The New Atheism – The Next Step

Julian Baggini has writted a quite interesting article on this subject over on CiF. I mostly agree with it, but it has a bit of a problem. Here’s a quick quote from it:

What it revealed is the negative perception people have of the godless hordes, and the New Atheism must share responsibility for creating its own caricature. You can’t publish and lionise books and TV series with titles like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The Root of All Evil? and then complain when people think you are anti-religious zealots.

This can’t be dismissed as “mere perception”. Appearances count, which is why those able to present a more agreeable face have come to dominate the moderate middle ground, even if their arguments are often vapid and shallow.

The problem is this: Baggini has two messages, which aren’t really compatible. They are as follows:

1. The New Atheists are perceived as being too forthright and certain. Look at me, in contrast. See how I open my article with the words “When I threw off my Christianity, I did not throw out my Bible, I just learned to read it properly. Intelligent atheism rejects what is false in religion, but should retain an interest in what is true about it.” Lets all get better at presenting a “more agreeable”, less “contemptuous” face to the world, like moderate religious people and agnostics do.

2. The New Atheists have been too narrow in selecting their targets. They have drawn attention to some fundamentalists with nasty views, but there are still people wandering around with views that are equally bonkers, wouldn’t stand up to five minutes solid questioning, and need to be challenged, because they’re currently getting away with holding views that are frankly even more ill-thought-through than the religious loonies. The “fluffy brigade” are “flattering the woolly-minded by telling them vagueness is a virtue, not a vice.”

The first message urges us to stop pissing people off by seeming so sure of ourselves. The second one basically assumes that we’re right, and that it’s not just the fundies who need arguing with, but the woolly minded ones who think “God is love” is a terribly profound statement, not a load of fatuous guff. I’d agree with the second one, but I don’t see how we’re going to change anything of the perception of New Atheism by extending criticism to the people in the middle who are currently busy slapping themselves heartily on the back for being so chuffing moderate.

Of course, Baggini calls it a “conversation”, not criticism or an argument, but presumably the aim of the exercise is to cure people of their “woolly minded”ness, so I don’t quite know how that’s going to work. Presumably, these people are all so thick that during these “conversations” they won’t notice that we think we’re right if we just talk to them very, very softly.

It’s worth a try, I suppose.

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Agnostic Bus Campaign?

There is still an annoying confusion doing the rounds that any statement less strong than “I am absolutely certain there is no God” is not atheism but agnosticism. We can see it today in the faux surprise (expressed by religious sites like Ekklesia) at the wording of the Atheist Bus Campaign:

The slogan on the buses will read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

This appears to be a tactful retreat from Professor Dawkins’ previous claims that God “almost certainly” does not exist – but commentators are already pointing out that it is closer to agnosticism (uncertainty about whether God can be known as a reality or not) rather than atheism (outright denial).

This is a wedge that the religious like to drive between two positions that, typically, have more in common than they want people to think. After all, if you think atheists believe they can be absolutely certain there is no God, then there are almost no atheists in the world, and Richard Dawkins would, on that definition, be an agnostic. Here, for instance, is what Dawkins wrote on HuffPo two years ago:

Accepting, then, that the God Hypothesis is a proper scientific hypothesis whose truth or falsehood is hidden from us only by lack of evidence, what should be our best estimate of the probability that God exists, given the evidence now available? Pretty low I think, and here’s why. […]

That sounds, to me, entirely compatible with what the Atheist Bus Campaign is proposing to put on buses. The difference is one of degrees, between “probably” and “almost certainly”, both phrases which acknowledge uncertainty. I would argue that the Atheist Bus Campaign chose the wording it did mostly because it was trying to be pithy, not because they wanted to water down the atheist position. They are, after all, calling themselves the Atheist Bus Campaign.

Similarly, Bill Maher recently went on the Daily Show to promote his new film Religulous, which is, to all intents and purposes, advancing atheist arguments. Nonetheless, Maher claims for himself not atheism, but agnosticism. Now, an agnostic is “someone who does not know, or believes that it is impossible to know, whether a god exists“. If that is the case, then why argue, as Maher (correctly) does, that the beliefs of religious people are preposterous? If you’re agnostic, you are allowing that there is a reasonable case to be made both for and against the existence of a particular God, or at least that there is no robust case to be made against their existence. So why try?

