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Friday, October 07, 2005

 

Be afraid. Very afraid

It is even worse than I thought. George Bush is reported to believe he is on a mission from God. White House denials don't wash. The only consolation I can find is that, unlike a disturbingly large proportion of his countrymen, Bush has yet to claim he was abducted by aliens.

At this point, even the most hardened Atlanticists should be thinking, "This is where I get off." Tony Blair's loyalty seems unperturbed and
Peter Black rightly asks whether Blair is hearing the same voices as Bush.

I am not one necessarily to agree with Alistair Campbell, but the one occasion he was right was when he said, "we don't do God".

As a confirmed atheist, I regard religion as being on an intellectual par with a belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden. As a confirmed Liberal, I respect other people's rights to hold whatever beliefs they choose, no matter how ridiculous.

It is when demented beliefs enter the public sphere that we should be worried. Religion, like sex, is a matter for consenting adults in private. When personal faith gets mixed up with the exercise of political power, there are usually tears before bedtime.


Comments:
I am an agnostic, but I think there is something sneering and fairly stupid about the Guardian's article. Firstly, I doubt it is true. It sounds unbelievable - I'll be interested to hear the follow up. Maybe the Guardian sources were lying? That'd be a shock.

Secondly, and more importantly, the Guardian cocks a snook at the idea that Blair and Bush might have prayed together. They are both Christians. I find this idea neither shocking, nor worrying.

When you write:

I regard religion as being on an intellectual par with a belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden.

I groaned that once again, convinced non-believers fervently (even devoutly) belittle and patronise someone else'e beliefs by making them the equivalent of a children's story. Regardless of the truth of God's existence (a matter with no clear resolution, I think), the existence of religion, with its rich literture, established theology and scholarship, systems of ethics and norms, not to mention the enormous numbers of societies, communities and families who live according to and in relation to religion, it seems to me that you need to do a whole lot better than describe this influential and significant social force as 'demented' and 'ridiculous'.

As a confirmed Liberal, I respect other people's rights to hold whatever beliefs they choose, no matter how ridiculous.

The problem is that while you respect people's right to hold belief's, you do not respect the beliefs themselves.

When personal faith gets mixed up with the exercise of political power, there are usually tears before bedtime.

Such as your evident a priori belief that religions are demented, analagous with the tooth fairy and ridiculous?

It sounds like you have a problem how some people live their lives and engage with the political sphere. That doesn't sound very liberal, does it?
 
As a Liberal, I should respect the right of others to hold their opinions. I am under no such obligation to respect the opinions themselves, but should be free to criticise them.

The inability to distinguish between people and their opinions is why we have the absurdity of the proposed religious hatred laws.

Too damn right I have a problem with how some people engage with the political sphere, when their beliefs lead them to foist 'faith schools' on us and allow the introduction of 'creationism' into science teaching, or when they attempt to obstruct stem cell research and AIDS prevention.

Incidentally, why do you automatically doubt the truth of the Guardian's report? It is not the Guardian's story but is based on interviews with first-hand witnesses that will appear in a BBC TV documentary.
 
Okay - I can sympathise with some of what you write. But respect for a religious person's opinions has to amount to giving what they believe more creedence than you manage. I imagine you have a problem with the idea of resurrection and revelation, to name but two faith based Christian tenets - but describing such religious beliefs as 'ridiculous' or 'demented' wouldn't either explain why you thought that they were ridiculous or demented, wouldn't go very far in persuading people that they were being ridiculous or demented, and doesn't do much for the respect that should be shown to people who, on the basis of such religious beliefs, act in a way that is neither ridiculous nor demented, but in fact amounts to all manner of good social works, neighbourly activity, public service, charity and so on. Name calling is not rebuttal.

Faith Schools 'foisted' on us? They are strangely popular for something that is 'foisted' on us.

The introduction of creationism into science lessons - I think it has happened once in this country in Gateshead and was widely criticised. I don't hold with it any more than you do. Is there a risk it might be adopted in UK schools? No.

Stem cell research and Aids prevention - these issues refer more to the USA and Africa respectively more than the UK - and I wouldn't disagree with your position. But how many Christians do you think you will persuade by beginning your discourse by making generalised insults that belittle their sincerely held views? Moreover, the vast majority of Christians in the country hold moderate views, do not believe in creationism or that condoms or birth control are evil. So you anger them throught your dismissive and unsympathetic language - and for what?

