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Dec 08 2013

“Waging all-out war against religion”: New Atheism, Alom Shaha and me

In his book The Young Atheist’s Handbook, Alom Shaha – now a physics teacher at a London school for girls – recounts a friend’s entry in his own school leaver’s book, ‘Watch out … because this boy is going to find out if God really does play with dice.’ He ascribes this statement sheepishly to zealous adolescent hubris, so I’m bound to stand up for it, but I’m not sure he should cringe on looking back: the slogan predicted, if inadvertently, his adult apostasy as well as scientific skill.

Alom is one of my favourite atheists. Around the time of his book’s release in summer 2012, I interviewed him for a piece reviewing it. Before all else, what struck me was that more than one voice came through in its pages. To quote myself,

Even his atheist rhetoric is chameleonic. In his introduction, Alom states his admission to eating pork ‘may be the most controversial thing I write in this book’. He later goes on to say ‘It’s one thing to be complicit in the unnecessary suffering of animals; it’s another thing entirely to suffer from sexual repression because you’ve been brought up to believe that God disapproves of masturbation, or to live as a second-class citizen because you’re a woman, or to live in fear for your life because you’re a homosexual. Yet this is the reality that is imposed on millions, if not billions, of people around the world because they live in communities or countries that base their morality and laws on religious beliefs founded ancient books and stories.’ A few pages later, he states ‘I wouldn’t necessarily agree that religion is morally wrong’.

One moment it’s a firebrand we’re reading, the next a diplomat. The division’s artificial, of course, but the question stands – why the inconsistency? It’s sometimes better, Alom tells me, to appear harmless before moments of secular rage. I’m only half appeased, but he submits ‘My opinion’s always changing and evolving. I hope that I’ll be better able to express some of my ideas a few years down the line, and I suspect I will have changed my mind about a few things.’

Eighteen months have passed. As if on cue, he sides in New Humanist’s current issue with the backlash against ‘New Atheism’:

“Muslims are destroying our way of life!” This is not a Daily Mail headline, but something an irate member of the audience yelled at me at a talk I was giving . . . parroting the kind of rhetoric that is not just to be found in the pages of our tabloids, but also amongst many people who wear their atheist identities with pride.

. . .

I also encountered hostility . . . because I am, according to some, an “accommodationist” – an atheist whose prime objective isn’t to wage all-out war against all religions and their believers, an atheist who doesn’t think it’s productive to go around telling people who believe in God that they’re ignorant, wrong or stupid . . . who is full of admiration, respect and love for many people who describe themselves as having some sort of “faith”.

I can’t help but feel that people who expend huge amounts of time and energy trying to convince people of the non-existence of God are largely wasting their time. It’s easy to criticise religious belief, to point out the irrationality of faith, to show that God is just an idea. . . . But even in the face of overwhelming evidence that their God is a fiction, many people continue to have “faith” because that’s how their minds work. . . . [W]e all have some irrational beliefs, dodgy notions that we hold on to despite an absence of evidence, because we want to feel them to be true, not because they are.

. . .

When there’s a religiously motivated terrorist attack, I’m not sure it’s helpful to attack religion, to vilify believers. When we have children being segregated from each other on the grounds of their parents’ religions, I’m not sure arguments about the non-existence of God are useful. When we want to implement laws and policies that tackle inequality, pointing out the silly, anachronistic rules in ancient religious texts is not how we ensure support from religious people who are on our side. . . . there are more important things to consider . . . in the battles we face to make the world a better place. If we want to eliminate sexism, racism, homophobia, if we want to address the inequalities and injustices of society, we cannot afford to alienate those with whom we differ only on the question of God.

. . .

I’m starting to think that identifying as an atheist isn’t terribly useful most of the time. As many others have pointed out, defining yourself in terms of something you don’t believe seems a bit pointless. I increasingly find myself introducing myself as a humanist, someone with positive views about how the world should be, rather than someone with a rather simplistic view on how the world isn’t.

