In which I get violent

This is another archival repost from the old blog, this time from jan 2008

Tina Beattie was on Start The Week this morning, talking about the New AtheismTM. I only caught little bits of it, but I’ve managed to find the time to flick through the podcast. You can guess the angle taken just from the use of the ridiculous term “New Atheists”, but you probably won’t guess the argument that Beattie was out to make. Really, it deserves an award of some kind. Most creative non-sequitur of the week, perhaps. The New Atheism, we learn, is a “smokescreen for a withering of democracy,” and we are engaging in a “projection onto religion of the failures of society and democracy since 9/11.”

Things don’t start too well. Beattie struggles out of the starting blocks with this essentially meaningless stream of babble*:

TB: Demonisation of religion that is perpetuated by a certain very dull kind of Anglo-American atheist materialism allows us to escape our own responsibilities for a burgeoning global climate of violent confrontation.

More so than having a cup of tea, going to the gym, spending Sunday in church? All sorts of things take up time that could be spent doing other things. So what? Andrew Marr, the host, does his best to steer the conversation back into the realms of reality. Beattie continues:

TB: But I think that just as we are very aware that the rhetoric of militant religiosity can produce acts of violence, we should not sever the connection between the very real acts of violence which we are carrying out in the world in the name of democracy, in the name of the anti-religious rhetoric produced by some of our influential members of the intellectual classes to fuel that violence.

Oh. Right. It sounds awfully like you’re making a jaw-droppingly silly argument there. Could you clarify that for us?

AM: So it’s as much Western intellectual smugness that you’re going on at as atheism pure and simple?

TB: Yes… well… atheism pure and simple is as complex as religion.

Oh. OK. “Atheism (n). Western intellectual smugness. Product of democracy, and therefore sibling of violence.” (Bizarro English Dictionary. Bizarro University Press, 2008). Gotcha.

Edward Lucas, another guest on the programme chips in, starting with the necessary swipes at our dear leader, Richard Dawkins, in order to establish his credentials:

EL: … they’re using science for questions that it isn’t suited for …


EL: … they also display quite spectacular ignorance sometimes in their attack of religion.

Boring. It’s almost as if you haven’t actually read any of the work that you describe. Almost like a quite spectacular display of ignorance of your subject, one could say. But, anyway, petty back-and-forth attacks aside, what does Lucas have to say about Beattie’s thesis? Well, even with his sympathies, he’s struggling to follow her unique logic. A bit more clarification, might be in order.

TB: When we support a rhetoric which condemns probably the vast majority of the world’s people as uniformly ignorant, irrational, dangerous, and immoral — which is what new atheism does — at the same time as we are fighting a sort of war on terror … we are involved in military struggles that real human beings with a different belief to our own are being killed.

Gosh. An Islamicist act of mass murder, and an illegal invasion initiated by the most religious Western leaders of their time — born-again Bush and recently-baptised Blair. Now I see that it was all the fault of us bloody atheists for being so damned talkative. It’s all so clear now. Poly Toynbee should have just told us all to follow the Pope, and shut up about the UN. And what on Earth did Richard Dawkins think he was doing preaching peace, when he knows very well that such ideas are far to sophisticated for those who have a different belief to our own, and will only make them violent as they struggle to understand.

Since we New Atheists, alongside Western DemocracyTM, are fighting a sort-of-war-on-terror here, isn’t it about time we incorporated it into our holy book? It’s awfully embarrassing to have our most prominent spokespeople constantly rambling off-message, spouting nonsense about peace, international law, and perhaps just, you know, like getting along with each other. We’re militants, for God’s sake. Well, not for God’s sake. Cthulhu’s perhaps.

TB: Now I know, there’s enormous political effort goes into saying that this is not a war of the west against Islam, but at the same time, it’s not coincidental that when there’s a very popular movement of antagonism to religion, there’s also a lot of political violence against communities often identified as being religious.

Of course. What the new atheists have to do is just shut up and let everyone else get on with it, because, you know, the proles are simple minded, and will get lairy. What do you expect when you go and say that somebody else believes something that isn’t true? Isn’t it obvious that unnamed persons will then go and rough them up? It’s our fault that other people get violent when we criticise ideas that are untrue and undesirable. The idea is too dangerous for the common man.

If the argument were not so transparently batty, it would be offensive. If the argument of the New Atheists is that clinging to irrational ideas can cause one to become violent (actually, the argument of atheists goes “God: probably not real.” An elementary mistake, that one, but we’ll let it go.), then the argument of Beattie seems to be that questioning irrational ideas can cause those who cling to them to become violent. Somehow, I just can’t see how the atheist fits the role of bad-guy in that situation.

* Apologies for incomplete or badly transcribed quotes: these are taken from my shorthand notes as there is no official transcript. Listen to the podcast for the full quotes.

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