The repetition this week of the weary old canard that atheism is 'a faith proposition' shows that our archbishops need a lesson in semantics.
In the foreword to the confused document produced by the religious thinktank Theos this week the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster, in a joint statement whose very existence does the latter great credit given that he officially thinks the former is damned (it is official Roman Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the church), iterate the claim that "atheism is itself a faith position". This is a weary old canard to be set alongside the efforts of the faithful to characterise those who robustly express their attitude towards religious belief as "fundamentalist atheists".
This is classified in logic as an "informal fallacy" known as a "tu quoque" argument. We understand that the faithful live in an inspissated gloaming of incense and obfuscation, through the swirls of which it is hard to see anything clearly, so a simple lesson in semantics might help to clear the air for them on the meanings of "secular", "humanist" and "atheist". Once they have succeeded in understanding these terms they will grasp that none of them imply "faith" in anything, and that it is not possible to be a "fundamentalist" with respect to any of them. I apologise to those who know all this of old, but evidently if our archbishops remain in the dark about such matters, there must still be a need for patient iteration of - what else? - these fundamentals.
Secularism is the view that church and state (religion and national government) should be kept separate. The first secularists were medieval churchmen who did not wish the temporal power to interfere in church affairs. Temporal government of religious affairs produces emasculated and feeble latitudinarian religious bodies like the Church of England (so this, if any religious body has to exist, is a good thing), whereas religious interference or, worse, control of government has a ready tendency to degenerate into what we might revealingly call Talibanism, as history and current affairs overwhelmingly and tragically attest.
If religious organisations had any sense they would embrace secularism as their best chance of survival, because a secular dispensation keeps the public domain neutral with respect to all interest groups within it, including the different religions and their internally-competing denominations, allowing them all to survive - which they would not do if one became dominant and had the ear, or the levers, of temporal government. As this shows, it is possible (and even wise) for religious people to be secularists too.
Humanism in the modern sense of the term is the view that whatever your ethical system, it derives from your best understanding of human nature and the human condition in the real world. This means that it does not, in its thinking about the good and about our responsibilities to ourselves and one another, premise putative data from astrology, fairy tales, supernaturalistic beliefs, animism, polytheism, or any other inheritances from the ages of humankind's remote and more ignorant past.
It is possible for religious people to be humanists too: though not without inconsistency or at least oddity, for there is no role to be played in humanistic ethics by their (definingly religious) belief in the existence of supernatural agencies. Perhaps they need to believe in such agencies because they cannot otherwise understand how there can be a natural world - as if invoking "chaos and old night" (in one Middle Eastern mythology the progenitors of all things) explained anything, let alone the universe's existence. Doing so might satisfy a pathological metaphysical need for what Paul Davies calls "the self-levitating super-turtle", but it is obviously enough not worth discussing.
"Atheism" is a word used by religious people to refer to those who do not share their belief in the existence of supernatural entities or agencies. Presumably (as I can never tire of pointing out) believers in fairies would call those who do not share their views "a-fairyists", hence trying to keep the debate on fairy turf, as if it had some sensible content; as if there were something whose existence could be a subject of discussion worth the time.
People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a "faith" in "the non-existence of X" (where X is "fairies" or "goblins" or "gods"); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgment of both on the principles and theories that premise their actions. The views they take about things are proportional to the evidence supporting them, and are always subject to change in the light of new or better evidence. "Faith" - specifically and precisely: the commitment to a belief in the absence of evidence supporting that belief, or even (to the greater merit of the believer) in the very teeth of evidence contrary to that belief - is a far different thing, which is why the phrase "religious thinktank" has a certain comic quality to it: for faith at its quickly-reached limit is the negation of thought.
So despite the best efforts of religious folk to keep the discussion on their turf, those who do not share their outlook should repudiate the label "atheist" unless those who wish to use it are prepared to say "atheist and afairyist and agoblinist and aghostist" and so on at considerable length, to mark the rational rejection of belief in supernatural entities of any kind. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, since Christians and Muslims do not believe in Thor and Wotan, or Zeus and Ares and Hermes, or Shiva and Vishnu, or the Japanese Emperor, and so endlessly on, they too are "atheists" about almost all the gods ever imagined.
Without the commonplace and dispiriting facts of history which show how religious organisations are in truth political, military and economic ones that exist for the sake of their all-too-human beneficiaries, it would not be easy to see why, eg Christians believe in the volcano god of the Jews (the pillar of smoke by day, the burning bush on the mountain top), and why they choose the Jesus story out of all the many in which a god (Zeus and Jaweh are hardly alone in this) makes a mortal woman pregnant, who gives birth to a son, who engages in heroic endeavours, often involving suffering (think of Hercules and his labours), and therefore goes to heaven. For this tale is a commonplace of the old Middle Eastern religions, and it is arbitrary to pick this one rather than that one to kill and die for.
And on that subject: the sufferings attributed to Jesus, involving torture and an unpleasant death, all (so the putative records say) within less than 24 hours, are horrible enough to contemplate, but every day of the week millions of women suffer more and for longer in childbirth. Longer and worse suffering is also experienced by torture victims in the gaols of tyrannical regimes - and in the gaols of some democratic ones too, alas. Why then does Christianity's founding figure have a special claim in this regard? Flagellation followed by crucifixion was the form of Roman punishment particularly reserved for terrorists and insurgents in their Empire, and many thousands died that way: after the Spartacist revolt one of the approach roads to Rome was lined on both sides for miles with crucified rebels. Should we "worship" Spartacus? After all, he sought to liberate Rome's slaves, a high and noble cause, and put his life on the line to do it.
GK Chesterton, one of the Catholic faithful, sought to discomfort non-religious folk by saying "there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don't know it." He is wrong; there are three kinds of people: these two, and those who know a dogma when it barks, when it bites, and when it should be put down.
Even some on my own side of the argument here make the mistake of thinking that the dispute about supernaturalistic beliefs is whether they are true or false. Epistemology teaches us that the key point is about rationality. If a person gets wet every time he is in the rain without an umbrella, yet persists in hoping that the next time he is umbrella-less in the rain he will stay dry, then he is seriously irrational. To believe in the existence of (say) a benevolent and omnipotent deity in the face of childhood cancers and mass deaths in tsunamis and earthquakes, is exactly the same kind of serious irrationality.
The best one could think is that if there is a deity (itself an overwhelmingly irrational proposition for a million other reasons), it is not benevolent. That's a chilling thought; and as it happens, a quick look around the world and history would encourage the reply "the latter" if someone asked: "If there is a deity, does the evidence suggest that it is benevolent or malevolent?" Some theologians - those master-wrigglers when skewered by logic - try to get out of the problem by saying that the deity is not omnipotent; this is what Keith Ward attempted when debating "God and the tsunami" in Prospect magazine. A non-omnipotent deity, eh? Well: if the theologians keep going with their denials of the traditional attributes of deity, they will eventually get to where common sense has already got the rest of us: to the simple rational realisation that the notions of deities, fairies and goblins belong in the same bin. Let us hope, in the interest of limiting religion-inspired conflict around the world, that they hurry up on their journey hither.
And then perhaps we can have a proper discussion about the ethical principles of mutual concern, imaginative sympathy and courageous tolerance on which the chances for individual and social flourishing rest. We need to meet one another as human individuals, person to person, in a public domain hospitable to us all, independently of the Babel of divisive labels people impose on others or adopt for themselves. Look at children in nursery school: a real effort has to be made to teach them, later on, how to put up barriers between themselves and their classmates on the basis of gender, ethnicity and their parents' choice of superstition. That is how our tragedy as a species is kept going: in the systematic perversion of our first innocence by falsehood and factionalism.
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