A lesson in humility for ‘New Atheists’

Christianity, Islam and Atheism: Reflections on Religion, Society and Politics
By Michael Cooke.
Sydney: Resistance Books, 2014.
Order HERE.

Review by Ben Courtice

September 11, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- For a time I stopped referring to myself as an atheist in public. I was intensely embarrassed by seeing ads on buses promoting atheism around the time of the World Atheist Conference in Melbourne. For a while I simply became “not religious” for public purposes. I found it embarrassing because public evangelism is the one thing that particularly galls me about religion.

I didn't change my opinions, but this book does a good job of outlining why I felt as I did, in far more insightful terms than I ever thought of.

Working with community groups opposing the Iraq war, supporting Timorese refugees during the 1990s and campaigning on other issues like climate action, I have often found myself working alongside religious people. This is not really confronting, even though as someone with fairly firm atheist views since my teens, I have no interest in spirituality let alone theology.

The 1980s had the religious right-wing playing a prominent role in politics, most particularly in the USA, and many people of my age reacted against that, by gleefully listening to “satanic” or anti-religious heavy metal and punk rock, or mocking religion in public. But over time one learns not to judge people on superficial labelling like their professed religion. Deeds do speak louder than words.

Atheists and theists behaving badly

When the criminal wars on Afghanistan and Iraq started, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack, islamphobia became all the rage for pseudo-intellectual anti-theists of the variety who never really progressed beyond the teenage heavy-metal level of religious criticism; and of course mainstream political discourse  desperately needed to demonise the people who were being slaughtered on the other side of the world.

Christopher Hitchens, a minor celebrity left-wing writer, made a name for himself as one of the allegedly former “Trotskyists” who joined the neoliberal crusade, giving a left and supposedly atheist or secularist alibi to the mass murder of people who happened to be Muslims.

This background informed my embarrassment at seeing the ads for atheism on buses. It is not that I have reconciled with religion. My philosophical views never changed. But it is a clue that context is all-important in shaping public attitudes.

And that brings us to the current context. As much as we may wish to live in a secular world, religion abounds in the news.

When the notorious hate-group, Westboro Baptist Church, announced it would bring its bigoted protests to the funeral of liberal comedian Robin Williams, Australian comic Adam Hills aptly suggested fundraising to send the fanatical group to Iraq to take its message to the Islamic State (IS) group, also in the news for its bigotry, albeit of a more terrifying and physical kind than the sloganeering of the Westboro Baptists.

While Australia's Catholic Archbishop George Pell was squirming as his pious pride was skewered on the point of a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, the evangelical atheist Richard Dawkins caused jaws to drop with his suggestion that “there are shades of being abused by a priest… Telling children … that people who sin are going to go to hell and roast forever … it seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse.” He followed up with suggestions on Twitter that “mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.”

Leaving aside the horrendous sexual politics of that example, if we are to make sense of the role of religions (and atheism) in politics and society, it is necessary that we understand a little about the dogma, philosophy and tenets of faith that underpin them.

But clearly that's not enough. Lest we equate (for example) the murderous rampage of IS with the military actions of Palestine's Hamas (also founded on Islamic principles), who are resisting the murderous rampage of the Western-backed Israeli occupation forces (who in turn derive dubious legitimacy for their land grab from holy text), some method to sort through the madness is essential.

The key to navigating these troubled cross-currents of bigotry and belief is context and history, and Michael Cooke's new book provides the necessary dose of that context. He does not set out to write a comprehensive history or theological analysis of all the world's religions, but sketches enough of an outline to back up his arguments and to get the reader thinking.

As Cooke is openly an atheist, a secularist and a humanist, he does not shy from putting forward his own point of view. Yet in this polemic, the point is not to put down or to prove wrong all opposing points of view. Progressive people of religious faith are explicitly challenged in the text, but they are included in the discussion, not made the target of attack. At the end of the day, religious belief is a private matter, but how it is expressed in social life is not.

Did history start with enlightenment?

Cooke manages to give credit to both Islam and Christianity for many great artistic and cultural achievements they have inspired, and the sense of justice and love they inspire in many believers. In this regard, his appreciation of art comes to the fore to underline the human aspect of religion as seen in many of the works of art produced for religious ends – but also others, like Caravaggio, who perhaps subverted those religious teachings in some more erotic and homo-erotic artworks.

The religious repression of sexuality is a key theme for Cooke. Most pointedly he discusses the exposure of the widespread sexual abuse of children uncovered in the Catholic Church (in which he was raised). He traces the source to that church's medieval attitude to sexuality in both biblical text and the tradition of celibacy in the priesthood.

Most pointedly, a celibate church hierarchy that understand sex in only abstract terms is probably not qualified to deal with sexual predators, especially when those sexual predators may be charismatic priests who bring in money to swell the church's considerable bank accounts.

The new Christian right with its literal reading of the Bible and long history tracing back to a reaction to modernity in the 1800s is also dealt with. Cooke points out that the literal reading of the Bible that sprang from this reaction owed a lot to the notion of scientific evidence that the fundamentalists were reacting against. Ironically, “disproving” religion by showing flaws in the literal interpretation has become stock in trade for the more superficial atheist polemics that are commonplace on the internet.

Since the 1980s this reactionary religious tendency has imposed its backward-looking and fantastic view of the world onto political processes – conveniently backing up the US neoliberal project under US President Ronald Reagan and the Bush dynasty, by giving religious support to notions such as the free market, while pushing reactionary agendas in the personal spheres of sexuality and women's rights.

