The broadsheets, as always nowadays, are dripping with articles about religion. In today’s Times that crusty old Catholic William Rees-Mogg predictably argues that we need more religion, not less, and that orthodox Christian doctrine has always been opposed to slavery and the champion of liberty and equality. If he believes that, he’ll believe anything. In the Telegraph Boris Johnson, who I would have expected to have more sense, argues that allowing
The most mind-boggling piece of obfuscation, though, is to be found – as one would wearily expect, in that erstwhile bastion of liberal good sense, The Guardian. The writer, Stuart Jeffries, has been trotting around various religious and non-religious informants and has made the astonishing discovery – surprise, surprise! – that the root of the trouble is not religion itself, or disbelief, but the increasingly popular and vociferous fundamentalist varieties of each.
According to the Anglican Dean of Southwark, Colin Slee, there is not just a two-sided divide, but a three-cornered one – religious fundamentalists in one corner [boo], fundamentalist secularists in another [boo], and “intelligent, thinking liberals of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Baptism, Methodism, other faiths” [interestingly enough, Islam isn’t mentioned in this category] “and, indeed, thinking atheists, in the other corner." In Slee’s book non-thinking atheists include those such as Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling who, he fatuously maintains, “are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the
This is news to me: I hadn’t noticed Dawkins or Grayling igniting any bombs anywhere, except verbal ones which are obviously making their religious targets wriggle. I wonder how many of Dawkins’ critics have actually read The God Delusion? Far from being an intemperate rant, as they like to pretend, it is in fact a closely argued and generally good tempered polemic which requires reasoned refutation [if that is possible] and not mere mindless abuse.
A Muslim witness, Azzim Tamimi, director of the
The liberal Jewish rabbi, Julia Neuberger, also follows the same fallacious line about sceptics. “What I find really distasteful is not just the tone of their rhetoric, but their lack of doubt”, she says. “No scientific method says that there is no doubt. If you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest.” Tell that to Islam! To an outsider always on the lookout for those mysteriously silent “Moderate Muslims”, this religion is characterised by a total lack of contingent doubt and a totalitarian cast of mind. And Dr Neuberger surely doesn’t believe that most rational people doubt that the sun rose this morning in the East, and not in the West. Or does she live in a perpetual haze of uncertainty about the obvious?
The nub of this ongoing row, of course, is that those who live their lives by faith in a supernatural being regard these notions as “sacred” and wish to ring-fence them from rational discussion. Sceptics – atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists – by contrast, consider all opinions and beliefs should be open to debate and susceptible of scientific proof. Disbelief is NOT a dogma, but a suspension of belief in the absence of convincing evidence that the “supernatural” exists. Despite thousands of years of high-flown religious claims, the existence of a god, or gods, has not been convincingly demonstrated to anyone who doesn’t already have faith in the concept. To a non-believer, the notion of a god such as Jews, Christians and Muslims contemplate is incredible and self-contradictory: if any god does exist, he, she or it is most certainly not both all-powerful and all-benevolent.
What is ultimately at stake is the survival of pluralist, tolerant democracy. This will only be safeguarded if the presently growing influence of religion in public affairs is diminished and denied any privileged position in policymaking and above all in education. It should be the responsibility of the state to ensure that education is rational and non-sectarian, and no longer the plaything of religious factions whether Christian, Islamic, or any other.