Thursday, February 16, 2012

I am fed up with being preached at by atheists

My religious position is clear enough: I am a High Church atheist. I like church music and church architecture, but that doesn’t mean God exists. You could say I was Anglican by temperament but not by belief.

I had many good friends when I was doing my first degree, but in those days I was something of a professional atheist. I saw it as part of my job as a Philosophy student. In particular, I found the arguments of the Christian Union (CU) simplistic and its habit of appealing to the emotions of lonely or immature young people unattractive. Interestingly, in view of what follows, my impression is that the majority of keen CU types were studying science subjects.

Over the years, though I find the Evangelical style of Christianity that the CU represented distasteful to this day, I have lost my enthusiasm for arguing with religious people. As you get older you come to realise that we all live by beliefs that we cannot possibly prove – in politics quite as much as religion.

And even when I was at university and sending for humanist publications, I resented the idea that if you were an atheist then you automatically embraced a whole range of predetermined positions on social issues – what you might call today ‘the full Evan Harris’. Then and now I had more doubts about the morality of abortion than are fashionable amongst Liberal atheists, though today I am a stronger support of assisted dying than I used to be.

Times moves on and I find the modern proselytising atheist movement unattractive – unattractive in the way that I used to find the CU unattractive, and often for the same reasons.

The version of atheism that attracted me as a student had Bertrand Russell and David Hume as its leading figure and it shared its best qualities: it was wise, witty and sceptical. This philosophical atheism gently but firmly pointed out that Christians were making claims about the universe that they could not begin to prove.
Russell was certainly an atheist, whereas Hume probably believed that there was a deity of some sort, but that there was little we could sensibly say about him. This philosophical form of atheism, you will see, was a broad church.

Today’s atheism is different. It does not deal in scepticism but in certainties.

I do not underestimate the brilliance of Darwin: everyone should read The Origin of Species, if only for the quality of the prose. Why isn’t scientific writing like that now? I suggest it is because of the emphasis on ‘publication’: papers are written to be published, not read.

And Darwin was a wonderful liberator of human thinking. If you read William Cobbett, an intelligent but not conventionally academic writer from the early 19th century, you will see that he cannot make sense of nature without God. (I remember using a quotation from Rural Rides in an essay on miracles to make just this point. Some linguistic philosophers would see the cry “it’s a miracle”” as an expression of joy but to Cobbett – I was rather proud of this phrase – it was an explanation, not an exclamation.) But after Darwin we could explain nature without God. The world looked different.

Yet somewhere this modern scientific atheism has hardened into a dogma. Just take a look at Twitter, where the stars of the movement spend their time mocking those who do not share their views and their acolytes send them links giving new names to laugh at. It does feel remarkably like a religious movement.
Such an approach does not accord with the view of science I learnt from the works of Karl Popper, where what characterises it is precisely a willingness to see its hypotheses refuted. The modern atheist does not entertain the possibility that he or she may be wrong.

Take the recent court case involving prayers before meetings of Bideford town council. Our modern atheists have rejoiced over this: to me it looks like an unreasonable demand that everyone else must share their views.

The strongest argument against prayers at such meetings is that they may discourage people from standing for the council in the first place. But I am not convinced.

I became a member of Harborough District Council at the age of 26 and a year later found myself part of a sizeable Liberal Alliance group with two member who were younger than I was.

Not surprisingly, we found many of the council’s ways of doing things stuffy and old fashioned. Some we tried to change (successfully or not), some we put up with, some we ignored and some we came to see the wisdom of.

In all of this, the existence of prayers at the start of full council meetings was the least of our concerns. But if they had worried us we would have sought to change things in Harborough, not looked for outside help to fight a court case in London.

And that is at the heart of my distaste for modern atheism. My Liberalism is sceptical and thus is happy to tolerate local difference: philosophical atheism could live with that, but I am not sure this new scientific atheism can.


Anonymous said...

I could leave a long rambling comment here, but this YouTube does it so much better.

Jonathan Calder said...

I am sure you could leave a long rambling comment here. The question is: could you leave a short, well-reasoned one?

Niles said...

"it was an explanation, not an explanation."

Has this lost something between memory and fingers?

Jennie Rigg said...

Nobody objects to Christian councillors praying; what the objection was to was that the atheist councillor was being forced to attend prayers or be marked as late. I question just who is forcing whom to conform in this scenario, and gently posit it is not the atheist. I would also gently remind you that the freedom from conformity enshrined in our constitution is freedom from religious conformity.

