Militant Atheism

I’ve just finished The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which I enjoyed more than I expected, since generally I prefer Dawkins when he’s writing about biology. I might blog about the book later, but for now it got me thinking about religion.

My own opinions are uncompromising: I don’t believe there is anything beyond the material universe, so that means no gods, no fairies, no ghosts. I think that theism and deism are just about intellectually defensible, but the details of particular religions, whether Christianity, Islam, Scientology or whatever, are about as plausible as crystal healing; only their cultural importance gives them a spurious sense of reasonableness.

I used to enjoy arguing with believers for the sake of it, but I largely stopped that at university when I came to the conclusion that I was just upsetting them for no good purpose. And on the whole, despite the occasional internet argument, I’ve stuck to that. I tend to think of religion in much the same way as I think of the monarchy. The status of the royal family is undemocratic, anachronistic and generally intellectually indefensible, but as long as they don’t seem to be doing any harm, and as long as they keep out of politics, trying to get rid of them doesn’t seem like a battle worth having; there’s very little popular support of it, the process of working out a system to replace the status quo would be interminable and painful, and in the end I don’t think we’d have gained much.

The same applies to religion. As long as religions keep themselves to themselves and don’t obviously do much harm to others, I’m generally willing to live and let live. And in the UK, it’s pretty easy to take that attitude. Growing up as a middle-class Londoner, agnosticism was the default position, and if there was any social pressure it was that Christianity was desperately unfashionable. In that environment, rejecting belief is easy, socially and intellectually. And while London is probably exceptionally godless, especially outside the various immigrant communities, the same is broadly true of the UK as a whole. Although 72% of people identify themselves as ‘Christian’ on the census, when asked the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ only 44% of people actually say ‘yes’, with another 21% not being sure. Presumably that leaves another 7% who describe themselves as ‘Christian’ while definitely not believing in God. And even among the believers, only 10% go to church ‘in most weeks’. Fortunately, the Church of England is so theologically open-minded that it’s hardly necessary to believe in God to be a member.

Even more important, perhaps, is that enthusiastic religion is not really very socially acceptable. Certainly for politicians, being overtly religious is more likely to attract mockery than support. So there’s no prospect of anything like the American ‘religious right’ appearing any time soon over here (or indeed, the CofE being what it is, a ‘religious left’).

And yet, recently (and even before reading the Dawkins) I’ve been feeling more militant about my atheism, and less willing to be tolerant of people’s religious beliefs. Partially that’s because of the growth of extremist Islam. Not just the terrorism, which is an unwelcome development but is in the end a fairly minor threat. It’s the intrusion of Islam into politics; the prominence of Islamic organisations as a part of the anti-war movement, the protesting and flag-burning at any perceived slur, the election of George Galloway, the issue of faith schools. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with all of the politics; I’m not a big fan of the war, for example. But I don’t like to see politics infected by religion.

There’s also the increasingly religionised nature of US politics. As I say, I can’t see the same thing happening here; but the prospect of religious zealots in control of the world’s largest ecomony and military isn’t exactly reassuring either. And as worrying as both Islam and the religious right are individually, the most worrying thing of all is the idea of them validating and motivating each other. I’m deeply troubled by the idea that people who talk about a ‘clash of civilisations’ don’t mean a clash between aggressive religion and post-Enlightenment secular democracy, but between two competing religions. I’m troubled by the possibility that, in wishing to define Britishness in opposition to Islamism, people will increasingly talk about the UK as ‘a Christian country’, and Christianity will once again start to seem like a defining part of what makes Britain British. Personally, I can’t see how British history is any kind of advertisement for Christian virtues, since from the Reformation right up to the current situation in Northern Ireland, Britain has repeatedly been torn apart by violent clashes between competing Christian sects; but I know some people see it differently.

