I’m not sure if the Shields Gazette’s Mike Hallowell is trying to prove his theological chops with his most recent piece, a rather feeble attack on people who dare to criticise religion and the actions of the religious. Being a fresh convert to Islam, you would hope a new approach to religious apologetics. Sadly not.
Atheists are religious
Let’s get one thing straight from the outset – despite what atheists tell you to the contrary, they are every bit as religious as we believers.
Hallowell doesn’t define what he means by religious, but by any sensible definition, atheism is the antithesis of religion, hence the noun: atheism. Atheism has no holy leaders, no sacred texts, no bizarre rituals, and most importantly, no belief in a god or gods. And that’s about as simple as atheism gets – an absence of belief in supernatural beings. There are some atheists who have tried to take atheism further, to redefine it as a set of ethical behaviours borne out of a lack of religious belief, like in the case of the Atheism + concept. But such attempts to change atheism into something more than an absence of belief have failed to gain traction.
I’m curious though – is Hallowell really suggesting that being religious is somehow a negative attribute? Or is he saying that atheists can be just as good/bad as religious people in following their beliefs?
Atheists can’t prove there is no god
They cannot prove there is no God, and so a refusal to acknowledge the existence of one requires faith
This is one of the apologist’s favourite gambits. The first response would be that the lack of evidence against a god does not count as evidence for a god. The next one would be – which god? As Hallowell should know the burden of proof for any claim falls firmly on the one making the claim – in this case burden falls upon the religious. And the claims they do make don’t stand up to scrutiny. If you took each religious text as the hypothesis for its respective religion – creation, talking donkeys, zombies, flying horses, ninja monkeys – and compared them to what we know through evidence or our understanding of the universe, you would quickly find that these hypotheses fail the test. In other words, it’s nonsense. There is no shame in refusing to acknowledge nonsense.
There are atheists who don’t even consider the existence of gods. There is nothing to prove or disprove. The Pirahã people of South America, whilst they believe that spirits inhabit their physical world, they have no gods. They can’t comprehend the concept – and they see no need for one, simply because it has no utility. The thing that many religious people like Hallowell don’t get is that many atheists think in the same way – they see no need for a supernatural entity, or any evidence of one. There is no faith at work here, only practical good sense.
Agnostics are more honest
Now agnosticism is something I can at least understand, for it doesn’t rule out the existence of God.
Every agnostic I know is functionally an atheist. They don’t pray or go to church. They don’t care about religion or live their lives according to religious dogma. When agnostics say ‘I don’t know’, they are still saying they don’t believe, they’re just not ruling out the possibility there is an amorphous ‘something’ out there. They have already ruled out the existence of every god they’ve been presented with so far, otherwise they would already be a believer.
Atheists are arrogant and nasty
Mr Wilson hit the nail bang on the head when he said that some atheists “display a form of arrogant, secular bigotry which sees itself as superior”.
Neither Hallowell or G Wilson have defined what ‘secular bigotry’ means. The claim that the religious are somehow being ‘cowed’ by ‘secular bigotry’ in the UK doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Christianity is the state religion; churches, temples and mosques sit in our communities. The religious run schools and sit in the house of Lords. Prayers are spoken before every sitting of Parliament. The BBC transmits religious radio and TV programs. The reality is that people are free to believe what they want and say what they want about their religion. Despite all these religious threads in our society, the UK is a secular state, and it’s the UK’s particular brand of secularism which gives people freedom of religion.
If you want to see religious people being cowed, they’re more often being cowed by other religious people or by cultish state doctrine. In these often theocratic countries, being ‘cowed’ means imprisonment, torture or death. In no secular state is apostasy a crime. In the 20 countries where apostasy is a crime, sentences range from fines to imprisonment to flogging to death. Every one of them is a majority Islamic nation. It seems that in many countries, where religious disagreement occurs, harm isn’t far behind. Here in the dystopian UK Hallowell and Wilson seem to think they live in, the worst that can happen to the religious speaking out is that they get mocked for saying silly things.
Atheists want to limit the free speech of the religious
You may also find that their concept of “free speech” really translates as “You can say anything you like, as long as it doesn’t contradict currently accepted scientific dogma”.
You’ll find that most atheists are happy with free speech. However, it doesn’t mean they can’t call bullshit when some religious apologist says something silly, or for throwing around silly terms like ‘scientific dogma’. Science isn’t a static dogma, it changes according to the evidence. This is the strength of the scientific method. Religion, however, remains dogmatic, and tries to hold its believers in an intellectual stasis, where everything must be measured in line with the interpretations of a holy book.
When the religious claim that their free speech is being limited, they really mean they can no longer make claims without someone disagreeing with them. That’s because ideas don’t have rights. In a civilised society every ideology – religious or political – must be open to free discussion without fear of reprisal.
On Friday, our television channels covered the commemoration of the sacrifice of young men against an ideology that sought to dominate the world. Those commemoration ceremonies featured repeated religious rituals – on TV. Remember seeing the TV reports of an army of secular bigots and aggressive atheists demanding that those religious people stop praying? No? Neither did I, because it didn’t happen. Today, as I write this, a celebration of Pentecost is being transmitted on BBC 1. There’s no atheists standing outside churches trying to “cop an attitude whenever someone mentions the G-word”.
Atheists hate religion
But why do some atheists truly hate religion and the religious?
This is an interesting take on the ‘atheists just hate god’ fallacy. So let’s take a look. Mass murder. Women stoned to death. Children mutilated. The covering up of child rape. Women dying when an abortion could have saved their life. Young girls kidnapped for the needs of their fundamentalist captors. Why would anyone not hate what religion and the religious can do to people?
The religious don’t really care what atheists say
The truth is that many believers just can’t be bothered to engage in duels with atheists who criticise them.
Those atheists who do criticise the religious tend to do so in response to what the religious have done or want to do. However, the religious are not really known for keeping their religions to themselves: knocking on doors, putting leaflets through letterboxes, shouting through megaphones on high streets, online spamming, asking for money for missionary work and trying to change laws to suit their own murky moral framework. Should the religious be surprised at being criticised for doing something worthy of criticism?
Hallowell’s article is a feeble attack on atheists, without an example to back up his claims. If you look for an ‘aggressive atheist’ or ‘secular bigot’ you’re going to struggle to find one. To find an aggressive religious adherent or a religious bigot, you need only to read the news.
I came across this video on the Guardian website, presented by tweeter @GrrlScientist. I’m very uncomfortable with the tactic of indoctrinating children with religion; I find it as cynical and unethical as the marketing strategies the fast food firms use to get kids hooked on their burgers and pizzas.