February 3, 2013 Comments Off
This is a video of a conversation I had with the sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor on ‘Why I am an atheist’. It was one in a ‘daisy chain’ of discussions on belief organized by 5×15 at the Wellcome Collection in London in December. The daisy chain featured, as well as Laurie Taylor and myself, Laurie’s son Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA (and a fellow-panelist of mine on The Moral Maze), Nick Spencer, director of research at the religious think tank Theos, and Linda Woodhead, Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, each interviewing the next daisy in the chain, as it were. My conversation with Laurie Taylor is at the top. Videos of the other conversations are below. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 27, 2012 § 8 Comments
Back at the beginning of the US Presidential campaign Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of launching ‘a war on religion’ and of wanting ‘to establish a religion in America known as secularism’. The irony is that Obama himself, even before entering the White House, had made clear his own disdain for secularism. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama had chided fellow Democrats for equating ‘tolerance with secularism’. In embracing secularism, he wrote, Democrats ‘forfeit the moral language that would help infuse our policies with larger meaning’.
Secularism is clearly a toxic word in US politics. But why? And how can we detoxify it? Those are the two questions at the heart of sociologist Jacques Berlinerblau’s new book How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom. Berlinerblau is Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. The key problem in the current debate about secularism is, he argues, the association of secularism with atheism. Studies have shown atheists to be America’s least trusted group. For most Americans, one study concluded, an atheist symbolizes some one ‘who rejects the basis for moral solidarity’. Atheists, in other words, cannot be ‘one of us’. « Read the rest of this entry »
August 22, 2012 § 26 Comments
My ‘Notes on Religious Freedom’, a shorter version of which appeared in New Humanist, was picked up by Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution is True and led to a fascinating debate, much of it critical of my arguments. I am grateful to WEIT for linking to the essay and for hosting the debate. What was striking about much of the criticism was the degree to which it was underpinned by deeply authoritarian sentiments. I have observed before the way that many contemporary atheists adopt an unpleasantly authoritarian stance. Many now demand, in the name of ‘reason’ or ‘science’, state restrictions or bans on views that might cause ‘harm’. It is a strange attitude for those who supposedly believe in free speech and free thought. (And before anyone jumps on me I am not suggesting that all atheists, or even most atheists, believe this – there were many on the WEIT thread who challenged such views; what I am suggesting is that such claims now form an important and objectionable strand in contemporary atheism.)
What is particularly disturbing is the casual bigotry that now seems acceptable and often goes unchallenged. One of the criticisms on the WEIT thread was of my opposition to the burqa ban. One commenter had this to say:
Alexander Hellemans: Imagine you would board the Paris metro, and there is a seat next to some person in a burqa, very fat, and you can’t see its face. Would you feel comfortable sitting next to it?
‘It’ is a person. However much one might loathe religion, however much one might despise what the burqa symbolises, to describe a person as a thing is sheer bigotry. It is to look upon that woman in the same way as do Islamist clerics. We should not need reminding of the consequences, historically, of such dehumanization. Yet no one thought it necessary to challenge Hellemans’ sentiment. Such comments turn up, of course, on many blogs (Pandaemonium included). But the failure to challenge it suggests that people are sometimes so blinded by their loathing of religion that they become inured to such bigotry and do not recognize the need to combat it at every point. That is a dangerous place to be. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 6, 2012 § 44 Comments
Like a lion, perhaps, in a den of Daniels, I gave a talk last week on ‘Why I am an atheist’ to theology students at Bristol’s Trinity College. It was an enjoyable event, and hopefully helped me to think through and sharpen my arguments (though not, I suspect, to change anyone’s mind). Here’s the transcript.
There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 10, 2011 § 1 Comment
The latest strip from the irrepressible Jesus and Mo may seem like a typical dig at the inconsistencies and illogicalities of religious faith. But, in its own inimitable way, it taps into one of the most difficult theological conumdrums for believers.
A common argument in the increasingly tedious ‘God Wars’ is the claim by believers that atheists are naive about religious belief. They read holy books too literally and think of God as an old man with a white beard. But, say believers, religion has long since moved on from such unsophisticated conceptions. It is, for instance, the argument that lies at the heart of Terry Eagleton’s broadside against Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and other New Atheists. Among the latest to join this chorus of ‘We’re more sophisticated than you’ is Ross Douthat in the New York Times.
Atheists can indeed be naïve about religion and theology, and I myself have been critical of many of the arguments. But the apologists for religion are equally naïve, not to mention disingenuous, in their defence of belief. It is true that there has long been a sophisticated strain of theology that sees God not as a person but as the ‘condition of being’, the prerequisite for the existence of the universe and the functioning of life. But there has also been a constant and profound tension between this abstract, non-figurative imagining of God and the God that does all the other things that religion requires of Him: perform miracles, answer our prayers, wrestle with the devil, set down moral law, explain the finer points of sex, punish sinners. And tell us to keep off the bacon sarnies. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 23, 2011 § 3 Comments
I was asked by the The Browser, a wonderful, indispensable website that trawls the web and fishes out some of the best writing, to choose, for its ‘Five books’ section, five books (naturally) on morality without God. Here’s my somewhat eclectic list and the interview that accompanies it.
Many believers think that the only way to be truly moral is to follow a religion which teaches us morality. How would you respond?
One of the great selling points of religions – in particular the monotheistic religions – throughout their history has been their importance as a bedrock of moral values. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. Without belief in God we will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism. ‘To remove God’, as the theologian Alister McGrath has put it, ‘is to eliminate the final restraint on human brutality.’
Looking back on history one might question just how successful God has been as ‘the final restraint on human brutality’. What really concerns me, however, is the way that religious concepts of morality degrade what it means to be human by diminishing the importance of human agency in the creation of a moral framework. From a religious perspective, it is the weakness of human nature that ensures that God has to establish and anchor moral rules.
In truth, morality, like God, is a human creation. Even believers have to decide which of the values found in the Torah or the Bible or the Qur’an they accept and which they reject. What God provides is not the source of moral values but, if you like, the ethical concrete in which those values are set. Rooting morality in religion is a means of putting certain values or practices beyond question by insisting they are God-given. The success of religious morality derives from its ability to combine extreme flexibility – just look at the degree to which religious morals have changed over the centuries – with the insistence that certain beliefs and values and practices are sacred and absolute because they are divinely sanctioned. « Read the rest of this entry »
July 28, 2011 § 4 Comments
I am an atheist because I see no need for God. Without God, it is said, we cannot explain the creation of the cosmos, anchor our moral values or infuse our lives with meaning and purpose. I disagree.
Invoking God at best highlights what we cannot yet explain about the physical universe, at worst exploits that ignorance to mystify. Moral values do not come pre-packaged from God but have to be worked out by humans through a combination of empathy, reasoning and dialogue. This is true of believers too: they, after all, have to decide for themselves which values in their Holy Books they accept and which they reject. And it is not God that gives meaning to our lives, but our relationships with fellow human beings and the goals and obligations that derive from them.
God is at best redundant, at worst an obstruction. Why do I need Him?