Where does this increased militancy lead me? I don’t know, really. It’s not like there has ever been a period in my lifetime when religion wasn’t a source of oppression or conflict somewhere in the world, but somehow at the moment the damage done by religious belief seems particularly vivid. It makes me less inclined to show any respect to someone’s faith just because it’s well-meaning and sincere.

And as irritating as I tend to find militant atheism in others, I have an uncomfortable feeling that I should proselytise, that it’s important to assert that religious beliefs are not simply false but harmful. Even the anaemic Christianity of the CofE represents the victory of superstition and inertia over evidence and logic, and if it does little harm it’s only because it is generally ineffectual. Forceful religion, impassioned religion, campaigning religion: these are Bad Things. Perhaps it needs to be said more often.


  1. 8 October 2006 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    But isn’t it the militancy, rather than the [insert religious or secular stridently held belief here] or even evangelism that is the problem? Buddhism is evangelistic but not particularly militant about it, for example. And many of the world’s greatest traditions of peace and nonviolence arise out of intense religious beliefs. Religion motivates such a range of things — art, scholarship, compassion, even science among them, along with the bad stuff. Someone was pointing out what an interesting paradox it is that both the world’s greatest moral acts and its greatest immoral acts have often arisen out of religion. And there’s a long history of evil that has little or nothing to do with religion, such as evil arising out of nationalism, colonialism, or … well, whatever you would call it that motivated Stalin (I hesitate to say it was Marxism, but it certainly wasn’t belief in God, anyway). In each case, it’s the killing and raping and torturing people — and the idea that your goal or purpose is lofty enough to justify that behavior — that’s the problem, isn’t it?

  2. Harry
    9 October 2006 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    ‘Militant’ atheism was a bad choice of phrase. Perhaps evangelical atheism. It feels odd to talk about evangelism in the context of atheism, which is a philosophical position rather than a moral stance or a code of behaviour. But I do believe that the non-existence of God is ‘good news’, so perhaps it’s apt.

    You say “many of the world’s greatest traditions of peace and nonviolence arise out of intense religious beliefs.”

    Well, sort of. To pick an example: Martin Luther King certainly would have been a diffferent person if he was not a minister, and I’m sure he derived strength from his faith. But Christianity effortlessly co-existed with slavery, imperialism and racism for centuries. When social and political change finally leads society to the point where something like the Civil Rights movement is made possible, why should Christianity be given the credit?

    The virtues which Western countries pride themselves on (and sometimes achieve) —human rights, free speech, democracy, racial equality, feminism, an independent judiciary, even freedom of religion — are not derived from scripture. They are the product of free thought, and it is not surprising that many of the key figures — Paine, Jefferson, Hume, Voltaire, Franklin, — were atheists or deists. The ideas that have driven social progress most for the past three hundred years were made possible by the declining influence of religion.

    Similarly: “Someone was pointing out what an interesting paradox it is that both the world’s greatest moral acts and its greatest immoral acts have often arisen out of religion.” An alternative POV, from the physicist Steve Weinberg: “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” I don’t think that’s entirely fair — good people do evil things in the name of patriotism and other political ideologies — but I do think it has a lot of truth to it. And while the end of religion might deprive us of a few good deeds, I feel confident it would lead to a net increase in human happiness.

    On the Stalin point: I think it’s unfair to attribute Stalin’s actions to any ideology. All totalitarian dictatorships end up much the same, whatever political system they nominally derive from, because they are driven by the gaining and maintaining of power. Stalin only cared about Stalin. And it’s true that his atheism didn’t stop him. The death of God isn’t a miracle cure for all society’s problems. Even in religious conflicts like the Middle East and Northern Ireland, if everyone woke up tomorrow and found they’d lost their faiths, the nationalistic and historical baggage would no doubt keep them fighting. But hopefully at least some of the heat would be taken out of it; I don’t think there would be many volunteers for suicide bombing without the promise of paradise. And if it hadn’t been for religion, those conflicts would never have started in the first place.