One of the key targets for the religious right has of course been Islam, in the hysteria of the “war on terror”, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and support for Israel. The attacks on Muslim communities under the guise of secularism (banning the burqa) or anti-terror laws (police harassment) are undeserved and repressive. But on the other hand, Cooke manages to write an intelligent but non-islamophobic critique of Australia's most prominent public defender of the Islamic faith, the academic and news commentator Waleed Aly.

When Aly seeks to paint radical Islamists such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda as being a product of modern enlightenment thinking, following a template carved out by national liberation, Jacobin or even “Leninist” terror groups, Cooke takes him to task:

Their motivation is not anti-colonial, which is a modern concept, but the establishment of an idealised caliphate... They have only two political weapons – violence and theology... Most national liberation movements since 1945 do not, for all their supposed limitations and violence, display these feudal tendencies.

Where defenders of Islam seek to invoke the “golden age” that saw its cultural pinnacle in Moorish Spain, Cooke points out that, despite the advances in science and governance, the golden era still rested on the caliphate's brutal exploitation of the popular classes, and totalitarian censorship over the sciences and government as well.

Appeals to an imagined golden past, and uncritical regurgitation of holy writ without questioning its origins and the agenda or failings of its authors and translocutors is the target for Cooke's criticism of religion, whether Islam or Catholicism.

Relevance: you're doing it wrong

It's not that religion has contributed nothing of value; the question for those who wish to demonstrate its ongoing relevance is how can they do this without recourse to these ahistorical and unconvincing devices? In this, Cooke comes down clearly in favour of secular humanism, and issues a challenge to progressive believers to fit this public approach with their private religious views if they can.

But on to what is, in my view, the most pointed end of the book. If the Christian right are embedded in the political establishment, and Muslims innocent victim of its scapegoating, what of the public current of “New Atheism” made popular by writers like Richard Dawkins?

Cooke points out the “new atheist” narrative adds little new. What Dawkins argues in over 400 pages, he notes, was more effectively accomplished decades earlier by Bertrand Russell in only 70 pages.

It is the intolerance of the “new atheist” narrative that most viscerally irks Cooke. When the court jester of the New Atheists, Christopher Hitchens, tries to claim that the good works of Martin Luther King Jr shows that the assassinated preacher was not really Christian, in order to avoid giving religion any credit for inspiring good works, “God help us” is Cooke's ironic exclamation.

The more intelligent arguments of Dawkins and A.C. Grayling are analysed, and Cooke still finds them lacking:

Where Dawkins and Co. fail and fail miserably is that they cannot explain, given the logic and evidence they produce against religion, why it persists.

Like neoliberal economic theory, Cooke points out that liberal humanism looks good on paper, but what do its exponents do in practice? He cites his experience at the World Atheist Conference in 2012, where he heard speaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was protested by some radical Islamists outside the conference. Yet, he points out, Ali is a scholar of the American Enterprise Institute, a neo-conservative body devoted to the free market and blaming liberals and left radicals for society's ills.

Cooke’s criticism of the superficiality and brittle scientific reductionism implicit in the writings of authors like Dawkins is sharper in some ways than the critique of religion. The onus on secularists, Cooke suggests, is not to preach liberalism at believers, but to make the world a better place, and allow people to live better lives. When we live in a world of war and poverty, with ecological catastrophe waiting in the wings, who cares if English snobs like Dawkins and co. have a more intellectually credible argument?

Seeking certainty in an uncertain world?

Likewise, the appeal of religion is not so much intellectual but emotional, and while the world is full of suffering (Cooke addresses the Great Financial Crisis and climate change in particular), some of those seeking certainty and solace will always choose religion.

The New Atheist school of thought arose, in part, as a reaction against the Tea Party style religious fundamentalist trend in the USA, in particular its attack on science (as in the creationism vs evolution debate); and perhaps also against the New Age fashion in shallow spiritualism that arose in parallel. Yet the foot soldiers of New Atheism, keyboard warriors on the internet, are in my experience quite ineffective because they fail to understand the reasons for their opponents' beliefs.

The New Atheist school, Dawkins in particular, originated in the biological sciences, and Cooke's criticism of them in some respects parallels that of the renowned palaeontologist and writer Stephen Jay Gould. As Cooke takes the New Atheist school to task for its shallow and de-contextualised liberal views, Gould criticised them for “Darwinian fundamentalism”. He saw this school as engaging in a process of shallow scientific reductionism.

The debate ranges from epistemology to the finer points of evolutionary biology, and as such is perhaps less cut-and-dried than a political and ideological argument about atheism. But as Gould saw evolution as something far richer (and more random) than a single-direction movement towards more complex, “higher” life-forms like humans, Cooke's book has in its humble way provided us with a far richer and more relevant approach to the world than the abstract liberalism of the New Atheists.

Cooke has real arguments to make and they are worth listening to. Religion in politics cannot be understood without context. Abstract theology and the golden past, or ahistorical liberal rationalism, cannot substitute for a humanist approach of trying to remove the great injustices of poverty and persecution, the power structures that perpetuate them, or averting the great threat of human-induced catastrophic climate change. Those seeking eternal spiritual certainty in scripture, or engineering-like certainty in science, are too often blind to the unpleasant and complex political realities that we must face up to.

Unlike many of those he criticises, Cooke doesn't preach, and because he is not trying to ram any one particular view down our throats, we are exposed to a range of views on religion and society, and invited to consider them on their merits, without the shoutiness of the mainstream media debate. He approaches the debate with humility and grace; if nothing else is taken from his book, partisans of the various sides should take a lesson from that.

[Ben Courtice  is an activist with the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne.]