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
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses