a peculiar piece on the Huffington Post that describes an ex-pastor’s plan to live as an atheist for a year. I say “peculiar” (and my Tweet yesterday said “bizarre”) because atheism is an ontological position, not a lifestyle. An ontological position, in short, is what you hold to be true. Leaving aside perennial (and sometimes technical) debates about whether atheists are all agnostics, or should call themselves agnostic, a crude summary of things is that atheists have the ontological view that god(s) do not exist, and religious believers have the view that god(s) do in fact exist.

Neither of these positions seem to be something you can “try on”, like you might try on a pair of trousers to see if they fit, or if you like their style. In fact, the whole project reminds me of a sort of Pascal’s Wager in reverse, and therefore open to at least one similar criticism, namely that it’s pretty difficult to “fake” belief or disbelief. Pascal responded to this by arguing that if you apply yourself to religious study, and immerse yourself in religious community, the belief or faith will arrive in time, and your feigned position will become a sincere one.

I don’t want to be snide about Ryan Bell’s (the ex-pastor in question) project here, partly because there’s no reason to be – he certainly seems well-meaning and sincere – and partly because his open-minded approach, and the engagement he’s been trying to have inside the church till now reminds me of Chris Stedman (someone who I think worth taking seriously). Also, I have no doubt that some of the more intemperate atheist bloggers will soon unload their scorn upon him, and perhaps a corrective to that is a useful thing for its own sake. But the model Bell is following seems flawed, in that it confuses lifestyle with ontology, and furthermore, I fear that it obscures two important details.

First, Bell is arguably already an atheist. The lack of conviction he describes, and the lack of closeness to the church, its teachings and its god, offers quite a clear indication that he’s already “lost his faith”. So, one way of putting his resolution would be to say something prosaic like “former pastor decides to leave the church”, and that’s hardly a story.

Dennett and LaScola’s new book, “Caught in The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, offers numerous examples of religious leaders who have lost their faith (you can also read a paper of theirs on this topic for free). Most of these people continue simply going through the motions, but when they stop doing so, it seems a bit dramatic to describe it as a switch to atheism – they are returning to a default state, without the add-on of strange metaphysical beliefs. So framing it as “trying on atheism” feeds, I fear, into the canard about atheism being just like a religion, with its own rites and texts and so forth.

I’d rather suggest that Bell is leaving the church, and proceeding with living a regular secular life. And that makes him just like many people who profess religious belief, in that for both the UK and the USA, it seems to be increasingly common for self-identified religious people to not go to church, not read the Bible (or other text), and not pray. In the UK, the RDFS survey and YouGov data showed evidence of this trend, and each new Pew “Religion and Public Life” report for the USA reveals decreasing consensus as to what it means to be “Protestant” (etc.) in terms of how you live and what you believe.

As you’ve no doubt heard, the fastest-growing “religious” group is the nones, i.e. those who claim to have no religion. One-fifth of the USA public (and a full third of adults under 30) say that they have no religion. Bell, in other words, can be described as shrugging off a needless accessory, rather than “trying out” some other belief system. He’ll be living a secular life, and nothing need change beyond that. At some point – and as I say above, perhaps that point has been reached, and he just hasn’t acknowledged that – he’ll stop believing in God. And it’s then that he will be an atheist, rather than simply “someone who doesn’t pray or go to church”.

The second important issue that I think Bell’s experiment runs the risk of obscuring is highlighted in this quotation:

I will read atheist “sacred texts” — from Hobbes and Spinoza to Russell and Nietzsche to the trinity of New Atheists, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett. I will explore the various ways of being atheist, from naturalism (Voltaire, Dewey, et al) to the new ‘religious atheists’ (Alain de Botton and Ronald Dworkin). I will also attempt to speak to as many actual atheists as possible — scholars, writers and ordinary unbelievers — to learn how they have come to their non-faith and what it means to them. I will visit atheist gatherings and try it on.

To speak of learning “how they have come to their non-faith” is an interesting way of putting it, in that it seems to presume that faith is the default. I’m reasonably confident that it’s not, and that if we could wave a magic wand and eliminate all religion today, it would never gain the traction that it currently has ever again – there simply wouldn’t be sufficient numbers of people who would find religious claims plausible for that to happen.