    The end of religion wouldn’t be the end of racism, nationalism, ambition, selfishness or greed. It wouldn’t miraculously make everyone better people. Frankly, I find it an attractive quality that it doesn’t claim to offer any miracles. Religion has been claiming to make people better for thousands of years and conspicuously failing.

  3. 10 October 2006 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    People are people, whatever they believe. No philosphy is guaranteed to change any human for the better, and any philosophy is able to change all humans for the worse. I can’t buy any argument that one philosophy is more effective than another on the grounds of the contents of that philosophy. People are as good as they behave.

    I say that as a believer, someone who’s as convinced of the existence of a world-beyond (God, ghosts, the odd demon here and there — but I draw the line at aliens whose sole desire is to abduct unwitting middle Americans) as you are of a world that ends at the material. There’s no way you and I would be able have the kind of argument you’d like to have; we start from fundamentally different assumptions about the world around us which are presumably fundamentally unlikely to change. See, I like believing in impossible things.

    Getting serious here, though, as a Christian, and an Anglican Christian at that (who understands about the peculiar tolerance of the CofE and who actually, finally likes it), I get shivers when I hear the word evangelism (unless it’s about Macs, which are so demonstrably better than any other kind of computer that it’s wilful denial to prefer PCs).

    At bottom, I think that most things are based on belief. Atheism — the certainty that there is no god — is as much an act of faith as is belief; how do you know? In abstract matters, reason (i.e. that pattern of thought as defined by the ability to demonstrate the rationality of one’s assertions by referencing evidence or proof) can only take one so far. I don’t find it rational to claim that gods exist; but I don’t find it rational to assert they don’t either. Given the definition of “god”, we can’t know either way.

    Atheism, democracy, and the like coexisted (and continue to coexist) quite happily with slavery and colonialism, racism and the oppression of the “lesser races”. Science, and not religion, underpinned and justified maintaining a hierarchy of “races”, placing Europe at the top of a ladder of civilization and Africa at the bottom. The argument of relative harmlessness doesn’t hold water, and is specious anyway; philosophies and religious beliefs are inert, and don’t begin to affect other people until individual humans pick them up. What we believe and how we act are usually pretty far apart. Humans are humans, and they’ll do good and they’ll do evil and they’ll justify both by invoking whatever beliefs they happen to hold.

  4. Harry
    10 October 2006 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    “Atheism — the certainty that there is no god — is as much an act of faith as is belief; how do you know?”

    I can’t believe you rolled out this old chestnut. But since you did:

    It’s true, I can’t prove the non-existence of God, any more than I can prove the non-existence of the Loch Ness monster, unicorns, giant space turtles or flying pigs. All I can do is weigh up the evidence and do my best to rationally assess the balance of probabilities. Since none of the arguments for the existence of God hold up, it is a rational default position to assume that’s because he/she/it doesn’t exist. The reason I don’t call myself an agnostic is that it makes it sound like I’ve been unable to come to a conclusion, but yes, strictly speaking I’m agnostic about the existence of God, just as I’m agnostic about the existence of giant space turtles.

    Anyone who has sat in a jury-room trying to make sense of a whole lot of slightly messy eye-witness evidence will know that if the words are applied literally and rigorously, certainty ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is impossible. Nonetheless, reasonable people who take their duty before the law seriously do still return guilty verdicts.

    Applying those words as I would on a jury: for me, the non-existence of God is beyond reasonable doubt.

    Religions are factually wrong, divisive, and encourage people to value faith and received ideas over evidence and reason. Those are bad things. I don’t see that the oft-claimed benefits of religion make up for them.

    I’m not about to launch an atheist jihad or anything. But I certainly can’t see why I should have some kind of special respect for people’s religious beliefs beyond what I would grant to political or other beliefs I disagreed with.

  5. 11 October 2006 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    I’m not looking for special respect for people’s religious beliefs beyond anything. All I was looking for was some kind of rational consistency, old chestnut or no.