Manfarang said...

"This philosophical form of atheism, you will see, was a broad church."
Does atheism exist? I think Freddie Ayer in his Language, Truth and Logic said it didn't.
It is something purely negative so how can it be a belief system. There can be no such thing as scientific atheism.

Manfarang said...

Yes the Free Churches.
Lets not forget disestablishment.The Church of England does NOT speak for us all.

Frank Little said...

Darwin may have lost faith in Christianity, but it appears that he was not an atheist.

Simon Titley said...

I am puzzled by this rant. For a start, just who are these atheists preaching certainties? You neither name one nor quote one, so you seem to be assaulting a straw man.

Atheism is non-belief, not a comprehensive worldview, so it is hard to see how one can be dogmatic about it beyond the very simple proposition that there is probably no god. Which is why I thought Alain de Botton’s recent idea of temples for atheists rather ridiculous – not aggressive or dogmatic, just ridiculous.

It is true that atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens have achieved a higher public profile lately. But this is an inevitable reaction to the increasing attempts by religious interests to force their beliefs on the rest of the society – whether it is, say, demands for censorship of plays and TV programmes, the spread of faith schools (in particular, parents being told they must attend church if they want a place at a school funded by the taxpayer), or attempts to teach creationism in schools. It is right and proper to resist such religious aggression. I see no justification for pillorying atheists who stand up to this aggression.

Increasingly aggressive moves by religious interests can be traced to the fact that religion is dying on its arse in Britain – not due to the activities of atheists, but to more fundamental social changes.

Regarding the Bideford case, see my post on Lib Dem Voice here:

The principle of secularism is of fundamental importance to democracy, which is well argued here:

So if there’s a threat to liberalism here, it comes from those who threaten secular values, not atheists. You’ve aimed at the wrong target.

Phil Banting said...

Coming from the Christian side of the fence, I share your dislike of pre-packaged morality. In debates about social and scientific issues I often find myself agreeing more with the secularists than the "believers".

It's the fundamentalists (on either side) who are the problem. But then, I am a Liberal!

Jonathan Calder said...

Thanks for the comments.

And thanks for spotting the error, Alex, which is now corrected. The moral is that you are more likely to mistype when you think you are being clever.

Ellen said...

Isn't that the thing that as one gets older the shades of gray just get grayer? Or at least that's how I find it.
I love the notion of High Church athiesm, which also seems to allow the idea of a religion-shaped hole in the human psyche and a need for a cheery explanation of Things.
I agree that the atheists are hard to stomach, particularly those who suggest any form of religious belief is akin to a mental disorder.

Simon Titley said...

@Ellen - You come across as all tolerant, then spoil it with "atheists are hard to stomach".

Tristan said...

I find myself agreeing with much of this. I find the evangelical atheists as distasteful as evangelicals of any religion.

I will admit to occasionally arguing religion, but only with those who start it first. More often I find myself arguing against those who use religion to back their illiberal and authoritarian (and often inhumane) beliefs. At those times however I will find myself on the same side as religious people.

In the case of prayers before council meetings, it is as a secularist that I object to them. If some people wish to pray then fine, but to make it a mandatory part of the meeting is wrong.

Tristan said...


You don't need to be an atheist to be a secularist. The idea of a secular state was born out of the pursuit of religious freedom.

mattburrows said...

I agree with this piece. :) I am on the secular side of the fence but I am worried about they way some approach it.
I like particularly ‘the full Evan Harris’. :)) Sounds like a deluxe veggie burger.

Kimpatsu said...

Take the recent court case involving prayers before meetings of Bideford town council.
That must be some other court case, then, because the one brought by the NSS on behalf of councillor Clive Bone is to stop the saying of prayers AS PART OF the meeting. You know, forcing people to worship a god in which they do not believe. There's a word for that: theocracy. You might want to look it up, or go live in Iran, or something.
Alternatively, you could just check for facts before you start writing nonsense...

Anonymous said...

You know what? I don't think that you're any better than those atheists you complained about. How dare you try and refute claims about God's existence? What are you, shallow? It seems that you can't seem to get past physical sense.

If you don't believe in God, then why not keep it to yourself? All people have every right to believe in God just as they have the right not to.

But don't you dare try and force your beliefs on others who don't share them. If you do, then you're just as bad as the atheists who you complained about.