But this isn’t the detail I wanted to highlight. Instead, notice how something which you could also describe as simply “educating yourself” gets framed here as a noteworthy or exceptional task. In highlighting this, I certainly don’t mean to pick on Bell – in this, he’s simply an example of what I think is very common, namely that too few of us (whether religious or not) bother to do the work of properly understanding what the “opposition” is saying, or even what our own intellectual traditions’ arguments are.

I doubt it’s an exaggeration to say that after reading those books, Bell will be more informed regarding atheist arguments than the vast majority of atheists. Given that he’s already (I presume) well-versed in religious arguments, I look forward to following his thoughts during this “year without God”. But the second detail I wanted to highlight is that educating oneself, and reading what your strongest critics say about what you believe – is something religious folk should do in any case, not only when they’re “trying on” atheism, to see if it fits.

Mandela, atheism and “borrowed interest”

flagAs I remarked in a post on the day after Mr. Mandela’s death, his value to South Africa (in particular) was in the unifying effect that his words, character and narrative offered to us. And while there’s certainly a risk of overdoing the praise-singing and mythologising when an important figure leaves us, it’s arguably more distasteful when such a figure becomes the subject of attempts to illegitimately bask in some reflected glory, through claiming some sort of kinship with them.

In asserting that Mr Mandela’s “atheism” is another reason to celebrate his life, The Freethinker magazine (and, presumably, those who, like Richard Dawkins, retweeted the story in question) seem to be exploiting what I’m told advertising types refer to as “borrowed interest”, but which you might know better as simple opportunistic exploitation of largely irrelevant details about someone’s life.

I say largely irrelevant, because Mandela’s role involved highlighting what we have in common, rather than our differences and antagonisms. If any of the labels we use to describe religion and related issues could fit, the one that would have the best chance would be humanism, because his relationship to the citizens of the world seemed to transcend the quite limited boundaries offered by religion and its explicit opponent, atheism. The focus in religion vs. atheism is on difference, rather than commonality, and hardly seems either a good fit or a fitting thing to bring up while people are still mourning Mandela’s death. It’s crass, and opportunistic.

Furthermore, it also seems largely a fabrication, or at least a fantasy, that he was an atheist at all. The “evidence” offered in The Freethinker consists solely of a birthday wish to Mandela from a South African atheist, urging Mandela to “come out” as an atheist. In another piece, it’s asserted that “the other [after Andrei Sakharov] great moral atheist leader of the 20th century was Nelson Mandela”, but we’re given no reason to believe this assertion to be true.

We do now know that Mandela was a member of the Communist Party, and some might therefore think it follows that he was an atheist. On the other hand, we do know that he was baptised as a Methodist, and we have Wikipedia quoting an interview with Mcebisi Skwatsha, in which Mandela apparently confirmed that he was a Methodist. In Mandela’s book Conversations with Myself, he says “I never abandoned my Christian beliefs”, and a comment on Pharyngula points to a CNN story, where it’s described how Mandela would regularly receive blessings from Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.

Mandela also spoke at churches on a semi-regular basis, and in short, clearly seemed to have no antipathy to religion. Instead, his attitude to religion seems to have been exactly the right one for the leader of a nation to have – to hold it as a personal issue, and to devote himself to allowing others to exercise their religions, or lacks of religion, in the manner they see fit. In other words, regardless of what his personal beliefs were, he seems to have been fully committed to secularism in government.

When Christians or other religious folk try to claim deathbed conversions, there’s no shortage of voices pointing out how distasteful [it is] to “claim” people for one side or the other. It’s no less distasteful when atheists try to do the same. In this instance, exactly because of Mr Mandela’s apparent reluctance to choose sides in this matter, it’s perhaps even more distasteful than usual.

Atheist religiphobia, or, what to call yourself?

Dan Finke has posted a long and interesting piece titled Atheist Religiphobia #1: Fear of Believing Anything At All About Gods, which I’d encourage anyone interested in the different interpretation of “atheist” and “agnostic” to read. It also looks like it will be part of a series (judging by the #1), and I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on where he takes the series from here.

One thing I hope he’ll address is a concern I’ve had for some time, and one that has led me to (since a couple of years ago) to move from calling myself an “atheist” to calling myself an “agnostic”. It’s not because I’m any less convinced of the non-existence of gods that I’ve done so, but more because of the signalling, or the political role, of those words.

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while would know that the politics of these engagements (between faiths, between faithless and faith, etc.) are of great concern to me, because I’m firmly of the view that there’s too little listening going on, at a severe cost to the possibility of anyone persuading anyone else. We stack our caricatures up against each other, and then start the yelling (in serious cases, the fighting).

Yelling is sometimes effective, and sometimes necessary, and I’ve got no principled beef with those who do the yelling. I simply think that there are too many of them, and too few who carefully unpick the nuances of these debates, and attempt to persuade via slower, more deliberate dialogue, where people are inclined to listen due to the fact that you are.

Dan’s concern in his post is that unbelievers are so concerned about appearing to be fundamentalists regarding their unbelief that they make a basic epistemological error, leading them to shy away from saying that they “know” that there is no god (and by extension, saying that they are atheists rather than agnostics).

He correctly points out that this error can be traced back to a confusion around how knowledge in general, including scientific knowledge, actually works. When we say that “we know that smoking causes cancer” we aren’t claiming 100% certainty. We’re claiming a sufficient degree of justification in the proposition that smoking causes cancer that we have a warrant to use the word “know”. It’s still possible, in a very theoretical sense, that some third cause, perhaps even one strongly correlated with smoking, causes cancer. Possible, but unlikely enough that we don’t bother thinking about it.

In other words, knowledge doesn’t entail certainty, or logical necessity.

And on that epistemological level, I agree with Dan entirely. And if these conversation were only ever held between fellow philosophers, I’d be quite happy to say “I know that there is no god, and I am an atheist”. But people who are theists, or who are genuinely unsure of what to believe, also enter these conversations, and read these blogs – and my goal is to persuade them, rather than to talk to the choir. So here, as ever, I’m again concerned by the political dimensions of these words, regardless of their epistemological connotations.

I don’t think it’s the case that the typical person on the street thinks that knowledge means something like “justified to such an extent that it’s irrational to believe something else”. Instead, I think that they think it means “we are sure, or certain, that X is the case”. And here’s my key concern – regardless of the god discussion, I care about getting people to believe that all knowledge is, to some extent, provisional, contingent, or consisting in a high degree of justification, rather than certainty.

I care about this because to my mind, it focuses the conversation on the evidence and the reasoning, rather than the conclusion. It focuses our attention on epistemic humility, and on how it’s less important what we believe than how we believe. And when I say “I’m an atheist”, it sounds (to believe who believe that “know” means “certain”) like I’m expressing an attitude or disposition towards knowledge that allows for certainty, and I think that’s a bad signal to send (again, regardless of the god question).

My disbelief in gods is exactly like my belief in some scientific proposition being true or false, in other words. I’m as convinced that there is no god as I am that it isn’t something other than smoking that is responsible for apparently smoking-related cancer. But in both those cases, know does not mean certain. So I call myself an agnostic atheist to make the political point that I reject a dogmatic assertion of certainty, and to nudge the conversation towards the reasoning and evidence, and away from the conclusion – just like I would do in matters of science.

I see value in this approach not only because I’ve found that it tends to draw theists in to the conversation more than would otherwise be the case, but also because – especially among the many young unbelievers I talk to – I sometimes get the sense that some who call themselves “atheists” seem to fully understand the contingent, probabilistic nature of scientific beliefs, yet speak as if they can be more certain about the falsity of metaphysical beliefs. It’s this attitude that the idea of agnosticism serves as a corrective to, at least in my vocabulary.

Does atheism entail anti-discrimination?

No_discrimination_signI recently discovered Betteridge’s Law, which is a rather cool adage that states “any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no“. And that’s the point of view many of you might have with regard to the headline I chose for this blog post. You might say, atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s) – it entails no other propositions.

