Archive for January, 2008

Telepathy and the Philosophical Materialist Corruption of Science

January 25, 2008

There is an assumption among many atheists that atheism somehow is synonymous with science, or else that only atheism is really rational as a worldview because of its basis in science. The most recent expression of this view was by Sam Harris in a speech last year at an atheists’ convention in Washington DC, in which he recommended that atheists should not identify themselves as atheists, but see atheism merely as a subset of rationality or science. Although Naturalism as a philosophy of science can be traced back to Hume and Mill, its most prominent exponents in the 20th century have arguably been Ernest Nagel and Morris Cohen, who expressed their views of the scientific foundations of Naturalism in works such as their An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method of 1934. 1 Part of the hostility towards non-materialistic approaches to science, such as Intelligent Design and parapsychology, comes from the conviction that these highly controversial subjects cannot be scientific because they are predicated on non-material causes. Indeed, they are denounced by their opponents as ‘non-science’ or ‘anti-science’. The opponents of these sciences see themselves as preserving science against its corruption and distortion from religion and the supernatural. Yet rather than materialists being the defenders of science, it can also be alleged that they have also corrupted science by introducing their own philosophical assumptions into it.

It has been observed that up until the 18th century, science was essentially the ‘mind’s road to God’, with scientists attempting to read the Book of Nature as part of the general enterprise of finding and understanding the Lord. This also included what we would now consider as psi phenomena. Francis Bacon, in his Sylva Sylvarum of 1627, recommended ‘experiments in consort, monitory, touching transmission of spirits and forces of imagination’ and that ‘the experiment of binding of thoughts should be diversified and tried to the full’. 2

By the late 19th century, however, telepathy was firmly out of favour with scientists, despite the efforts of scientists such as the Society for Psychical Research in Britain and the American Society for Psychical Research to investigate it and provide experimental proof of its existence. For the great pioneering psychologist of religion, William James, this opposition was grounded in the challenge it posed to the materialist basis of science. ‘Why do so few ‘scientists’ even look at the evidence for telepathy, so called? Because they think, as a leading biologist, now dead once said to me, that even if such a thing were true, scientists ought to band together to keep it suppressed and concealed. It would undo the uniformity of Nature and all sorts of other things without which scientists cannot carry on their pursuits.’ 3 Yet the uniformity of nature itself has a distinct origin in religious, and particularly Christian, metaphysics.

‘Historically, it is relatively easy to demonstrate that the notion of the ‘laws of nature’ is firmly grounded in a Christian doctrine of creation. They are to be regarded not as arbitrary regulations imposed upon the world from without on an occasional basis, but as a permanent expression and embodiment within the world of the mind of God as creator. The idea that nature is governed by ‘laws’ does not appear to be a significant feature of Greek, Roman or Asian conceptions of science; it is firmly entrenched within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, reflecting the specifics of a Christian doctrine of creation.’ 4

There is an irony here in that the concept of laws of nature, which for Naturalists rules out the miraculous and the supernatural, is the product of Christian philosophy.

The doctrine of the uniformity of nature in particular, which James’ biologist friend felt so strongly was inviolable, has been used by philosophers since Spinoza to rule out miracles. Yet Spinoza insisted on the uniformity of nature and the non-existence of miracles because he felt that these were necessitated by the divine nature itself. In proposition 29 of part one of his Ethics, he stated that ‘Everything is determind by the necessity of the divine nature’. This he restated in less metaphysical language in chapter 4 of his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus as ‘everything is determined by universal laws of nature to exist and act in a certain and determinate way’. 5

Atheist opponents of religion have often criticised it as wishful thinking, yet one can also make the case that Naturalism too is based on what its proponents wish to be true, as much as, or rather than, what they consider to be rationally acceptable. Nagel himself stated that he ‘didn’t want there to be a God’. In this instance, atheist philosophical preference and prejudice, rather than a superior rationality and open-mindedness, can be seen to be an obstacle to certain controversial areas of research. In the case of parapsychology, meta-analysis of the positive results of 597 experimental studies and 235 control studies by 68 investigators on the influence of consciousness on micro-electronic system by Dean Radin and Roger Nelson of Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research laboratory showed that the odds that the overall result was due to chance was in one in 10 to the power of 35. 6 Now psychical research contains to be highly controversial, despite the immense interest in it by an increasing number of respected scientists. In this instance, it can be considered that in the case of parapsychology at least, there is a legitimate scientific case which is being denied through atheist philosophical prejudice, imported into and confused with true scientific scepticism.


