Friday, July 25, 2014

Matt Ridley from the UK: Atheists and Anglicans could unite against intolerance

August sees a great global gathering of atheists and humanists in Oxford for the World Humanist Congress, the first time this body has met in Britain since 1978. Professor Dawkins will be on the stage, along with a galaxy of infidel stars, including the Nobel prizewinner Wole Soyinka, Philip Pullman, Jim al-Khalili, Nick Clegg and the Bangladeshi blogger Asif Mohiddun, who was attacked and stabbed in the back, shoulder and chest by a group of radical religious fundamentalists because of his criticism of Islam.

Not there in person will be Mubarak Bala, the Nigerian detained on a psychiatric ward for being an atheist, whose case has been highlighted by the International Humanist Ethical Union. His father had Mr Bala sectioned for expressing doubts about religion and he got out, two weeks ago, only because of a strike at the hospital. Nor will Alexander Aan— the scientist in Indonesia who was arrested and imprisoned for two years for expressing doubts about God — be present. But many similar activists from Africa and Asia will be there, including Gululai Ismail, who runs the Aware Girls project in northwest Pakistan, challenging patriarchy and religious extremism, and under constant threat of violence. It was her organisation that Malala Yousafzai was working for when shot by the Taliban.

It is clear that the kind of rational scepticism that we British have been tolerating for three centuries is resulting in terrible persecution throughout the Muslim world, and it is getting worse. I say we tolerate atheism here, and we do, but still grudgingly. Atheists lose count of the number of times we are told we are lacking in imagination and wonder, or that we just don’t see the human need for spirituality, or that we must have trouble justifying morality.

British Christians are generally prepared to be much ruder about atheism than they are about Islam. Some of the stuff Professor Dawkins has to read about himself would be condemned as hate speech if said about a Muslim. This is partly because atheists do not threaten our critics with violence, whereas any “Islamophobic” remark or cartoon leads to death threats. It is also because Christians are continually trying to make common cause with other religions in defence of “faith” as a source of morality and harmony in the world. Did I dream it, or did a recent archbishop muse about the virtues of Sharia?

Anglicanism is a mild and attenuated form of the faith virus and may even act as a vaccine against more virulent infections, but Christianity is becoming more evangelical in response to its global competition with Islam. This has always happened in religious history: where religions compete, they become more extreme — the crusades, the 30-years war, Ulster.

So for all the pious talk of “faith communities”, the two religions are not on the same side. To combat the rise of radical Islam and radical Christianity, we should try the secular, free-thinking approach. Mild Anglicanism should make common cause with humanists in defence of tolerance.

The experience of the past three centuries is that if lots of people stop believing in gods, they do not become less moral. On the contrary, the number of people attending church has gone down at about the same rate as the number of people who commit violent crimes. I am not suggesting a causal connection — though I suspect religious people would if the trends were different — but these facts give the lie to the idea that godlessness leads to immorality. (And don’t tell me that communist regimes were irreligious — they enforced a worship of their leaders with all the techniques and fervour of religion.)

Unlike the almost triumphalist mood among atheists in the 1960s, when Francis Crick foresaw the end of religion and started a competition for what to do with the college chapels in Cambridge, rationalists no longer expect to get rid of religion altogether by explaining life and matter: they aim only to tame it instead, and to protect children from it. Nonetheless, they are slowly winning: witness the fact that more than 12 per cent of funerals in this country are now humanist in some form. And humanists are showing no signs of turning intolerant, let alone violent.

Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.

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