This is a response to Tom Chivers' contribution to our debate "Is it time to move on from New Atheism?" Read further responses from Alom Shaha and Ariane Sherine.

Among those at the vanguard of the backlash against the New Atheists are many lefty liberals and establishment academics, a fact that I have always found perplexing. The allegedly “strident” assertions of the likes of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens have evoked rather prickly reactions among self-styled British “liberals”. Many establishment intellectuals bristle at any display of confidence or, dare I say, courage on moral issues, whether it is Michael Moore’s argumentative documentaries or Richard Dawkins’s lectures on the virtues of empirical evidence. The prevailing cultural climate is one in which some spineless relativistic brand of “tolerance” that is indiscriminate with respect to the contents of expression, belief and opinion is preferred to taking a stand. Under the cultural guardianship of the establishment media, “tolerance” becomes a mechanism to protect false words and wrong deeds that contradict the possibilities of liberation, reason, justice and equality for all.

As Herbert Marcuse explained in his 1965 essay Repressive Tolerance, the conditions of tolerance are “loaded”: they are determined and defined by the institutionalised inequality. These background limitations of tolerance are of two kinds: (1) the passive toleration of entrenched and established attitudes and ideas even if their damaging effect on people and nature is evident; and (2) the active, official tolerance granted to the Right as well as to the Left, to movements of aggression as well as to movements of peace, to the party of hate as well as that of humanity. This kind of abstract, non-partisan tolerance refrains from taking sides – but in so doing it actually protects the already established machinery of discrimination. It protects and preserves the status quo, or what JS Mill called the “tyranny of the majority”.

Mill would be rolling in his grave to see what tolerance has become in modern Britain. Today’s ersatz “tolerance” is little more than moral relativism gone mad. It eradicates the kind of free expression JS Mill (a true liberal) intended when he wrote On Liberty in 1859. For Mill, we should allow “the collision of adverse opinions” precisely because “the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth.” This clash of diverse opinion would, he thought, ensure “that the remainder of the truth” has a chance of being supplied.

It seems that the critics of New Atheism make no consistent distinction between certainty and the truth. The New Atheists have never pretended that their confidence that some opinion is false justifies suppressing the expression of that view, as this would imply not only that they are confident of being right, but that they are infallible. Dawkins, Dennett and their ilk have painstakingly explained why falsification is the very foundation of inductive science, and why empirical claims are by their very nature tentative and incomplete. The New Atheists dare to exude confidence because they have, unlike their religious opponents, allowed their ideas to be tested against evidence and the merits of alternative viewpoints. Mill felt there was nothing wrong with certainty. But if we have it, it must and can only rest on freedom of expression itself. To develop and defend our points of view, to correct our opinions and weigh their value, we need free discussion.

In the case of “tolerance” towards Islamism, lefty anti-racists think they are protecting a victimised minority, which is a genuinely liberal value. But tolerance was never intended to foreclose all criticism, debate, satire and “offence” against religious ideologies. These forms of expression provide the guarantee that a nuanced debate – indeed any debate – can really take place. A tolerant society rightly prohibits the actual suppression by others of some people’s fundamental right to self-determination. It also prohibits physical assault and violent attacks that limit the freedom of individuals to pursue their own values. Islam is not an ethnicity. By granting it exclusive protection from the standards of scrutiny (and indeed ridicule) that other ideas and beliefs (e.g. feminism) are subjected to in a liberal democracy, anti-racist “liberals” just support the oppression of other vulnerable social groups. Their tolerance merely maintains the patriarchal status quo and does nothing to aid progress for women, for Muslim moderates, Muslim homosexuals or Muslim apostates. These liberals may describe their silence in the face of Islamism as “having a more nuanced debate”. I would describe it as preventing having one at all and choosing instead to exhibit cowardly passivity.

This is a response to Tom Chivers' contribution to our debate "Is it time to move on from New Atheism?" Read further responses from Alom Shaha and Ariane Sherine.