A Response to Charles Moore – Atheism is not a Sad Business

Charles Moore’s piece in the Daily Telegraph‘s gone viral. It’s created a debate of over 4000 posts and has hundreds if not thousands of views on facebook when I found it.

And I have a response. See what Charles Moore has constructed is a straw man. In fact? It’s so strawmanny I am surprised it doesn’t wander off with a girl from Kansas, her little dog, a tin man and a cowardly lion in order to look for a brain.

Atheism is a sad business is a genuinely daft argument built on denigrating atheists.

The point of such arguments is simple. If we make atheists “the other” or as a monolith, then it is easy to simply character assassinate us. It is easy to portray us as all  of the same thing and easy to make us look the same and think the same.

Sure we KNOW we are all different but imagine looking from the outside in. Imagine going to a secular conference and hearing 30 odd speakers of ex-Christianity and ex-Judaism and 1 ex-Muslim. Hell? Most of us would rather listen to anti-Islamic speakers who know precious little about Islam bar right wing talking points than the men and women who have left the faith. It’s even worse for Hinduism.

I joked about how when atheists deal with Christianity we are Bible Scholars. When atheists deal with Islam we are Fox News anchors. It’s the same with other faiths. We have a very homogenised core to atheism and that harms us when we need to portray a universal idea or a global front or indeed diversity.

And it enables such arguments.

You often meet them for the first time at secondary school. The typical teenage atheist is more likely a boy than a girl, stronger on science than the arts, and at the high-ish end of the academic spectrum. He tells you that he has studied the nature of matter, the universe etc, and can prove that God does not exist.

No. No one can disprove the existence of anything. We can just reasonably say that the existence of something is highly unlikely.

I cannot disprove the existence of T-Rexes in the Amazon but I can say the chance of one existing there is highly unlikely. A vanishingly small chance. The same thing with Vampires, Unicorns, Fairies and Gods.

The chances of something like a god existing are improbable. It would require incredible changes to the way the Universe works and indeed remarkable evidence. So far there is no evidence that any such being exists beyond the tired speculation and wishful thinking of people who also consider there to be a literal super powered creature whose sole job it is to tempt us into doing things that are bad. It’s like using the entire power output of the Earth to burn a single ant. It is stupid as an idea. So we question the evidence.

And yes, most atheists are generally male. That’s changing though. See, it may have to do with more men being in the sciences than women and the hand in hand nature of science and skepticism. Atheism is just skepticism applied to the belief in the supernatural. Specifically the gods of our fathers.

The character assassination here is simple and elegant. Atheists are Nerds. Well Mr. Moore. The problem here is that Nerds were once a hunted breed. We aren’t anymore. Lest you forget? We are now awesome. Big Bang Theory made us hot. Our shows are now everywhere. Buffy? Battlestar Galactica? Supernatural? We are cool.

Not many people are going to be appalled by the fact you portray us as intelligent and scientifically minded. It isn’t an insult mate. The world functions through science. Art’s nice and indeed many of us are artists too. I cook. Like I “seriously cook”, not “cook for food”. I can play music. I shoot photos. They aren’t super great (to be fair? I just started so don’t have a massive portfolio to pick from). Hell photography is 1/3rd Art, 2/3rd Science and it doesn’t somehow detract from the beauty of it all.

But I get it. It is in your interest to portray us as spotty hormonal teenage nerds belonging to a boys club. Girls clearly are too smart to be part of our little clique.

But it is also part of our problem. We don’t represent women at our highest levels. To an outsider looking in we are effectively “Richard Dawkins” and his band of merry men. Nearly all white and from Jewish and Christian backgrounds. That’s partly our fault and partly the general  issue of atheism. The most vocal and organised atheists and secular groups are American and the majority of people in America come from Christian and Jewish backgrounds so are more likely to be represented. However the problem is not equal representation. Not even  proportional. At this point minority groups are desperate for any real exposure and platforms.