If we mean the strict logical sense of entail, i.e. that atheism necessarily leads to anti-sexism, anti-racism and so forth, you’re right. But you’re perhaps also evading a more important point, which is that if you’re an atheist who isn’t opposed to sexism, racism and so forth, the fact that you happen to be an atheist does little or nothing to combat the possibility that the viewpoints are at least in tension with each other, or even in direct opposition.

Two ideas don’t need to form a contradiction to be in opposition. And to my mind, atheism will (and, should) typically entail anti-sexism, anti-racism and so forth. And this is because prejudice of these forms is not only an manifestation of irrationality, but also more specifically a form of irrationality that is typically buttressed by moral codes that rank certain values or characteristics above others on largely arbitrary grounds.

Whether it be wearing a certain funny hat, belonging to a certain tribe, uttering certain sacred words, eating a particular food and not another – all of these are tokens that would normally be arbitrary, but are granted significance via a system of belief. They aren’t justified by evidence and reason, but rather become justified by the positive feedback loop of religious practice.

Without those forms of thinking, any idea that people with a certain level of melanin in their skin are superior or inferior to others, or that people with penises are better/worse than people without them, would struggle to get off the ground. We’d be far more inclined to say “that makes no sense – we’ve no reason to treat x worse than y”, because we’d have fewer psychological frameworks in place allowing for arbitrary discrimination.

So, while atheism might not necessarily lead to being anti-discrimination (of arbitrary sorts), I do think it’s not only compatible with anti-discrimination, but more than that – it’s more likely to lead to it than not. And for clarity, and to avoid needless argument, I am not making the claim that religion always, or necessarily, does lead to these forms of discrimination. I’m making the far more limited claim that it’s one way in which some people prop up their prejudices.

The sound and fury of sanctimony

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

imagesThe Easter holidays got me thinking – again – about what each of us could do to increase the odds of having a conversation on the Internet, thereby potentially changing our minds about something. In particular, changing our minds about how we perceive each other’s views on faith and religion. After all, changing our minds is what reading and writing should be about: discovering how we are wrong, rather than reinforcing to ourselves the ways in which we are right.

Easter brought these thoughts back because of the predictable squabbles that flared up between religious believers (well, Christians in this case) and those of us who don’t believe. Both of these groups can take themselves far too seriously: the non-religious through going out of their way to also be anti-religious, and the religious through taking offence at any slight, no matter how minor.

Some people did seem to go out of their way to be blasphemous, especially on Twitter, but jokes like the one that got me into brief trouble when I re-tweeted it (say Jesus backwards. Now say God backwards. Now say them together), or Barry Bateman’s quip about this being a day all about “caramel centered chocolate eggs” (which attracted a full day of judgement) are surely of the sort that can (and should) simply be laughed off as a difference of opinion.

Most of the time, a commitment to secular values would allow for both “sides” to leave each other alone, because their actions and beliefs, kept private, have no impact on others. But for both of these groups, the nuances of how (and why) people believe or disbelieve can get lost in convenient caricatures. In fact, sometimes even the truth is hostage to the will to (dis)believe. Two brief examples aren’t conclusive, but hopefully serve to make the point.

On the Christian side, the Church of England did themselves no favours through being caught out in what appears to be a blatant lie. In the run-up to Easter, they released the results of a poll indicating that 4 out of 5 people believe in the power of prayer – and gratifyingly for them, that belief in the power of prayer seemed to be on the rise in the youth.

The only problem is that the poll shows nothing of the sort. The 4 out of 5 figure is derived from the fact that when asked the question “Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, what would it be for?”, 80% of people gave a response instead of saying “I don’t know” or “I would never pray for anything”.

The desire to have a good-news story about the church, especially in the run-up to Easter, is understandable. And in light of 2011’s Dawkins’ foundation research indicating that fewer people seem to believe in the power of prayer than ever, this particular good-news story would no doubt be particularly welcome. But when your brand is built on virtue, and is in competition with others that claim you’re simply making stuff up, it does no good to make stuff up.

On the atheist side, I’m rather grateful to the majority of religious folk who are either disinterested enough or kind enough to not make more of an issue out of the continued civil wars around the role of social justice causes inside atheism, in particular the widespread allegations of misogyny. Instead, the focus continues to be on some of the more prominent voices for non-belief, and in particular, Dawkins himself.

