After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we were told that the triumph of capitalism would lead inexorably to the spread of liberal, democratic and secular values. Yet as globalisation has brought down barriers between nation-states, new forms of exclusive, aggressive identity politics have thrived. Sometimes, these are founded on religious belief; other times on culture or ethnicity; others still on twisting the language of tolerance and equal rights so that it can be used to oppress others. One of the most pressing questions of our time is how we negotiate complex ethical and political issues while remaining true to secular values.
Interfaith Chapel on the University of Rochester River Campus. Photo: Gmonkey. Source:Flickr
Currently, Richard Dawkins is providing a case study in how not to do it. “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge”, he tweeted on 8 August, adding: “They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” At first glance a fairly innocuous (if odd) comment, it provoked a storm of condemnation – not only from religious believers, but from many self-declared atheists too. But it’s a fact, pleaded Dawkins and his supporters. What’s wrong with stating facts? This is disingenuous in the extreme. Dawkins knows full well the importance of context – and as the Independent columnist Owen Jones argued, it was the latest in a long line of statements that have singled out Muslims for particular opprobrium. Jones condemned this in the strongest possible terms as “dressing up bigotry as non-belief”, but he wasn’t alone. The Telegraph‘s Tom Chivers, while declaring himself a Dawkins “fan”, argued that his rhetoric was not only offensive, but damaging to the atheist cause.
Yet Dawkins’s response to these criticisms on his blog dismisses the furore that greeted his tweets as a “storm in a teacup” and merely restates previously expressed opinions and shows little willingness to reflect on the valid objections people have raised.
That’s his choice. For me, this is about more than Dawkins. Too often, discussion of religion and atheism in the media centres on personality clashes, or is otherwise presented as a zero-sum game. We must recognize a few basic principles about the way we discuss religion. I’ve set out three of them below.
Some “criticism” of religion is racist
Muslims are not a “race”. Nor are the Irish, or Jews, or Pakistanis, nor are the descendants of enslaved plantation workers in the Caribbean – and yet all have been subject to racism within recent history, based on those specific identities. What matters is the political context – and when it comes to discussing Islam, it is foolish to ignore the wider context of Islamophobia, in which religious and cultural differences have been systematically exaggerated to give the impression that Muslims pose a dire threat to the survival of western civilisation. As with anti-Semitism, this not only threatens the devout, but anybody with cultural links to a Muslim community. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a healthy – and critical – debate about Islam, as there is about other religions. But rhetoric that paints the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims as a monolithic bloc, or tries to make out they are uniquely savage, or violent, as a result of their religion, should be cause for alarm.
Religious believers are no less intelligent than non-believers
The 2011 census revealed 14.1 million people in England and Wales who describe themselves as having “no religion” – a quarter of the population, and a 67 per cent jump since 2001. Does that mean Britain has become a cleverer place in the last decade? I doubt it. Declaring one’s self a non-believer, or an atheist, is not a free pass to the sunlit uplands of truth and reason. And if you regard organized religion as merely a product of misguided beliefs, then you lose the ability to understand why it grows and changes historically, and why politicized forms of religion are so attractive to millions of people around the world. Psychological studies that throw up conclusions like “religious people are less intelligent than atheists” not only rely on an extremely narrow definition of “intelligence”, but as their own authors will point out, are influenced by factors such as employment, salary and time spent in the education system.
Secularism does not mean excluding religious believers from public life
The great paradox of organized religion is that in offering a better life in the next world, it is making a comment on the inadequacy of the lives we live now. For those of us who don’t believe in an afterlife, that gives us no option but to change this world – but we can’t do it alone. That’s why the key to political progress is an ability to find common ground between people of different religious beliefs and none. It’s why we don’t want unelected bishops making our laws, but it’s also why we don’t want laws that stigmatize or discriminate against religious minorities.
This is a lightly edited version of Daniel Trilling’s New Humanist article of 16 August 2013. The original can be found here.