The majority of vocal atheists come from Christian backgrounds. This doesn’t mean  ex-Muslim/Hindu/Jewish/Sikh atheists don’t exist but that they are often quiet, hidden and simply not noticed. It doesn’t help that we often misrepresent and apply a very ignorant view of their religions. The best example is Taqqiyah. A Muslim “rule” that allows you to break the rules of Islam under duress without a negative effect. In short? In order to save your life under threat or the lives of others you can break the laws of Islam provided there is no profit or benefit to you.

So to lie about your involvement with ISIS is a sin. But lying to save another life is not. Then again? Ex-Hindu. The lie doesn’t matter so much as why you tell it. To save another life? Then to not lie is sinful and wicked. But we would not know this if not for the fact I was allowed a platform and people sent readers my way. That is the value of signal boosting. You get to see ideas that weren’t mainstream. Some of them are good.

But it means listening once in a while. Something I fear Dawkins is poor at. He’s been at the top for decades. He hasn’t realise that there is a new sort of atheist out there who simply notices that no one’s talking about their problems. Yes yes yes… we all know about the Hobby Lobby. But are you aware that the health minister of India thinks Sex Education is harmful rather than helpful  to fighting HIV and thinks Indian Medicine is the key to fighting it? That’s 1.2 billion people with their proper sex education and medicine under threat.

It is just that when we want to discuss this we don’t see the drive to oppose a loss of rights in the USA gets compared to roughly 1 in 6 people who are alive. I get it. It’s something important to you, but when we wish to discuss things important to us we are told that we are distracting from the issues. The entire USA is just 300 million people. A far cry from the billion in India. On what basis is that more important? Are the people more valuable? 4 times more valuable? At what point does the suffering of these people make their problem a valid one?

See that’s the problem with a movement centred in the first world. We end up saying stupid things like the above requiring an answer demanding the calculation of suffering. I get it. You can’t fight all the battles.

It would just be nice if some of the battles fought by mainstream atheism as a movement included things that weren’t just American or British. Everyone needs that Conch to speak and if we just let one group of people speak all we get is their issues while the rest of us struggle to even be taken seriously as atheists.

When I corrected atheists about Taqqiyah the response was that I wasn’t a real Atheist. I was a pretend one. Sad right?

Already, you are plunged into the thick of the problem, which is one of category. The teenage thinker treats the existence of God as a scientific matter, but it isn’t. Science can certainly disprove some claims that believers make about their God – or, to be more exact, it can prove that these claims are incompatible with science – but it can have nothing to say about something that lies outside its realm.

I fear this is a cop out made by the religious to protect their gods from the blowtorch of science. It’s like declaring yourself to not get shot while playing cops and robbers because you were the only one who thought about wearing the imaginary bullet proof vest.

The fact that science has found no evidence for a god or no rational reason as to why one exists is being held as a declaration of the power of said god. See? He doesn’t want to be found. No matter how many curtains we throw open, no matter how many monsters we unmask as Old Man Struthers and no matter how many real wonders we describe there will be people who look at those things and go back to thinking that the collections of nuclear fire dictate our love lives.

Angers Cathedral – Jesus with the Zodiac

Or that there is a man in the sky who cares about whether gay people get married or not.

Do Eeet!

The fact is? The idea of a god who actually sits around telling you what to do is rather silly. And turns out what god seems to tell most people is to harass others, make oppressive laws, do things for personal gain and generally act the fool. Chances are when someone says that they are doing something because a god told them to do so it usually doesn’t end well for a lot of people.

The only reason the gods are outside the realm of science to the religious is because they have to accept the capacity to break the laws of science. In other words? They have to rely on magic for their gods to exist.

A few atheists realise this, and so, while trying to devise concepts of a good society without God, they give the subject of God’s existence a wide berth. Charles Darwin followed this cautious approach. For the most part, however, they devote themselves to the wearisome and surprisingly difficult business of trying to prove a negative.

