Brendan O'Neill: Secularism vs Religion - Should we give a fig?
In comparison with the religious battles of the past, especially those hair-raising, head-chopping
ones between Catholics and Protestants, today’s faith wars are disappointingly anaemic.
Forget agitated armies of papists and guerrilla gangs of radical reformers. All we have today is politicians who think that a nurse being asked to remove her crucifix is a sign that Christianity is under attack, versus polite if red-faced atheist academics who think religion is a jolly ugly thing.
Today’s battles over faith are not only literally bloodless (which is a good thing, of course). They are also metaphorically bloodless, which is a bad thing because there are some big issues at stake here – yet they tend to get buried beneath the exaggeration and empty posturing of both sides in this battle-of-sorts.
The latest shot in the half-war between believers and doubters was fired by Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, chairman of the Conservative Party.
In a speech delivered at the Vatican on Valentine’s Day, Warsi had a distinctly un-Valentiney message for modern secularists. She said these “militants” are “taking hold of our societies” and are hellbent on making sure that “religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere”. The so-called militant secularists – those atheists and humanists who are heavily influenced by Richard Dawkins and other religion-rattlers – were quick to hit back.
One, writing in the The Independent, said religious people are simply annoyed that they don’t always “get their own way”. The alleged “march of secularism” is just evidence that we are “moving towards a society which is less hierarchical, more open and tolerant”, apparently.
Despite the best efforts of both sides to make their clash sound like an epoch-shaking war of values – with the liberal use of such self-flattering terminology as “militant” and “march” – this is all a pale imitation of yesteryear’s religious run-ins.
It is striking that both sides feel the need to talk up their enemies. So the religious-friendly lobby depicts modern secularists as a gang of intolerant Bible-burners, with Warsi even comparing them to Stalin, when in fact they’re mostly just well-to-do commentators who don’t do God.
In turn, the secularist side depicts its opponents as “religious fundamentalists” and “cranks”, when, in truth, wearing a cross to work is hardly a warning sign of a coming Christo-theocracy.
This massively overblown lingo is bad news, since it obscures the fact that, actually, some big ideological shifts have taken place in the faith wars in recent years, especially on the atheistic, humanist side.
It is wrong to see modern-day secularists as “Darwin’s pit bulls”, as some people refer to them, or as “Enlightenment fundamentalists”. Because there’s one big difference between these allegedly militant secularists and Charles Darwin or other, older Enlightenment thinkers – which is that today’s so-called humanists don’t have much faith in humanity.
A great irony in today’s topsy-turvy faith wars is that the religious side often appears more humanist, more trusting of mankind, than the humanist side.
Indeed, in a brilliantly historic flip-reversal of their normal roles, humanists now tend to attack the religious for having too much regard for human beings.
So Bill Maher, in his hit religion-baiting film Religulous, slated folk with faith for their “arrogant certitude” that mankind will be “saved”, when the truth is that “human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong”.
As the late Christopher Hitchens said, it is bizarre to talk of the specialness of man – who is just a “close cousin of the chimpanzee”.
Justin Keating of the Humanist Association of Ireland says the Bible is wicked because in granting mankind “dominion” over the Earth, it has acted as a “validation for all those who believe in the cult of more growth and more consumption”. Humans are “deforming the Earth”, says Keating.
In short, the problem with the Bible is that it is too human-centric, says a humanist. For atheistic secularists like me, it’s hard to know which side to take these days – the side of religionists who believe in a divine being but who at least retain some faith in mankind too, or the side of humanists who correctly challenge the idea of God yet who seem pretty downbeat about human beings?
Today’s clashes over faith are not only more bloodless than the old wars over God, faith, mankind and reason – they’re also a lot weirder and more confused.