To the fan of The Atheist Experience who asked them to ‘take me on': 62 reasons you suck

I published a post yesterday called ‘I’m sorry today’s atheist movement has inspired abuse. Are you sorry your religion has?‘ In it, I accept ideas linked to my worldview have motivated people to act badly and ask believers – instead of being defensive and dismissive when shown harm caused by religion – to do the same.

I’d been wondering where the angry mob were till Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience forwarded me this email from a fan.

I’d love to see you guys take on this brand of college educated hipster atheist.  His particular bent is becoming quite loud amongst us and is doing the work of the religious while speaking in our voice.  He get’s a lot of things wrong but it seems he just lumps a whole bunch of human failings on to atheism.  He’s part of the “lets hate Dawkins/Harris at all costs” camp and at times I feel like he’s as dishonest as S.E. Cupp.

He starts this thing with 5 bullet points, all of which misrepresent the involvement of Atheism or the the responsibility of atheist ideas for the failings sited.
http://freethoughtblogs.com/godlessness/2014/11/17/im-sorry-todays-atheist-movement-has-inspired-abuse-are-you-sorry-your-religion-has/

Drew

‘Hipster atheist’. Was it the glasses? It was the glasses, wasn’t it?

They’re reading glasses. [Read more…]

In defence of the War on Christmas

As 2011’s royal wedding happened, the Guardian hit on a stroke of genius. Perched in easily missed white type atop its sprawling coverage, a tiny button read “Republicans click here”, which when activated hid all related stories. The button, which proved popular enough to reappear this year when the couple’s child was born, made the paper’s site a refuge for the unenthused, the only place online or otherwise where bunting and bootlicking could be escaped. As Advent commences, I often wish such a filter hid reminders of Christmastime from view.

As Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience notes on the programme’s blog, arguments for the validity of godless Christmas celebrations have done well in recent years. These are the “Axial tilt is the reason for the season” shirts, the “Keep the merry, dump the myth!” placards of American Atheists, the selection of cards sold by the British Humanist Association, the Digital Cuttlefish’s books of festive (and fun) poems; they’re various chapters in Ariane Sherine’s Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, and by implication part of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, the Rationalist Association’s annual benefit; they fill countless column inches by Robin Ince (its host), Richard Dawkins, Elisabeth Cornwell, Myra Zepf, Alain de Botton, Alom Shaha and Jim Al-Khalili among others.

The case, summed up in AA’s slogan, is no doubt as familiar to atheists today as are the faults of Pascal’s Wager, both being discussions with believers one comes across too frequently for comfort. Many of our Christmas customs if not most – gift-giving, good will, feasts, festooned fir trees and Father Christmas – aren’t of a necessarily religious character, the argument goes. If superstitions bequeath us an excuse to have at them, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

The logic’s sound, but commonplace enough that it risks seeming both reflexive and received. I decided to give up Christmas last year, for no more grand a reason than that personally, I don’t enjoy it. With such passionately vocal thirst to reclaim it in the secular community, it’s hard not to feel at least mildly rebuked, as if my absence from the bandwagon endangers a key atheist PR objective, stopping images of secularist grinches waging war on Christmas being properly cast off.

The trouble, and I’ve only realised it in recent years, is that I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.

Yes, I’m turned off by the BBC broadcasting Bible readings, church services and carols about blood and gall – but I’m just as turned off by their annoying, repetitive melodies. I’m angered by Operation Christmas Child, and by millions of children being made to sing said carols in their schools or act out narratives from religions whose ideas they may not share and aren’t yet well placed to assess – but I’m just as angry parents lie to their children about who provides their presents, often objecting to them being told the truth, for no clear reason except finding the deception somehow sweet. I don’t enjoy the smell of tangerines, the putting up of decorations, the taste of mince pies or the expectation I gorge myself on food I’d never otherwise eat, enduring sit-down meals and light dinner conversation (no swear words allowed) with relatives I’d rather not encounter. In the end, I struggle mostly to be cheerier than usual for contrived and arbitrary reasons.

If you are a Christmas person, and clearly many of us are, I’m all for your enjoying the rituals of your choice – we’d do well to be cautious, though, of insisting “Of course atheists love Christmas”, implying as a chorus of this insistence does that we not only can but should. One perk of non-religious life, it’s been argued in New Humanist before, is the right to pick and choose our festivals. A status quo where atheists feel bad for not being Christmassy enough has something very wrong with it.

Atheism’s collective urgency to show festive credentials is understandable. As Glasser writes, “[p]opular culture is full of rotten characters who hate Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Narnia’s White Witch.” Alone among calendar dates, failing to love it ostentatiously provokes a barrage of reproach: I’ve been called a killjoy, a spoilsport and an Eeyore for disliking it, but never for finding Valentine’s Day crass or New Year underwhelming.

One wonders if the keenness to affirm secular love for Christmas stems in part from a desire to placate religious critics, assuring them our boat-rocking plans are limited. Certainly, Eric Pickles’ call three years ago for councils “not [to] allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity” drew valid fire for recycling myths about “the likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous” as evidence for a so-called war on Christmas, but Pickles also demanded councils fund “carol services and nativity scenes” – a valid target, surely, for secularist pressure?

Baulk as we might at the “war on Christmas” narrative, parts of how Britain marks it belong in godless people’s crosshairs, from government-backed proselytising of this kind to evangelism in state schools, religious programming at licence payers’ expense and the pollution at large of the public sphere’s secularity. However excised of religion Christmas exhibits might be in marketplaces and the media, they’ve undoubtedly opened the door to public religious displays more widely in the name of inclusivity – Oxford’s giant street-mounted menorah, say, lit each Hanukkah by the town mayor and a local Rabbi, or Channel 4’s broadcasting the adhān for Ramadan this year.

The object of a so-called war on Christmas (and on all these articles of faith as establishments of public life) is really a profoundly diplomatic settlement, an understanding of the public sphere as neutral, unclaimed territory rather than land divided among orthodox religious groups. This is why I can’t support the ‘multifaith’ approach above, espoused on Bill O’Reilly’s programme by Chris Stedman recently: a multifaith public square is as bad as a single faith one, in some ways worse, because it still gives public authority to clergy; still makes people outsiders who won’t participate; still pollutes the peaceful neutrality of a marketplace which asks no one to demonstrate their piety.

However secular or holy we think the festive season is, that détente matters. Those in atheism who sit happily with unwrapped gifts and hangovers on Boxing Day should think twice before they lapse into unravelling it themselves, keen to ‘destigmatise’ secularists by showing us as Christmas-lovers. A culture of pressure to participate fostered by atheists is as bad as one produced by theocrats like Pickles – neither tolerates dissent, and both perpetuate the notion those who don’t join in are spite-filled Scrooges.

If we care for people’s conscientious freedom or right to live by the calendar they choose, we shouldn’t let fears of seeming grinchish silence us when religion encroaches on public life at Christmastime; equally, we should support those in our ranks who don’t do Christmas, and oppose the spectre of the Grinch being used to guilt or smear them. Call this scaling back of peer pressure a war on Christmas if you must, and Bill O’Reilly is correct that it exists; to me, it seems like giving peace on Earth a chance.

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.