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Apr 16 2012

The Pat Condell problem

I just watched a great Atheist Experience with Russell Glasser and Jeff Dee. At the beginning, a caller raised the issue of ‘Islamophobia’ among atheists, and specifically Pat Condell. His 2010 ‘No mosque at Ground Zero’ video came up, in which someone suggested he was blaming all Muslims for 9/11, as did the idea he’s too hostile in general.

I’ve said before that I have issues with ‘Islamophobia’ as a term. It’s a slippery, simplified glossing of sometimes complex issues, and I worry it lends credence to groups like the English Defence League who use discourse about ‘religion’ to mask racism. (Their leader, Stephen Lennon, makes comments in interviews which could be taken almost word for word from Maryam Namazie. It’s not inconceivable they actually are.) I have considerably more issues, however, with Pat Condell.

I’ve nothing against a combative, confrontational approach to religion – including Islam. Maryam, God only knows, can get pretty angry. So can Matt and Jeff. So, in case anyone still doesn’t know, can Greta Christina. Atheist anger is justified, useful and often persuasive. However: when I watch Condell’s videos, it feels like watching non-stop bile. There’s a whole lot of confrontation in Greta’s famed Skepticon talk, but there’s also a large amount of humour. There’s celebration, and optimism, and measured composure. With AXP, Maryam and in fact most atheist speakers, the composure is there too, and the outbursts, valid and – let’s face it – fun as they are, form the exception and not the rule.

To watch Condell’s vlogs is to feel constant, unadulterated rage. I can’t remember seeing him smile, laugh or empathise. I can’t remember him pausing for thought. It’s as if an endless barrage of concentrated venom is being spat at me; the same impression, incidentally, that TJ Kincaid/TheAmazingAtheist always made. That’s hard for me to watch.

Now of course, I’m only speaking for myself. If this isn’t how you feel about his tone, that’s up to you, and I’m not judging anyone else for enjoying it. It’s just not for me.

But TJ was objectionable more than just aesthetically. He was an MRA who spent his time harrassing rape victims and threatening violence. The main issue was his content, not just his style. (I use the past tense here because, as PZ points out, he’s now PR-bombed himself out of mainstream circles.)

The same is true, I think, of Pat Condell. So I’m now going to talk not just about why I don’t personally enjoy his work, but why I don’t think atheists, skeptics and secularists – or pretty much anyone else sensible – should admire him.

If in his ‘Ground zero mosque’ video, he was assigning collective blame to every Muslim for 9/11, he was clearly being stupid – but that’s not the question I want to address. (For the record, I think there’s a good case for that accusation, but it was covered on AXP around the time and is beside my main point here.) Supposing for the sake of argument that it was okay to blame Muslims in general for Al Qaeda’s actions – so what? Would he try to stop churches being built where witches had been burnt? Stop synagogues being built where the Old Testament’s genocides were carried out? Places untarred by religious violence are few and far between. Why only the furore when it’s a mosque?

Let’s be clear. I’ve no problem fighting ‘Islamisation’ if it means ending Sharia courts in the UK, animal cruelty in halal slaughter, mutilation of children’s bodies and state-funded Islamic schools. I’m a secularist. I’d fight all those things if other religions were doing them – they are, and I do.

I’ve no problem, either, saying that Islam is socially divisive, individually degrading and most importantly untrue. Most religions (perhaps all of them) are, most of the time.

And I’ve no problem suggesting to individual Muslims that they leave their religion, or making a case for that. Specifically, I’ve no problem attacking its empirical claims and its ethical standards. I’m happy to do so with every religion – and with every other belief system, too, if I think it’s flawed.

I’m clearly not soft on religion, and Islam is no exception. Yet for Pat Condell, it is.

For Condell, who enthuses at every chance about the freedoms of the West, Islam and its Muslim adherents deserve special restriction by the state. Ironically, he’d curtail their religious freedom just as theocrats have curtailed heretics’ throughout world history. In this case, that meant banning a mosque’s construction where the secularist U.S. constitution permitted it, but from the people he supports it’s clear Condell doesn’t stop at that.

A couple of years back, he praised the Dutch politician Geert Wilders as a hero. This is a man, in case you didn’t know, who campaigns to have the Qur’an banned from the Netherlands; who according to The Guardian wants ‘all immigration from Muslim countries halted, Muslim immigrants paid to leave and all Muslim “criminals” stripped of Dutch citizenship and deported “back where they came from”; who lobbied in parliament for Muslim women to be taxed who wear headscarves – not burqas or even niqabs, but ordinary headscarves – or else made to pay €1,000 a year for a license to wear one. He later stated of course that Christian headscarves wouldn’t be taxed, and also that he’d ban the hijab form altogether if he could.

Pat Condell, last year, was nominated for the NSS Secularist of the Year award. What kind of secularist, exactly, calls this man a hero? What kind of idiot sees Geert Wilders as a freedom-defender?

It doesn’t get better. In 2010, in the run-up to the UK’s most recent general election, he announced he’d be voting for the United Kingdom Independence Party, a right-wing group intent on withdrawal from the EU, specifically damning anyone who voted Labour. Unsurprisingly enough, his party also wants to freeze immigration. Now, I’m not necessarily saying everyone who supports that idea hates foreigners or Muslims – but given his track record, does it seem an unlikely motive?

With his traction among some parts of the atheist movement, one might think Condell would be all about skepticism, reason and critical thinking. But UKIP, whom he publicly endorses, have other policies which are batshit absurd, and which stand at direct odds with secular and freethinking goals. Some examples:

  • They support withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, and the scrapping of the Human Rights Act – the major legislative shield against Sharia courts and a large part of the National Secular Society’s successful court case against council prayers.
  • They support the scrapping of Ofsted, the government body responsible for teaching standards in our tax-funded school system. It currently monitors, among other things, sex education and science lessons and is one of few safeguards against dogma and distortion of facts in our classrooms.
  • They support home schooling as an alternative to school attendance with other children, frequently chosen by religious fundamentalists to avoid the exposure of their children to Darwin and diaphragms.
  • They oppose the legalisation of same sex marriage on the grounds that they deem it ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance in itself’.
  • They oppose the idea of anthropogenic climate change, describing themselves as ‘the first party to take a sceptical stance on man-made global warming claims’.

I know that atheists are united, strictly speaking, only by a common lack of belief in gods, and I know that we vary greatly throughout the world. But I also know the contemporary atheist community values skepticism, critical thinking and secularism on grounds of freedom of belief. And when I look at Pat Condell, I don’t see a good atheist, skeptic or secularist. I frankly think he’s everything we shouldn’t be about, and I’m disappointed by the kind of platform he’s found.

Then again, I voted Labour once.

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