Who are atheists, and where did they come from? Nick Spencer is research director of the (excellent) “religion and society think tank” Theos, and so he views the subject with a quiet Christian scepticism. But it is not his purpose to attack atheism. Instead, he wants to tell its history as it has developed, chiefly in Europe, in the past 500 years.

He points out that atheism often starts in disputes about authority. In a thoroughly Christian society – and indeed, in some Muslim societies today – rejection of God was seen as a threat to public order. Quite recently, a British judge said that the law of England has nothing to do with Christianity. He may wish that to be true, but, historically, it isn’t.

One may point out that the world’s progress towards greater equality and indeed a more humane society has been through constant rejections of religious views held dearly at the time.

The notion here is that religion is the sole cause of the laws of mankind, which is rather comical considering it is impossible to create a social group without law.

Cats. We need to look at cats. See kittens learn to hunt by play. They pounce and jump over each other, they learn the skills to kill. Cats are tiny little lions we can pick up and cuddle. They are killers. Just of pests and indeed innocent squeaky animals. So much so we bell our cats and keep them indoors because of the havoc they can cause on eco-systems. But all that from an animal that learnt to hunt by playing with toys and each other.

Humans do that too. Except we go through stages of play. There is a stage where we play on our own. Where we have “our toys” and we just sit and bash them together to make noises. Most of our play is designed to look at our hands. Manual dexterity just as the cats is to hunt. Except for the fact that there are games within games. There is a stage where we have group play. Where a child plays around other children. They both play solo but in the same area. Then there is group play. Where a toy is shared between two people.

Our toys have always been there to teach us. Toy swords and Dolls are among the oldest things we have found because swords make good young boys into good young men and dolls make good young girls into good young women who will have good young babies of their own and care for them while keeping them safe. It’s just that our toys have gotten more esoteric because “babies and swords” aren’t all that is needed any more. But at one point in a child’s life there is a stage where kids play together. Where they communicate and cooperate. If we don’t teach them games and the rules of the game then they make new rules and new games. And these games are alive and changing. When unexpected scenarios occur kids get together and make new rules to deal with that. They may not be fair rules or sensible rules or even good ones but they are rules.

Humans Crave Rules. It helps bind our society together. It gives us structure. The quality of the rules has never really mattered so much as the fact that everyone follows them.

Pictured… Bad Rules

The rules that bound a society helped make it a cohesive force. The Aztecs had bad rules. Human Sacrifice. Their entire society was so enthralled by it that it played a huge role in how they acted alienating their neighbours making it easy for the Spanish to garner local support initially.

The rule was fine as long as there was no third party to create the power imbalance. The rules are unfair to the victims of the sacrifice but the thing is it kept the Aztec society stable while all around them were fractured  city states that simply lost their wars to the Aztec. Survival trumped “good rules”.

We hit a turning point with the rise of humanism. Initially? The rule of law was dicated by a few arbitrary people and religion supported their claims. It was a tool of domination. With the rise of free thinking as a whole, people began to question  the rules. The rules were often just to support the jerk in power. Some of it was daft, the sanctity of the human body for example was used to hold back the study of medicine. Some of it was harmful like the usage of the Bible to support slavery. Some of it was just downright deadly such as the pogroms against the Jews. But the fact was the greater part of society survived because of these rules.

It’s just that humanism looks at the rules critically and tries to get people to follow rules for the benefit of humanity as a whole rather than just the guy at the top. And that is the society we live in.

Even the Aztecs had rules and laws against murder and theft. That gory scene was worship. A real version of the blood and body of Christ. You can’t build gigantic pyramids in a society where crime was rife.

The modern humanist societies of today may have their roots in religion, but that is like suggesting a house is a tree just because it is made out of wood. Secularism and Humanism have taken the chainsaw to religious rules and keep trying to cut out the bad and the harmful.

