Our drab religious anthem and anti-racism protests

Taking the knee against racism at Euro 2020 seems a better reflection of our national values than our national anthem: a hymn to a conquering sectarian monarchy.

England played Scotland on Friday in their second group game of the Euro 2020 football tournament. As they have in recent games, the England players joined by their Scottish counterparts agreed to take the knee before kick-off in a symbolic gesture against racism. As in recent games, this gesture was booed by a small number of racists.

There are substantive critiques of the knee protest. Gestures matter, but this one has been co-opted to fit within a framework with which the football authorities and sponsors are comfortable. While it has started important conversations it hasn’t so far led to substantive actions to address racism in football or beyond. However, protests against this protest against racism, have spread as it has been made a culture war issue.

Taking the knee has always been a bit of an awkward import into UK sport. Colin Kaepernick’s iconic protest of taking the knee before American football games worked, because he objected to being required to glorifying a nation steeped in racism. We don’t do the bizarre performative patriotism of insisting on the national anthem at every sporting event. Maybe we would if we had a decent one.

Many people feel more affinity to the symbolism of taking a knee for racial and social justice, than they do for our national anthem: God save our gracious queen etc. It says nothing about our people or the values millions of Brits identify with. As an atheist, I don’t want or need to beseech any deity’s help with my head of state’s health or nation’s sporting prowess. As a humanist I don’t want someone to “reign over us” As a secularist, I’m not sure I want a god to “confound their politics”, separation of church and state, and all that.

I find the excessively performative prayer by players, equally bizarre and more than a bit silly, though at least I can see a game in the pub without social pressure to participate in this. In either case, thanking god for a tap-in or making our national anthem a hymn to a conquering sectarian monarchy, I couldn’t imagine the effrontery of booing it. I’d like a new national anthem, but am not going to start a bloody culture war over it. I wouldn’t expect anyone to care if I boycotted the national team over it.

We like to pretend we’re a meritocracy. But celebrity, achieved through sporting success or media acumen, rare as it is, is one of the very few routes that provide people from ethnic minority or working-class backgrounds with a significant platform to speak out on social issues. There are certainly forms of neutrality and non-partisanship that institutions like football clubs would be wise to observe. But politics has always been interwoven with sport and football in particular. Calls to ‘keep politics out of football’ are normally calls to keep quiet about issues that people don’t like or are uncomfortable with. This is normally just a form of conservative ‘cancel culture’. There are significant issues with racism within British sport, particularly sport media and business, and any expectation that players should stay silent about this is political.

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Stop gaslighting LGBT+ people about religion

Happy Pride to all my LGBT+ readers and allies. The disproportionate contribution of LGBT+ people to atheist, humanist, secularist and similar groups is something we should all be extremely grateful for. At times, this disproportionate contribution has literally paid my wages and has greatly enriched the groups that have provided a home for me. Round the world and throughout history LGBT+ people have so often been on the frontline in the fight against theocracy and dogmatism.

When I was a younger, brasher atheist I used to wonder how any LGBT+ person could be religious. From a more mature position, I realise that faith identities and beliefs mean different things to different people, and many people are perfectly capable of reconciling these with LGBT+ identities or allyship.

In modern Western history virtually every organised campaign against the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people has been religious in nature. That is absolutely not to suggest that atheists, humanists, or secularist groups are completely free of homophobia. Though Western transphobia is also largely funded by religious groups, it has found far too warm a reception in some parts of our community. Though religiosity and homophobia are highly correlated, it would be an absurdly broad and unfair brush to paint all religion or religious people as homophobic. I was giving a talk a few years ago and during the Q&A a teenager shared her upset with her peers assuming Christians like her were homophobic. I’m sure she was entirely sincere, a good friend and ally. But the root of her discomfort was that she didn’t like people pointing out her group’s role in systemic oppression.

If people want to practice their faith or manifest their religious identity in more inclusive, humanistic ways then great. But LGBT+ people and their allies should not be policed or prevented from pointing out the systemic role of religion in their oppression. The fight for LGBT+ rights has almost always been a fight against heteronormative religious privilege.

The whole discourse on corporations co-opting Pride for pink washed marketing is important. Even if they are doing it for purely cynical reasons, is this still a sign of progress? Is performative allyship inherently good, bad, or neutral? Various accounts do a lot to expose this. At the moment, I’m following one which tweets about corporations’ rainbow rebrands along with details of their donations to anti-LGBT+ political causes in the US.

We should be just as critical of attempted pink washing by religious organisations. Any time a Church has a pride flag up, it’s great to see that they are trying to be inclusive. But I can absolutely guarantee with a tiny bit of research you could find they are affiliated or connected to an actively anti-LGBT+ group. Far too few will be open and honest about their religion’s role in homophobia. I’ve met many good and decent LGBT+ people of faith and worked with religious LGBT+ groups. They do a lot of good, but they also spend a lot of time and effort pretending that anti-LGBT+ bigotry has ‘nothing to do with religion’.

I get the strategic and practical reasons why ‘mainstream’ LGBT+ groups want to follow this same line. Ten to fifteen years ago, many ‘mainstream’ LGBT+ groups were pretending they didn’t support marriage equality, because they saw focusing on achieving civil unions as a pragmatic short term aim. This may have made strategic sense, but they were rightly called out on it, and it was a strategy which required more radical LGBT+ groups to push the envelope further.

LGBT+ groups have often sought acceptance by conforming themselves more closely to the values and expectations of ‘mainstream’ society. We live in a society where religion is extremely privileged, where taboos against criticism are valued and polite society is expected to pretend religion is never the cause of bigotry. LGBT+ people can choose to conform to these societal expectations, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be expected to. There is clearly a lot of value in LGBT+ groups seeking and celebrating religious allies. But allyship based on the marginalised group protecting the feelings of their oppressors should not be immune from criticism. LGBT+ people have made a disproportionate contribution to atheist, humanist and secularist groups and vice versa, yet they constantly find themselves tone policed and marginalised to accommodate religious privilege.

The long history of anti-religious and anti-religious privilege messages at Pride should surprise no one, but these have increasingly been targeted, alongside anti-capitalist messages as part the depoliticisation and commercialisation of marches. Ex-Muslim groups and others have been targeted for protesting against religious homophobia.

Efforts to make Pride more inclusive for all groups including people of faith are great. But this can verge into silencing and marginalising LGBT+ people’s ability to talk honestly about their oppression. I love that as a straight ally, my LGBT+ friends make Pride inclusive for me. But I would hate for my comfort to be prioritised over their liberation.

With straight privilege, people are more likely to accept I have honest intellectual reasons for my atheism. I’m less likely to be told that my desire to live a nonreligious life is based on sexual ‘sin’. I’m less likely to have experienced religious based trauma and far less likely to be gaslit by well meaning ‘allies’ telling me that the religious homophobia I’ve encountered is not ‘real’ religion. Straight privilege makes leaving religion easier and a lot less burdened with internalised shame.

Perhaps it is this, along with a healthy dose of religious privilege, which drives the desperate need of the mainstream and many LGBT+ media to find, create or amplify any positive story of LGBT+ inclusive religion. Again, I’m all for celebrating moves towards equality in all quarters. But the disproportionate amplification of these stories often feels like gaslighting LGBT+ people and can be used by well meaning allies to delegitimise their experiences of religious based oppression. They remind my of Hollywood’s constant churning out of civil rights movies with white protagonists.

