Beyond Belief, Big Issue in the North

With Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens launching an intellectual assault on religion, Mike Cotgreave looks at the options open to those who no longer believe.

Religion has been an increasingly hot topic of debate recently but rarely, it seems, has there been such a sustained attack on God and the various belief systems that venerate him. If best-seller lists are anything to go by, atheism is in the ascendancy and following close behind are the bull-horns of a new Enlightenment that all are being encouraged to grasp.

In the vanguard of this movement are four writers who have taken it upon themselves to confront head on what they see as the dangerous irrationality of organised faith and superstition. In Letter to a Christian Nation , Sam Harris takes the present-day disciples of Jesus to task, describing the Catholic church as an “institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child-molesters”. Daniel C Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon , implores believers to be more critical of the cultural impact of their faiths.

Two books, however, are competing to be recognised as the bible of neo-atheism. The first is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. As a biologist, Dawkins has positioned himself as the standard bearer of scientific reasoning and evolutionary theory. He even has his own foundation propagating the secular gospel according to Dr Dawkins. In a newspaper article after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he wrote that spreading religion throughout the world “is like littering the streets with loaded guns”. In his best-selling book he aims to change the “moral zeitgeist” and expose what he sees as the inherent dangers of the religious “mind virus”.

Challenging Dawkins to be crowned king of this atheist crusade is Christopher Hitchens, who describes the heathen quartet of which he is part as the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse. Hitchens has built a career on being controversial, having called Bill Clinton a rapist and Mother Theresa a deceitful, self-publicising theocrat, and turned with venom on his former comrades on the left, accusing them of being apologists for Saddam Hussein. It was only a matter of time before he turned on God, whose name he even contemptuously refuses to capitalise in the title of his book god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything .

As a self-avowed antitheist, Hitchens has been doing the rounds on television networks in America (where he is now a citizen) opposing organised religion and its adherents with equal eloquence and viciousness. When the controversial evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell dropped dead this year, Hitchens shunned sensitivity by proclaiming him an “ugly little charlatan” who, if hell exists, deserved to be in it. He describes the idea of heaven as a “celestial North Korea”, but would no doubt agree with the North Koreans on Lenin’s description of religion as “unutterable vileness of the most dangerous kind”.

Although an influx of catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe has swelled mass attendances, Christianity has rarely seemed so irrelevant in the UK, compared with the United States where God appears to be all powerful. Obviously dominating the political agenda is how to counter the real and perceived threats posed to social cohesion and national security by militant Islam. The new Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain claims to represent a growing movement of those who have abandoned the Koran and embraced Enlightenment ideals. In its manifesto the organisation says it is “breaking the taboo that comes with renouncing Islam but also taking a stand for reason, universal rights and values, and secularism”. In Islamic countries such as Iran, becoming an ex-Muslim is a crime punishable by death. Spokesperson Maryam Namazie believes that many atheist ex-Muslims in the UK are reluctant to openly express their loss of faith, anxious of a hostile reaction from family members and other Muslims. “We want to show that it is not racist to criticise Islam, and create an atmosphere in which Muslims can renounce their religion without fear,” she says.

For ex-Christians there is a plethora of organisations to choose from. The National Secular Society invites the former faithful to undergo “de-baptism” and unshackle themselves from the “original mumbo-jumbo that liberated you from the original sin you never had”. Amongst other issues, the society campaigns for the disestablishment of the Church of England and for the abolition of blasphemy laws (although the last person to be imprisoned for blasphemy was John Gott in 1922. For comparing Jesus to a circus clown he received nine months hard labour). Spokesman Alistair McBay says there is a need for such agitation to “fight the religious fundamentalism, encouraged by government, that threatens our freedoms”.

Blackpool humanist Kath Wayland believes in robust opposition to fundamentalism of all kinds and to the state funding of faith schools. The British Humanist Association, of which she is a member, campaigns against religious influence in public life and for “inclusive schools where children with parents of all faiths and none learn to understand and respect each other, instead of being segregated in the growing number of faith and sectarian schools”.

Wayland says: “Fundamentally we believe people should be free to say and do what they like without causing harm to others. Humanist values are often very similar to those of Christianity, without the need for a supernatural power to decide moral standards.”

Book sales and newspaper column inches on both sides of the Atlantic suggest there is considerable appetite for the discussion of atheist ideas. Recently, in Liverpool city centre, I encountered a young man claiming to represent an organisation called the Atheist Empire‚ preaching godlessness with the evangelical zeal of his Christian counterparts. The challenge for the atheist movement is to maintain the momentum of the international discourse they have set in motion but, in a note of caution, Professor Robert Winston has criticised Dawkins for being “patronising” and accused him of “scientific arrogance”. Secular zealots, as Winston warns, will not defeat religious fundamentalism but embolden it.

This unholy war of words is – as the often-used phrase goes – a battle for hearts and minds. Whether or not neo-atheism has the shelf life to vanquish its great foe, God only knows.

With Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens launching an intellectual assault on religion, Mike Cotgreave looks at the options open to those who no longer believe.