I agree on most things with Alom, but not on this – my vote, predictably, goes to the case made by Tom Chivers overleaf against ‘treating religious beliefs with unearned respect’, which to keep from treading further on New Humanist’s financial turf I shan’t replicate here. (The magazine, and you ought to buy a copy, is in Smith’s for £4.95.) I could argue from first principles with any of the core points here – like Chivers, I think atheists should speak more accurately on Islam so as to hone, not blunt, our criticism; plenty of useful negative identities exist, ‘apostate’ being one, and if discrediting religion is so easy, why not try? – but all those points feel a touch tired by now, and in the end, Alom’s personal angle grips me more. To say time’s changed his viewpoint would be easy, but the truth is that I’ve always found his stance hard to pin down.

It’s an odd thing writing in the third person of someone you know privately, especially in disagreement, but we’ve exchanged the favour several times. I confess it was I who flippantly called Alom an accommodationist the second time we met, after hearing him say much the same in a Skeptics in the Pub talk. (Terry Rodgers, of Edinburgh Skeptics, sums up the version given there in the phrase ‘We have to move on from the era of The God Delusion’, asking on Alom’s behalf, ‘if someone’s beliefs give comfort or an illusion of being loved, to whose benefit would it be to take that away from them?’) It wasn’t a tense moment, at least from where I sat, and I’d like to think I’m quoted not because Alom puts me the way he views those concerned for ‘our way of life’, but because my wording captured the backdraught he’d faced more stridently elsewhere. Certainly I was surprised (and mildly dissatisfied) by how well his argument seemed to go down, but mainly I was incredulous: this didn’t seem to be the man whose book I’d read just months before.

At points throughout the Handbook, if not (see above) uncomplicatedly, Alom excoriates religion, quoting Thomas Paine in calling its institutions ‘human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind’. He dismisses NOMA, writing that ‘while it may be good for the societies we live in to be tolerant . . . we demean the concept of truth by reducing what it means to something that is determined by a misguided desire to agree with our fellow humans’ and stating ‘While I don’t condone the behaviour of “dick atheists”, I can empathise with their frustrations. I’d like to think I’m not one, but I’m not prepared, as I think [Stephen Jay] Gould did, to compromise my intellectual integrity to avoid causing offence.’ Crediting his life’s experiencing with having ‘freed [him] from the shackles of superstition and religion’, he goes so far as to say things like ‘Religion allows people to ignore the needs of real beings in favour of the supposed wishes of a being that does not exist’, and ‘just as many individuals outgrow religion, the human race as a whole needs to outgrow religion’, later adding ‘despite my best efforts to be reasonable, empathetic and understanding . . . the world would be a better place if there were more atheists, if a greater proportion of the world rejected religion and embraced the view that we humans can make a better, fairer, happier world without God.’ ‘Can we truly fulfil our potential as a species’, he asks, ‘as long as we hold on to, and encourage, the perpetuation of the lie of life after death?’ ‘It will be a huge failure of the human race if we do not evolve better, more relevant, more just ways of living our lives.’