The worst historical example of this which helped motivate me to become an activist, was The Advocate making Pope Francis their 2013 person of the year. It set the model for a decade of gaslighting. Francis was photoshopped with “NOH8” face paint the rallying cry for marriage equality which came out of the Californian campaign against Proposition Eight. A disgusting misrepresentation of Francis’s dedication to fighting marriage equality and any other advancement of LGBT+ rights. The pull-quote “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” was presented as the sole evidence of his support for LGBT+ rights. Any honest reading actually shows this to be evidence of his self-righteous bigotry. He was saying they gay people should seek forgiveness for the ‘sin’ of being gay, and the largest LGBT+ publication in the world debased themselves by carrying it on their front cover.

There are practical reasons to celebrate allies where you find them, but if we lower our expectations so far for religious people, then nothing meaningful is done to challenge the biggest structural cause of homophobia. The mainstream media don’t write fawning puff pieces when atheist, humanist or secularist leaders say something nice about LGBT+ people. Religious privilege shouldn’t allow people to play allyship on easy mode.

As atheist, humanist and secularist values spread, LGBT+ acceptance will only continue to grow, and eventually the average religious person will be as accepting as the average nonreligious person is today. Religious groups will rewrite history and highlight odd examples to pretend they were on the right side all along (after all, in every struggle there will be people from the oppressing group with the moral wisdom and courage to stand with the oppressed), but we shouldn’t make this easy or comfortable for them.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

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AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 2

Welcome to part two in a five-part series rexamining The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. In part one, I introduced the series and how Dawkins set out the ‘god hypothesis’. In this part Dawkins responds to common arguments for the existence of a god and contrasts them with his own argument, that an agent capable of acting as a god would be supremely complex and unlikely.

Chapter 3. Arguments for God’s existence

In Chapter three Dawkins considers the main theoretical arguments for the existence of a theistic, or more generic, god. I get a feeling that Dawkins is rushing through this chapter, and betraying his lack of interest in philosophical arguments, in an effort to quickly get back onto his preferred ground of scientific empiricism.

The easy criticism of this chapter is that Dawkins picks the simplistic arguments and gives them only superficial consideration. The easy defence follows that (1) he is writing an introductory book for a broad popular audience, not an academic work of counter apologetics, and (2) that the sophisticated versions of these arguments are no less vacuous.

When an atheist exposes the logical fallacy at the heart of one theologian’s simplistic argument, there will always be another more ‘sophisticated’ theologian along to make the argument more complex in an effort to better hide the same fallacy, and this goes on and on forever. Why then should an atheist not be allowed to save themselves some time and just address the simplistic version of the argument? If the theologian feels this unfair, they should stop trying to make their bad arguments ‘sophisticated’ and try finding a good argument. In any case I normally find apologetics a profoundly uninteresting distraction from religious debates which have some relevance to the real world.

As might be expected, Dawkins starts with Thomas Aquinas’s five ‘proofs’. Also, as to be expected, Dawkins points out that the first three of these (the unmoved mover, the uncaused cause and the cosmological argument) are actually the same argument which “rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it”, and in each the proposed terminator of this infinite regress is only made immune from that same regress through special pleading. Dawkins further points out that there is no reason to suppose that this special terminator should be a theistic god or any other conscious agent. He does not address how modern science calls into question the soundness of some of Aquinas’s clauses, something we can’t reasonably hold against the thirteenth century monk.

Dawkins quickly points out the fundamental logical problems with concepts of omniscience and omnipotence. I’m sure that ‘sophisticated’ theologians would take him to task, pointing out how they have redefined omniscience and omnipotence in an attempt to escape these internal logical contradictions.

Aquinas’s fourth ‘proof’, the argument from degree, Dawkins dismisses with a valid reductio ad absurdum. The argument from degree is that we notice there are different degrees of various things including  goodness. and that this implies there must be some entity which represents the maximal. Dawkins ignores, or doesn’t realise, the better response to the argument from degree, which is to point out that even if we do compare various things to a theoretical maximum, there is no reason to presume that this maximum is anything more than conceptual, let alone a conscious agent.

Aquinas’s fifth ‘proof’ is the teleological argument, better known as the argument from design. Given the centrality of evolutionary thought to Dawkins’ atheism, I expected a long refutation of this. In fact, Dawkins has written several far better books addressing the apparent design in nature.

From these a posteriori arguments Dawkins moves on to consider a priori arguments, beginning with the ontological, which he credits to St Anselm of Canterbury in 1078, and phrases thusly:

“Hence, even the fool (Anselm is referring to atheists) is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.”

Again, Dawkins largely addresses this through several valid reductio ad absurdum, but drawing on Hume and Kant does go on to point out some of the more obvious flaws in the argument. Namely that: the assertion that we can conceive of an ultimate being is questionable and the inclusion of existence as an aspect of perfection is circular. I do agree with Dawkins, that it would be bizarre for some great fact about the universe, which the existence of a god surely would be, to be revealed through word games.

Dawkins then goes on to state without bothering to refute “a hilarious half-dozen” arguments collected by the Godless Geeks website. Most ‘sophisticated’ theologians would probably agree these are silly. Though I feel compelled to point out that arguments such as “God loves you. How could you be so heartless as not to believe in him? Therefore God exists.” or “A plane crashed killing 143 passengers and crew. But one child survived with only third-degree burns. Therefore God exists.” are probably used by more of the faithful than Aquinas’s.

From these, Dawkins moves on to informal arguments starting with that from beauty. He points out that the existence of beautiful art, music and literature, even when inspired or financed by religion, says nothing about the existence of even a metaphorical god. He then spends a little time talking about arguments from personal experience:

“If you’ve had such an experience, you may well find yourself believing firmly that it was real. But don’t expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings.”

Both theologians and legitimate biblical scholars may wince at Dawkins’ simplistic discussion of biblical contradictions in addressing the argument from scripture. But his point that fictional and mythologised text cannot be used as evidence of the truth of their own claims, is pretty simple when you get down to it. Dawkins’ criticisms of the Bible and by extension other ‘sacred’ texts may be surface level but serve the purpose of consciousness raising. If a religious person has been raised to believe that ‘sacred’ texts are unquestionable, even inartful questioning of those texts may raise their consciousness to the possibility that they themselves could question them.

Dawkins spends five pages considering the arguments from admired religious scientists. He points out that (1) scientists were far more likely to be religious in the past when professing religious belief was the only acceptable thing to do (2) many great scientists are religious in the purely naturalistic metaphorical sense he addresses in chapter one and (3) there are clear correlations between levels of education, scientific expertise, and irreligion.

Again, I feel compelled to bring up the double-edged sword of atheist pride(fulness). Dawkins does not consider sociological reasons why better educated people and those who perform better on IQ tests may be more likely to be atheists. If you have greater access to good quality education, you are probably somewhere where it is physically and socially less dangerous to be an atheist. Not everyone has the time or resources necessary to educate oneself about or fully consider religious and naturalistic arguments. Dawkins, memorably, would go on to point out that Muslim majority countries produce significantly fewer Nobel Scientists.

