Posts Tagged ‘new atheism’

Bourgeois atheism redux

July 25, 2010

A constant, and thoroughly unoriginal, theme in my take on the new atheism is that it has an ideological role, deflecting concern from real social conflicts. My last post said something along these lines against the background of the commentariat’s tantrums over the papal visit. Much the same thing could be said about the urge on the part of a section of liberal Britain to tell Muslim women what they can, or can’t, wear in public. Without a hint of irony, by the way, this latest advocacy of the state forcibly undressing women, is in the name of womens’ liberation**.

The best example of the phenomenon I have seen for some time, however, is courtesy of the clever-than-thou blogosphere. The ‘Atheist Missionary‘ (“atheists don’t proselytize”) finally asks the question which has been on everybody’s lips for ages – why are atheists smarter than theists? S/he writes:

I am sure that most readers will be aware of the remarkable difference in incarceration rates between atheists and those who profess to have religious beliefs. Many will also be aware that over 90% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in a “personal God” (Sam Harris actually pegged the percentage at 93% in 2006 but the precise figure doesn’t matter). The upshot of statistics like these lead to a very simple but puzzling question: Why are Atheists smarter than Theists?

Leaving aside the fact that we have here a textbook example of invalid reasoning, why is there a ‘remarkable difference’ in incaceration rates between us deluded Godbotherers and the freethinkers? Perhaps it is because we are all stupid*. Alternatively, it could be because professing atheism is a predominantly middle class affair, that explicit religious allegiance is more common in minority ethnic groups in the West, and that working class and black people are grossly over-represented in the prison population. The latter answer should prompt us to think about, and maybe even challenge, systematic structural injustice. Blaming the foolish sky-worshippers lets the world carry on as usual.

*The small worry here that, even were that true, it doesn’t explain the data – are criminality and stupidity especially correlated? – can be overlooked for present purposes.

**I have a vested interest in this debate of a somewhat specialist sort. One of the hurried justifications offered for the dinner-table racism of banning the burqa is that facial expressions and eye-contact are essential to human communication. The very fact that I am communicating with you right now via. the internet suffices to refute this. However, there is a real neurodiversity issue here. Plenty of us don’t communicate very much using these kind of non-verbal methods. What is being said about us?

In other news, which will no doubt transform the outcome of the forthcoming Labour leadership election, this blog declares itself for Diane Abbott, and heartily commends Red Maria’s thoughts on the matter.

More opium

July 16, 2010

A couple of days ago I managed to collapse as a result of panic and exhaustion, and was discharged from hospital under strict instructions to rest. I tell you this not to court sympathy, but rather to explain why I have spent the past couple of days doing pretty mindless things on the internet rather than undertaking the research which you, the increasingly burdened taxpayer, pay me to do. One of the less mindless things I came across was Jeremy Hardy’s speech to the nation on faith (if you’re quick, you’ll be able to catch this here.) If demonstration were needed that atheists can be subtle in their approach to religion, sympathethic to some of the values us God-botherers hold dear, and unimpressed with the provisional wing of atheism a la Dawkins, Hardy provides it. And is very funny at the same time.

This contrasts markedly with another Thing On The Internet I encountered, namely the reaction of swathes of my liberal left* social networking acquaintances to yesterday’s news that the Vatican was to consider extra-canonical ordinations of women a ‘grave crime’. Now, I have no desire to defend this decision, although it is worth pointing out that it is not supposed to represent an assessment of the relative moral gravity of these ordinations – the media have tended to present the announcement as being to the effect that ordaining women is ‘as bad as’ child abuse. What I do have a desire to do is comment on how weird the response from those I know from the Dawkins-Hitchens tendency was. Immediately Facebook statuses and tweets denounced the Vatican in the most vehement terms. This is weird for at least two reasons. First, the angry brigade seemed to think that it was an injustice not to ordain women. It quite possibly is, but then I can say that because I actually believe that it is good that people be ordained; and that ordination confers an objective character on its recipients, and isn’t simply a ritual gone through by deluded clerics playing dressing up. For people who usually think that the very existence of organised religious ministry is a great evil, whose purpose is to deceive and control, it seems odd to think that there is any injustice involved in barring some section of the human race from engaging in that ministry. It is rather as though someone vouchsafed the opinion that the real problem with the Taliban is their lack of a decent equal opportunities policy. The second weirdness is apparent when you look at the news from yesterday. To refresh your memories: yesterday the coalition government announced one of the most wide-ranging alterations in higher education funding for decades (imposing a graduate tax, and making not very veiled threats to the humanities), oil continued to pour into the Gulf of Mexico, there was ongoing carnage in the middle east, and – a development which raises all sorts of interesting questions – Derry was declared (UK) capital of culture. Amidst all of this, what did most of the self-proclaimed left think it a priority to comment on, in the most fervent terms? Answer: the news that the Vatican is not keen on the ordination of women. In other news, bears, woods…

Part of what is going on here is good old-fashioned anti-Catholic prejudice. If you want to see another example of this, look at the protests over the forthcoming papal visit. In both cases, the prejudice – which is deeply ingrained in British culture for complicated historical reasons – is accentuated by an utterly distorted view of the social and political importance of religious institutions and beliefs in the contemporary world. This is a characteristic of the new atheism: days after 9/11, Richard Dawkins told us that it was ‘religion’ which had caused carnage in New York, a view which removes middle eastern politics, the struggle for oil resources, and the personal responsibility of the killers from the picture in one fell swoop. Likewise, whilst I have no time for the Church’s possession of state trappings, the response to the papal visit issues in part from a misrepresentation of social reality. In the past decade, I have protested against a Saudi state visit to Britain and against George W. Bush whilst he was in London. In neither case were any of those prominent in the anti-papal visit movement present, with the honourable exception of Peter Tatchell. Surely, even by the most belligerently no-popery reckoning, both regimes have been responsible for more recent human suffering than the papacy. Why was the response from those whose supposed passion for justice makes them so angry at the appearance on British shores of an ageing German bishop so muted? In part, it is the legacy of prejudice. In part, however, it is that blaming religion for the world’s evils is an easy answer, and once which doesn’t involve any challenge to those who are actually in positions of economic and political power. In particular, the very middle class constituency which is the backbone of militant secularist atheism is absolved from any responsibility for the state of the world. In the best Marxist terms, Dawkinsim is ideological: a distorted picture of reality, arising from definite social circumstances, and serving to perpetuate a particular form of society. The opium of the bourgeoisie.

*For readers unfamiliar with my political views, the modification of ‘left’ with ‘liberal’ does not, to my mind, signify an improvement.