These, one would think, are quintessential New Atheist stances, if not ones reminiscent at times of an older continental antitheism. It’s hard to believe they share an author with the piece in New Humanist quoted above, but he has a robust case for adopting them and makes it well. Alom’s book describes in its memoiristic stretches his being forbidden from birth from eating pork; his melancholy at missing out on Christmas unlike classmates whose religion(s) seemed not to revolve around ‘the forbidding of fun’; how a local imam told him ‘to be really, really scared of Allah’ and that non-Muslims would ‘burn in the fires of hell for eternity’; how he was, further to this, ‘brought up to believe in hell, a place where I would be made to burn and subjected to terrible torture’ failing good behaviour; how his mother, suffering mental illness, was said in the time before her death to be possessed by religious family members and adults; how an ‘older Bangladeshi boy’ told him her loss and his brother’s various disabilities ‘were proof that God thought there was something rotten with my family’; how acquaintances dub him ‘a coconut: brown on the outside, but white on the inside’ due to leaving Islam; how his secondary school made him choose to sing Christian hymns or be ‘excluded from the rest of the school’ with only one other (Jewish) boy; how relenting after two years of this to stand silently among classmates as they sang evoked in him ‘lingering bits of guilt’ for failing, quite literally, to keep the faith; how his physics teacher expelled him from a lesson aged eleven or twelve for exclaiming ‘Jesus Christ!’; how his father ‘glared at’ him in his teenage years for piercing his ear, ‘piss[ed] off’ since ‘good Muslim boys’ apparently refrained from this; how to keep up appearances, he was made to attend prayer with his brothers at the local mosque, learn suras by rote and mindlessly recite ‘La Ilaha Illallahu Muhamadur Rasulullah’ (‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’) under ‘the threat of a beating from our father’, even when one brother ‘would cry with desperation immediately before having to go to these miserable lessons’; how his brothers (Alom escaped their fate) were subjected to genital-cutting, nightmarish at any age, once old enough to be ‘terrified of the surgery and fully aware of the prospect of pain’, at the hands of someone he suspects ‘was just an imam with a scalpel and minimum training’, and ‘how heartbreaking it was to hear their screams and whimpers every time they moved the wrong way during the night, or when their bandages had to come off for cleaning during the day’. (Notably, their family is several times described as less religiously ‘hardcore’ than others in the area.)

It relates his close encounters, too, with believers and belief: the friend who declared in the wake of a natural disaster, ‘I don’t understand how an earthquake could happen in Pakistan [-] it’s a Muslim country’; the one who ‘“protects” his mother from his “true opinions”’; the numerous male acquaintances who ‘did not marry the love of their life because the girl was not of the same religion’; the white Englishman who converted for his Bangladeshi wife, both of whom are ‘now secretly atheists’ but hide this from her parents; the arranged marriages foisted both on his parents and on numerous current friends; the ‘months of shame’ his mother endured sleeping beside her children while her husband’s mistress visited their bed, an indignity Alom attributes partly to traditions ‘not uncommon in Islamic countries, where polygamy is sanctioned by Qur’anic law’; the streets of Elephant and Castle where he grew up, where ‘the men would walk several feet in front of the women, a sight that is not unusual in Muslim communities even today’; the sixteen year old who ‘went from taking an active interest in women’s fashion to wearing traditional Islamic dress almost overnight’, donning a hijab in her own words to Alom because ‘My brother has become a strict Muslim’ – in his own, ‘because she has no choice’; the student of his who like him had been raised reciting the Qur’an in Arabic without knowing passages’ meaning, but described it as ‘so beautiful that it  could not possibly have been written by a human’; the eleven year old who promised to boycott lessons on evolution, telling him ‘It’s against my religion to believe we’re descended from monkeys’, and the others who’ve told him his lessons on the Big Bang are ‘an attempt to undermine their religious beliefs’, ‘upset or offended by the suggestion that they should be “forced to learn this rubbish”’; the students in his science class who’ve told him ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’; the trainee teacher of religious studies who recoiled at his suspicion physics classes made some students question their beliefs, a conversation which resulted in her ‘storming off after stating “You scientists think you know everything, but you don’t!”’