Incidentally, why do you automatically doubt the truth of the Guardian's report? It is not the Guardian's story but is based on interviews with first-hand witnesses that will appear in a BBC TV documentary.

Because it simply doesn't ring true. Bush is far less stupid that people imagine. Old Testament style voices are not the sort of thing Presidents of the USA admit to even if they are hearing the Almighty; least of all would they admit as much to people described as 'senior Palestinian politicians'. To be honest, what I suspect is that comments have been misinterpreted.
 
I am under no moral obligation whatsoever to lend any credence to religious beliefs, no matter how sincerely held. Believers have every right to hold their opinions and so do I.

I do not share the fashionable view that, because some people's views are 'religious', this calls for an unusual degree of rectitude. The nature of the protests against the Sikh play and Jerry Springer - The Opera - amongst other recent incidents - suggests that a more robust response is needed (see my posting on 11th January regarding the extent of the threat from religious bigotry).

My use of the terms 'ridiculous' or 'demented' is not the sum total of my arguments against religion and was not intended as such - this posting is not about whether god exists.

The popularity of 'faith schools' has little do with any 'faith'. And when it comes to handing over 'academies' to religious groups and individuals, I think 'foist' is an appropriate verb.

Creationism has cropped up in Coventry as well as Gatehead, and the wealthy evangelical Christian behind the Coventry academy plans more of the same (see my posting on 22nd July for the sordid details).
 
Ah but Simon aren't you being a bit simplistic here? It's a pretty basic liberal principle that people are entitled to respect as individuals. If you ridicule something that means a great deal to a person that is cheap offensive and illiberal conduct.

Do you think it would be o.k. to march up to a bloke in a pub and express your view that his girlfriend is incredibly ugly?

Apart from the fact that an anti-religious rant on a blog is unlikely to result in a fat lip, I can see no distinction.

There is a moral point here - we all owe each other a basic duty of respect. And Liberals can't opt out of this when it suits them.
 
Graeme - You are illustrating precisely what is wrong with the argument in favour of the government's religious hatred bill. By your reckoning, all anyone has to do to enforce censorship of any criticism of their views is to claim that such criticism causes "offence".

One of the prices we pay for living in a democratic society is that we may sometimes have to hear views we find offensive.

Your example of "a bloke in a pub" is facile. This isn't about gratuitous confrontation.

There are many religious groups, plus other groups such as Zionists and feminists, who have regularly played the "offence" card to kick their opponents' arguments into touch.

Respect for other people does not extend to avoiding any criticism of their views. We have enough of that rectitude with our PC culture as it is.
 
Oh dear! When in doubt misrepresent your critic's viewpoint.

I don't recall suggesting that you should do 10 years in Pentonville merely for being an atheist, and as it happens I do not wish to see the religious hatred bill enacted either.

But something doesn't have to be illegal to be wrong. IMHO you do nothing for your cause by trivialising the debate with the rather dismissive and contemptuous language you chose to use in your blog.

At the risk of being a patronising old git, you are capable of making a much more erudite case for secularism, atheism or whatever. Personally I would have preferred it had you done so. It is rarely clever or constructive to be gratuitously offensive to anyone.

That is all I intended to say.
 
P.S. Why is my example of a bloke in a pub facile?

Your point seems to be that none of us are entitled to expect not to be ridiculed by reason of our beliefs or (lawful?) behaviours.

In this context perhaps you could comment on the following:

"Perhaps the most depressing aspect of social conversation in Britain today is the increasing limit on what it is permissible to talk about. This is not formal censorship - it's more insidious than that.

Nowadays, it is considered a faux pas to display any form of erudition, enthusiasm, hobby or intellectual pursuit. Do so and you are immediately slapped down with one of these stock phrases; 'sad', 'trainspotter', 'anorak', 'anal' or 'get a life'...
This pernicious form of intolerance extends beyond social occasions to how one lives one's life. For example, until about twenty-five years ago, it was considered perfectly acceptable to be interested in railways ...Then, at some point in the late 70s/early 80s, a new fashion dictate emerged and railway enthusiasm has been pilloried relentlessly ever since"

I imagine you remember the source.

