A lesson in humility for 'new Atheists'

September 19, 2014

Christianity, Islam and Atheism: reflections on Religion, Society and Politics
By Micheal Cooke
Resistance Books 2014
124 pages, paperback, $15

For a time I stopped referring to myself as an atheist in public. I was intensely embarrassed by seeing ads on buses promoting atheism around the time of the World Atheist Conference in Melbourne.

For a while I simply became “not religious” for public purposes. I found it embarrassing because public evangelism is the one thing that particularly galls me about religion.

I didn't change my opinions, but this book does a good job of outlining why I felt as I did, in far more insightful terms than I ever thought of.

Working with community groups opposing wars, supporting Timorese refugees during the 1990s and campaigning on other issues like climate action, I have often found myself working alongside religious people. This was not really confronting, even though as someone with atheist views since my teens, I have no interest in spirituality let alone theology.

In 1980s, the religious right-wing playing a prominent role in politics, most particularly in the US. Many people of my age reacted against that, by gleefully listening to “satanic” or anti-religious heavy metal and punk rock, or mocking religion in public.

But over time, I learned not to judge people on superficial labels like their professed religion. Deeds do speak louder than words.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack, Islamphobia became all the rage for pseudo-intellectual anti-theists of the variety who never really progressed beyond the teenage heavy-metal level of religious criticism. And of course, mainstream political discourse desperately needed to demonise the people who were being slaughtered on the other side of the world.

Christopher Hitchens, a minor celebrity left-wing writer, made a name for himself as a former “Trotskyist” who joined the neoliberal crusade, giving a supposedly “left” and “secularist” alibi to the mass murder of people who happened to be Muslims.

This background informed my embarrassment at seeing ads for atheism on buses. My philosophical views never changed, but context is all-important in shaping public attitudes.

As much as we may wish to live in a secular world, religion abounds in the news.

While Australia's Catholic Archbishop George Pell was squirming as his pious pride was skewered on the point of a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, evangelical atheist Richard Dawkins caused jaws to drop with his suggestion that “there are shades of being abused by a priest … Telling children … that people who sin are going to go to hell and roast forever … it seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse.”

If we are to make sense of the role of religion in politics and society, it is necessary that we understand a little about the dogma, philosophy and tenets of faith that underpin them.

But clearly that's not enough. We cannot equate, for example, the murderous rampage of IS with the actions of Palestine's Hamas, who are resisting Israeli occupation — who in turn derive dubious legitimacy for their land grab from holy text.

The key to navigating these troubled cross-currents is context and history, of which Michael Cooke's new book provides needed doses.

Cooke does not set out to write a comprehensive history or theological analysis of all the world's religions, but sketches enough of an outline to back up his arguments and get the reader thinking.

Cooke is an atheist, secularist and humanist. He does not shy from putting forward his own point of view. Yet in this polemic, the point is not to put down or disprove all opposing points of view.

Progressive people of religious faith are explicitly challenged in the text. But they are included in the discussion, not made the target of attack. At the end of the day, religious belief is a private matter, but how it is expressed in social life is not.

Cooke gives credit to both Islam and Christianity for many great artistic and cultural achievements they have inspired, and the sense of justice and love they inspire in many believers.

In this regard, his appreciation of art comes to the fore to underline the human aspect of religion. This can be seen in many of the works of art produced for religious ends — but also in others, like Caravaggio's work, which perhaps subverted those religious teachings in more erotic and homo-erotic artworks.

The religious repression of sexuality is a key theme for Cooke. He discusses the exposure of the widespread sexual abuse of children uncovered in the Catholic Church (in which he was raised). He traces the source to that church's medieval attitude to sexuality in both biblical text and the tradition of celibacy in the priesthood.

Most pointedly, a celibate church hierarchy that understands sex only in abstract terms is probably not qualified to deal with sexual predators. This is especially the case when those predators may be charismatic priests bringing in money to swell the church's bank accounts.

The new Christian right, with its literal reading of the Bible, is also dealt with. Cooke points out that the literal reading of the Bible that sprang from a 19th century rejection of modernity owed a lot to the notion of scientific evidence that the fundamentalists were reacting against.

Ironically, “disproving” religion by showing flaws in the literal interpretation has become stock in trade for the more superficial atheist polemics that are commonplace on the internet.

Since the 1980s, this reactionary religious tendency has imposed its backward-looking and fantastic view of the world onto political processes — conveniently backing up the US neoliberal project under US President Ronald Reagan and the Bush dynasty.

A key target for the religious right has been Islam. The attacks on Muslim communities under the guise of secularism (banning the burqa) or anti-terror laws (police harassment) are undeserved and repressive.

But on the other hand, Cooke manages to write an intelligent, non-Islamophobic critique of Australia's most prominent public defender of the Islamic faith, academic and news commentator Waleed Aly.

When Aly seeks to paint radical Islamists such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda as being a product of modern enlightenment thinking, following a template carved out by national liberation, Jacobin or even “Leninist” terror groups, Cooke takes him to task:

Cooke writes: “Their motivation is not anti-colonial, which is a modern concept, but the establishment of an idealised caliphate... They have only two political weapons — violence and theology...

“Most national liberation movements since 1945 do not, for all their supposed limitations and violence, display these feudal tendencies.”

Defenders of Islam seek to invoke the “golden age” that saw its cultural pinnacle in Moorish Spain. But Cooke points out that, despite the advances in science and governance, the golden era still rested on the caliphate's brutal exploitation of the popular classes, and totalitarian censorship over the sciences and government as well.

Appeals to an imagined golden past, and uncritical regurgitation of holy writ without questioning its origins and the agenda of its authors and translators is a target for Cooke's criticism, whether Islam or Catholicism.

It's not that religion has contributed nothing of value; the question for those who wish to demonstrate its ongoing relevance is how can they do this without recourse to these ahistorical and unconvincing devices?

In this, Cooke comes down clearly in favour of secular humanism, and challenges progressive believers to fit this public approach with their private religious views.

But if the Christian right are embedded in the political establishment, and Muslims innocent victim of its scapegoating, what of the public current of “New Atheism” made popular by writers like Richard Dawkins?

Cooke points out the “new atheist” narrative adds little new. What Dawkins argues in more than 400 pages, he notes, was more effectively accomplished decades earlier by Bertrand Russell in only 70 pages.

It is the intolerance of the “new atheist” narrative that most irks Cooke. When Hitchens, the New Atheist court jester, tries to claim that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr was not really Christian, so as to avoid giving religion any credit for inspiring good works, Cooke's ironic exclamation is “God help us”.

Cooke explains: “Where Dawkins and Co. fail and fail miserably is that they cannot explain, given the logic and evidence they produce against religion, why it persists.”

Cooke’s criticism of the superficiality and brittle scientific reductionism implicit in the writings of authors like Dawkins is sharper in some ways than the critique of religion.

The onus on secularists, Cooke suggests, is not to preach liberalism at believers, but to make the world a better place, and allow people to live better lives. When we live in a world of war and poverty, with ecological catastrophe waiting in the wings, who cares if English snobs like Dawkins and co. have a more intellectually credible argument?

The appeal of religion is not so much intellectual but emotional. While the world is full of suffering, some of those seeking certainty and solace will always choose religion.

The New Atheist school of thought arose, in part, as a reaction against the Tea Party style religious fundamentalist trend in the US. Yet the foot soldiers of New Atheism, keyboard warriors on the internet, are in my experience quite ineffective because they fail to understand the reasons for their opponents' beliefs.

[A longer version can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Ben Courtice is a Socialist Alliance activist in Melbourne.]

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