In his Commentaries on the Laws of England in the 18th century, William Blackstone argued that the oath in court was the necessary foundation for justice: “All moral evidence… all confidence in human veracity must be weakened by irreligion, and overthrown by infidelity.” An atheist was therefore not only mistaken, but failed in his duty as a citizen. Laws against the preaching of atheism resembled those against the preaching of racism today: it was thought intolerably injurious to society. What God had revealed, the state had a duty to uphold.

Yes, Atheism is like Racism.

Which is why religion was one of the prime weapons of racism particular Christianity and Islam which were “crusader” religions that spread by brutal destruction of other cultures and religions.

The rationale for the death sentence for apostates in Islam is that atheists and conversion out of Islam weakens the structure of Islam and so is worthy of death. William Blackstone is luckily long dead. 18th Century England was not a nice place for people like me, not just due to my atheism.

Pictured – Civility and Morality of British Christian Law

Let us just say that white Christians have a very selective memory about the history of Christianity and indeed atheism. It pays to ignore history, but those who forget history are doomed to die by the geography.

Gradually, “atheisms” – there was never a single form – advanced to challenge authority. Some arose from questioning Scripture (“a heap of Copie confusedly taken”, wrote one brave man at the end of the 16th century). Some, often stemming from priests who had seen appalling abuses themselves, concentrated on the wickedness of church power rather than on metaphysics.

That’s cute. The earliest Hindu skeptics on record would pre-date Christianity. I do like the fact that the author thinks atheism is a concept that is relatively new. The day the first man said that lightning and thunder were the gods at war was the day the first man said that “it probably wasn’t”. Atheism is as old as religion is.

Other non-believers, usually among the grandest in society, saw themselves as bathed in the light of reason. David Hume wrote of “the deepest Stupidity, Christianity and Ignorance”. Percy Bysshe Shelley linked atheism with intellectual superiority: “Let this horrid Galilean [Jesus] rule the Canaille [the rabble]… The reflecting part of the community… do not require his morality.” In the current era of Richard Dawkins and the New Atheism, many atheists call themselves the “Brights”, pleased to make the rest of us out as dullards.

Here is the thing? You lot never considered my old gods real. We were just savages to convert to your ancestors. Now you are just too polite to say it in open conversation, but you think it is your duty to turn us from our heathen ways onto your gods. Somehow Shiva’s appearance as a gigantic penis is horrifying but the cannibalism of Communion is divine?

And the whole Brights thing is pretty much Richard Dawkins who doesn’t speak for us all. In fact a lot of people wish he used his powers as the pop culture head of Atheism and actually help spread the word about atheists from non-traditional societies. Many Christians call themselves the chosen of (a) god and believe they are going to an eternal paradise while we are tortured forever. Something tells me that a little snootiness and calling oneself “Bright” is a far cry from wishing those who  don’t agree with you suffer eternal torture.

Some atheists – Dawkins, Sigmund Freud, AJ Ayer – resemble, in essence, that clever young schoolboy. They believe they have brilliantly proved religion to be a load of hogwash. In their minds, it seems an advantage that their creed does not appeal as much to women or the poor and ignorant. Indeed, Friedrich Nietzsche saw more deeply how European society’s moral order would collapse with the destruction of faith – but welcomed it. Christianity was a “slave morality”, he said, celebrating weakness and preserving “too much of what should have perished”. People such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Hitler took up such thoughts with deadly enthusiasm.

Eurgh no… Really? You went so far… So close without Godwinning it! Oh dear!

1. Lenin – Dear Comrade, the Russian Royalists were Dick Weasels. No Seriously. If you are going to claim Lenin as super duper evil you are assuming the people he replaced were epitomes of morality. Newsflash. The October revolution would not have occurred had not the people of Russia been satisfied. They were angry. They had a religiously supported monarchy  that lived in luxury while the people starved to death.

