Editorial: Start making sense
Do you get the feeling that you're constantly swamped by religion? Are you worried that the humanist, rationalist or secularist world view is losing out to zealotry? Is reason on the back foot?
Well, I'm not buying it. Recently practically every strand of humanist rationalist thought – from hard-line atheism, to the historicising of religious belief, to sceptical exploration – has been exceptionally well represented in the British mass media.
In the past six months we've had Jonathan Miller's Brief History of Disbelief on BBC 2, David Aaronovitch on the political power of the church, and Richard Dawkins's unambiguously-titled analysis of faith, The Root of All Evil. And our own commissioning editor Laurie Taylor has a new TV programme coming up this summer on millenarian cults (see page 16 for a sneak preview).
Meanwhile, leading secularist journalists like Nick Cohen, Polly Toynbee and Muriel Grey continue to provide vigorous and passionate commentary. And so many new books this year are devoted to the defence of the rational that they might even turn into a cult to rival The Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter.
Two recent books, Daniel Dennett's Breaking The Spell, and Lewis Wolpert's Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, are both attempts to demystify belief, and explain faith in terms of evolution. Each has been widely discussed and reviewed. (You can find Lewis Wolpert on page 36, assessing the work of another eclectic evolutionist, Stephen Jay Gould). Reason has not been defeated.
New Humanist is, of course, a beacon for spreading reason and scepticism, and has common cause with many of these thinkers. Our collective efforts have helped to focus public attention on issues like the rise of fundamentalism, the dangers of legislation on religious hatred and the importance of the Enlightenment legacy.
But it's just as pertinent for us to air controversies among progressive and rationalist thinkers. One of the deepest differences currently centres around the question of 'memes', the evolutionists' attempt to give a Darwinian account of culture. In this issue (page 22) Britain's leading memeticist, Susan Blackmore, debates the value of this notion with anthropologist Adam Kuper.
And just in case you thought that atheism is always rational – prepare for another shock. In our cover story, Meera Nanda uncovers a new strain of thought, exemplified by the celebrated American religion-debunker Sam Harris. He denounces belief in God – but endorses almost every other form of pseudo-scientific mysticism.
There can be no more robust antidote to sloppy thinking and fluffy fantasies than a good, long draught of utilitarianism. Join us, in the year of his 200th anniversary, to celebrate the hard-headed morality of John Stuart Mill, one of our greatest exponents of independent thinking.
And the whole point of freethought, expressed through these pages, is that it allows us to be part of the same movement as Mill and Darwin, Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, Sam Harris and Meera Nanda, even though we don't always agree. These internal debates are absolutely at the centre of what makes us different from those who think they've already made up their minds about everything.
You know it makes sense.