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Orr Mining


I don’t generally get involved in atheism wars. My entire take on it is, essentially, “wasted energy”.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ll argue for secularism vigorously. I’ll point out the bad practices of religion. But that whole “god exists”/”no he doesn’t” thing is essentially a losing fight before you start.

Takes a lot to make me rise to the bait. Deborah Orr, in her spectacularly vapid column for the Guardian on Saturday managed it.

Leaving aside that it was a meditation on a series of remarks that – she freely admits – didn’t actually say what everyone thought they said (and, indeed, even the misrepresented remarks have an element about them which we *could* debate? What happened to deconstructing story, again? What precisely is wrong with that?), one is struck by the weakness of her arguments. Which are basically:

Richard Dawkins is not winning any converts by being atheist. He shouldn’t be so atheist. He’s a fundamentalist and

He should feel sorry for the poor people who need god.

To address them, in order…

Yes, he’s an atheist. It’s a pretty binary condition, you know. One believes, or one doesn’t. Hence, one can’t be a “fundamentalist” atheist. One is an atheist, or one isn’t an atheist. Simple.

The fundamentalist tag is infantile, and is thrown around by people who won’t actually engage with his arguments. Instead, they engage with a churlish caricature, an unpleasant, browbeating man who spends his time bullying the poor defenceless believers.

Professor Dawkins is a man in his 70s. I’m sure he has some of the attitudes a successful, somewhat privileged, white man in his 70s has. I’m pretty sure he’s occasionally, well, a tad impolite in framing his arguments.

The religious, on the other hand, have burned. Maimed. Tortured. Killed. Stoned. Boiled. Kidnapped. Raped. Enslaved. They have oppressed people based around sexuality, creed and colour. They have justified all manner of evil and nonsense with their words. Professor Dawkins, on the other hand, has occasionally been a bit impolite in formal debate.

Hmmmmmm. Ok. So, I’m meant to feel sympathy for the religious here? Come again?

What really grinds my gears about the whole thing though is this paragraph:-

“It’s a luxury to have a fine mind that is highly educated. I’m certainly not saying that Dawkins has not earned his privilege – he has. But he is privileged nonetheless. His soul is not tortured. His mind is free. The human condition does not overwhelm him. But his lack of sympathy for those who cling to psychological certainties he does not approve of has no kindness in it, no compassion. It’s a shame.”

Its the wink and the nod in it, that gets me. Its the “Well, you and I both know those silly ignorant people are clinging to it, so let them be”. Happiness in ignorance. Leave the poor uneducated fools in darkness. Atheism is for the privileged, the educated, the lucky. We who can see beyond such silly psychological props. Leave the common herd believe what they want.

One of my favourite moments in “Q”, by Luther Blissett, is the testimony of the Italian peasant, who attests that the whole idea of God and the Madonna is a nonsense, that it means nothing to him, that it is a trick to distract him from what is happening here on earth. In Orr’s reading, this (based on fact) example of working class rationalism, this underdog realising of mental chains? This doesn’t happen. All that exists is the elite, with their rationality, and the unprivileged, being bullied by the evil Prof.

Now, tell me again, who has a more sympathetic view, the man who wants to set us free from those mind-forg’d manacles, or the woman who shushes him and says “leave them be?”

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One thought on “Orr Mining

  1. invisiblevisibleman on said:

    There’s a slight selectiveness here, isn’t there? As a churchgoer, I feel shame over the legacy of the Inquisition and, given that I’m a Protestant, more direct shame over, for example, the excesses of John Calvin in Geneva and other horrors of that era. But it’s hardly true that atheism hasn’t killed lots of people – or at least it’s true only if one exempts from atheist crimes the crimes of quite a lot of systems that had atheism as a core element. Those would include in my view Soviet Communism, Chinese Communism and (definitely) Albanian Communism. All these systems killed large numbers of people because they were religious believers. The argument with Nazism is more complicated but one could probably make an argument for that as well.

    This isn’t seeking to say the two phenomena or the same or to suggest that religious belief systems – which typically purport to support life, love and many other positive things – haven’t been horrifically perverted. But it is to acknowledge that some very unpleasant belief systems have had atheism as a core part of their ideology and that that element of their ideology can’t be entirely separated from their nihilistic killing of large numbers of people.

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