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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.