Saturday, 7 April 2007

Fundamentalist secularists and the religion of atheism

Editorial by Terry Sanderson:

Have you noticed how the concept of “fundamentalist secularists” and “extremist atheists” has been so eagerly embraced by religious people? These phrases are in common usage in America where they were invented, and where ‘secularism’ is becoming a dirty word in the same way that ‘liberal’ or ‘communist’ are. Now, in the US media, accusations of “secularism” are tantamount to calling someone an enemy of the state, even though the state is based on secularism. You can see an example of the way that non-believers are represented as “fundamentalists” and “extremists” in this article, which is typical of many.

As a means of undermining the threat that secularism (and atheism) pose to religious power, church propagandists find that labelling their critics as “extremists” is proving very effective. Nowadays if you have the temerity to even question religion you immediately become a “fundamentalist atheist”. This has happened to Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, who simply wrote books giving their opinion that there is no evidence for supernatural beings, that belief in such beings undermines science and that organised religion can in some circumstances justify anti-social behaviour. As Brian Flemming, producer of the film The God Who Wasn’t There says: “The term ‘fundamentalist’ necessarily implies dogmatism. It is simply an inaccurate description of someone who specifically rejects dogma of any kind. Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris explicitly reject dogma... Fundamentalism is when reason fails you and you say, ‘Well, this book says so and I’m sticking to it.’ Christian fundamentalists happily and openly do just that. Dawkins and Harris do nothing of the kind.”

Professor Dawkins is now routinely accused of being a mirror image of a religious extremist. This gentle biologist, whose only crime is to pose questions and challenge unreason, is suddenly on a par with Osama bin Laden. According to the new religious thinking, the “religion” of atheism is as evil and threatening as that of the Taliban,.

It is surprising how many people have fallen for this argument. Even some people who think of themselves as rationalists will come out with it. . Why do they attack those who seek to buttress the integrity of science and demand evidence for claims that have wide-spread consequences for the safety of the world?

But as honorary associate A.C. Grayling has written: “It is worth pointing out an allied and characteristic bit of jesuitry employed by folk of faith. This is their attempt to describe naturalism (atheism) as itself a ‘religion’. But, by definition, a religion is something centred upon belief in the existence of supernatural agencies or entities in the universe; and not merely in their existence, but in their interest in human beings on this planet; and not merely their interest, but their particularly detailed interest in what humans wear, what they eat, when they eat it, what they read or see, what they treat as clean and unclean, who they have sex with and how and when; and so for a multitude of other things, like making women invisible beneath enveloping clothing, or strapping little boxes to their foreheads, or iterating formulae by rote five times a day, and so endlessly forth; with threats of punishment for getting any of it wrong.

“But naturalism (atheism) by definition does not premise such belief. Any view of the world that does not premise the existence of something supernatural is a philosophy, or a theory, or at worst an ideology. If it is either of the two first, at its best it proportions what it accepts to the evidence for accepting it, knows what would refute it, and stands ready to revise itself in the light of new evidence. This is the essence of science. It comes as no surprise that no wars have been fought, pogroms carried out, or burnings conducted at the stake, over rival theories in biology or astrophysics.

“And one can grant that the word ‘fundamental’ does after all apply to this: in the phrase ‘fundamentally sensible’.”

A.C. Grayling’s books “Against all Gods” and “What is Good” are available from the NSS shop

reposted from: NSS
my: highlights / emphasis / key points / comments

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