Friday, 17 February 2012

The Negligence of Anti-Secularism

There's a curious doublethink prevalent in the world today. It calls tolerance intolerant and peace-making militant. It coddles views that are in violent and murderous opposition to each other and calls that constitutional. As Polly Toynbee says, about the faiths:
Each has their own divinely revealed unique truth, often provoking mortal conflict, Muslim v Copt, Catholic v Protestant, Hindu v Muslim or Sunni v Shia. But suddenly the believers are united in defence against the secular, willing to suspend the supremacy of their own prophets to agree that any religion, however alien, from elephant god to son of God, is better than none.
Secularism is the recognition that in a modern multi-cultural society we have these juggernauts of faith motoring around the body politic and, unless measures are taken to avoid it, they will collide. Not they might collide; they will collide. To argue against secularism in these circumstances is to call for a road system without traffic lights, roundabouts and Give Way signs.

Genuine secularism, not militant secularism, which surely doesn't exist, refuses to succumb to the privilege that religion demands, and the response to the Richard Dawkins Foundation Ipsos-MORI poll on Christian beliefs proves that we still have a problem accepting genuine secularism. Dawkins appeared on a couple of shows to talk about the results, which showed that those who self-identified as Christians have a wide-ranging set of beliefs. 49% of Christians polled don't believe that Jesus is the son of god, and 6% of Christians polled don't even believe in god! This means that government should be careful not to accept any lobbying from the religious to support a monolithic view of Christianity. Most importantly, perhaps, is that, of those polled:
Three quarters (74%) strongly agree or tend to agree that religion should not have special influence on public policy, with only one in eight (12%) thinking that it should.
So the majority of self-identified Christians, it would seem, advocates secularism. Some deride it, of course; here's the febrile Cranmer, talking about Trevor Phillips, Equality Tsar, who had the temerity to say that religions are not above the law:
Britain is not a secular state, and it is not for some trumped-up chairman of an over-inflated quango to make it one. All gods are not equal in the pantheon, Mr Phillips; all religions are not equally conducive to the common good; all faith groups are not equally beneficial to society; all beliefs do not equally save.
Here we see the self-righteous indignation which is the hallmark of the religious fanatic from Urban II to Pius XII, from John Calvin to Fred Phelps; the bedrock is their belief in the absolute truth of the revelation that has been granted them; of all people, of course, it has to be them, not the revelation of Johnny Foreigner, from the next village. The idea that their unevidenced belief trumps another's runs entirely contrary to the secularist project, which looks to allow people their beliefs, however wacky, but only allows them traction in the public square as far as they can be defended. No religion has any way of distinguishing its claims from any other, apart from reason and evidence, and reason and evidence shows religion to be a human construct. So the wilder claims and prejudices of the religious are thankfully binned. In so much as religious ideas make it into the mainstream, they are simply pale imitations of ideas that have been far better developed in secular philosophy.

Anyway, back to the response to the RDF poll, and the sclerotic theists and faitheists. The very fact that a poll of Christians is commissioned by Richard Dawkins, arch-atheist, throws them into a lather of risible proportions. Miles Fraser called him the high pope of Darwinism, as if being called a pope was an insult! Stephen Bayley calls him a fanatic disguised as a scientist!
Atheists seem to be very good at dogma. Dawkins seems not to understand that his own zealotry is itself a sort of religious quest.
These half-witted comments are self-defeating; is dogma good or not? If not, then don't be a theist. If it's good, then why accuse atheists of being good at it? Is a religious quest good or not?
Sure, organised religion has caused appalling conflicts. But it has also caused Michelangelo, Milton and Bach.
Bayley's smug complacency is breath-taking. Michelangelo, therefore, millions dead, and more lives blighted, is excusable. It's hard to believe that an educated man has typed this, sat back and looked down on the page with satisfaction. It speaks of a man with no heart, a soulless automaton, incapable of an empathetic response to the suffering and ugliness around him. Perhaps that's it; Bayley can only respond to things that he finds beautiful? Nothing else has value; any suffering is worth the small pleasure he gains from listening to the St. Matthew Passion or gazing at a ceiling. If so, the solipsism of the religiously minded strikes again. If not, well, I don't know what other conclusion we should draw from such a devastatingly insensitive argument.

Andrew Brown regularly posts terminally daft pieces, but nonetheless represents a constituency which wants to cast atheists who defend secularism as faulty in some way. Here he's keen to reinforce this prejudice:
...the militant secularist takes for granted that "the religious" have no access to reason. There can be no reasoning with his opponents. All he can do is to repeat himself more loudly until the idiots understand.
Well, if that's a militant secularist, then there can only be a handful, since many theists are secularists and most atheists have been religious themselves at some time, and I'm sure neither group would regard themselves as having "no access to reason". It is 'mendacious smears' like this, to use the phrase du jour, that show how anti-secularists like Brown fear the tide turning. And be assured that Brown is no secularist; he has fought hard for religious privilege in all his time at the Guardian, despite him self-identifying as an atheist.

And finally the execrable Stephen Pollard, in the Torygraph:
The militant secularists, however, have only one modus operandi – attack. 
The defensiveness is immediately apparent in this straw man, similar to Brown's.
Respect for others’ views seems to be entirely missing from their moral calculus.
Secularism being respect for others' views, and religious belief being the opposite of any such respect! Unless I should somehow conceive that death for apostasy is 'respect' for others' views. The irony of Pollard's statement breaks another meter, but it gets a double hit with the very next sentence, as Pollard continues, oblivious to his own incontinence:
They entirely miss the irony of their position.
You couldn't make it up. He tries to justify this high order idiocy:
Religious leaders who focus solely on a sectarian appeal to their own followers, and who seek to raise their own standing by diminishing the views of others, end up on the margins of serious debate. And as their noise drowns out the quieter, less confrontational majority, they act against their own religion’s interest.
Yes, religious leaders down the centuries have opened the eyes of their followers to the ideas of other religions. This thought, which is whatever the opposite of a truism is, Stephen Pollard thinks the British public will swallow. I shit you not! As Harry Rednapp might say.

That we have seen an hysterical outburst against the mildest defence of reasonable secularism, supported by the beliefs that many Christians themselves hold, shows us that the public square is sick and dysfunctional on this issue. Until such evidence is approached with equanimity, in a mature and reasonable manner, as a community we can't claim to have grown out of harmful magical thinking - the sort of harmful thinking that will inevitably result in fatal collisions if precautions aren't taken.

We will be driving the highways of public policy with no road management in place.


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