Dawkins rounds out the chapter by addressing Pascal’s wager and giving brief consideration to Bayesian analysis. Dawkins summarises the French mathematician Blaise Pascal thusly:

“You’d better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong you get eternal damnation, whereas if you are right it makes no difference. On the face of it the decision is a no-brainer. Believe in God.”

Dawkins makes the usual sensible criticisms of the wager: it can be applied to any unevidenced proposition one cares to think up, it doesn’t account for how vanishingly unlikely the possibility of a god actually existing is, and it doesn’t account for the negative costs of religion. Dawkins appears to miss that Pascal’s actual argument in the wager is that one should act as though they have faith in the hopes that they will be influenced by those around them or God’s grace to develop genuine faith. If (as Pascal believed) there were good independent evidence for a god (there isn’t) then the wager might be reasonable.

Bayesian arguments are those which try to make probabilistic arguments for the existence of a god by considering generally agreed (between theists and atheists) facts about reality and then attempting to compare whether they would be more or less probable in a world where a god does or doesn’t exist. Dawkins points out that these arguments are subject to the “GIGO principle (Garbage In, Garbage Out)” as the theist simply asserts that some variable is more likely in a world where their preferred god exists. I actually find Bayesian arguments for gods to be more interesting and epistemologically humble than the other arguments considered in this chapter.

Chapter 4. Why there almost certainly is no God

This chapter contains Dawkins central argument against theism and what he considers to be the best argument against the god hypothesis he has defined in chapter two, namely that: a theistic god i.e., a conscious agent created the universe and has some interest in human affairs.

Dawkins’ strategy is to take the argument from (apparent) design or complexity, which as an evolutionary science communicator he has dedicated decades to refuting and turning it on its head. He calls this the “Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit”, based on the creationist argument which misrepresents evolution as a random process of chance, where the odds of creating complex life is akin to the odds of a tornado in a junkyard assembling a Boeing 747.

Dawkins reasons that an entity such as a god with the power to create and manage the universe must be itself incredibly complex and therefore more improbable. Theologians reason that the complex appearance of design seen in nature suggests that there is a designer for the whole of nature. Dawkins understands that the complex appearance of design seen in nature is actually the result of simple natural processes, he therefore reasons that there must be simple natural processes for the whole of nature.

Dawkins believes that natural selection should serve as a consciousness-raiser to help us understand why a complex theistic god would be so unlikely. As he’s back on the topic of consciousness-raising, we are treated to another cringing jab at aspects of feminism he thinks are silly, namely “herstory”, before actually giving good examples of how feminist critique of language has helped expose hidden assumptions which may cloud our thinking.

“Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises our consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate guidance.”

Natural selection may be Dawkins’ central concern, but he points out how other fields of science should raise our consciousness to understand the absurdity of believing that the vast universe we inhabit a tiny part of was created by a conscious agent for our benefit. Dawkins, via Prof Peter Atkins, addresses the argument that a god could have worked their process of creation through processes such as natural selection, with a seemingly valid reductio ad absurdum where a lazy god allows natural processes to do all his work for him.

Dawkins spends a few pages on the creationist pseudoscience of irreducible complexity and supposed gaps in the fossil record. All of this is perfectly fine refutation of creationism and is both entertaining and informing science communication, but doesn’t add much to the point that a theistic god would have to be very complex.

Next Dawkins addresses the anthropic principle, at both planetary and cosmological scales. To sum up, theologians point to how unlikely the existence of either life on this planet or life in the universe itself is and suggest that this points to the existence of a god who sets things up this way. The anthropic principle flips this on its head. If life had not evolved on Earth, then we wouldn’t be here to be wondering why.

“The chance of finding any one of those billion life-bearing planets recalls the proverbial needle in a haystack. But we don’t have to go out of our way to find a needle because (back to the anthropic principle) any beings capable of looking must necessarily be sitting on one of those prodigiously rare needles before they even start the search.”

If I were to shuffle a deck of 52 cards before drawing out 13 spades, this would seem hugely significant to me. But it would be no less improbable than drawing any random selection of 13 cards. The existence of humans is naturally of supreme importance to humanity. But if we didn’t exist, it’s not like the universe would miss us. It is unfathomable arrogance to assume the universe was created for us, why not assume it was created for dung beetles, black holes, or interstellar dust?

Dawkins points out that some theologians like to go on and on about how unlikely the current setup of our local universe is, but that such probabilistic arguments are rendered meaningless by the anthropic principle, and by the fact that these theologians have no basis for their probabilistic claims. We don’t know how many potential universes there are or whether the conditions of our local universe really are free to vary.

For the cosmological version of the anthropic principle, Dawkins considers the religious physicist Martin Rees’s argument from six fundamental constants. Rees argues that there are six fundamental constants which must be exactly or pretty exactly their current values in order for a universe like ours to exist. A theologian would argue that a god would have to have set these values. Dawkins counters that a conscious agent capable of setting those values would have to be more complex and so it is far simpler to suppose some unconscious naturalistic explanation.

“How do they cope with the argument that any God capable of designing a universe, carefully and foresightfully tuned to lead to our evolution, must be a supremely complex and improbable entity who needs an even bigger explanation than the one he is supposed to provide?”

Dawkins is aware that theologians will respond that a god is a simple and parsimonious proposition. This could be defended in several ways: (1) by positing a purely first cause god rather than the theistic god Dawkins is addressing, (2) by special pleading that god is immune from the logical inconsistency that arises in being both supremely simple and supremely complex, or (3) simple obfuscation.

First, he considers the argument by the theologian Richard Swinburne who argues, unconvincingly, that a god who through conscious effort maintains the laws of physics throughout the universe is simpler than having to suppose explanations for why every component of the universe continues to obey the laws of physics. Another theologian, Keith Ward, is quoted in the ‘god is simple camp’ as saying:

“As a matter of fact, the theist would claim that God is a very elegant, economical and fruitful explanation for the existence of the universe. It is economical because it attributes the existence and nature of absolutely everything in the universe to just one being, an ultimate cause which assigns a reason for the existence of everything, including itself.”

Dawkins points out that Swinburne and Ward are positing an extremely complex agent and then, because they can describe it in simple terms, asserting that the thing itself is simple. Dawkins could have argued that this is an example of confusing the map for the territory.

Dawkins wraps up the chapter with “an interlude at Cambridge”, where he recounts the response to his argument from complexity at a Templeton Foundation conference on science and religion:

“I challenged the theologians to answer the point that a God capable of designing a universe, or anything else, would have to be complex and statistically improbable. The strongest response I heard was that I was brutally foisting a scientific epistemology upon an unwilling theology, if Theologians had always defined God as simple. Who was I, a scientist, to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex?”

Dawkins effectively returns to his critique of NOMA from chapter two. He, and I agree with him, rejects the theologians’ claim that they have some special field of knowledge which is immune from the sorts of epistemology we may apply to other empirical or philosophical questions. Dawkins believes that by framing the god question as a hypothesis which (1) actually does represent the sort of god that theists claim to believe in and (2) is demonstrably improbable, he can move it to his own ground and defeat it. But I don’t think that’s how counter apologetics works. The best the atheist can do, and Dawkins does make a valiant effort in this chapter, is simply to continue to point out absurdities in god concepts such that theologians must retreat deeper and deeper into special pleading to defend their notions.

