Atheism according to the puerile reactionary


Delusions of intellectual superiority and unfunny mockery of religion show up the limitations of atheist ideology, writes JOHN WATERS.

THE LATE-1970s and 1980s seem to have been for me a series of extended pub conversations which, edited together, might have yielded a book to be called, Why the God Delusion is Not Kosher. Reading in recent years the works of the much-vaunted neo-atheists, I could not find a thought on any page that I could not recall being uttered by someone or other back then, in one of those temples of blasphemy and avoidance.

Decades later, all this same talk has erupted into the public realm and I am expected to regard it as the height of intelligence and modernity. Everywhere I go now, especially since the publication of the Ryan report, I encounter people saying things I gave myself a pain in the face saying 30 years ago. Each time I feel I am sitting in a kindergarten listening to a groups of children discovering the one about the chicken crossing the road.

Last Saturday, I attended the agm of Atheist Ireland, in Wynn’s Hotel in Dublin. The objectives of this organisation, as outlined by meeting chairman Michael Nugent, include a secular Constitution and “an ethical Ireland free of superstition and supernaturalism”. In advancing this concept, Nugent did not reference any places where an ethical secularism has succeeded.

Atheist Ireland also seeks to remove the influence of Catholicism/Christianity from education, to prevent Irish children, as Nugent put it, “being told these fantastic tales before they reach the age of reason”. I felt I was at a meeting of coeliacs campaigning to have all gluten-containing products removed from the shelves.

Senator Ivana Bacik, claiming to be the only “card-carrying atheist” in the Oireachtas, berated what she termed “creeping fundamentalism”, instancing the blasphemy legislation recently moved by the Minister for Justice. She warned about “a very vocal group of social conservatives who are trying to turn back the clock”. She offered no names.

It is clear that these revolutionaries think themselves pioneers of a form of thought that is soon going to galvanise Irish society by virtue of its clarity and reason. Atheists talk a lot about “reason”, but seem to imagine that reason involves only what can be measured, shown, described, computed or touched.

To listen to these people is to be propositioned by the idea that life is simple and capable of being grasped through an ideological programme. I got no sense from the meeting that anyone present had contemplated reality in anything of the depth that any but the most superficial engagement with religion demands. And they all seemed to believe that this rendered them more intelligent than if they had.

It struck me that we have somehow arrived at a situation which enables unthinkingness to masquerade as intelligence.

How I wished that I had brought along my Italian friend Marco, a nuclear physicist, who might have, from the perspective of a profound belief in a creative God, brought the room to silence with a few reflections on nothingness. I believe he would have halved the membership of Atheist Ireland in half an hour.

And if I could have also brought my Spanish friend Julian to follow this by speaking about the infinite nature of human desire, I fancy he might have made a sizeable dent in the other half, perhaps in the end leaving Nugent and Bacik sitting lonesome at the top table.

Much of the meeting was taken up with discussion about how the organisation might respond to Dermot Ahern’s blasphemy legislation, with some members advocating the issuing of a “blasphemous” statement to force the hand of the authorities.

This proposal resulted in more than an hour being given over to the purveyance of purportedly humorous contributions, some of which were almost as funny as the one about the chicken.

Nugent drew much appreciative laughter when he delivered an extended soliloquy on the possibility of turning ice-cream wafers into the body and blood of Dermot Ahern.

A man in the audience provoked guffaws when he said that he had named his car Jesus, “because it died and came back to life”. He would have called it Lazarus except this “wasn’t offensive enough”. What a laugh!

A lengthy discussion ensued about whether, instead of issuing a “blasphemous” statement, they might conduct some “blasphemous” action calculated to give offence. Some discussion followed about how they might get hold of a consecrated Host to desecrate in public. Some people timidly suggested that this might risk alienating people who might otherwise be useful allies. (The idea!) It did not seem to occur to anyone that the really offensive thing was the spectacle of adults spending their Saturday afternoon in this way.

Perhaps it is a symptom of its sudden emergence into the light, but Irish-style atheism seems as yet unable to define itself other than in contradistinction to versions of reality it declares to be false. I would be interested to hear an Irish atheist speak for 10 minutes to his subject without relying for material on the wrongs of the Catholic Church.