And he seldom fails to disappoint those looking for a soundbite purportedly demonstrating the tone-deafness and hostility of atheists. While I do think most of the examples chosen to make this case are cherry-picked or misinterpreted, it remains true that doing our own cherry-picking or misinterpretation in response is no evidence of virtue.

Furthermore, he really does put his foot in it sometimes, like last week when he told his 660 000 Twitter followers:

He’s right on the logic, sure – but it would have been easy to be right while simultaneously not being maximally offensive.

I’ve addressed questions of strategy before, for example in relation to someone who does actually try to be the lightning-rod that Dawkins is perceived as being – David Silverman of American Atheists. While I haven’t changed my mind that we need people like him to expand the polarities of the debate, and perhaps to stretch the middle-ground for more moderate strategies, they do sometimes make the PR job difficult for those of us who think of religious people as mostly harmless, most of the time.

Likewise, the overly sanctimonious believers who seem to have sacrificed their sense of humour do the majority of believers no favours. Nor, of course, do those who argue against equal rights for gay couples or availability of contraceptives; or those who condone (through inaction, at least) child abuse or the stoning of adulterers and rape victims.

In short, there are all sorts of obstacles to being understood and to having a dialogue. Eliminating some of these require getting our own houses in order, rather than looking outward. But when we do look outward, let’s try to look at what’s in front of us, rather than being distracted by the convenient fiction of the stereotype.

“New atheists”, stridency and fundamentalism

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

During the Easter period we had the usual opportunity to read and hear plenty of content on religion and atheism, including ongoing debate around “New atheists” and their alleged stridency or militancy. But regardless of how particular individuals in this debate might choose to engage, we shouldn’t forget that it’s not automatically strident or militant to assert a point of view, no matter how much any participant might disagree with the view being expressed. More importantly, we shouldn’t forget that tone has absolutely nothing to do with the truth or falsity of what is being said.

Yes, atheists can be dogmatic. Anyone can be dogmatic, but while Catholics (for example) have little choice but to consider the Pope as at least broadly representative of their world-view, atheists have no obligation to fall into line behind a Dawkins or anybody else. One key advantage of an evidence-based worldview is that you can be persuaded by good arguments, and not persuaded by weak ones, regardless of who makes those arguments.

This isn’t to say that some atheists aren’t fundamentalist, nor that some aren’t uncritical disciples of some bestselling celebrity atheist. Both sides of these culture wars make the mistake of over-generalising, and both sides make the mistake of being unwilling to pick and choose between various potential points of view, based on the quality of the arguments for those points of view.

As I’ve argued previously, there are better and worse ways to encourage reflection on these issues – one way that certainly seems unhelpful to me is to caricature a point of view into labels such as “Islamophobic”, or to lump an incredibly disparate group of people together into a collective of “New atheists”. Some atheists are frequent offenders in this regard in asserting that “Muslims” or “Christians” believe one thing or another.

We should all stop doing this, but it might sometimes be slightly more difficult than atheists like to think it is. If you start from a position of thinking that a naturalistic worldview (in other words, one that can’t accommodate at least gods or souls, but often – and certainly for me – even things like free will) is our best guide to the truth, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you have an epistemological advantage over others, more generally.

Atheists can be fundamentalists, not only in their atheism, but also on other emotive topics like climate change or fracking. They might also be fundamentalist in their blanket rejection of any possible good coming out of religion, which can lead them to be hostile and demeaning towards people who don’t share their views.

But fundamentalist atheists typically only cause offence and irritation, while fundamentalist religious folk have been known to cause significantly worse outcomes – although these are becoming increasingly rare, at least outside of theocracies. (Lest someone feel inclined to yell out “Hitler” here, let the man speak for himself: “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter.”)

The Kim’s of North Korea are themselves gods, so their misdeeds clearly can’t count as evidence of evil atheism. Stalin was a fanatical Marxist, possibly a psychopath, and while he was certainly strongly opposed to religion, his potential atheism hardly seems the most plausible explanation for his atrocities. One could problematise any such example, and just as atheists shouldn’t cite the Reverend Fred Phelps as representative of Christians, Christians shouldn’t think of these murderous dictators as representative of atheism. Fanaticism, not only belief, kills – and the only question of importance is whether one type of belief (broadly metaphysical) is more likely to lead to fanaticism than the other (broadly naturalistic).