Dawkins addresses the claim by critical theologians, that his worldview – that theological claims can be put to the question as a scientific hypotheses – is stuck in the nineteenth century. He contends that this attack actually reflects poorly on theologians and their retreat since the nineteenth century from defending their positions through real-world epistemology, to defending their beliefs from the reach of that epistemology. This, one presumes, is what passes for banter at a Templeton Foundation conference.

Finally, Dawkins concludes the chapter and then sets up the rest of the book by considering some of the questions of religion atheists should address once the idea of a theistic god has been dismissed:

“Isn’t it consoling? Doesn’t it motivate people to do good? … Why, in any case, be so hostile? … where does it come from?” etc.

Those all sound like good questions, and I hope you will join again in two weeks’ time to explore Dawkins’ responses.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

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Community matters: The importance of actively secular spaces

Over the last 18 months, with Covid driving the shift to online meetings and with thinking about launching this blog, I have been to a larger and wider range of atheist, humanist, and secularist groups than in any time since my student activist days. I’ve been thinking about the different types of spaces which are needed to serve AHS+ communities.

Within movement atheism and wider religion and belief debates, a lot of discourse draws a binary distinction between religious and nonreligious or the sacred and the secular. I think this overlooks the potential of secular or nonreligious spaces as a meeting ground. We could instead see spaces as spread along a spectrum:

Actively religious > passively religious > passively nonreligious > actively nonreligious > passively irreligious > actively irreligious.

We need inclusive communities to fill the space right across this spectrum. However, I believe the space for actively nonreligious communities is poorly served. In our increasingly secularised world, most places are passively nonreligious. Book club, parkrun, community cricket club; for most of us, regardless of beliefs, most of our social interactions are de facto nonreligious.

The religious have no shortage of groups which, even if not focussed on religious goals, are centred around their identity and their needs. If you are nonreligious and you want a group centred around your identity, then your choices are more limited and mainly focused on atheism. These groups do important work challenging the toxic manifestations of religion. But they shouldn’t be the only groups serving nonreligious communities. If you’re looking for a space to express your nonreligious identity, then an explicitly atheist or antireligious group may not always be what you need.

Many groups who want to position themselves as being for nonreligious people retreat into a passively nonreligious mentality because it feels ‘safer’ or less ‘controversial’. I’ve seen this happen with various nonreligious charity drives shifting to more generic language of serving everyone – an aimable goal. Nonreligious summer camps or discussion groups reframing themselves as philosophy focused. So called “atheist churches” describing themselves as just social meetups. All of these activities may be great in themselves, but the retreat from openly identifying as nonreligious is potentially problematic.

Without this clear identity, these groups may not be clearly communicating to their main audience or reaching nonreligious people. While this is fine if we just want nonreligious spaces, it isn’t creating spaces for nonreligious people.

Internalised religious privilege also plays a role as we’re told it is intrinsically bad to create explicitly nonreligious spaces. Many nonreligious people feel that that is part of their identity they should be at least slightly embarrassed about and that organising around it is inherently exclusionary. Even in actively irreligious spaces, there is often an assumption that the group should be reaching out and prioritising showing a good face to the religious. Not every space is for everyone, and if we believe that nonreligious people deserve community, then we should create communities which serve and centre them.

Actively nonreligious spaces also give room for atheists and anti-theists to express their nonreligious identities free from, rather than in opposition to, religion. They create room for values which stand apart from both religious and explicitly atheistic belief systems.

This is not just about nonreligious people. Many people of faith, including but not limited to those who may also be humanists or secularists, have particular needs for actively nonreligious spaces. Religion can be very important to someone, and still be something they need to get away from, from time to time. Everyone has nonreligious parts of their identity they can need space to express. Actively nonreligious spaces can provide them with that without unwanted anti-religious proselytization or antagonism.

I think this would also help support the political cause of secularism, by better differentiating between nonreligious and irreligious spaces.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

AHS reads: The God Delusion, part 1

A review of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins 15 years after its first publication hardly qualifies as a hot take. However, when I was deciding to launch this blog and considering the small contribution I could make to our AHS+ communities, it made sense to revisit the book which arguably helped launch the modern atheist movement more than any other .

An atheist humanist secularist reading

This series will be an experiment in in-depth critical reviews spaced out over alternate weeks for the benefit of those who wish either to read along or who are more interested in my sociopolitical commentary.

In part one I will review the preface and first two chapters, where Dawkins sets out the form of theism and religion he is arguing against, contrasting it with metaphorical uses of the terms. In two weeks’ time I will respond to chapters three and four, where Dawkins considers the arguments for and his central argument against theism. Part three will look at naturalistic explanations for the roots of religion and morality (chapters five and six). Part four critiques chapters seven and eight, and the moral case against religion. This series will conclude with my review of the final two chapters’ positive case for atheism, and my reflections on the series overall.

To paraphrase Heraclitus, we don’t read the same book twice. The text may not have changed, but we have.

I read the first paperback edition around 14 years ago. What was so energising was not necessarily the text itself but the intellectual and social movements it helped ignite. I’m not even sure if I read all the way to the end, as my copy was borrowed multiple times. Strangers seeing you read it in the park would come up to talk to you about it. Like the Bible, this was a text where the greatest impact, and both the most vociferous criticism and praise, comes not necessarily from the text itself, but peoples’ filtered idea of the text.

I read it for a second time about seven years ago when my personal atheism was transitioning from a firebrand to a more social justice-oriented approach. Perhaps I sought to recapture the burning ferocity of the early ‘new atheism’. I remember being surprised to find the book was far more mellow than I had remembered;. certainly less scathing than most online discourse about politics. It is only the special deference granted to religion that makes a book like The God Delusion seem at all scandalously rude.

Preface

The book was published in the same year that Dawkins presented a Channel Four documentary titled “Root of all evil” and illustrated by “a picture of the Manhattan skyline with the caption ‘Imagine a world without religion.’”. I was surprised by quite how early it is clear that this book was written in the shadow of 9/11, though to a lesser extent than books like Letter to a Christian Nation. Dawkins had wanted to write a book directly tackling religion for some time but was deterred by publishers. The events of 11 September 2001 and other Islamist violence forced concerns over religious fundamentalism into the mainstream and created the space for the so called ‘new atheism’ epitomised by authors like Dawkins.

This also displays the reduction of complex geo-political issues into simplistic explanations of religious extremism that those authors were more or less fairly criticised for.

Dawkins uses the preface to set out his approach including the self admittedly ambitious aim that “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” as well as four secondary aims of ‘consciousness raising’. Seeking to persuade people of the truth of your position is laudable. But this comes across as hopelessly naïve.

Perhaps this is a product of its time and seems stranger to us because the conversation about religion and atheism has moved on. Before the ‘new atheism’ of the early 21st-century began to break this taboo, atheist arguments were excluded from much of the public sphere. Before the internet, people in highly religious communities may never have had access to the writings of others who shared their own inner doubts. It is unsurprising that popularly accessible atheistic writing was able to quickly reach so many already primed recipients.

This claimed aim also invites comparisons to work by Christian apologists, who often profess themselves to be writing to the non-believer, while actually giving greater service to the aim of reinforcing religious faith.

Dawkins sets out four forms of consciousness-raising he wishes to promote through the book. Firstly, that atheism is both an intellectually viable and potentially personally fulfilling option. This is a measure of how far we have come in beginning to break the taboos of atheism, that this aim appears so modest.

