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.


Peter Higgs on the “fundamentalism” of Richard Dawkins

Originally published on SkepticInk.

Don't try this one: Professor Peter Higgs with a description of the Higgs model.Alok Jha, a science correspondent at The Guardian, has a column in which he reports that celebrated theoretical physicist Peter Higgs agrees with those who find Dawkins’ approach to criticising religion “embarrassing”. But in what should be embarrassing to a publication of The Guardian‘s reputation, Jha seems to simply swallow the fake controversy generated by the Daily Mail in the course of describing Higgs’ views.

Jha refers to the recent Al Jazeera interview with Dawkins, in which he’s (again) asked to clarify his remarks on the relative harms to children of sexual abuse versus the mental trauma of being led to believe in hell, eternal damnation and all that stuff. Well, Dawkins has posted the relevant extract from The God Delusion on his website, and anyone interested in the facts of the matter (rather than merely supporting their prejudices), can confirm that he uses an example to make the case that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical” abuse.

Now you might think even this insensitive or overstated. But it’s simply not true that he ever claimed that being taught about hell was always worse than all child abuse. As is often the case for all of us, he could have been clearer about what he meant and didn’t mean. At a time when the principle of charity seems forbidden to us, he probably should have been. But Jha demonstrates his prejudice in simply reporting the child abuse canard as fact in this column, and it’s thus little surprise to me that he doesn’t seem to bother to enquire as to whether Higgs backs his “fundamentalism” charge up with any evidence.

Higgs is quoted as saying:

What Dawkins does too often is to concentrate his attack on fundamentalists. But there are many believers who are just not fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is another problem. I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.

In what way, and of what sort of kind? We aren’t told, but I imagine that this is simply an instance of the propaganda campaign against so-called new atheism having met with another success. The claim that Dawkins is strident, shrill and so forth has become axiomatic through simple repetition, with few people bothering to make the distinction between “being discomfited by robust challenge” on the one hand and “those strident new atheists” on the other.

I do sometimes find the direct and robust challenge, as favoured by Dawkins, to sometimes be less effective than other approaches. As I argued in my review of Chris Stedman’s Faitheist, my preference is for the more subtle approach. But this doesn’t mean that Dawkins is doing anything wrong in being more assertive with his criticism of religion – and it certainly doesn’t make him a fundamentalist for doing so.

What Higgs gets right in the quote above is that those of us who criticise religion should be careful not to confuse the typical believer with fundamentalists. As Dawkins’ own research shows, the typical believer is nothing like a fundamentalist – in fact, she isn’t even much of a believer. But, until these believers who are not fundamentalists actually raise their voices to start saying “not in my name” to the nutjobs like Fred Phelps, can we really blame a Dawkins or whomever for stepping in to say what needs to be said?

Daily Maverick Politics Religion

“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.