Of those readers that are Christian, few – hopefully none – will read the Bible as a literally true handbook on science, history or morality. Instead, it’s a sounding board for debate against the backdrop of a commitment to a certain sort of life, exemplified in the figure of the Biblical Jesus. That this is a better route to peace, economic equality and so forth than a fundamentalist reading of any religious text goes without saying, and critics of religion who don’t recognise this are certainly not playing fair.

But that this route is better doesn’t mean it’s the best route, and this is the point that is often emphasised by more sympathetic critics of religion. If we were to imagine starting afresh, disregarding the centuries of privilege that religious viewpoints have enjoyed, we’d arrive at a different understanding of religion.

When faced with the choice between centuries-old texts that includes a bunch of weird injunctions, bad science and so forth, but which also contains passages that are inspirational, we’d be far less inclined to take them seriously today if they were not so embedded in our cultures. They might well continue to serve a powerful role in our lives, but they wouldn’t lead to wars or to children dying while having demons cast out of them.

There are of course also more recent books that can serve the purpose of inspiration or guidance without including false or outdated claims, capable of interpretations that allow for misery. And while it’s true that many, perhaps even most, religious believers don’t reach for those interpretations, others do find them plausible – and it’s this ongoing possibility that is at issue for many atheists, particularly of the non-fundamentalist sort.

The believers of the type highlighted by the recent Dawkins survey are of little concern to me, because they aren’t the sort to bomb abortion clinics or fly planes into buildings. But those who are inclined to do such things could count the moderate believers as being among their number (even while recognising their relative lack of commitment), and that larger number is the one generally cited in censuses or when a politician says that we are a “Christian” country.

As I often remark to my religious friends, if they were more active in denouncing Errol Naidoo, Fred Phelps, or Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau (not equivalently evil people, of course), many atheists would be left with little to do – at least in the supposed “name” of atheism. The (majority) of religious believers share many of the goals that non-believers do, and I do think it an obstacle to these shared goals that stereotype and caricature are so prevalent in the language of both the faithful and the faithless.

Leaving aside these regular misrepresentations of religious believers, it nevertheless remains true that atheists have things to legitimately be angry about – and also that it’s sometimes difficult to express these concerns without appearing to be dogmatic and hostile. While concerns around winning a public-relations battle shouldn’t lead us to forget those things that motivate the anger, persuasion remains impossible unless people are willing to communicate.

I don’t believe that encouraging communication needs to (or should) entail things like Alain de Botton’s “Atheism 2.0”, but it at least needs to involve dealing with real people and their sincere beliefs instead of preconceived versions of these, designed for ridicule. But those sincere beliefs can be criticised, and doing so isn’t necessarily shrill, strident or militant. Labelling them as such can be a way of simply ignoring them, just as labelling a religious person as a superstitious fool can be a way of ruling them out of (a conception of) rational discourse.

We should all care about eliminating unfounded or dangerous beliefs, whether ours or our opponents’. At root, this is a key premise of naturalistic or atheist positions, and it’s indeed a pity that many who hold those positions sometimes appear as dogmatic as those they criticise. But how ideas are expressed only makes a difference to how they are received – not to their truth. All of us could sometimes do with a reminder of this, whether we celebrated Easter or just a few days off work.

Good without god

Over at Talking Philosophy, a post by Jeff Mason has generated a few interesting comments. The post itself is interesting (hence the comments, I suppose), but one comment (by Tom, a self-professed religious believer) is perhaps particularly interesting. Here’s an extract from the comment, followed by some general comments in response:

religion, particularly belief in a deity, is an incredibly useful concept the human mind uses to funnel its understanding of many issues into language which is not only powerfully symbolic, but also compact and economical. Finally, religion tightens the concept of duty due to the psychological implications (a la Pascal Boyer) of a personal god in relation to our intuitive psychology of each other. Continue reading “Good without god”