Secondly, that the explanatory power of natural selection should prime us to embrace naturalistic and non-agent focused explanations over religious or design focused ones.

Thirdly, noticing the absurdity of labelling children by their parents’ religious beliefs. While the statement that “There is no such thing as a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Christian child.” is perhaps too simplistic, the lazy assumption that children belong to or are owned by the religious tradition of their background should be challenged.

Fourthly, that being “an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of”. He makes the comparison to LGBT pride and the coming out movement explicit. The comparisons, and differences, between these two deeply entwined movements deserves further commentary.

Pride is a double-edged sword. Most of us still live in societies which – however irreligious – are awash with religious privilege and where being an open atheist is treated as something shameful. Atheists should have the pride necessary to be open about themselves and their beliefs but also be careful of being unnecessarily prideful about figuring out the easy ‘god question’.

Chapter 1. A deeply religious non-believer

“Chapters 1 and 10 top and tail the book by explaining, in their different ways, how a proper understanding of the magnificence of the real world, while never becoming a religion, can fill the inspirational role that religion has historically – and inadequately – usurped.”

The title of the first chapter comes from an Einstein quote and is all very interesting. While setting the scene, it does little to advance Dawkins’ main arguments. He discusses how a “quasi-mystical response to nature and the universe is common among scientists and rationalists” and how metaphorical use of religious language can cloud our debate. It’s unclear whether Dawkins is criticising scientists for using religious metaphors or theologians and religious quote miners for misrepresenting these as an argument for theism.

During his life it was clear that Einstein was not religious or a believer in anything but a metaphorical god and Dawkins quotes at length some of the brutal and racist attacks against him by Christian theologians because of this. But in death Einstein’s words have been misappropriated by theologians.

“There is every reason to think that famous Einsteinisms like ‘God is subtle but he is not malicious’ or ‘He does not play dice’ or ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ are pantheistic, not deistic, and certainly not theistic. ‘God does not play dice’ should be translated as ‘Randomness does not lie at the heart of all things.’ ‘Did God have a choice in creating the Universe?’ means ‘Could the universe have begun in any other way?’ Einstein was using ‘God’ in a purely metaphorical, poetic sense. “

Dawkins is very concerned he is not misrepresented as arguing against metaphoric religion or poetic naturalism, and that he be understood as targeting specifically theistic supernaturalist religion.  Like many science communicators, Dawkins frequently uses agency and amorphization in discussions of evolution and other natural processes. Often one of the silliest critiques of atheists and other materialists is to accuse them of ‘scientism’, which puts the atheist into a bind. Either they are accused of not appreciating beauty and wonder, or they talk about beauty and wonder and are accused of making nature into a religion.

Figurative language about religion can be deployed in two ways according to Dawkins. Firstly he addresses how metaphor and euphemism can be misused to give inappropriate credit to religion. Then he turns his attention to how metaphor and euphemism can be misused to shield religion from criticism.

This provides us with an early example of Dawkins moving outside of his field of expertise (science communication) into fields where he is much less artful (social commentary). From Northern Ireland to Iraq and Yugoslavia, Dawkins criticises the use of euphemisms such as community or ethnic conflict when describing conflict between religious groups: “we have a pusillanimous reluctance to use religious names for warring factions”.

It is true that the media and elites wish to downplay or obfuscate the role of religion and religious identity in such conflicts, but equally they cannot be reduced to matters of religion. Dawkins will return to this theme, and the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland in more detail later in the book. So, I’m reluctant to criticise him for his overly simplistic treatment of it here.

Because of religious privilege, an underlying theme in but not actually one of the four issues Dawkins wishes to raise consciousness on, is that religion is often given credit for the good and shielded from criticism for the bad. For example, the work of a Christian charity is credited to Christianity, whereas bigotry by a Christian hate group is not. Dawkins is right to criticise this, but it would be difficult to justify doing the opposite, for example if he were to claim that religion must take no credit for Christian charity, but all blame for Christian hate.

For the rest of the chapter Dawkins goes into examples such as Islamic fundamentalists’ (and their mainstream apologists’) reactions to the 2005/06 Danish Muhammad cartoons episode and public debates over morality to highlight the undue deference given to religious sensibilities.

“It is in the light of the unparalleled presumption of respect for religion that I make my own disclaimer for this book. I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.”

Chapter 2. The God Hypothesis

Chapter two opens with perhaps the book’s best-known quotation:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

It’s hard to argue with such a characterisation based on any honest reading of the Bible. But, perhaps surprisingly to those who have encountered this quote out of context, Dawkins is not out to “attack such an easy target”. In this chapter Dawkins sets out what he means to and believes can be attacked, namely the hypothesis that a theistic god, (i.e., one possessing agency and with some interest in the affairs of either humanity or the wider universe) exists.

Dawkins believes that this is a scientific hypothesis which can at least theoretically be tested. If the theologian genuinely believes they can demonstrate the existence of a god, either through empirical evidence or rational argument, it is unclear why they would object.

Dawkins takes a rather brief aside to consider polytheism, including the trinitarianism of Christianity. Of course, Christian theologians will argue, nonsensically, that the trinity is mono rather than poly theistic. Critics may argue that this is betraying Dawkins simplistic view of religion, while a supporter could respond that these are not necessary to address the god hypothesis. One need not know every single detail of every single edition and every single school of criticism of the Spiderman comics to discuss whether Spiderman exists.

Dawkins explains that “For brevity I shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply ‘God’.” Again, this seems perfectly sensible, Dawkins is free to set out the hypothesis he is arguing against and theologians are free to criticise the argument or hypothesis. Here also Dawkins explains why he will continue with the convention of referring to the agent or theistic god as he, before taking a dig at feminist theologians:

“More sophisticated theologians proclaim the sexlessness of God, while some feminist theologians seek to redress historic injustices by designating her female. But what, after all, is the difference between a non-existent female and a non-existent male? I suppose that, in the ditzily unreal intersection of theology and feminism, existence might indeed be a less salient attribute than gender.”

I agree with Dawkins that theology is not a serious academic approach to studying religion or belief. Philosophy of religion, sociology of religion, history of religion, psychology of religion et cetera et cetera et cetera are all worthy fields of study, but theology should be kept as far away from this as alchemy is kept away from the chemistry department.

But it seems that Dawkins is intentionally associating theology with feminism, to make it sound silly. Proposing a female god is no sillier than proposing a male god, so why doesn’t he spend as much time making fun out of that? Feminist religious scholars – whether legitimate scholars or theologians – may have good reasons to talk about a female god, including addressing the traditional male supremacy in religion.

Dawkins is happy to make use of feminist thought surrounding consciousness-raising, and then turns round and uses feminism as a punchline. Feminists may label an arbitrary concept of god female, for the same reason that Australian mapmakers may arbitrarily place the southern hemisphere at the top of their maps. Indeed, this second is an example of consciousness-raising that Dawkins later praises.

Also note the use of the gendered language, ‘ditzy’. Toxic parts of the atheist movement frequently use gendered or racialised language to criticise gendered or racialised aspects of religion, and then when called on it claim that they are criticising all religion.

