Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Atheists and believers have got religion wrong by Mark Steel

There's a modern brand of militant atheist that can appear horribly smug and superior.

Whenever there's an argument between those who claim the religious are ethically superior, and the Richard Dawkins-following fans of atheism, I want someone to bang the table and shout "Oy - you're all wrong."

Reposted from:

For example, a column in this paper claimed, "Judaeo-Christian religion devotes itself principally to instructing its adherents in how to behave well in their dealings with others." Someone ought to try this out, and apply to be a Rabbi or the Pope by saying, "I don't really care for God, but I always give up my seat to old women on the bus. When can I start?"

Also, Judaeo-Christian religion pays some regard to the Bible, which is full of instructions to behave well, such as the one in the book of Deuteronomy, "In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave anything alive that breathes. Otherwise you will sin against the Lord your God."

Anything that breathes? Even Hitler left it at humans. But that's not enough for the Bible, that screams, "The trouble with genocide is it's too soft. It takes no account of lizards."

Clearly most modern Christians don't go along with this, and they say the Bible isn't meant to be taken that literally. Which seems a bit of a cop-out, as it is the Bible. It's like a political party issuing this statement in a manifesto, and then when they're questioned about it saying, "Oh I wouldn't take any notice of that. It's more of a long-term goal than a commitment."

The idea that religious people are more moral or better at behaving well than atheists is hard to show. From the Spanish Inquisition to Cliff Richard they've got to make a lot of excuses. But equally, there's no clear case in blaming everything on religion. For example, the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland was evidently about more than that. When Loyalists chucked stones into a Catholic estate they weren't thinking, "Transubstantiation my arse."

Because it's not ideas that drive actions such as these, it's circumstances. There have been few religious ideas that, on the face of it, are more batty than the beliefs of the Nation of Islam. If they're right, then apparently white people were all bred by an evil doctor on an island over a period of thousands of years, and there's a flying saucer involved as well. But when seen in context, from the point of view of black people angry at segregated, lynch-happy America, the devils theory could make sense.

Similarly, modern Islam is shaped by events in Palestine and Iraq, which has led millions of Muslims to conclude that Western governments have got it in for them. If you start from the point that circumstances drive ideas, then as a non-Muslim you can engage with Muslims in discussing how to deal with George Bush's Project for the American Century.

If you start from the point of view that all religion is nutty, you've got nothing more to say to a Muslim than, "How can a mountain move, you idiot?"

There's a modern brand of militant atheist that can appear horribly smug and superior. It's an attitude that can be summed up as, "Aren't religious people stupid?
All over Africa they're stupid, and the Middle-East. And the Romans, believing in all those two-headed animals, the morons. Aristotle with his unmoved moving God, as if. Descartes, Isaac Newton, Bob Marley, they all fell for it. In fact everyone who ever lived up to about 1800, and most people since then have been stupid stupid stupid."

Or worse, there's these patronising stuck-up columns that go, "Aren't these Afghan peasants awful? I mean, I took the trouble to read Voltaire and Hume at university so why can't they? Their sexual politics is frankly shocking, and there's no excuse these days because with the internet they could order Armistead Maupin novels on Amazon and they'd be out to the caves of Tora Bora within a fortnight. I think the time has come for decent mountain tribes to say to these sexist types if they don't change their ways they won't be invited to any dinner parties or any openings of art galleries."

There's always a rational basis to the irrationality of religion, and however bizarre, religious ideas usually reflect the reality of people's lives.

So the Christianity of a Mexican landless peasant takes a different form from the Christianity of Tony Blair. In a just and fair world, these ideas would be no more harmful than the irrational following people have for football teams. Maybe they'd even be more relaxed about people taking the piss, with other religions allowed into the away end of the temple, where they could chant, "Who ate all the wafers?"; "You're damned - and you know you are"; and "Can you hear the Trappists sing - I can't hear a thing."

Some Comments at

10. Comment #63607 by Beth on August 15, 2007 at 4:28 am

There does seem to be a tendency to expect atheists to simply shut up and go about their business. Never mind that the world is blowing itself up over religious ideologies, that school children around the world are denied the wonders of science, that the Preznit of the most powerful nation in the world talks to his imaginary friend and does what he is told... No, if atheists say anything about the idiocy of religious beliefs we are 'militant atheists'. So be it then. Negative labels have been pressed upon any group of people who have tried to make positive changes in the world. In other words, by trying to challenge the status quo we will make people uncomfortable.

If being a 'militant atheist' means no longer tolerating the hatred, bigotry, and misogyny of religion - please call me militant.

16. Comment #63614 by n0rr1s on August 15, 2007 at 5:02 am

Mark says that many atheists are "smug and superior". That's ironic, because while I've often found Mark to be interesting and entertaining, on the few occassions he is wrong, the tone he uses causes him to appear to me in just that way. I have the same issue with Penn and Teller in one or two of their BS shows. And I think that Mark is wrong here.

First, I can't really speak for other atheists, but I do not think that religious people are stupid. I think that religious people are being stupid about religion. There is a big difference. I have observed that people can be extremely smart about one thing, while being considerably less than smart about another, even if the two things appear closely related. I know I have this failing.

Also, I think that few atheists are so blind to conditions around the world that they think that people in the grip of poverty are being ignorant by not having read, say, Voltaire.