    Thanks. Agnosticism I can respect, if we’re in the realm of logic, rationality and materialism.

    Course, as I’m a person who’s heard from my dead father since his death, I don’t always stay in that realm.


  6. 12 October 2006 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Given that almost all people have a spiritual need, it seems reasonable to me to hypothesise that religious belief has played a role in the evolution of the species. Religion plays a significant role in the defining of a group of people as separate from other people, and thus plays a role in determining how much an individual is willing to donate time and resources to another individual with no immediate gain to themselves – altruism is more likely within a group of people that share common spiritual beliefs.

    Atheists, as a whole, have not come together to define their belief that there is no god, just the material world. This is fine in a society where there is tolerance between spiritual beliefs, but becomes less sustainable when society becomes polarised along spiritual lines when the individual is usually going to be out-competed for resources by a group of people working for a common purpose.

    Sometimes a shared belief based outside of spirituality can become more important than religion – nationalism is a good example. But it seems to me that almost all people have an inbuilt need for a spiritual belief, just as all people have a compulsion to acquire a language.

    As for me, I have no belief in gods or devils, magic or crystals. But I think it would be nice to develop some spiritual beliefs – possibly join a religion – as I become older, if only to comfort me as the Inevitable Day approaches. Thinking of the death rapture as a sign of possible continuance of the self following the last breath is, I think, a preferable final thought rather than realising those visions are just a side effect of terminal anoxia on the brain.

  7. Harry
    12 October 2006 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never really felt there’s something missing in my life. Or at least, not something spiritual.

    But then I don’t know what people mean by ‘spiritual experience’ if it’s something different to what you can get from art and nature and other people.

  8. 13 October 2006 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    Warning: Rik hypothesis alert! Tinfoil hats recommended!

    Here goes. We all build a scaffold in our heads on which to hang our life experiences, thoughts, personal narratives, conclusions, etc. Mostly we don’t realise it’s there – it’s just part of what we are. Occasionally the scaffolding collapses and we have to build a new one – bereavement of the parent, for instance, though some collapses can be much more spectacular.

    For many people, religion and spirituality offers a good scaffolding around which to drape their life experiences. For others, scientific objectivity and rational thought can provide the structure they need to help them make sense of the world. I expect lots of people can build a scaffold out of seemingly opposed struts – eg christianity and a belief in alien abductions.

    That’s what I meant by spirituality: it’s the scaffolding a person builds in their head (usually during their childhood) that underpins the way that person views the world – including their reactions to art, nature, other people, etc. So no, you’re not missing anything in your life. You’ve just built a scaffold for yourself that doesn’t require a belief in a supernatural being to help you interpret the world around you.

    The problem with these scaffolds is that once they’re built, they’re very resilient – you’re not going to persuade other people that their scaffolds are flawed through rational argument for the simple reason that they’re going to interpret your arguments through the angles and struts of their own scaffolds. And while a scaffold can change (or even collapse), it doesn’t evolve (or rebuild) overnight.

    That’s why I can’t take your militant atheism seriously. I can’t see how it’s any different to militant religious belief – the scaffolding (spirituality) supporting them both serves the same purpose in the human brain.

    I’ll be happy to see my hypothesis disproved – it does depend on there being some form of neurological basis for the scaffolding – which should be within the reach of neurological research (and thus proof/disproof) now or in the near future. And if the neurological basis for the scaffolding is there, then it must have evolved for a purpose.

    I assume I’m making no sense whatsoever at this late hour …

  9. 13 October 2006 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    Damn – I wish I could edit my comment!

    P1 – read “bereavement following the death of a parent”

    P2 first sentence – strike “and spirituality”

  10. 13 October 2006 at 1:36 am | Permalink

    Dear Rik,

    your scaffolding hypothesis does not answer Harry’s question:

    “But then I don’t know what people mean by ’spiritual experience’ if it’s something different to what you can get from art and nature and other people.”