Dawkins seeks to pre-empt the criticism that: “The God that Dawkins doesn’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either. I don’t believe in an old man in the sky with a long white beard.” Dawkins believes this is unfair because that’s not the hypothesis he is attacking, he is attacking the hypothesis of an agent i.e., theistic god. One may also point out that the idea of a god sitting up in the clouds, while laughable today, is not so different to concepts of gods that have been held throughout human history.

Dawkins then spends a little time looking at monotheism and the secularist roots of the United States. This is all fine enough but superficial and I’m not sure why it’s placed in this chapter. He spends a lot of time talking about:

“The paradox has often been noted that the United States, founded in secularism, is now the most religiose country in Christendom, while England, with an established church headed by its constitutional monarch, is among the least.”

He gives a quite superficial answer which might be called the free-market hypothesis that lack of state religion has encouraged religions to become more aggressively competitive. When Dawkins encounters a difficult question in science, he is excited about all the different possible explanations there could be. But on difficult social questions, he seems content to reach for simplistic answers.

After these asides Dawkins returns to the central argument of this chapter, that the existence of a theistic god is a scientific hypothesis. He begins by defining two types of agnosticism: “Temporary Agnosticism in Practice” vs “Permanent Agnosticism in Principle”. First of which Dawkins considers a reasonable open-minded approach and the second a close-minded assertion.

He illustrates this with a seven-point scale from 100% certain theism to 100% certain atheism. Dawkins contends that the “Temporary Agnosticism in Practice” should lead us to a strong six, verging on seven on the scale, while the “Permanent Agnosticism in Principle” approach is useless as it would preclude us from taking any position.

We then get a brief rundown of the burden of proof, and why theists are unjustified in placing this on atheists, via the examples of Russell’s cosmic teapot, Camp Quest’s invisible pink unicorn and the Church of the flying spaghetti monster. To summarise:

The great humanist mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell illustrates the problem with theists claiming that atheists should be the ones to prove that God doesn’t exist, by positing the existence of a tiny china teapot orbiting the sun which cannot be revealed or disproved even by the most powerful telescopes, and how absurd it would be to demand that a-teapotists disprove its existence. The invisible pink unicorn and flying spaghetti monster are contemporary examples to illustrate the absurdity of positing undetectable supernatural entities without evidence and then asserting the burden is on others to disprove their claim.

Dawkins spends the remainder of the chapter addressing potential criticisms of his approach to the god hypothesis, in the form of the theory of non-overlapping magisterium (NOMA) proposed by Stephen Jay Gould. NOMA holds that:

“The net, or magisterium, of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the old cliches, science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how to go to heaven.”

Dawkins’ critique of this is twofold and it seems to me that an honest theologian who sincerely believes there is evidence for the god hypothesis would join Dawkins in this first critique. Namely, that the two magisterium do comment on each other. Theologians make claims about reality all the time. If there were the slightest suggestion of empirical evidence in favour of the god hypothesis, does anyone imagine theologians would say this doesn’t count, because it is from a different magisterium?

For an example of this, Dawkins considers “the Great Prayer Experiment”, one of several such initiatives funded by the Templeton Foundation which aim to find indirect empirical evidence in support of religion by testing prayer. If the test were to succeed, theologians would claim this as evidence. Religious apologists only retreat to claiming that the utility of prayer is beyond science because such tests fail.

Dawkins’ second critique is to question the basis of the second magisterium, i.e. to question whether theologians really do have a meaningful field of expertise.

“Perhaps there are some genuinely profound and meaningful questions that are forever beyond the reach of science… But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can?… theologians have nothing worthwhile to say about anything else; let’s throw them a sop and let them worry away at a couple of questions that nobody can answer and maybe never will.”

While Dawkins does agree, perhaps to shield himself from accusations of scientism, that “science’s entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic, to say the least”, his simplistic treatment of the second magisterium does give succour to the types of atheists who do casually dismiss the contributions of philosophy and the humanities to our understanding of the world.

Finally, Dawkins turns to considering why NOMA is embraced by religious moderates and those nonreligious scientists who he dismisses as the “appeasement lobby”:

“A possible ulterior motive for those scientists who insist on NOMA – the invulnerability to science of the God Hypothesis – is a peculiarly American political agenda, provoked by the threat of populist creationism.”

Ostensibly this is all in aid of defending his claim that the existence of a theistic god should be treated as a scientific hypothesis. I can’t help but feel that had an editor imposed a clearer structure on the book Dawkins could have treated the whole question of religious moderates and appeasing atheists, with more consideration.

Dawkins’ scientific understanding of evolution plays an important role in his atheism. He seems to resent the suggestion that he should hide this in order to make the facts of evolution seem more palatable to the religious. But is Dawkins really being asked to hide his beliefs, or simply to meet religious believers on common ground?

This touches on Dawkins’ fourth consciousness raiser, that of atheist pride. Why in polite society or when cooperating with good and decent religious people, must atheists be expected to not only respect the beliefs of others, but acts if they are faintly embarrassed of their own atheism?

Like Dawkins, I am somewhat bemused at the cognitive dissonance required by sensible religious people to integrate god beliefs into their otherwise reasonable worldviews. But I’m not so prideful that I believe my own worldview is free of any irrationalism or woolly thinking.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more. I’m thinking of doing more reviews on books from an AHS+ perspective, are there any you’d like to see? Would you prefer books that are generally pro or anti atheist, humanist or secularist?

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs, and one day help expand our operations.

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Atheism, religion, and the pitfalls of reasoning from first principles

Blunt force reasoning from first principles may work for the narrow question of gods’ (non)existence but the truly difficult questions require deeper engagement with atheistic, humanist and secularist philosophy.

I could construct a perfectly logical, entirely theoretical argument that building more roads would help reduce traffic, or that a minimum wage decreases demand for labour. This argument from first principles could seem entirely sensible but would be empirically indefensible.

I’ve been thinking about the pitfalls of such reasoning from first principles, and why atheists, among others in the AHS+ community, may be particularly vulnerable to them. It is possible, sitting in a room by yourself, with no other people, to figure out the ‘God Question’. Every formal argument for the existence of gods (i.e., for theism), is based on logical fallacies, and every informal argument on well understood cognitive problems we all have.

As empirical evidence has nothing to say, because gods do not actually exist in the real world, the brute force rationalism of a first principles approach is a good fit for the narrow question of gods’ existence. We may even be underestimating the impact that the so called ‘new atheism’ of the early 21st-century has had, in making any sort of positive arguments for theism completely intellectually untenable.

However, many of the problems with the modern atheist movement have come where this sort of blunt first principles approach has been applied to wider questions of religion and society.

To answer questions like “what the relationship between religion and society should be” or “how do I live a good life without religion”, we need to draw on the deep wells of atheistic, humanist and secularist thought which go back centuries, if not millennia, and adjust our beliefs in the light of empirical evidence. And that includes empathy and other tools dismissed by many of the “facts don’t care about your feelings” first principles crowd.

I speak from a position of privilege here, having not suffered childhood indoctrination and having faced relatively few social consequences for my atheism. Many are not so fortunate, but for those who are, this narrow ‘God Question’ is not that difficult. Yet solving it can give some atheists an inflated sense of their own intellects. After all this is supposedly one of the Great Questions, and I am smart enough to figure it out on my own, using just the power of my reason.

From this, some atheists begin to believe that they are free from any logical fallacies or human cognitive errors. Like certain sceptics who have seen through the claims of pseudoscience, they may begin to think they can come afresh to any issue and apply their reason without bias.