And I disagree that "there's always a rational basis to the irrationality of religion". Sure, the religious will shape their faith somewhat based on the situation they have to deal with. And much of the muslim world has legitimate greivances with the west because of, say, the actions of GWB. But Mark seems to be using this to suggest that all religion is based on the prevailing conditions in people's lives, and therefore that it is rational. I say that religions are still based on texts that are thousands of years old, and there's only so much interpretation that one can do, only so much leeway that the texts allow. Religions were not invented because of today's conditions, and their tenets mostly do not reflect today's conditions. I do not think that they are rational.

17. Comment #63615 by ericcolumba on August 15, 2007 at 5:12 am

Mark Steel is an intelligent quick witted and charismatic individual. I would recommend looking at his BBC lecture series on you tube.

However, as a member of George Galloway's Respect Party it comes as no surprise that he downplays the dangers of religion. Especially since this party draws its support not only from the left but from British Muslims whose main motivation is the perceived persecution of fellow muslims by infidels(including the evil Jew).

Unlike Galloway Steel is an Atheist but he comes under the category of "I'm an Atheist but". Those who think that it while they don't believe in such superstitious nonsense it is somehow ok for others to do so. An arrogant point of view in my opinion. Also, I suspect that Mr Steel and his ilk are reluctant to admit that they might have been downplaying the role of religion in the middle east conflict. They have been out thought by Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins.
So how do the left react? Well, it would appear rather than evolve/reassess their firmly held political beliefs they mock.

18. Comment #63616 by faouloki on August 15, 2007 at 5:22 am

 avatarI like Mark Steel but this article is very sloppy. He doesn't seem to know what point he is trying to make, and it seems that whilst he wants to agree with the atheists, he also doesn't want to lose face with the religious and so ends up offending them all and isolating himself.
He also is making old, tired arguments which have been discussed to death.

23. Comment #63623 by AJ Rae on August 15, 2007 at 5:48 am

The Mark Steel Lectures are brilliant. I think he's creating a strawman here. He seems to come from a position of ignorance, and have a sentimentality towards religion, much like David Baddiel.

Richard Dawkins does mention in his book he realises, giving Northern Ireland as an example, that other factors are involved. He also strongly states that religion isn't the only problem in the world. He doesn't think people are stupid, just ignorant, or mistaken, a delusion that can affect the most intelligent.

Mark Steel, like a lot of the Left, only focus on circumstance. Football fanaticism is a very good example of how irrationalism can turn nasty. In Football, the stakes aren't high, in the god game, they're high. Yet people have died from being a fan of the wrong football team.

28. Comment #63632 by Jack Rawlinson on August 15, 2007 at 6:19 am

I have a lot of time for Mark Steel, so it's a shame to see him indulging in lazy straw men at the end of this piece. I don't know any modern atheist who sneers at Afghan peasants or pre-enlightenment people for ignorance which is not their fault. For Steel to suggest such an attitude is common amongst atheists is simply dishonesty in pursuit of a cheap laugh. He's usually better than that.

30. Comment #63638 by danceswithanxiety on August 15, 2007 at 7:13 am

If you start from the point of view that all religion is nutty, you've got nothing more to say to a Muslim than, "How can a mountain move, you idiot?"
That's a good start but that's hardly all there is to be said. Insist that the Muslim try harder for answers. Insist that he/she pull his nose up from the prayer rug and read a few more books, talk to a few more people, engage some fresh thinking. Good answers will come by this route, whereas the Koran has already given its answers, and they range from irrelevant to false to monstrous.

36. Comment #63653 by Dr Benway on August 15, 2007 at 8:16 am

Because it's not ideas that drive actions such as these, it's circumstances.
Circumstances, and ideas about those circumstances. The ideas remain important. Getting the ideas straight is a necessary but insufficient condition for peace.

I am worried about the frequent attacks upon the style or personality of atheists - the accusations of being smug, superior, elitist, fundamentalist, narrow minded, and so on. It's not my ego I'm worried about. I'm not so thinned skin that I take offense at general digs in the media made by people who know nothing about me.

I'm most worried by how these comments trivialize the arguments put forward now by atheists. It's a fact of human psychology, that you can ignore a message once you've shot the messenger. Works like a charm most of the time.

37. Comment #63655 by heathen2 on August 15, 2007 at 8:40 am

It seems from his comments that Mr. Steel himself is "smug and superior" in his attitude toward believers.

41. Comment #63670 by Tony Jackson on August 15, 2007 at 9:24 am

Who are these "militant atheists" that look down their noses at Afghan peasants?

I think many of Steel's defenders here are far too indulgent. Steel is an atheist and has happily (and deservedly) attacked the irrationalism of Christianity on film. But when it comes to Islam, Steel has a problem. I'm sure he personally doesn't believe for one minute that the Archangel Gabriel really visited Muhammad in the desert, but for grubby political reasons it's difficult for him to come straight out and say so. As ericcolumbar has pointed out, Steel is a member of George Galloway's Respect party, a bizarre marriage of convenience between SWP types and various shades of Islamist opinion. Steele can't afford to upset a major group of his party's supporters and is trapped on a hook of his own making. Let him twist.

42. Comment #63677 by Dr Benway on August 15, 2007 at 10:16 am

 avatarDo the people of Tora Bora require Amazon? The message is so simple, it hardly needs a book:

Let's admit that evidence is better than faith, which is a bit like guessing.

It's been traditional to avoid examination and criticism of ideas based upon faith. But that can't continue in this world of global communication and travel. People with radically antagonistic faiths are now shoulder to shoulder. For the sake of peace, ideas based upon faith must be subject to our collective need for corroborative evidence.

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