Then come the spotlights on religion in the wider world: 22 million sub-Saharan Africans living with HIV thanks to the Catholic Church, ‘an epidemic that is devastating these countries’; ‘the recent spate of homophobic violence in certain parts of Africa . . . fuelled by both Christian and Muslim leaders calling for communities to “flush out gays”’; the Islamist states where ‘homosexuality is strictly illegal, and punishment can range from a violent beating to death by stoning’; the U.S. Christian in 2011 who murdered a gay man ‘because “he read in the Old Testament that gays should be stoned to death”’; the two New Yorkers in 2009 who ‘viciously attacked’ a gay man there and were defended by a friend whose homophobic tattoo quoted Leviticus; Webster Cook, student at the University of Central Florida, threatened with death by Christians when he took a communion wafer home instead of eating it, accused by a local priest of kidnapping Jesus in so doing (‘If anything were to qualify as a hate crime’, the priest in question said, ‘this might be it’); Usama Hasan, imam and physicist, threatened with death by British Muslims when ‘he claimed that Islam was compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution’; the stonings or whippings prescribed in versions of Islam for women who have sex before or outside marriage, ‘carried out in many Islamic countries today’; ‘the requirement for women to be covered up’, and ‘reports of young Muslim girls feeling pressured by their peers into wearing the hijab’; genital-cutting ‘practised in many Muslim communities . . . in which the clitoris of young girls is removed with the specific intention of reducing, or even entirely destroying, their ability to enjoy sex’; ‘guilt, shame, and anxiety, all of which can lead to serious psychological harm’ promoted by widespread religious attitudes to masturbation; ‘unnecessary and avoidable pain’ caused to animals by religious slaughter; Jehovah’s Witnesses who ‘refuse blood transfusions when critically ill’ and ‘members of religious cults who commit mass suicide’; the ‘many wars . . . carried out in the name of God’ and ‘conflicts spurred by religion . . . around the world’, including between African Christians and Muslims and conflicting schools of Islam in the Middle East; the ‘promise of a reward in the afterlife’, ‘used to encourage young men and women to kill themselves, and others, so that they can become martyrs’, ‘to deny help to the poor, helpless, and oppressed’, ‘to explain away human misery rather than deal with it’; that ‘most children are . . . brought up with the impression that it is evil not to believe, and that they will be punished – often in horrific ways, such as burning for an eternity in hell – for deviating from the rules and regulations of their parents’ religions’; that ‘belief without questioning is seen as a virtue in some, if not all, religions’.

If ‘New Atheism’ can be seen as a distinct philosophy, its central precepts can I think be summarised as follows:

  1. Religion is to blame for widespread suffering and injustice, not just due to its contingent structural embodiments, but because of its inherent epistemic nature.
  2. Religion benefits from and has historically relied on unearned deference, rendering criticism of its claims heretical, unlawful or socially unacceptable.
  3. Religion’s claims and inherent nature deserve to be criticised unflinchingly, with this deference discarded in the name of combating injustices it lets them cause unchallenged.

I’m as up as any for a new New Atheism which pays deeper attention to the social contexts in which religion operates, including with regard to ‘sexism, racism, homophobia . . . inequalities and [other] injustices’ – this was the founding principle of Atheism Plus, whose supporters are (if nothing else) right to recognise the current secular movement is at base a push ‘to make the world a better place’. I don’t think that movement is, to date, without its major faults, but I do think its core ideas as stated here are right. It would be to the planet’s benefit for religious beliefs to be taken from, or rather abandoned by, its populace. Alom’s book gives all manner of reasons why.

Each manifestation of religion above is a blight that would, at very least, have far greater difficulty arising in a more skeptical world. Many of those mentioned simply couldn’t.

Many are also born, it’s true, from factors other than religion. Suicide bombings, sexism, genital-cutting – none of these should be understood as a purely religious phenomenon, uninformed and unaffected by world politics or cultural history. Nothing, religion and its performances included, exists in a vacuum. But the fact the God idea may not be sufficient for the flying of planes into buildings doesn’t mean it isn’t likely to be necessary. To say we can’t blame religion for it since a web of other factor exists is much like saying that since fallout from prior conflicts and centuries of European racism hung behind Nazism, the Stauffenberg plot was pointless. No Hitler, in Milton Himmelfarb’s words, no Holocaust; no God, no 9/11. A shot at either’s assassination couldn’t possibly make matters worse.

I’m acutely and painfully aware that I am, in essence, lecturing someone by telling them to read their own book. (Sorry.) I don’t mean to be condescending – if I seem to be, it’s because the obvious rebuttal to Alom’s NH piece is to list grievances against religion, and I wouldn’t wish to imply (equally condescendingly) he has none of his own. I know he does; what puzzles me is that I know them to have prompted justified missives from him in the past that would look at home in the very annals of the New Atheism he lambasts. People change their minds, of course, but I heard the same criticisms from him only months after his book’s release, ones it seems itself to answer.