Theism is irrational and almost certainly false. But you cannot generalise from this that religion or any other complex belief system which may seem irrational, can be entirely dismissed. None of the problems with religion are based in any sort of simplistic sense on the logical fallacies of theism. Refuting the teleological argument, does not address the complex causes of religious opposition to science. I don’t believe any form of religiously motivated bigotry or discrimination has been affected in any meaningful way by the flaws in the ontological argument.

This sort of blunt force, first principle obsession with logical fallacies has also been applied to social issues, where it simply isn’t relevant. Deep and complex political disagreements are disagreements about our perception of facts and even more so how we weigh certain values with respect to those facts.

One of the best arguments for the utility of first principle reasoning is the John Rawls thought experiment of the ‘veil of ignorance’ which temporarily removes our knowledge of our position in society, so we can reason without that bias. The veil is not intended to remove our knowledge of society, or human emotions.

Many people forget this part, or only remember the first part of the thought experiment, going behind the veil. The second part, the process of reflective equilibrium, where we are supposed to switch back and forth between this ‘original position’ and the real world so we can adjust our theories, is equally important.

So none of this is to say that there aren’t times when pointing out that the emperor has no clothes can’t cut through to the heart of the matter. But often when we try to reason from first principles, or kid ourselves that we can, we ignore the potentially flawed presumptions that we include.

Perhaps I’m less a fan of this first principles approach, because I’m more concerned with the episcopate than epistemology. I’m more concerned with the moral than the intellectual failings of religion. In fact, to the extent that I’m passionate at all about those intellectual failings, it is largely because of the impact on the moral failings of religion.

My atheism may be based on rationality, but that is only a foundation. Far more is needed to build a personally fulfilling and socially just humanism and secularism.

Thanks for reading

Let me know what you thought of this article and if you want to hear more.

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AHS+ Daily (14 May 2021)

Welcome to your AHS+ Daily briefing on news, views and issues related to atheism, humanism, and secularism in the UK and internationally. Every weekday we highlight ten articles, news stories or other pieces of content we hope you’ll find interesting.

01. Latest episode of Skeptics with a K from Merseyside Skeptics

“This ep, Alice talks about the controversy Orgasmic Meditation, its advocates at OneTaste, and their ongoing trouble with the FBI. Meanwhile, Mike reflects on autism and reframing past events after receiving a diagnosis.”

02. UK: Conversion therapy ban must include harmful religious practices

“Planned Westminster legislation to ban so-called LGBTI+ conversion therapy must include harmful religious practices, Amnesty International said in response to the Government’s commitment to ban the practice but only after a public consultation.”

03. Virtual worship allows people to break away from local congregations to find new communities, say researchers

It would be interesting to see how many freed from social pressure of in person meetings can have a genuinely free choice of a more liberal or no Church, and the impact on secular congregations.

04. New bill proposes to replace compulsory worship with inclusive assemblies

A new bill could pile the pressure on England’s ridiculous requirement for a daily act of Christian worship in schools.

05. How to repair the American mind: solving America’s cognitive crisis

“Vast numbers of people do not know how to think critically and are insufficiently aware of how easy it can be for anyone, regardless of general education or intelligence, to be lured into a bogus belief. This abundance of unprotected minds provides the necessary foundation for our growing crisis. Minus many millions of people in such a vulnerable state, empty claims and ridiculous beliefs could not rage across the land collecting converts with the ease they do now.”

06. Inventing Secularism: The Radical Life of George Jacob Holyoake – book launch with Ray Argyle

“Jailed for atheism and disowned by his family, George Jacob Holyoake came out of an English prison at the age of 25 determined to bring an end to religion’s disproportionate control over daily life. The story of the rise and success of secularism as a political principle cannot be told without Holyoake, who in fact coined the term ‘secularism’ itself.”

07. Check out this report on religiosity inspections, the case against faith-based reviews of state schools

“Faith based inspections of state schools are an unnecessary drain on public finds, frame widely held values as exclusive, and promote biased religious education.”

08. It’s time for our Catholic president to address the church’s sexual abuse scandal

“For more than 25 years — nearly half of the president’s adult life — the U.S. Catholic Church has been dealing with the horror of widespread clergy sex crimes and cover-ups. Yet U.S. abuse survivors have never received official acknowledgment of their pain by any federal official anywhere.”

09. New Zealand’s Catholic Church investigating claims children were prostituted to Church officials

10. Did you miss last week’s post: “Happy humans and atheist ‘A’s; the symbolism of AHS+”

As an amateur graphic design enthusiast and doodler, I’ve been thinking about common symbols used by different atheist, humanist and secularist groups, what they communicate and why they are or aren’t successful.

From the atomic whirl of 1963 and the happy human of 1965 and more recent symbols, exploring the meaning behind common atheist, humanist and secularist groups’ iconography.

Thanks for reading

AHS+ Daily is a new feature we are adding in addition to our weekly articles (Mondays at 10.00) and we’d love to hear your feedback. You can always contact us with any suggestions of what you’d like to see included.

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

AHS+ Daily (13 May 2021)

Welcome to your AHS+ Daily briefing on news, views and issues related to atheism, humanism and secularism in the UK and internationally. Every weekday we highlight ten articles, news stories or other pieces of content we hope you’ll find interesting.

#01. ScathingAtheist 430: Jenner-al Election Edition

It’s Thursday! Which means it’s time for the best written, funniest atheist podcast in my library.

#02. Hindu sect fined for slave labour in New Jersey

The BAPS sect used forced labour to build the largest Hindu temple in the United States. The story raises issues of caste discrimination and links with far-right Hindu Nationalism.

#03. Uyghur imams targeted in China’s Xinjiang crackdown

The Uyghur Human Rights Project have claimed 630 imams and other Muslim religious figures have been detained in China’s crackdown in the Xinjiang region.

#04. Jordan Peterson is wrong: medical error is absolutely not the ‘third leading cause of death’

It is baffling why Peterson is popular in certain parts of the atheist and skeptic community. People like Peterson bring the sort of pseudoscience and magical thinking into a groups founded on rejecting it, by dressing it up in intellectual contrarianism.

#05. Practicing the withdrawal method?

The National Secular Society report on an independent faith school where every pupil has been withdrawn from sex education, seemingly encouraged by the school’s own policy. How can this possibly mean the school “have fulfilled their statutory responsibilities regarding the teaching of relationships, health and sex education”?

#06. Living in faith and love

While it is good to see progressive religious people try to support LGBT rights, until they are willing to honestly face up to religion’s role in and theological roots of homophobia and transphobia, then they risk simply pink washing those institutions.

#07. Latest religious freedom report from the US state department acknowledges non-believers

#08. Debate continues over German Bishops blessing same-sex marriages despite Vatican opposition

Being less bigoted than Pope Francis and the Catholic Church is an extremely low bar.

#09. Bill to allow creationism to be taught in Arkansas fails narrowly

10. Keep on top of secularist issues with the National Secular Society’s daily collection of news and commentary from across the media.

Thanks for reading

AHS+ Daily is a new feature we are adding in addition to our weekly articles (Mondays at 10.00) and we’d love to hear your feedback. You can always contact us with any suggestions of what you’d like to see included.

