Where are militant athiests when you need them?

The Observer
As every middlebrow with a newspaper column or Radio 4 slot to fill agrees, a vulgar “new atheism” is sweeping Britain. The readers of Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman and Christopher Hitchens are, they tell us, crass because they do not appreciate the mystery of religion, the consolations of ritual and all the rest of it, and also dangerous because they are as fundamentalist in their criticisms of religion as the religious fanatics they criticise.

I could waste your time by pointing out that “new atheists” are not so different from old atheists – we still don’t believe in God, for instance – and add that the charge of moral equivalence would be easier to substantiate if atheists planted bombs on the underground. But space is short and the depressing truth about “new atheists” no one dwells on is that if they exist outside the imaginations of religious writers, they are never there when you need them. For if we had a vibrant atheist or secularist movement in Britain, it would now be tearing into this government for once again trying to ride the Islamist tiger.
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9 Comments to “Where are militant athiests when you need them?”

  1. Dear Nick Cohen

    Thank you a million times for your article in today’s Observer – it is really timely, to the point, packed full of really useful information with which we can back up our arguments and, above all, absolutely necessary .

    There are some really reactionary forces around in today’s world and they are exploiting religion for their own ends. And most people do not distinguish religious institutions from genuine feelings ‘of the spirit’, that is the sort of emotions which resulted in the St. Matthew Passion or the great cathedrals of Western Europe.

    Much more could be said but you must have enough to read. Again, my grateful thanks to you.

    Muriel Seltman

  2. Your silly religious prejudice works against you every time. The notion that Ed Balls of all people has any sympathy for the Christian schools he has tried hard to secularize and on which he has imposed a thoroughly secular sex ed policy beginning at the fifth year of life is pro-Christian is one that would raise howls of laughter in church and chapel across the land. At least try to understand what you are talking about. And the odious moral equivalence you so obviously postulate in this article (favours done to Christians equal favours done to Islamists) is so pathetically out of order I do not even feel the need to argue against it. Mr.Cohen, you are a decent person in many ways, but I regret to say that when it comes to your religion (yes, atheism is a religion) you are as ignorant, narrow-minded and persecution-minded as any imam.

  3. Dear Nick Cohen

    A p.s. to my first commment: when I used the word”spirit”, I used it in the sense that one does in the phrase “human spirit”. No transcendental implication was intended.

    I think that the universe is fully capable of composing the St. Matthew Passion – as it did using J.S.Bach as a channel.

    Muriel Seltman

  4. This is an excellent article. I agree that we have no vibrant atheist or secular movement in Britain to counter the Government’s headlong rush to appease the religious. I as a part of the silent majority of atheists aka the godless or ungodly, which I prefer to think of as rational, would join like a shot if you or any other rationalist started such a movement.

    The people who have so stridently put the atheists’ point of view have done us no favours and do not represent me. Their lack of moderation, is not common among us. I have nothing against religion as long as it not pushed down my throat. I do appreciate the mystery and consolation of ritual and enjoy religious services. I just don’t buy into the belief of anything superhuman out there controlling things.

    We need a forum for our voices to be heard. We are the majority but are powerless.

  5. Muriel Seltman: the universe does not think and has no inspiring power. Either you conceive of something beyond the human, in which case you are by definition talking superhuman, or kindly do not ascribe the works of geniuses to a heap of stones and gas.

    Carol Caplan: how kind of yours to “enjoy” the work and belief of others while dogmatically calling yourself out of anything that gives life to what you enjoy. New paradigm: the atheist as self-congratulating parasite, exploiting the spiritual wealth of others while giving nothing back and congratulating herself on her own broad-mindedness at the same time. As for atheists being the majority anywhere outside a few rooms in the NSS (as long as the cleaners are not there), I suggest you read and study the census data from this country.

  6. All right, those were angry letters. Part of the reason was obvious: to have Nick Cohen, whom I admire on many other grounds, insult my beliefs by effectively comparing them to the homicidal views of Al Qaida and insisting that they should be driven from the public square is not pleasant. It is not only that you insist on treating your own religion as different from anyone else’s, but that you do not even see the point that you only are an atheist because your fathers were – that is, that you inherited your own religion just as most of us did. I have no objection to that; what I do object to is that you should treat it as especially enlightened and rational, when your reasons to hold it at all – heritage and familial pietas – are as little to do with rationality as anyone else’s. You became an atheist because you admired and respected the values you learned from your parents. I have the highest respect for that. What I do not respect at all is that you should insist that those values are so special that you and your lot are qualified and indeed entitled to shovel them down the rest of our throats. Take your rubbish about allowing Catholic schools to have Catholic teachers. I imagine you know enough history to know that religious schools predate state schools by centuries. It was the State which found it good to associate itself to them rather than compete with them. Part of the deal was that they kept their religious identity. It is for that religious identity that parents send their children there. If it so happens that they have a better reputation than other state schools, well, goodness me, that may have something to do with their religious identity? Either way, to force them to accept teachers who are in fundamental disagreement with their religious identity is not only tyrannical, it is fraudulent: it is a false declaration of content, which in other businesses would lead to prosecution. Christian parents, and even non-Christian parents who for whatever reason want to send their children to a Christian school, would not be amused to find them being taught the exact opposite of Christianity. Ah, you say, but they take taxpayers’ money. Indeed they do. And Christians do not pay tax? Since there are more of us than there are of you, we pay more than you do; and since there are more state schools than religious schools, we contribute more to schools that do not agree with our views than to those that do. So the logic of your position is that Christians should be second-class citizens, compelled to pay tax like everyone else, but required to be silent about the way their tax is spent, and even forced to see it used to corrupt and dilute their own institutions. That is appallingly reminiscent of that odious TV personality who called it “a victory for democracy” when a Catholic was forced out of European politics for being Catholic. And at any rate, sir, be reassured: your view of democracy is indeed Ed Balls’ view – except where Muslims are concerned. No government in the history of this country has been so thoroughly and radically hostile to Christianity in all its forms, and that is part of the reason why it has become completely unrepresentative.

  7. Fabio P. Barbieri

    Of course, the universe is capable of composing the St. Matthew Passion – Bach was a part of the universe, just as you are. And I am sure that you would agree that you, like Bach, are conscious.
    Muriel Seltman

  8. That’s side-stepping almost every major philosophical/theological issue known to man (and woman), Muriel.

  9. Yes! You are absolutely right.

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