    By positing a scaffolding similar in every brain, you imply that there are no differences between “spiritual experience” and other similar experiences which we may derive from art, nature etc.

    What is the nature of the “spiritual experience”? Transcendence beyond human limitations? Don’t we get the same shudder or exaltation by climbing to a mountain top or by gazing at a baby? Why do we need to infer from that experience the existence of god (or demon or what have you)?

    Jee Leong

  11. 13 October 2006 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Jee – it does (in a satisfactory way to me, anyway). People react to the same experience in different ways, and the scaffolding they’ve developed in their heads is probably the reason for this. While the scaffolding may be similar in every brain, the struts used to build the scaffolding will be different as they will be taken from the culture in which a person grows up.

    I’m basically positing that spirtitual acquisition developes in the human brain along similar lines to language acquisition. The human drive to learn a language is biologically based (though whether people are hardcoded with a Chomskyan[?] universal grammar is debatable), but the language a child learns is culturally based. A child of ethnically Mayan parents adopted by English-speaking parents will learn the English language rather than Mayan or Spanish, but they will still learn to speak. I’m suggesting that “spiritual” acquisition follows similar lines – a child growing up in a catholic environment will build a scaffold of mainly catholic struts, while a child growing up in an a-religious environment will build their scaffold out of whatever struts they can find – rationalist, newageist, populist, whatever. But they will all build the scaffolding – it’s a required function of the human brain.

    I don’t have “religious” experiences because I never picked up any significant christian struts for my scaffold when I was a baby – I walked out of Sunday School after 2 sessions and nobody was that interested in marching me back into the classroom. But I can still have “revelatory” experiences – I just interpret them as “awesome” rather than “God is wonderful”.

  12. 13 October 2006 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    What Rik said exactly, plus this:

    None of this negates the possibility that other worlds, beings, realities exist.

    When Europeans were making up the shapes and forms of the people in the lands beyond the horizon, they were pretty far off about who and what those people were, but it didn’t mean that people beyond the horizon didn’t exist. (Those of us who were historically beyond the horizon are still fighting the residue of that process.)

    I’d rather leave room in my philosophy for the stuff I haven’t discovered/imagined yet than close all doors.

    From where I sit, there’s a whole lot of interpretation going on on all sides. For instance, I have communicated with my dead father and with my dead grandmother. This is fact; it happened. What the nature of that communication was depends on one’s understanding of that fact. Both communcations occurred while I was asleep. For some people, they visited me from Beyond. For others, I was working out my grief sub/unconsciously. For me, I have no proof of the existence of either the subconscious or the Beyond; the only thing I have is hypothesis and theory. So I consider both of these explanations equally valid. The thing that would make one weigh more in my favour is whether I assume the existence of the Beyond or the subconscious, and how much weight I give to either theory.

    I happen to believe in both, and I happen to believe that both of the explanations are true in my case. Meeting the dead in my dreams certainly helped heal my grief; but I cannot say that my father and my grandmother didn’t visit me; I don’t know enough about that side of existence to draw any conclusion.

    I think that the thing that makes me most suspicious of ultra-materiallist interpretations of the world is its inherent superiority. It’s not neutral. There’s a political aspect attached to it that has done plenty of damage to psyches, cultures and societies worldwide. There are thousands of explanations about the experiences of transcendence that we all have, but according to the scientific explanation only one is right; all others are erroneous, superstitious, backwards — a few removes away from “savage” and “primitive”, the words that justified the European conquest of the world. I fully accept and respect science’s ability to tell me about the material world in which I live, and I’m fully willing to accept the whats. But I’m far less convinced by the whys. I’m suspicious of the politics that help shape those whys.

    My assumption is that the exploration of the material world has made our lives far longer, more comfortable and efficient, and has allowed us to control our environments to an enormous degree. I do not, however, regard this fact as proving that materialism is all that there is. To do so requires a leap of logic for me that, owing to my background, my culture, and my own experiences, I prefer not to make.

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