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

AHS+ Daily (12 May 2021)

Welcome to your AHS+ Daily briefing on news, views and issues related to atheism, humanism and secularism in the UK and internationally. Every weekday we highlight ten articles, news stories or other pieces of content we hope you’ll find interesting.

#01. Another Christian claims they are being discriminated against because they can’t be homophobic at work

A former chaplain at a private college in Nottingham is claiming religious persecution after being disciplined for calling same-sex marriage and gay sex is “morally problematic” as part of a wider criticism of the school’s support of LGBT rights.

#02. Bad sociology: religion doesn’t improve charitable giving

The Tippling Philosopher explores the claim that religion makes people more likely to support charity and the mountains of sociological evidence that either counteracts or undermines this.

#03. Could an epidemiology for viral ideas end the culture war?

Should we be ‘treating’ the manifestations of bad beliefs or their causes? A little bit of false equivalency between the alt-right and ‘neo-puritans’, but an interesting read. I have my doubts about how far the epidemiology analogy can be applied, but atheists, skeptics and rationalists of all types should learn that proving a belief false is not always the best way to address a flawed belief system.

#04. Canadian church fined $74k for ignoring Covid restrictions

Another day, another religious institution crying persecution when they don’t get special exemptions from Covid restrictions.

#05. My fifth post

We’ve been continuing our regular weekly articles. The latest explores the 2018 theocratic dystopian novel Vox, written by Christina Dalcher.

#06. Six pseudoscience promoters aiming to be the next mayor of London

This piece is a couple of weeks old, but well worth a read now as we digest the results of last week’s elections. It’s the article I wish I’d written, from The Skeptic, and focuses of six of the pseudoscience promoting and conspiracist also rans in the London Mayoral election. The London Mayoralty is the biggest election in the UK and it sometimes seems that any politician at a loss of what to do next or with dreams of skipping the ranks wants to give it a go.

#07. Exploring the seven types of atheism

Beyond Atheism has fast become one of the best and most enriching atheist podcasts in my library, I’ve just listened to their episode on John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism.

#08. Banning conversion therapy, apart from the religions that actually practice it?

In yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, the government finally committed to banning anti-LGBT conversion therapy. But there are concerns that there could be loopholes for religious groups.

#09. Exploring the early history of secularism in episode forty-nine of the NSS podcast.

This episode of the National Secular Society’s podcast explores the role of freethinkers and atheists in the radical reform movement of the nineteenth century, before and after the founding of the secularist movement.

#10. Finally, dying matters

It is dying matters awareness week. A non-religious humanistic worldview really allows us to demystify and come to terms with death. Humanists UK are encouraging people to discuss their funeral wishes in advance and explore some of the many ways that humanists and non-religious people think about death and dying.

Thanks for reading

AHS+ Daily is a new feature we are adding in addition to our weekly articles (Mondays at 10.00) and we’d love to hear your feedback. You can always contact us with any suggestions of what you’d like to see included.

If you value this content and are able to financially support it, that would be great. Just a couple of pounds a month would help with hosting and other costs.

Please join our community on Twitter and Facebook to help share the blog, and help pass it along to anyone who may be interested.

Silence can be deafening, review of Vox

A review of the atheist, humanist and secularist themes in the 2018 theocratic dystopian novel Vox, written by Christina Dalcher.

Set in an undefined near future in which the USA has become a Christian theocracy, it is clear from the front cover onwards that Vox is startling and high concept. Women have been relegated to second class status, their passports, jobs and bank accounts removed. Most shockingly all women and girls have been fitted with a counter which delivers powerful electric shocks if they go over a permitted 100 words a day.

This symbolism for the religious right’s obsession with controlling female expression is as subtle as a sledgehammer. The sanitised language of ‘modesty’ and ‘purity’ seen in real world theocratic movements is on full display as is the disturbing fashion accessorisation of oppression. Dr Jean McClellan, our viewpoint character, resists attempts by others to sanitise these instruments of control; rebuking her husband describing the electric shockers as “bracelets” and refusing a pink model for her daughter.

The inciting incident begins when the president’s brother develops a brain aneurysm leaving him unable to speak. Jean’s expertise as a neurologist studying exactly this sort of aneurysm is needed and, though the regime may preach that women are not suited to the workplace, arrangements are made.

An easy criticism of Vox would be that it is derivative. The front cover even carries a promotional quote calling it a “Reimagining of the Handmaid’s Tale”, and I am strongly reminded of Frederic C. Rich’s Christian Nation. But I also own around a dozen paint-by-numbers zombie apocalypse stories so I am clearly not averse to repetitions on a theme. What matters is the execution and what it adds to the genre.

Jean’s interactions with her son Steven, seen contemporaneously and through flashbacks, are the novel’s most unique and stand out contribution to the genre. We see him as a young man (15 during the story’s main events) finding a sense of identity in the right-wing Christianity seeping into society. Jean fights her growing temptation to hate her son, and so do we, as we are left wondering at what point he stops being a victim of and when he starts being a perpetrator of this radicalisation.

Jean’s interactions with her son do a lot of the heavy lifting in the otherwise limited worldbuilding department. Extra-curricular religious lessons start being offered at Steven’s school and while uncomfortable at their overtones of Christian conservatism and toxic masculinity, Jean doesn’t feel able to complain or intervene. Bit by bit this radicalisation becomes more explicit. I know lots of parents in a similar position, fearing looking unreasonable or ‘hysterical’ if they object to some religious intrusion into their supposedly secular school.

Overall, the worldbuilding is high concept rather than detailed. Most of the structures of the state and society in Vox seem familiar, and it is implied that the Christian Nationalists seizing of power has been through at least partially democratic means.

Vox is scathing in its critique of men’s weaknesses; the insecurity which lies at the heart of misogyny and susceptibility to toxic peer pressure. It is a great pity that, outside of the son, the male characters are so two dimensional. Though this is largely a product of the first-person narrative framing.

Other tropes are hit through the novel. I’m really fascinated by how this genre handles what I call the canary character; a character we normally meet through flashback (in the case of Vox, her name is Jackie), often  related to the protagonist or an old college friend. This character is often presented as a slightly loopy activist who warns about the coming theocracy but is dismissed as hysterical – they are the canary in the coal mine of the story.

Particularly through the Ray family, led by Del the mailman (Del-iver-ray), Vox explores the intersection between Christian Nationalism, race and class in a way largely overlooked by similar books in the genre. Working class families and those of colour, alongside other minorities, would suffer most if Christian Nationalist dreams were to come true.

It’s a good debut novel, but Christina Dalcher’s background as a short fiction writer is evident in the novel’s biggest weakness… its pacing. The short chapters are intended to give a sense of constant momentum drawing you in. This effect is enhanced in what I’ve heard of the audio version. Where this works well, it builds the tension in a way which strangely reminded me of the first part of Dracula. The sense of unease and fear builds up and you can imagine each small chapter is being secretly scribbled down by our protagonist when they can.

Elsewhere the pacing falls flat; the momentum seems to peter out and events leap forward based on contrivances. I assumed that the author was aiming for 100 chapters to match the 100 word limit, meaning the ending felt even more rushed.

If you’re genre savvy, you’ll see the twists coming. But that shouldn’t detract from a good story. If you’re looking for an accessible but thought provoking look at theocratic fiction, then I’d recommend giving this a read.

Thanks for reading

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