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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Michael Gove's quiet revolution could transform prisoner education

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate.

Justice Secretary Michael Gove is quietly embarking on the most substantive prison education reform programme for a generation. In September, Gove announced that Dame Sally Coates would chair a review of the provision and quality of education in prisons, the results of which are expected shortly.

To anyone with a passing interest in prisoner education it is clear that current levels of education and training are simply inadequate. In 2014, Ofsted reported that education levels across the British prison system were inadequate, suggesting that “very few prisoners are getting the opportunity to develop the skills and behaviours they need for work.” Between 2011/12 and 2013/14 the number of prisoners achieving a level 1 or 2 qualification in Mathematics fell by a third, and since 2010 the number of prisoners studying for an Open University degree has dropped by 37%.

In light of these damning statistics, Gove’s calls for prisons to become “places of education” is to be welcomed. The most obvious result of improved opportunities for training and education is that upon leaving prison offenders will be more likely to secure employment and less likely to reoffend. Less tangible, but no less important, limited opportunities for education hinder aspiration and prevent the justice system from acting as a conduit to improving society at large. Too often offenders are unable to develop their potential as citizens and contribute accordingly. Education is a powerful force in building offenders’ confidence and helping to engage with their communities upon release: helping to break the cycle of offending.

In tandem with enhanced opportunities for education, skills and training, Gove has promised greater autonomy for prison governors. Currently, the Skills Funding Agency manages the Offenders’ Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) to connect offender education with mainstream provision. Speaking before the APPG on Penal Affairs, Dame Sally suggested that “many governors feel very frustrated by their lack of ability to have any say in the education delivered.  If we want the governors to be accountable, they have to have the autonomy to contract for this for themselves, or employ their own teaching staff.”

The principle of increased flexibility is a good one. A significant minority of prisoners already have qualifications and require opportunity to build upon them. The education pathways available to them will be quite different to those offenders who enter prison with limited numeracy and literacy skills. However, the high-profile failure of private suppliers to deliver even the most basic services, raises questions as to whether major outsourcing firms will be able to provide these.

In 2014, A4E prematurely pulled out of a £17m contract to deliver education and training to prisoners in 12 London prisons on the grounds that it was unable to run the contract at a profit. This was not the first time that A4E had prematurely terminated a prison education contract. In 2008 the firm ended a similar contract to provide education in eight Kent prisons, again citing huge losses.

Recognising such failures, the Prime Minister has argued that his government’s reform program would “allow new providers and new ideas to flourish”, but the steps to achieving this are unclear. Identifying the difficulty smaller providers – particularly those from the third sector – currently have in winning and delivering contracts is a far easier task than redesigning the contracting system to improve their chances.

There are three steps that could act as a starting point. First, a review of commissioning to ensure a plurality of providers, particularly from small and medium-sized organisations should be considered, with payments-by-results the favoured means of remuneration. Second, providers and experts should be empowered to contribute to the reform process that follows the Coates Review’s publication. Third, it is clear that while a universal standard of education must be set, providers and governors should be empowered to experiment and innovate to seek results above this. In sacrificing universality it may be possible to improve methods and achieve better results in future.

Reforming the prison system is not a task that will be easy, nor one that will be quick. To ensure its long-term success it is vital that education and skills providers’ voices are heard and that the government develops forums through which ideas can be shared. For too long talent, resources and time have been wasted through mismanagement and poor provision. Now is the time to reverse this and ensure that the justice system delivers rehabilitation and improved educational outcomes.