Editorial: I respect your ignorance
Humanists are not dogmatists obsessed with belief, says Caspar Melville
“Dogmatic”. “Evangelical”. “Fundamentalist”. It’s suddenly become fashionable to use adjectives like these to describe atheists and secularists. Equating us with religious fanatics seems to be the new stance of a particular breed of liberal intellectual who would like to imagine that they can stand above the fray and, wryly, adjudicate.
Typical of the new “reasonable” approach is a recent feature in the Guardian by Stuart Jeffries (G2, February 26) which claims that there is a vicious and uncompromising battle going on between two equally intolerant clans, “shrill camps shouting unedifyingly at each other”– the believers and the faithless. The core thesis is that rather than accepting the beliefs of others, secularists have become hysterical in their quest to “airbrush” religion from public debate.
The evidence for this claim is increasingly routine and shopworn. Jeffries quotes without challenge the preposterous assertion from Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark, that “atheists like Richard Dawkins are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube.” Jeffries also criticises both Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens for their “aggressive” attitude to believers, which, he argues, demonstrates that science has become just another faith. His piece concludes with an endorsement of the much-touted idea of a public sphere composed of groups “respectful of each other’s most cherished beliefs”. Or none, though this tends to be hastily added as an afterthought.
Jeffries is quite right to point out that these days secularists seem exasperated. But who can blame us when the case against unaccountable and undemocratic religious privilege is so misrepresented by articles like his? Nowhere, for example, does he make the point that while both Dawkins and Hitchens are polemicists whose aim is to challenge, stimulate and infuriate they do also make strong and serious arguments which should be engaged at the level of logic and reason. Are they wrong? If they are, where are the counter-arguments beyond calling them names, or equating them with book-burners and murderers? When Laurie Taylor interviewed Richard Dawkins for our last issue (January/February, 2007) he pressed him on several points where he felt the argument was weak, as well as finding much to agree with. And it is just this kind of critical engagement with ideas that is such a vital part of being a freethinker.
Underlying so much recent commentary on secularism is the false notion that secularists and atheists are driven solely by a blind conviction that God doesn’t exist. They are, we are told, obsessed with belief. This issue of New Humanist provides plenty of counter evidence, both local and global.
Uncovering the scandal of the Government’s City Academy project, for example, Francis Beckett has found that these academies provide a cheap backdoor route for religious interests to regain the influence they once had on education. In some cases creationism is finding its way on to the curriculum. His research suggests just how much faith we should have in the neutrality of the present government when it comes to religious special interests.
Our cover story (page 12) deals with the attempt by Angela Merkel and Pope Benedict to redefine Europe as Christian. Secularists find this unsettling not because they hate God but because, as Donald Sassoon makes clear, the current secular settlement is a hard-won, recent phenomenon, and one we should not easily let go.
A criticism frequently made against “hardliners” like Dawkins is that they criticise religion from a position of ignorance. The same argument could not be made against the American secularists featured in this issue. Chris Hedges, who reports from the soon-to-open creationist museum in Kentucky on page 24, is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a Christian. It is precisely because of the thwarting of science and distortion of truth being done in the name of Christianity that he is so appalled by the growing power of politicised religion. For him, the crucial point is that American Evangelicalism has now made it an explicit goal to acquire political power.
A similar fear motivates the young web-savvy collective behind the Rational Response Squad interviewed on page 22. This group, all brought up in religious households, have had huge success in gathering members and responses to their “Blasphemy Challenge”. Rather like the vast sales of Dawkins’ book, the response suggests that there is a growing appetite for such views. It is worth remembering that America is a country without any national politician who will define themselves as non-religious; a country where, according to a recent survey, an atheist ranks below a member of every single religious group, as well as blacks and homosexuals, as someone who can be trusted to hold public office.
Finally, Laurie Taylor’s reflections on the “reality slips” (page 16) that occur even to the most rationalist of minds should be a refreshing rejoinder to all those curmudgeonly religious apologists who like to caricature us as drab and soulless, without any sense of the sacred.
The idea that a rich spiritual life relies on allegiance to a particular religious creed is another bit of common-currency ignorance we are only too happy to jettison. ■