2. Stalin – A dictator and a cult of personality no different from Kim Jong Il. Only on a major scale. It wasn’t a lack of belief that created him but the overthrow of Monarchies without being replaced by a system that empowers the common man to make political decisions. Stalin was a dictator and like all dictators he sought to stabilise his power through violence. His religion had nothing to do with it. Tiso, Franco and Salazar didn’t kill fewer people because they were Christians, but because they never had the reason to kill as many as Stalin. He had WW II and the mismanagement of agriculture and the paranoia to rack up that death toll. Frankly? The others didn’t have the population to cause such fatalities nor had the sort of cruel warfare that established the Eastern Front of WW II.

3. Mao’s fatalities are less due to his atheism but more due to his gross incompetence as an administrator. Great leap forward and Cultural Revolutions were in fact stupid ideas. You don’t need hindsight to see that. Anyone could have told you that you wouldn’t expect your plumber to be a good electrician and vice versa so why would professors of Literature be good Farmers? Or Farmers be good Iron workers?

4. Hitler – Was pretty damn religious. And again you kind of ignore the “bad” bits of your Christianity when you forget that Christianity was the main driving force for anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe for nearly 2000 years. Hitler’s holocaust was nothing different from the Pogroms, the only difference was that it wasn’t an angry mob that raped, murdered and pillaged but a dedicated industrial murder machine. The only reason Hitler went too far according to Christianity is because the allies won.

The thing is these people didn’t act like atheists. They acted like kings. Because that is what they were. A dictator is just a secular king. They were the absolute law and there was no checks and balances and control over the legislative. The power resided in a handful of people enforced by a cult of personality.

But precisely because religion, though theologically grounded, is much deeper than an intellectual theory, it tends to regenerate when attacked. The author quotes one Soviet persecutor of Christianity: “Religion is like a nail, the harder you hit, the deeper it goes in.” Spencer believes that the New Atheism is an expression of anger at the curious phenomenon that all over the world, except among white Westerners, God is back.

The only reason people say this is because people of colour in atheism are often invisible or poorly represented at the most visible levels.

This leads to the question: “Is atheism parasitic on religion?” There is something unsatisfactory about building your thought around an anti-faith. Some atheists – amusingly catalogued here – have noticed this, and set up Cults of Reason, secular societies and atheist chapels, trying, rather unsuccessfully, to reproduce the communal creativity of faith. Hamlet says: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Any imaginative atheist must sometimes be troubled by this thought, and worry that his ideas are so dependent on the very thing he opposes.

Except religion has forced atheists to be anti-faith. It’s like asking why Protestantism hates centralised faith and overt wealth. Or why Buddhism and Jainism pride simplicity in worship.

It is a response to the excesses of religion. Atheism opposes political and harmful religion. Your derision of it being a negative force ignores the reality. That some of the biggest threats to civil liberty comes through enshrining religion as a law.

It is as if someone were to devote his energies to telling people that they did not really love one another. He might be right, of course, but it would be a sad business. Love, indeed, is a subject that atheists find hard to discuss interestingly. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the great philosopher, who understood religious belief throughout his life, mostly without quite sharing it, wrote: “Faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence… Only love can believe the Resurrection.”

Rather amusing. The assumption here is that only if you truly love Jesus can you believe in the Resurrection. Sure, by that logic all incredibly superstitious beliefs can be categorised as love.

This is no different from every religion that tries to set itself up as the one true faith and better than all the rest by classifying it’s faith by that certain je ne sais quoi that no other faith has.

Love being a purely chemical feeling doesn’t make it worse. Adrenaline is purely chemical yet it’s still effective and we have no problem with endorphins being chemical. Love being chemical doesn’t cheapen it any more than flying being due to aerodynamics rather than pixie magic cheapens the fact that human beings can fly.

Atheists don’t have a difficulty  understanding love, it’s just that we attribute magical capacity to it and fill it with cupids and destiny and the stars being aligned. The fact is none of these things happen. Love makes you think you are the centre of the universe. But we aren’t. That’s the reality.

But it is nice to think you are the centre of the universe for just that little while. .


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  1. says

    to lie about your involvement with ISIS is a sin. But lying to save another life is not.

