The God Wars

By Appleyard, Bryan | New Statesman (1996), February 27, 2012 | Go to article overview

The God Wars


Appleyard, Bryan, New Statesman (1996)


To hardline atheists, it is now unreasonable and "dramatically peculiar " to argue that religion is not altogether evil. How did such intolerance become acceptable to rational minds?

Two atheists - John Gray and Alain de Botton-and two agnostics - Nassim Nicholas Taleb and I - meet for dinner at a Greek restaurant in Bayswater, London. The talk is genial, friendly and then, suddenly, intense when neo-atheism comes up. Three of us, including both atheists, have suffered abuse at the hands of this cult. Only Taleb seems to have escaped unscathed and this, we conclude, must be because he can do maths and people are afraid of maths.

De Botton is the most recent and, consequently, the most shocked victim. He has just produced a book, Religion for Atheists: a Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, mildly suggesting that atheists like himself have much to learn from religion and that, in fact, religion is too important to be left to believers. He has also proposed an atheists' temple, a place where non-believers can partake of the consolations of silence and meditation.

This has been enough to bring the full force of a neo-atheist fatwa crashing down on his head. The temple idea in particular made them reach for their best books of curses.

"I am rolling my eyes so hard that it hurts," wrote the American biologist and neo-atheist blogger P Z Myers. "You may take a moment to retch. I hope you have buckets handy." Myers has a vivid but limited prose palette.

There have been threats of violence. De Botton has been told he will be beaten up and his guts taken out of him. One email simply said, "You have betrayed Atheism. Go over to the other side and die."

De Botton finds it bewildering, the unexpected appearance in the culture of a tyrannical sect, content to whip up a mob mentality. "To say something along the lines of Tm an atheist; I think religions are not all bad' has become a dramatically peculiar thing to say and if you do say it on the internet you will get savage messages calling you a fascist, an idiot or a fool. This is a very odd moment in our culture. Why has this happened?"

First, a definition. By "neo-atheism", I mean a tripartite belief system founded on the conviction that science provides the only road to truth and that all religions are deluded, irrational and destructive.

Atheism is just one-third of this exotic ideological cocktail. Secularism, the political wing of the movement, is another third. Neo-atheists often assume that the two are the same thing; in fact, atheism is a metaphysical position and secularism is a view of how society should be organised. So a Christian can easily be a secularist-indeed, even Christ was being one when he said, "Render unto Caesar" - and an atheist can be anti-secularist if he happens to believe that religious views should be taken into account. But, in some muddled way, the two ideas have been combined by the cultists.

The third leg of neo-atheism is Darwinism, the AK-47 of neo-atheist shock troops. Alone among scientists, and perhaps because of the enormous influence of Richard Dawkins, Darwin has been embraced as the final conclusive proof not only that God does not exist but also that religion as a whole is a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality.

"There is this strange supposition," says the American philosopher Jerry Fodor, "that if you're a Darwinian you have to be an atheist. In my case, I'm an anti-Darwinian and I'm an atheist. But people are so incoherent on these issues that it's hard for me to figure out what is driving them."

The neo-atheist cause has been gathering strength for roughly two decades and recently exploded into very public view. Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, was in the headlines for making a speech at the Vatican warning of the dangers of secular fundamentalism, which aims to prevent religions from having a public voice or role. …

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