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.
This has got to be made into a film. Or a TV series. You can imagine the trailer. A deep voice-over. Based on a true story, a sassy female cop on the edge, a maverick who takes no shit and will bend the rules to catch her prey (or pray even). In one scene, she’s told by her tough police captain “You’ve got 24 hail Marys to solve this case!” And while she’s bringing down the bad guys, she’s raising a gifted but difficult child with a deadbeat dad. Cut to a another scene with a criminal in handcuffs, declaring “How did you know it was me?” The feisty female cop coolly replies…
“That’s intercession, motherfucker.”
Well, probably not the motherfucker bit. But it is based on a true story. In Spain, an icon of the Virgin Mary in Málaga was awarded the police gold medal of merit for being pretty awesome at fighting crime. Scooby Doo must be pissed off.
Christians in the USA declare aphid excretions as miraculous. WTXF – What The Xtian Fuck?
If you’ve travelled by bus or Metro on Tyneside you can’t miss the posters advertising the Alpha Course, normally posing generic questions like ‘Is there more to life than this?’, or delivering bland feel-good phrases like ‘Life is worth exploring’. In the run up to Christmas, they’ll be everywhere. Despite the Alpha Course being a Christian missionary project, their posters rarely mention God, Christianity or Jesus. I’ve always wondered by their advertising was so coy.
Over at the Atheism UK website, correspondent John Hunt has produced an excellent concise review of the current state of knowledge about the New Testament and the Jesus stories, and suggests that Alpha’s reluctance to mention the bible is down to the fact that the New Testament doesn’t really stand up to serious scrutiny.
Christian apologists debating the basis of their religion often point to the ‘historicity’ of Jesus and the brutality-lite New Testament account of his life. But outside the scriptual accounts, it’s likely that Jesus is at most a construct of bolted together pre-existing myths, possible real or exaggerated accounts and even bare faced made up stories to fit in with – and expand – the legend of Jesus.
From the tales of King Arthur to Robin Hood, myth has played an important part in building cultural identity, but is ultimately an unreliable foundation for an evolving ethical framework. As myths are retold it’s through the bias of the story teller, the perception filter of the listener and reflected in the mirror of zeitgeist. They are also refined to either meet the tastes of a contemporary audience, or to provide a better story. Sometimes, myths are remoulded to satisfy the demands of propaganda for political ends.
If the foundations of a belief structure are so shaky, how can anyone build an effective ethical ideology based upon a myth?
Tonight’s Shields Gazette Wraithscape column about cryptids (anomalous or mythical animals) was an interesting overview of the various mythical humanoid cryptids like the Yeti or Bigfoot. I’m sceptical of the existence of such creatures given the lack of real evidence, but I’m open to the possibility they may exist, especially as new species are discovered regularly, particularly in some of the more remote parts of our planet; the ancient rainforests, the deep ocean floors and the fringes of frozen wastes. Such is the extraordinary diversity of life that evolution has bestowed upon our little blue and green spaceship.
However, Wraithscape author Mike Hallowell speculates that a supernatural force had a hand in it all. He guesses that:
“despite their more human-like appearance, they’re probably apes of some kind and, yes, I tend to agree with the creationists that, rather support the theory of Darwinian evolution, their existence would tend to mitigate against it.”
That’s quite a proposition, especially without any explanation of why he thinks the (possible) existence of legendary cryptids is evidence against evolution, instead of say intervention by planet seeding extra-terrestrials in the manner of Mission to Mars. I know the limitations of a newspaper column doesn’t allow much space for the development of a detailed argument, but as it stands, it seems like little more than the ill-informed idle speculation of someone who takes iron age religious texts over cold hard science.
In the face of the mountains of scientific evidence supporting the evolutionary model, a claim that a deity created creatures that haven’t even been proven to exist is preposterous.
If such mythical cryptids are found to exist, or have existed, science will tell us more about them and how they fit into our evolutionary development than a meandering religious fanstasy story.
It seems like there are plenty of people who believe that their special interest should be respected as if it was a special need. Take midwife Hannah Adewole, who thinks that she should be excused the rules other medical staff have to follow because she’s a Christian.
Adewole thinks it’s disrespectful to expect her to wear scrub trousers because apparently, god told her so. Deuteronomy 22:5 says:
“A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this.”
Deuteronomy is a lot of fun. As well as a gender dress code, the fashion advice extends to forcing you have tassels on your cloak and a ban on mixing wool with linen. What a style faux-pas. Add to that the Leviticus bans on piercing and tattoos, and looking fabulous whilst keeping the bible fashion police happy in iron-age Israel must have been a minefield of stonings.
The punishments in Deuteronomy are tough. There’s loads of purging of evil and stoning, but on the plus side, lots of helpful guidance on how to treat your slaves. However, women had to know their place. If a woman grabbed a man’s wedding tackle in a fight, her hand had to be chopped off. Less eye for an eye, more chop-off for a chopper.
Adewole is no lilly-livered liberal Christian. She is full on hardcore:
“I believe that the Bible is truth and that its words should be followed wholeheartedly.”
You’ve got to admire her dedication. But if I was her employer, I would be concerned about her wholehearted support for stoning and cutting limbs off. Even more worrying for a midwife is someone who believes in the truth of a book which contains a psalm praising the bashing-in of babies’ heads. Actually, there’s a bit of child murder and enslavement going on in that book.
But all of this theological nonsense isn’t what really matters. Most of the time when religion keeps to itself it’s harmless and doesn’t matter much to those who don’t believe. However, sometimes it overlaps into real life and we see the ‘respect’ vs reality battle end up being fought out in the courts. I consider the respect narrative used by some Christians to be phoney, especially when they use the worn out ‘you wouldn’t do that to Muslims’ argument. Using the courts to try and lever religion into areas it doesn’t belong whilst playing on a false sense of persecution seems to me incredibly dishonest. It’s almost as if some Christians want to be persecuted, whether it’s over their choice of dress or jewellery, or the services that they are expected to provide to others. The bottom line to me is that your religion is fine, as long as you keep it personal, and not try to force it on others, and in this case, through illiberal legal gambits.
What is worrying in this case is that someone in the medical profession thinks that their personal ideology based on ancient mythos trumps hygiene and safety rules; rules introduced to protect patients from infection. Should such a person be working in a hospital?
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.