Atheists who protest too much risk affirming what they oppose


A FEW years ago, Jonathan Miller, the admirable physician, theatre director and satirist, gave an interview on the subject of (we choose our terms carefully) disbelief in a divine being.

“I never use the word ‘atheist’ of myself,” he said. “It’s scarcely worth having a name for. I don’t have a name for not believing in pixies.” It’s worth keeping Dr Miller’s words in mind when considering the debate – much of it carried out in the letters page of this newspaper – that the recent World Atheism conference in Dublin stirred up.

A few games of atrocity poker were played out. (“I see your clerical abuse and raise with the Stalinist purges,” nobody quite said.) Accusations of fundamentalism were flung back and forth. Nobody’s mind seems to have been changed.

Over the last decade or so, the emergence of something called New Atheism has fired fresh energies into this most ancient of philosophical debates. Writers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have made it their business to lecture anybody who will listen about the lunacies of religious belief and the evils propagated by certain clerical bodies.

Many of us who categorise belief in God alongside a faith in toad-worshipping or rain-dancing are uneasy about this development. It is certainly a good idea to collectively campaign against specific outrages carried out in the name of religion. The continuing struggle by mainstream American politicians – the Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann for one – to introduce “intelligent design”, the belief that evolution is engineered by a deity, into school syllabuses is worth worrying about.

(What next? The inclusion of “here be dragons” on maps depicting less-well-explored parts of the globe?)

It hardly needs to be said that right-thinking folk, religious or not, remain concerned about the Catholic Church’s handling of abuse scandals.

That noted, it must be acknowledged that the activities of the New Atheists often appear counterproductive. A superficial problem exists with the tone adopted by some of the group’s leading figures. It is a continuing irony that Richard Dawkins, a towering figure in so many ways, often comes across like a provincial archbishop addressing a congregation of serfs.

Even Christopher Hitchens, witty where Dawkins is patrician, is uneasy about Dawkins’s decision to launch an organisation, aimed at propagating a naturalistic worldview, entitled the Brights Movement. Hitchens finds it “a cringe-making proposal that atheists should conceitedly nominate themselves to be called ‘brights’ ”. More seriously, the attempt to organise disbelievers into a cohesive movement risks playing straight into the deists’ eager hands. Atheism begins to sound like a belief system; atheists take on the quality of adherents and those arguing against faith find themselves labelled secular apologists.

None of this helps the argument. If atheism is, indeed, a belief system, then it is one honoured by beer bottles, blocks of wood and weed-infested escarpments. After all, none of those things believe in God either.

To get some sense of the effect of such group thinking, one need only poke a cautious toe in certain evangelical corners of the internet. An anonymous YouTube user who calls himself ShockofGod has stirred up some fuss in these parts by issuing a stirring challenge to atheists.

“What proof and evidence do you have that proves that atheism is accurate and correct?” he shouts. His aim is to persuade viewers to “leave atheism” and join him in the bosom of God.

The language is carefully chosen. Far from being a neutral starting point for all thinking beings – and blocks of wood, for that matter – atheism is a quasi-religion that, once adopted, one must actively choose to leave. Argue that, given no scientific evidence for the existence of God, the rational human being will feel no need to believe and you risk being ridiculed as an agnostic who doesn’t understand the meaning of atheism.

One assumes that Dr Miller would shrug and move on. Call us what you like. It’s not as if we have any emotional or ideological attachment to that increasingly loaded word. Who cares how the believers in pixies wish to describe those unconvinced by the pro-fairy lobby?

Yet ShockofGod’s comments page is groaning with outraged comments from atheists who weirdly feel themselves defined by their non-adherence to a 2,000-year-old cult. Everyone wants to be part of a gang. That’s why religions caught on in the first place.

Theists can live quite happily with organised opposition. Such movements, in the vehemence of their resistance, only serve to affirm the supposed significance of religious doctrine. By expending so much collective energy, the New Atheists give the impression that hours of the average non-believer’s day are spent pondering the non-existence of God. In truth, most such people regard the issue as no more vital than the argument that bubble-headed Venusians built the pyramids.

Ignore God and he might just go away.

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