I think the problem here comes from the wide range of definitions claimed for atheism in common parlance. Atheism can be “either the affirmation of the nonexistence of gods, or the rejection of theism. It is also defined more broadly as an absence of belief in deities, or nontheism.” Thing is, most atheists aren’t “affirming the nonexistence of gods”, they are “rejecting theism”. Religious apologists want you to believe that I believe there is definitely no God. I don’t. I just think the claims of religions are bonkers, and as such the burden of proof is on them, not me. But don’t call me agnostic. The only uncertainty I have is the technical kind of uncertainty that I also hold about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and Russell’s Teapot, both equally bonkers propositions.

Are "religious rights" special?

Today’s Wail contains a typically sensational report on the case of Lillian Ladele, a bigot whose sky-fairy told her to do it. So many points to be made here that I don’t quite know where to start. Perhaps a quick rewrite is in order. The following should strike everyone the way a story like this strikes me:

Victory for Pastafarian registrar bullied for refusing to perform ‘sinful’ inter-racial weddings

A Pastafarian registrar who refused to carry out interracial ‘weddings’ won a landmark legal battle yesterday.

A. N. Other, 45, was threatened with the sack, bullied and ‘thrown before the lions’ after asking to be excused from conducting civil partnerships for mixed-race couples because of his religious beliefs.

But yesterday a tribunal agreed that his faith had been ridden roughshod over by equalities-obsessed Islington Council, which had sought to ‘trump one set of rights with another’.

The groundbreaking decision could lead to firms facing ‘conscience claims’ from staff who say their own beliefs prevent them carrying out part of their job.

Yesterday’s ruling found that Liberal Democrat-run Islington Council in North London cared too much about the ‘rights of the black, white, asian and oriental communities’.

It also found that the council – which gave Mr. Other an ultimatum to choose between his beliefs and his £31,000-a-year job – showed no respect for his rights as a Pastafarian.

Speaking afterwards, Mr. Other said: ‘It is a victory for religious liberty, not just for myself but for others in a similar position to mine.

‘Civil rights should not be used as an excuse to bully or harass people over their religious beliefs.’

Mr. Other, who is single, said he was treated like a pariah by colleagues and left in an ‘intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’.

He had wept as he told the tribunal how his employers gave him an ultimatum to perform the ceremonies or face dismissal for gross misconduct.

‘I was being picked on a daily basis,’ he said. He said he felt like he was being ‘thrown before the lions’, explaining: ‘I hold the orthodox Pastafarian view that marriage is the union of two people of the same race for life and this is the Flying Spaghetti Monster-ordained place for sexual relations.

‘It creates a problem for any Pastafarian if they are expected to do or condone something that they see as sinful.’

His nightmare began in 2004, when he realised that legislation permitting civil partnerships at town halls between gays or lesbians would require him to preside over the ceremonies.

Mr. Other raised his concerns, but was ridiculed. His boss, Helen Mendez-Child, said his stance was akin to a registrar refusing to marry a gay person.

In 2006 Mr. Other and another, unnamed, Pastafarian colleague were accused of ‘discriminating against the homosexual community’.

In May 2007, the council launched an internal disciplinary inquiry into Mr. Other.

Four months later, he was told if he did not co-operate he would be sacked. He took the council to an employment tribunal, claiming discrimination, harassment and victimisation on the grounds of religion or beliefs.

Yesterday the Central London tribunal agreed he had been unfairly treated.

In its ruling, which could have implications for the administration of the 18,000 same-sex ceremonies conducted every year, the tribunal said: ‘This is a situation where there is a conflict between two rights or freedoms. It is an important case, which may have a wider impact than the dispute between the parties.

‘The tribunal accepts that it would be wrong for one set of rights to trump another.

‘The evidence before the tribunal was that Islington Council rightly considered the importance of the right of the interracial community not to be discriminated against but did not consider the right of Mr. Other as a member of a religious group.

