The Cliché That Won’t Die

I recently enjoyed the new Richard Dawkins series on Britain’s Channel 4, in which the scientist explores the world of alternative therapies – therapies which have few health benefits but are nevertheless funded by public money. Dawkins, of course, is known for his criticism of religious faith – not just religious states, wars, or terrorism, but the texts and the faith itself.

Here are some reactions to Dawkins’s viewpoint.

Dawkins is an unashamed proselytiser. (Madeleine Bunting)

What is arguably more interesting about Dawkins’s TV work is the sense in which his public advocacy of atheism is coming to look more and more like media-savvy forms of contemporary religion, particularly evangelicalism. (Gordon Lynch)

And yet, Dawkins is as reluctant as any evangelical fundamentalist to recognise the importance of an element of doubt, or doubt of doubt, in religious faith, or to accept that much of the content of religious faith is metaphorical, poetic and symbolic rather than factual in a scientific sense. (John Cornwell)

Do you recognise a pattern here? There is a dismissive consensus that, on occasion, slips into hysterical paranoia:

The militant atheists have a moral mission: to improve the world by working towards the eradication of religion. (Theo Hobson)

Fundamentalist atheists want to replace old religions with their own. To them all previous prophets were false. Their fervour makes them as blind and uncompromising as those following the religions they detest. (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown)

My personal favourite, though, has to be this from Tobias Jones:

There’s an aspiring totalitarianism in Britain which is brilliantly disguised. It’s disguised because the would-be dictators – and there are many of them – all pretend to be more tolerant than thou. They hide alongside the anti-racists, the anti-homophobes and anti-sexists. But what they are really against is something very different. They – call them secular fundamentalists – are anti-God, and what they really want is the eradication of religion, and all believers, from the face of the earth.

There have also been comparisons between science and religion, and declarations that the Enlightenment led to the gas chambers.

What to make of these writers (who appear in popular liberal newspapers and magazines) who say that critics of religious fundamentalism are no different from religious fundamentalists…just because they are quite passionate in their views? These pundits (shall we call them ‘anti-secular fundamentalism fundamentalists’?) are telling us, in essence, that people who are for free speech and human rights are the exact same as people who are against these things.

Zhou Fang, of Warwick University, summed up the ridiculousness of this argument:

Where are the atheist terrorists? What is this atheist hell that we think believers are going to be sent to? Where are the burning placards waved by atheist protesters?

This isn’t a true equivalence; it does discriminate. When people discuss religious fundamentalism and ‘atheist fundamentalism’ it is always the secular fundamentalist that comes off worst. It is always the critics of religion, not its followers, who have the explaining to do.

And that makes a kind of sense. If you write something bad about Christopher Hitchens, he may be annoyed but he won’t actually kill you. Write something critical of Islam (or Christianity or Hinduism) and there is a good chance that you may be attacked, threatened, your name and details put on some Redwatch equivalent somewhere. Atheism is a safe target.

Another reason is the left’s changing attitude to religious faith in general. In classical Marxist theory, faith was both a comfort to the oppressed and an illusion that had to fall before true happiness could be obtained. Now, faith is seen as a more spiritual alternative to our decadent consumerist society. Hence, dissidents of Muslim background such as Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are slandered as neocons and Uncle Toms for criticising Islam.

The moral equivalence betrays a lack of knowledge, a lack of empathy and a lack of imagination. It is intellectually lazy (because it can’t be bothered to look into its two comparators and find out the difference) and intellectual cowardice (because it doesn’t have the courage to recognise what is worth fighting for, and to make a commitment to fighting for it). It’s also a legacy of free market culture. Nothing good in the shop? Just walk out.

People who conflate religious fundamentalists with secular liberals often make great play of their open-mindedness. To which I’d say: fair enough. But having an open mind is not enough; it has to be allied with a sense of judgement and discrimination. Without that, it leads to a moronic acquiescence with any and every nonsensical fringe idea – I’ve heard the open-mind defence being used to justify support for 9/11 denial, for the Illuminatus conspiracies and the Bible Code. Being open-minded is not about passively accepting every half-arsed theory that floats into your head. It is about questions and debate and criticism.

George Orwell, in 1942, was attacked by three pacifist writers who felt that there wasn’t much to choose from between democracy and fascism. ‘Orwell dislikes French intellectuals licking up Hitler’s crumbs,’ said D S Savage, ‘but what’s the difference between them and our intellectuals who are licking up Churchill’s?’ When Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, he made equivalence a large part of Party propaganda. The slogans went: war is peace, and freedom is slavery, and black is white. Now apologists for religion are using the same type of rhetoric, taken to similarly stupid extremes – claiming that reason is madness, that love is hate, that life is death.

Posted October 19 2007

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