Religion has been an increasingly hot topic of debate recently but rarely, it seems, has there been such a sustained attack on God and the various belief systems that venerate him. If best-seller lists are anything to go by, atheism is in the ascendancy and following close behind are the bull-horns of a new Enlightenment that all are being encouraged to grasp.

In the vanguard of this movement are four writers who have taken it upon themselves to confront head on what they see as the dangerous irrationality of organised faith and superstition. In Letter to a Christian Nation , Sam Harris takes the present-day disciples of Jesus to task, describing the Catholic church as an “institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child-molesters”. Daniel C Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon , implores believers to be more critical of the cultural impact of their faiths.

Two books, however, are competing to be recognised as the bible of neo-atheism. The first is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. As a biologist, Dawkins has positioned himself as the standard bearer of scientific reasoning and evolutionary theory. He even has his own foundation propagating the secular gospel according to Dr Dawkins. In a newspaper article after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he wrote that spreading religion throughout the world “is like littering the streets with loaded guns”. In his best-selling book he aims to change the “moral zeitgeist” and expose what he sees as the inherent dangers of the religious “mind virus”.

Challenging Dawkins to be crowned king of this atheist crusade is Christopher Hitchens, who describes the heathen quartet of which he is part as the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse. Hitchens has built a career on being controversial, having called Bill Clinton a rapist and Mother Theresa a deceitful, self-publicising theocrat, and turned with venom on his former comrades on the left, accusing them of being apologists for Saddam Hussein. It was only a matter of time before he turned on God, whose name he even contemptuously refuses to capitalise in the title of his book god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything .

As a self-avowed antitheist, Hitchens has been doing the rounds on television networks in America (where he is now a citizen) opposing organised religion and its adherents with equal eloquence and viciousness. When the controversial evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell dropped dead this year, Hitchens shunned sensitivity by proclaiming him an “ugly little charlatan” who, if hell exists, deserved to be in it. He describes the idea of heaven as a “celestial North Korea”, but would no doubt agree with the North Koreans on Lenin’s description of religion as “unutterable vileness of the most dangerous kind”.

Although an influx of catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe has swelled mass attendances, Christianity has rarely seemed so irrelevant in the UK, compared with the United States where God appears to be all powerful. Obviously dominating the political agenda is how to counter the real and perceived threats posed to social cohesion and national security by militant Islam. The new Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain claims to represent a growing movement of those who have abandoned the Koran and embraced Enlightenment ideals. In its manifesto the organisation says it is “breaking the taboo that comes with renouncing Islam but also taking a stand for reason, universal rights and values, and secularism”. In Islamic countries such as Iran, becoming an ex-Muslim is a crime punishable by death. Spokesperson Maryam Namazie believes that many atheist ex-Muslims in the UK are reluctant to openly express their loss of faith, anxious of a hostile reaction from family members and other Muslims. “We want to show that it is not racist to criticise Islam, and create an atmosphere in which Muslims can renounce their religion without fear,” she says.

For ex-Christians there is a plethora of organisations to choose from. The National Secular Society invites the former faithful to undergo “de-baptism” and unshackle themselves from the “original mumbo-jumbo that liberated you from the original sin you never had”. Amongst other issues, the society campaigns for the disestablishment of the Church of England and for the abolition of blasphemy laws (although the last person to be imprisoned for blasphemy was John Gott in 1922. For comparing Jesus to a circus clown he received nine months hard labour). Spokesman Alistair McBay says there is a need for such agitation to “fight the religious fundamentalism, encouraged by government, that threatens our freedoms”.

Blackpool humanist Kath Wayland believes in robust opposition to fundamentalism of all kinds and to the state funding of faith schools. The British Humanist Association, of which she is a member, campaigns against religious influence in public life and for “inclusive schools where children with parents of all faiths and none learn to understand and respect each other, instead of being segregated in the growing number of faith and sectarian schools”.

Wayland says: “Fundamentally we believe people should be free to say and do what they like without causing harm to others. Humanist values are often very similar to those of Christianity, without the need for a supernatural power to decide moral standards.”

Book sales and newspaper column inches on both sides of the Atlantic suggest there is considerable appetite for the discussion of atheist ideas. Recently, in Liverpool city centre, I encountered a young man claiming to represent an organisation called the Atheist Empire‚ preaching godlessness with the evangelical zeal of his Christian counterparts. The challenge for the atheist movement is to maintain the momentum of the international discourse they have set in motion but, in a note of caution, Professor Robert Winston has criticised Dawkins for being “patronising” and accused him of “scientific arrogance”. Secular zealots, as Winston warns, will not defeat religious fundamentalism but embolden it.

This unholy war of words is – as the often-used phrase goes – a battle for hearts and minds. Whether or not neo-atheism has the shelf life to vanquish its great foe, God only knows.

[external link]

Subscribe to our Newsletter

CEMB Logo© 2017 - All rights reserved.
UK Atheist Top 5 Blogs
Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain is a limited by guarantee Company registered in England & Wales.
Registration number 8059509.
Designed with in London

X