‘Islington Council decided that the service it provided was secular and that the rights of the interracial community must be protected.

‘In so acting, it took no notice of the rights of Mr. Other by virtue of his orthodox Pastafarian beliefs.’

Compensation will be decided in September. There is no limit to the amount that can be awarded for religious discrimination.

Last night employment lawyer Lisa Mayhew, of Jones Day, said: ‘It is a bit of a wake-up call for employers.

‘They need to think about whether their instructions and the tasks expected of staff might cause people with religious beliefs more problems than others.

‘It does not have to be religion – this could apply across the spectrum in terms of race, gender or sexual orientation.’

But Bert Winterknack, of interracial rights campaign group Brickwall, said: ‘Public servants are paid by taxpayers to deliver public services.

‘They shouldn’t be able to pick and choose who they deliver those services to.’

Now, before we get down to it, there are a few pragmatic points I have seen raised on this. Sure, the argument goes, she couldn’t expect to be employed if she lived, say, in the highlands, and was the only registrar for miles around, but she wasn’t. She worked in a busy registrar’s office, and there were other registrars who could do the ceremonies she objected to, why couldn’t Islington council just be a sport and allow her to duck out of those ceremonies she didn’t want anything to do with. Of course, they could have done that, and, as I understand it, this is the ad hoc arrangement that she came to for some time.

Like any employee who continually demands special treatment in the way their tasks are assigned in a workplace that employs many people, it doesn’t surprise me that this didn’t exactly make her popular in the office. I don’t know how far the alleged “lions” went, but since the article in the Mail, which is pretty sympathetically worded, mentions no specifics at all, I doubt it was especially bad. Besides which, this isn’t what she is complaining about – the employment tribunal are there only to consider the rights and wrongs of her being faced with an ultimatum playing her beliefs against her continued employment.

The main point, really, is that to say the council (and I couldn’t care less that it’s a Lib Dem council, it may as well be a BNP council for all I care, they’d still be right) have wrongly allowed gay rights to trump religious ones is bizarre. The gay people in question are not employees, the religious person in question is, and an employee of a secular, state organisation, at that. Her job description now requires her to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies (which, by the way, were only introduced in the first place to get around the fact that religious twats were so bothered about the idea of the word “marriage” being applied to gay relationships, so I’m not even sure what she’s bothered about; she’s isn’t being asked to “marry” gay people), and she is refusing to do her job. Why should a secular state pay her to only do, say, nine tenths of her job? How about four fifths of her job? Half? A quarter?

Why is there even confusion about people’s right to be employed even if they say they mustn’t do part of the job description, not because they are incapable of doing it, but because they don’t believe in it? Could I demand work as a bricklayer but say I was ideologically opposed to physical work? No? Why not?

But as soon as you attach the magic word “religion” to things, people lose sight of the point. This is a problem for soft-secular states like Britain, who like to think they are essentially secular now but who still have a state religion, a requirement for a daily act of worship in all state schools, and laws against religious discrimination but no similar protections for atheists. An atheist who acted as Lillian Ladele has would, quite rightly, be told to fucking well belt up and get on with their job or find another one. Like she was. And nobody would think they had a leg to stand on.

Of course, nobody should be forced to do something they don’t want to do. And Miss Ladele wasn’t, she was given a choice: officiate in these ceremonies, or find another job which was compatible with her beliefs. She chose instead to throw her toys out of the pram and assert her right to stay on the public purse whilst discriminating against a section of the public who she is employed by. That an employment tribunal thinks that this right exists is the scary part. Because what it means is that, in the minds of the tribunal at least, “religious” rights are in some way special. Belief in a supernatural order to the world does, it seems, qualify you to hold attitudes which unreasonably affect your performance of your job without fear of reproach. In this sense, the state has a long way to go before it can genuinely call itself secular.

People who call Dawkins, Hitchens, Grayling et al. “militant”, who claim they are just being mean and picking a fight with mostly inoffensive religious people, can shove it up their arse. Because until stories like this one seem to everyone as obviously absurd as they do to atheists, they have a very important role.