Why is outrageous to ridicule a steam train enthusiast but perfectly o.k. to liken those with religious convictions to nutters who believe in faeries at the bottom of the garden?
 
One of the prices we pay for living in a democratic society is that we may sometimes have to hear views we find offensive.

Of course. Juxtaposed with....

Your example of "a bloke in a pub" is facile. This isn't about gratuitous confrontation.

For people with religious views your heavy criticism of the influence of religion on politics (Blair), and your criticism of prayer, your association of religion with extreme and unpopular views even among ordinary Christians (for example, creationism), your heavy dislike of faith schools which are popular for no better reason than you dislike religion (I assume would prefer secular education), and your comparison of religion with children's stories of fairies, amounts to gratuituous confrontation in the context of a blog.

I'm not a practicing Christian. In point of fact, I'm agnostic. What you write doesn't offend me. But I know it would offend many people who, being tolerant and moderate Christians - or Muslims or Jews for that matter, would accord your opinions far more respect than seems to be happening in reverse.
 
There seems to be an awkward silence here ...

It is can be very difficult for an atheist (and that's how I view myself at the moment) to find the right tone.
In my view this means to:

- respect devout believers of any religion as individuals

- to avoid ridiculing them

- to appreciate the rich inheritance that religion has produced in so many areas - of art, culture, music, social conscience etc.

- but yet to make it clear that you don't share their faith at all - not one smidgeon, not one iota.

- I support the preamble to the Lib Dem constitution where it says " ...in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience"

That begs a few questions for me nowadays, particularly with respect to people brought up in fundamentalist faiths who have decided that they are really non-believers, and particularly with dress restrictions on Muslim women. One observer might consider covering your whole body except your eyes as enslavement to conformity. Another might call it freedom of conscience. I find myself in the first category.

But to cut a long story short, my feelings are ably summarised by Sam Harris in what is becoming a celebrated article here.
 
oops I was trying to add this link:


http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/there-is-no-god-and-you-_b_8459.html
 
On behalf of thde Ancient & Loyal Order of Oberon, I Welcome Simon's comments that our faith equates with other world religions. Garden fairies play a vital role in our society, and were instrumental in the Garden of Eden. (Can you imagine a garden without living fairies or Gnomes?)

On the other hand, please do not associate us with the the 'way, truth and light' brigade. Human and Gnomic societies have had enough of this dangerous, divisive nonsense.
 
As a confirmed Christian, I regard atheism as being on an intellectual par with a belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden. As a confirmed Liberal, I respect other people's rights to hold whatever beliefs they choose, no matter how ridiculous.

It is when demented beliefs enter the public sphere that we should be worried. Atheism, like sex, is a matter for consenting adults in private. When personal faith gets mixed up with the exercise of political power, there are usually tears before bedtime.

Are you seriously suggesting that only atheists should be allowed to hold positions of responsibility? After all, noone can divorce their faith from their actions.

Why are faith schools popular, by the way?
 
Luke, it's entirely right that you express your views on atheism the way you do. I'm comfortable with that (though it wouldn't matter if I wasn't).

The problem with devoutly religious persons being world leaders , especially ones with large armed forces or nuclear weapons is that they may feel that the political situations they are in are part of Gods plan, just as a student I once met felt that going to a particular university was part of God's plan.

I expect Messrs Bush and Blair to pray, and they probably wouldn't have invaded Iraq if they felt it wasn't against His plan.

What worries me is if the situation goes a step further. What if a national leader invades Iran or Israel or North Korea, not for any geopolitical reasons, but because they feel they are carrying out their God's wishes? That's the sort of thing that worries me. As a Christian, how would you counsel that hypothetical leader?
 
I would expect that hypothetical leader to follow any UN Security Council resolutions. Oddly enough, neither Blair nor Bush saw fit to do so.
 
Luke, I hope that hypothetical leader would.

Looking back over what I said about 6 weeks ago, I can see that what I wrote was a wee bit too strident. I should have said that an atheist could

make it clear if you really want to that you don't share their faith at all - not one smidgeon, not one iota.
As the people I work with in local politics have a wide range of beliefs and non-beliefs I'm glad we can rub along together and I don't nomally feel the need to mention my lack of a faith.
 
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