I’ve often wondered why atheists, even liberal ones, often attack “militant” atheism while completely ignoring the perfidies of religion. After all, it’s not like atheism threatens the well-being of the world, nor do atheists kill people or tell them what to eat, how and when to have sex, or threaten others with damnation in the afterlife.
Nevertheless, there is in some quarters of liberal journalism—and I’m thinking of the Guardian and the New York Times—a tendency to go after atheists as being like religious fundamentalists, and to ignore the perils of Islam or Catholicism—even accusing critics of the former as “Islamophobes.” At the Guardian, Andrew Brown is, of course, one of these “atheist butters” who seems to have little to do beyond slinging mud at people like Richard Dawkins while ISIS cuts the heads off his fellow journalists.
But it’s all good today, because Nick Cohen, writing in the Guardian, has produced a wonderful riposte to the “atheists and militant and fundamentalist” crowd, an essay called “The phantom menace of militant atheism.” It’s extremely well written and full of bon mots. Although I and others have made some of his points before, they’ve never been combined in such an engaging piece. (Thanks to the several readers who sent me the link.)
Allow me to quote just a few bits of his piece. Here’s the beginning:
My family went into central London last week. After they’d gone, I found myself checking the web for reports of bomb blasts. Absurd and paranoid of me, of course. Rationally, I know that a motorist is more likely to kill you than a terrorist. Ever since Iraq, I have also known that the intelligence services’ “threats” can be imaginary. But I know this, too, and so does everyone else: if a bomb explodes, no one will think that a “militant atheist” has attacked his or her country. No one will mutter: “I wonder if someone has taken this god delusion argument too far.” Or: “Atheists should have known that violent words lead to violent deeds.”
The police don’t send undercover agents into sceptic societies and parliament doesn’t pass emergency laws to combat atheist violence. Fanatics threaten European Muslims if they abandon their faith but no atheist will attack them if they keep it. No one thinks that atheists threaten the lives of their fellow citizens anywhere in the west.
And yet across what passes for the intelligentsia, moral equivalence holds sway. There is militant religion on one side and militant atheism on the other. We’ve no obligation to make a choice between them. Indeed, we should devote our energies to attacking atheism rather than religion.
And this (be sure to click the link):
An intellectual climate, which is so pervasive that you can be forgiven for not noticing its strangeness, reinforces the persecution complex. Across left and right, in the BBC, academia and the supposedly serious press, atheism and “aggressive secularism” are attacked as a matter of course. When they are at their crudest, intellectuals (and I am using that term crudely too) uphold moral equivalence by claiming that atheists and humanists mirror the behaviour of religious believers. As atheists have nothing in common beyond an inability to believe in a god or an assortment of gods, the argument comes down to a critique of the minority of atheists who decided that, what with 9/11, Hindu nationalism and genuinely militant strains of Christianity and Judaism, the times required us to dispense with politeness.
The occasional dogmatism that followed apparently makes atheism “like a religion”. It’s not a charge I’d throw around if I were seeking to defend faith. When people say of dozens of political and cultural movements from monetarism to Marxism that their followers treat their cause “like a religion”, they never mean it as a compliment. They mean that dumb obedience to higher authority and an obstinate attachment to dogma mark its adherents.
Andrew Brown isn’t going to like that link! Fortunately, the Albatross also contains a bit about the irony of religionists or faitheists saying that science is just like a religion, since it supposedly depends on faith.
And I like this response to those who say that atheists (or countries that are largely atheistic, like Sweden) are only moral because of their “Christian heritage”:
Meanwhile, I’m losing count of and patience with the apologists who tell me there would be no morality without religion. The failure of the serious press and BBC to question this is as shocking as it is depressing. We are almost 150 years on from the moment in 1867 when Matthew Arnold heard the sea of faith’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” on Dover Beach. Are religious writers suggesting mid-Victorian Britain was a more moral country in its treatment of women, homosexuals and the poor?
Few dare maintain that immorality has increased as religious observance has collapsed. Instead, they say that everyone’s morality, whether they are religious or not, is rooted in our common Christian culture, or our common Judaeo-Christian culture or, as an opponent in debate told me last year, our common Judaeo-Christian-Islamic culture. Forget if you can that there is much in religious culture that is immoral, not least a willingness to slaughter each other, and consider that if everyone is religious then no one is religious; religion is emptied of meaning and just becomes a vague cultural inheritance, like driving on the left or letting off fireworks on bonfire night.
Now that is good writing, and makes the point very clearly.
Oh hell, I’ll quote the rest (I haven’t quoted it all), as Cohen goes after what reader Sastra calls the “little people argument”:
The bad faith of religious apologists is best seen in their theological emptiness. Scour their writings and you’ll be hard pressed to find the one honest argument true believers from earlier ages would have recognised: you must reject atheism to save your soul. In my experience of intellectual London, those who shout loudest against militant atheism do not believe themselves. Faith isn’t for our sort. We need it to discipline the lower orders and keep the natives happy.
Since 9/11, western intellectuals have had a choice. They could have taken on militant religion, exposed its texts, decried its doctrines and found arguments to persuade young British men not to go to Syria and slaughter “heretics”. But religious fanatics might have retaliated. Instead, they chose the safe option of attacking the phantom menace of militant atheists, who would never harm them. Leaving all philosophical and moral objections aside, they have been the most awful cowards.
I think he’s talking about you, Andrew Brown. . .
I wish I had written this piece. It’s almost Orwellian in its straightforwardness and clarity.