Editorial: The A Word
When it comes to being cultish and dogmatic, religion is still the brand leader
"Are Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens a good thing for humanism?” That was what we asked visitors to our website recently. And more than five thousand respondents gave an overwhelming thumbs up to this issue’s cover stars.
Seventy-eight per cent felt these two leading atheists were providing a much needed vigorous response to religion, 17 per cent chose the only slightly less enthusiastic answer that they enliven the debate, while a mere 3 per cent disliked their tone. Only 35 people thought they were bad for the humanist cause.
These results are hardly surprising, given the nature of those who use our site. But it was still revealing to canvass sympathisers on whether the trenchant rhetoric of the two recent books, The God Delusion and God is Not Great, was creating something of a backlash. And that’s the issue that philosopher Richard Norman takes up in our cover story.
What was perhaps more intriguing than the actual results were some of the comments we received about the poll. We were particularly struck by the vehemence of those who felt we had been out of line for daring to question the impact of Richard Dawkins (see the letters page), given that these are the very people who castigate religious believers for blind adherence to dogma.
So, to make sure that we don’t replace one creed with another, perhaps non-believers need to rethink their badges. America’s most prominent atheist, Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, mischievously proposed to the Atheist Alliance International Conference in Virginia recently that the terms “atheist”, “humanist” and “rationalist” should be dropped altogether. Such labels were unhelpful, he argued, when all that was needed was to attack bad arguments wherever they were found. In a response to an outburst from offended atheists Harris remarked that there is “something cult-like about the culture of atheism”.
But, as this issue demonstrates, religion is still far more cult-like and sinister. Reporting on her unique visit to India’s Darul Uloom Madrassa, Edna Fernandes looks at the growing power of the literalist Deobandi school of Islamic thought, the most powerful stream within British Islam. Deobandi Islam insists on rigid adherence to the word of the Koran: the “gates of ijtihad”, or independent reasoning, are forever closed tight.
Stephen Bates offers another insight into dogmatism this issue where he explains why the vicious in-fighting and petty piety of even that most woolly outfit, the Church of England, has led him to quit his role as religious affairs correspondent of the Guardian. Completing our world tour of closed-mindedness Ebenezer Obadare reports on the rise of religious zealotry in Nigeria.
For an antidote to the kind of narrow-minded certainties peddled by the muftis, clerics and Pentecostals read humanist philosopher Tzvetan Todorov’s powerful and subtle reflections on the issue of cartoons, offence and respect. And if this doesn’t help you could always turn to Laurie Taylor’s Endgame for guidance in the art of blowing your top.