On the public debate on atheism.

There is, it has been said a kind of bland agnosticism in society and that most of us carry round. I think this is probably true. But it’s not an informed choice. Most people are too busy with their day and daily to get to grips with their beliefs about this sort of thing. Religion for most people in this country has absented itself. We don’t concern ourselves with issues of faith, belief and of the role of the Church in Society.

To be honest I think most people are like that about most things most of the time. Not the chattering classes of course. But that’s not most people.

I went to a reading and discussion by Alex Preston and Oliver James. Alex is a novelist and Oliver James is Oliver James. It was very good. It’s always interesting to hear the motivations and the process of how a writer takes an idea and then turns it into a piece of fiction.

The discussion was based around Alex’s book ‘The Revelations’. It’s a fine book about the effects of an evangelical cult-ish religion on four friends fresh out of uni and struggling to varying degrees with life. He captures big themes of belief, faith and doubt very well in the intimate moments these four share. It’s very good. A compelling read and heartrending at times. I think an important book too. I would say that of course as my book shares a lot of the themes. But for me it’s very encouraging that there is – at last – a book in print about these issues.

But the discussion brought up a few things. I think the public debate about Religion and Faith and (the ‘new’) atheism misses a lot. It sets out some things that are wrong – or not refined enough.

For instance, that ‘Religion’ is not a monolith. Alex mentioned this last night. I don’t think any of us have a problem with the old woolly Rowany Williamsy bearded everything’s alright if you pop along to the Fete and the Christmas jumble CofE. Religion for people who don’t really believe – too busy with the school run and just want somewhere nice to get married in. Fair enough, my kind of religion.

But when people attack the new atheists its tends to be because they see that bug-eyed Dawkins man and they imagine him setting himself upon that nice Beardy man with his strident (correct) arguments and they think – that’s not very nice.

But I don’t think Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are that animated by that sort of religion. They are firstly motivated by the kind of religion that they have in America – that which (in a phrase from last night, is ‘punitive and finger pointing’ and invades the bedroom (and so your own free will) and tells you what to do and how to live and sows intolerance in society.

That is a good thing to get angry about.

And that is why the public debate about religion, like so many public debates, needs more nuance. We need to understand fully what people are saying and objecting to. Those people who blithely defend ‘Religion’ need to spend some time in a cult, or near someone who has had the best years of their life taken from them by such a Religion before they get fed up with Dawkins (et al) getting a bit cross. This kind of Religion is wicked and shelters under that misjudged tolerance.

For a great many people religion is not a comfort but a terrible burden. Many people, as Oliver James put it, need a good shrink and not a church to help them with life.

Something else that came up last night was that a great many atheists are atheists because it gives them meaning. Just like a religion does. It ‘places them in a narrative’ as the interviewer put it, rather well. Of course this is true. I call them badge-wearing atheists. They are getting exactly the same thing out of it as religionistas do out of their belief system.

And they are suspect. But that is not to say there are a great many thoughtful (generally more quiet people) who have useful, well founded objections and if you read the books by the New atheists you will see these things rather well articulated.

But Dawkins is not one of those people. He is an atheist because he is a scientist – he sees automatic respect given to something which does not deserve it. Something that directly contradicts things that he fervently believes in. You might say – well isn’t that arrogant of him. And those who hate his approach say – but yes it’s that fervent attitude that we don’t like. But he is so cross because the things he believes in have been forged out of a rigid system – the scientific method. Can you imagine the gall as the bishops come along and say – oh no, that’s wrong. Er, why is it wrong. Why? Oh you want a reason – ah, God said.

I kinda get why he gets cross.

The things that are in opposition are not in parity – if they were I could understand your position. That’s another thing the debate in the press often presents wrongly. Religion v Atheism watch as they go head to head. There’s no parity.

It’s magic and fear versus progress and learning.

People say what about the comfort it provides and the community spirit and meaning. But all of these thinigs can be found outside the church. It’s interesting that the things that people come up with are not of ‘faith’ or religion per se. And it’s also interesting that the best elements of the church (the more acceptable end of the religious spectrum that is) are actually clothes stolen from the enlightenment (Sam Harris).

Believe me there is a version of religion that is insidious and takes away that which is the best of us. And it happens at the personal level and increasingly at the political – and it has to be resisted. Unfortunately that bland agnosticism in society lets it get away with a great deal. We need people like Dawkins to get up, stand up, and cause a bit of a ruckus.


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