Richard Dawkins has a new television series, The Enemies of Reason, that will be broadcast in the UK. I have not heard if it will make it to the US; if it’s anything like our experience with his last program, Root of all evil?, it will be buried in post-midnight showings on scattered PBS stations, with little information on when or where in any of the channel listings. The premise of discussing this new show is how Gordon Lynch begins a recent column, but then, somehow, it turns into a wild-eyed accusation in mannered language that this modern atheism stuff is a cult-like phenomenon, just like those crazy evangelical Christians.
What is arguably more interesting about Dawkins’s TV work is the sense in which his public advocacy of atheism is coming to look more and more like media-savvy forms of contemporary religion, particularly evangelicalism. One of the reasons evangelicalism has flourished in contemporary society is precisely the way in which it has used publishing, consumer products, educational resources, film, television and new media as resources by which its adherents can develop particular kinds of religious experiences, identities and social networks. Evangelicalism has proven more successful in surviving the secularising trends of the contemporary world than other branches of Christianity because it has been able to develop into a religious subculture in which likeminded individuals and groups support each other and sustain their particular vision of the world.
I think it’s quite right that richarddawkins.net and Dawkins’ TV work represents an effort to use the media to share information about a social and intellectual movement, and it’s also true that evangelical Christianity has also taken advantage of it. It’s also pretty much standard nowadays: if you want to build recognition and an identity, you use multimedia and you have a web presence. Somebody who notes this and starts drawing parallels in content and tactics because two groups are using similar, ubiquitous, common communications techniques is, well, clueless.
The Dawkins web site has a forum, a big discussion board with many members. I would like to draw Mr Lynch’s attention to a ranking of fora on the web. Top of the list is an anime roleplaying community; further down you’ll find a French medical help forum, a board dedicated to Volkswagen cars, discussion groups about Chinese mobile phones, porn, and yes, Christian forums. If you scroll way down, you’ll finally find an atheist board, sandwiched between a forum for guitarists and one for adult webmasters.
Lynch compares Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, to Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life. Dawkins has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million copies, while Warren has sold almost 25 million. But the important thing is … they both have published books. The DaVinci Code has sold about 40 million copies, to put those in perspective.
And of course, Dawkins has made a few television programs. Evangelical Christians have whole television networks: TBN, CBN, Pax, Cross TV, CTN, Sky Angel, TCT Ministries, etc., etc., etc. There are also networks dedicated to news, to old movies, to cartoons, to comedy, to science fiction. These are all just the same, of course.
I think you can all see the sneaky and ultimately dishonest game Lynch is playing: compare the things atheists do to those that evangelical Christians so you can say “Gotcha! You atheists are just another loony religious cult!” I’m surprised he didn’t mention that both atheists and Christians use their voices in a process called “talking” to communicate among members of their local cells. As it is, though, we’re still going to have to face the fact that Volkswagens, the French health care system, cheap pulp novels, and Fox News are all also cults. Basically, Lynch is looking aghast at the standard media techniques used for selling soap and health club memberships and using that to link disparate ideas under the category of “evangelical.”
Oh, but wait! There’s one more element that has to be added to this equation. If you’re going to damn atheists by comparing them to evangelical Christians, you have to toss in some token rationalization for why these “evangelical” atheists are bad while honest, upfront, dominant evangelical Christians are good. The simple switch is to claim that atheists are driven by hatred, while Christians are moderates who believe in unity and love. Lynch does not disappoint.
To those of us who identify with liberal and progressive cultural movements, whether religious or humanist, there are potentially worrying trends here. The intensity with which new atheist identities are being forged through a hatred of imagined religious others is matched by the hatred felt by some conservative religious groups towards those they perceive as godless.
In the same way that global conflict emerged when American neoconservatives and radical Islamists found in each other the perfect enemy, so future conflict between militant atheists and religious conservatives may have the rest of us ducking in the crossfire. In this sense, while Dawkins’s intentions are doubtless well meant, the rise of the atheist movement he symbolises could do more than the alternative spiritualities he disparages to threaten the fragile cohesion of our societies.
I have to bring your attention to one subtle dig in there: atheists have hatred of “imagined religious others”. Didn’t I just tell you that the apologists will always minimize the existence of religious insanity? It’s only imagined.
Not also how we’re going to label Islam, Dominionists, Fundamentalists, Christian Separatists, hardline Zionists, and all the other flavors of fanatical religion: “alternative spiritualities”. Why, those “alternative spiritualities” promote the cohesion of our societies, as we can see in the Middle East and all along the India/Pakistan border, for instance — those regions would explode into violence if religion disappeared. Imagine that those atheists who foment that kind of hatred would disappear…peace and unity would reign.
Ah, if only these whiny apologists for religion would spend more time (heck, any time) criticizing the evangelical/fundamentalist religious movements to which they compare us than in deploring the great harm the imaginary fundamentalist atheists are doing. Especially when the only “harm” they manage to document is that atheists are mobilizing to make their message heard using modern media.
Forget Lynch. Read Charlie Brooker’s review instead.
Welcome to a dangerous new era – the Unlightenment – in which centuries of rational thought are overturned by idiots. Superstitious idiots. They’re everywhere – reading horoscopes, buying homeopathic remedies, consulting psychics, babbling about “chakras” and “healing energies”, praying to imaginary gods, and rejecting science in favour of soft-headed bunkum. But instead of slapping these people round the face till they behave like adults, we encourage them. We’ve got to respect their beliefs, apparently.
Well I don’t. “Spirituality” is what cretins have in place of imagination. If you’ve ever described yourself as “quite spiritual”, do civilisation a favour and punch yourself in the throat until you’re incapable of speaking aloud ever again. Why should your outmoded codswallop be treated with anything other than the contemptuous mockery it deserves?
Actually, I hope Mr Lynch has read it. I think it was intended for him.