    No, it’s not – because your involvement in ISIS is also for the good of the ulema, not the individual.

  2. Al Dente says

    A Christian writing in the Torygraph doesn’t like atheism because it challenges his religion. Moore set up a strawman atheist and demolished it.

    Hamlet says: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Any imaginative atheist must sometimes be troubled by this thought, and worry that his ideas are so dependent on the very thing he opposes.

    Oh look, he’s squeezing the God of the Gaps into his anti-atheist screed. No, Moore, as an atheist I don’t think my ideas are based on religion or belief in mythical sky pixies. There are things that science doesn’t know about “heaven and earth” but that’s because we don’t know these thing, it isn’t because the gods are behind them.

  3. Pen says

    It would appear that Charles Moore is another mis-educated larva from the Eton cocoon. As you would expect, he has no clue what goes on in the rest of his own country. I went to a school in Yorkshire where, in a sixth form of about 200 people, we had one Hindu, one Christian, a dozen or so Jews of varying degrees of religiousness and the rest of us were atheists and agnostics. He went to a school where they toe the CofE party line. No good trying to explain it to him, I don’t suppose diversity is his strong point either.

  4. Ed says

    Atheism as parasitic on civilization? No. It may be true that an advanced civilization with some standards of rationality has to come about before significant numbers of people begin considering non-supernatural worldviews. But this only shows that whether it is true or not atheism (or naturalism in general) is something that develops when a culture is sophisticated enough to encourage a high level of abstract thought and free enough to allow religious beliefs to be seriously questioned.

    Even when outright atheism is prohibited or strongly discouraged, plenty of people will question the extent to which God, the gods, the spirits, etc. are the arbiters of morality, the providers of the good life or the proper center of human attention.

    Classical pagans (who built the cultural infrastructure later taken over by Christians) were on average much more concerned with their own secular affairs and saw the gods as more like superhuman landlords than objects of intense devotion. Hope or fear for the world to come played little role in their motivation, as only great heroes and villains were portrayed as being given any significant reward or punishment in the generally unexciting, neutral afterlife. When philosophers were forbidden to teach actual atheism, they still largely concerned themselves with questions of a properly functioning society and human wellbeing.

    As noted, Indian civilization produced an impressive skeptical tradition, though it is often ignored. But even in the realm of religious thought, devotional worship of gods became, at least among the educated and the more serious seekers in general, less important than achieving enlightenment. Even if the enlightenment sought was mystical, it was the result of personal effort and study; not something one could get by asking or bribing a god.

    Offshoots of Hinduism like Buddhism and Jainism took this lack of interest in conventional theistic worship much farther.

    The most influential Chinese philosophies concerned themselves mainly with relationships between the person and their family and society.

    At its high points, officially Christian civilization taught that God legitimized the pursuit of worldy knowledge and happiness and de-emphasized or ignored the clear New Testement support for anti-intellectualism and lack of interest in the quality one’s mortal life.

    I would argue that human beings` concerns for things like social order and decency as well as various attempts (sometimes wise and beneficial, sometimes not) to improve themselves in some way are what actually motivated cultures, except perhaps during their most stagnant, superstitious and miserable periods.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    … we attribute magical capacity to it and fill it with cupids and destiny and the stars being aligned.

    A “don’t” seems to have fallen out of this sentence.

  6. hexidecima says

    ah, another theist who needs to pretend that atheists are sad, or angry, or depressed, or hateful, or any other of a zillion projections to make the theist feel better. It’s great to see that a Christian must bear false witness against others to support their religion. Nothing can be better than that, showing that they intentionally ignore their religion in order to keep it.

    In my opinion, the only thing that can believe in the myth of the resurrection is fear and ignorance. If one must pretend that some magical being demanded that humans kill part of itself in order to make up for the sins committed against this being and defined by this being, it’s not love that makes such a ludicrous story believable. It is fear of punishment and death, and absolute ignorance that there is no evidence for such a being at all.

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