Even there, it’s not always clear where he stands. ‘Just as religion can provide some people with answers,’ Alom writes at one point between statements (seemingly) that it needs to be discarded, ‘it gives some people a sense of meaning, solace, and happiness – and who am I to cast judgement on that?’ ‘If believers ‘come to different conclusions about what they believe, then, unless their beliefs hurt other people, I will not condemn that for it.’ Surely the point, made elsewhere in the Handbook at some length, is that faith beliefs routinely hurt people?

Sometimes the line he takes appears reformist – the incitement to ‘outgrow religion’, to be fair, is qualified: ‘At least . . . the primitive, anachronistic form of religion that still dominates so many people’s lives’. ‘Perhaps, in the future,’ he speculates, ‘societies will rise above the fundamentally divisive nature of contemporary religion and re-invent it to better encompass our scientific knowledge of ourselves, the universe, and morality; perhaps we will shift closer to the idea of religion as a philosophy, a way to provide those who need it with guidance on how to lead better, happier lives’. ‘It is time to modify or abandon the idea of God’, he says as if hedging his bets, and ‘redefine the concept of religion’. Alom doesn’t explore how this might happen – it reads like he’s looking for a get-out clause, a reason to say a less religious planet might not be needed after all.

I don’t buy it. If he means Alain de Botton’s Religion 2.0 or the non-realist theology of Karen Armstrong or Don Cupitt should supplant conventional belief, I agree the world would end up brighter for it, but how to popularise such an approach without first smothering mainstream theism? De Botton describes his project openly as ‘religion for atheists’, and it isn’t by chance that Cupitt formed his views (and Sea of Faith Network) at Cambridge and the liberal end of Anglicanism after centuries of decline in British religion’s power. To reconstruct religion wholesale in this way would necessitate destroying it first, just as New Atheists hope to; there’s no rebuilding the church, at least in such a fundamental way, if it hasn’t been torn down.

I’m not sure, in fact, why one would want to – if literal God-belief would need extinguishing before religion was reformed, why bother with step two at all? Why seek to preserve it in name only, a cloak of empty metaphor and ritual around secular beliefs, except out of emotional attachment or lack of confidence in outright atheism? Religion has no moral viewpoint of its own once claims of fact have been thrown out, its orders we ought or oughtn’t do something relying on the thought a god is watching by whom it is or isn’t earmarked. Stripped of these claims, used a pedagogic puppet of secular ethics, how could it still be called religion? That would be abrogation, not reform – an aesthetic departure from New Atheism’s plot to bury God, but not a substantive one.

Could theism be tamed perhaps, recalibrated to be free of ‘sexism, racism, homophobia’ and capacity to hurt others, as one senses in New Humanist and at points during the Handbook is Alom’s real hope? I’m inclined to say no, at least on a mass scale or completely. Religions evolve to suit their habitats, of course, and kinder, gentler versions can and do gain traction, prompted at times by combative secular Enlightenments and culture wars. (His column cites these as unproductive; they’ve produced a Church of England whose leader says it ‘must accept . . . a revolution in the area of sexuality’, a Vatican pleading quite suddenly to be tolerated.) But my sense is that a life rooted in faith, lived by the arbitrarily imagined whims of a god who may or may not be there, will always have its casualties. I’ve been one of them. I know Alom has too.

Given the options, anyway, to ‘modify or abandon the idea of God’ – and it hasn’t had the second one very long – which does humanity seem likelier to take? Rates of religious non-belief, as noted by Tom Chivers in NH, are soaring, while political and fundamentalist beliefs are widespread; both of these, in recent decades, have grown at the middle ground’s expense. It’s easier for me to think Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and their counterparts will simply lose their grip on world populations than that mainstream forms of each will become ecumenical champions of human rights and secularism, whose followers put down their arms and opt to co-exist in harmony.

When has a culture war ever ended in a truce? And why, moreover, call off one we only just started to win?

2 pings

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