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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage