Demonising atheism is a bad way to defend faith

Atheism, like faith, is a belief about the purpose of the universe. Neither side should resort to bl

"Thank God we're not all atheists" is the line being taken this Easter by the man tipped as a future head of the Catholic Church in Australia, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Anthony Fisher, the new archbishop of Parramatta, "used his inaugural Easter message to launch a scathing attack on atheism, while ignoring the sex abuse scandals besieging the Catholic Church worldwide," reports the paper. It then quotes Fisher as saying:

''Last century we tried godlessness on a grand scale and the effects were devastating. Nazism, Stalinism, Pol-Pottery, mass murder and broken relationships: all promoted by state-imposed atheism or culture-insinuated secularism.''

This equation of atheism with all the sins committed by people who are, or were, atheists, is nothing new. In fact, Peter Hitchens devotes quite a large part of his very readable new book, The Rage Against God, to just that (here is a video of him talking about it).

In a chapter called "Homo Sovieticus" Hitchens, who had been the Moscow correspondent of the Daily Express (although he cannot bring himself to name that newspaper, his long-time employer before he became a Mail on Sunday columnist, anywhere in the book), refers to "the atheist Soviet Union, where desecration and heroic survival were visible around me".

Later, he writes that it is "important to recognise two things -- that the Russian Revolution was an earlier version of the modern revolt against God; and that today's anti-Christian revolutionaries would very much prefer to disown the apostolic succession which leads from Lenin and Stalin down to them." Of Stalin, he says: "Any suggestion that his regime's savagery was connected with his atheism must be vigorously denied."

As you would expect, Hitchens makes his case forcefully, passionately and, yes, intelligently, too (for his very right wing opinions should not blind one to the fact that he is a principled man who always tries to tell the truth as he sees it). But for me, at least, to no avail. For while Stalin's atheism may have been a necessary condition for the atrocities he committed -- I completely agree with Hitchens that "without God, many more things are possible than are permitted in a Godly order" -- it is not a sufficient one. I part company with him when he claims that his preceding sentence proves that which follows it: "Atheism is a licence for ruthlessness, and appeals to the ruthless."

In as much as the absence of God leaves any system of morality floundering when it comes to unarguable proof of its truth, Hitchens is on to something. An atheist society does not have the in-built defences against the will of a tyrannous majority that religion would supply, for instance. But he makes too much connection between the ill deeds of atheists and their atheism. People who are given to ruthlessness can always find a justification for it. Many of the most ardent supporters of Marshal Petain's collaborationist Vichy state, for instance, were right-wing Catholics. But it would neither be fair, nor correct, to blame their Catholicism for their enthusiastic acquiescence in persecuting Jews -- even if they twisted their faith to claim its defence as the basis for their actions.

And this kind of argument works both ways. Last summer, I found myself in the middle of a minor fuss after I wrote a scathing review of Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom's Does God Hate Women? for the Independent on Sunday. Put simply, my objection was that they detailed terrible barbarities perpetrated against women by religious people, chiefly Muslims, and then pretty much laid the blame on religion, again, chiefly Islam, for those crimes. (They disagreed with my analysis and, for the sake of even-handedness, and also because I didn't doubt their sincerity of purpose, you can find Johann Hari's highly sympathetic review of the book in the NS here.)

If you want to argue, as Hitchens does, that atheists' crimes stem from their atheism, you lay yourself open to the polar, and matching, opposite: that religion is to blame for the evil acts of the religious. There is no shortage of scary verses in the Old Testament, after all, that the anti-religious can pluck out to demonstrate that the Abrahamic faiths are full of vengeful, sexist, murderous, not to say downright bizarre, injunctions.

Neither are right. Just as Hitchens can point out, "When did Christians last burn, strangle or imprison each other for alleged errors of faith?", so too would any reasonable person agree that most of the atheists who are vocal today are not noted for their sympathy with Stalinism, Nazism or, as the archbishop put it, "Pol-Pottery".

Hitchens and Archbishop Fisher, methinks, protest too much. Faith, just like atheism, is a belief about the purpose and order, or lack thereof, in our universe. Bad people don't need either in order to be bad -- and if both sides are truly confident of their claims, they shouldn't resort to such blame games to argue their position.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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