1. ‘Naturalism’ in Stathis Psillos, Philosophy of Science A-Z (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press 2007), pp. 158-9; ‘Nagel, Ernest’ in Psillos, Philosophy of Science, p. 155-156; John Passmore, One Hundred Years of Philosophy (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1957), p. 293.

2. Francis Bacon, Sylva Sylvarum, cited in Alister Hardy, The Biology of God (London, Jonathan Cape 1975), p. 139.

3. ‘William James: The Will to Believe’, in Paul Helm, Faith and Reason (Oxford (Oxford University Press 1999), pp. 241-2.

4. Alister E. McGrath, The Science of God: An Introduction to Scientific Theology (T &T Clark International, London 2004), p. 131.

5. ‘Spinoza, Baruch’ in Passmore, Philosophy, p. 336.

6. Richard Milton, Forbidden Science: Exposing the Secrets of Suppressed Research (London, Fourth Estate 1995), p. 57.

C.S. Lewis and James Ward: Spiritual Minds in an Mindful Universe

January 24, 2008

Wakefield Talbert, one of the great commentators at this blog, has posted this insightful comment:

‘In a half-mocking way, in response, one apologist has written a response [to evolutionist claims to have refuted religion] in a fantastic book called C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea
Victor Reppert. See

I highly recommend his site and the give and take, though his ideas are a little difficult to grasp for newbies. He concentrates his critique of Darwinism by using and evaluating Lewis’ critique of materialism and the development of the brain and morals, free will, “rules of science”, patterns, and the notino of Induction. It is complicated, but Lewis’ classic Argument from Reason runs something like this:

Strictly speaking there are no “rules of matter” or “rules of physics” and “rules of biology.” There are only PATTERNS. The difference is that rules assume what materialist science cannot, in that rules pertain to some law above the process itself and beyond matter. Patterns are just repetitions that have no final or formative causation. They just are. Rules are what humans create in their heads.
Likewise either God has something to do with the Cosmos–or not. Those are the choices. If not, then not. If so, then while the mechanics of this are unknown by and large then it is not “supernatural” in the parody sense of Thor making the clouds rumble with his hammer. That has never been my conception, nor “magical properties,” etc.

On patterns, this leads to the common teleological assumption for God that even Materialists can agree on, I think:

What we know can be summed up as follows–

1) Science by its nature entails observations of patterns, NOT rules (there is non such thing as “observing a rule”–that is nonsense). What are observed are material patterns.

2) Patterns are NOT rules without intelligent input behind them. We know this as patterns have no predictive value; only rules have such value and make predictions.

3) Rules in the proper definition are MENTAL constructs that can ONLY be EXPERIENCED, and INFERRED, not observed scientifically.

4) If nature IS predictable (and it seems to be, for the most part–i.e.–giving the appearance of being “rule bound”) it MUST be dependent at some source upon a mental construct that lies OUTSIDE of human reasoning AND is scientifically UNOBSERVABLE. In this sense only do I think there is a “supernatural”, in the sense that something frankly unobervable is at work. So in a sense this is “beyond nature.” But this is not really a problem in my estimation for materialists either. They confront the same problem when it comes to “cosmic origins” notions. To our puzzlement (but now confirmed) we know that the Universe is all there is materially and yet it is NOT eternal and had a beginning. This being the case and no room for eternal material, it is no more (to use one quip) irrational, nor rational, to believe in an egg that came from no bird (common theism beginnings of creation) than to believe in a bird that existed for all eternity (materialism, no input).’

The British philosopher, James Ward, had a roughly similar approach to the problem of personal identity and the environment. Writing at the end of the 19th century, Ward was one of the philosophers whose work effectively finished off associationist psychology. Associationism held that the mind is merely a collection of ideas, and that knowledge consists in these ideas becoming associated with each other and coalescing. This process was conceived as similar to the physical process by which atoms attract and bond to each other to form molecules and objects. Ward, however, adopted a more biological approach to the mind. Rather than being a passive entity, minds were active and desirous, and achieved knowledge by active experimentation not passive sensation.

 He was concerned with the apparent break between the abstract world of physics, where reality can be defined as the movement of atoms, and the subjective world of the Cartesian self where one experiences a universe of colour, sound and texture. In trying to link the spiritual mind with the material brain, contemporary philosophers felt that one or other of those worlds must be unreal, or that they were both illusory, mere appearances of the Absolute.

Ward, however, considered that the world of physics was a mere set of abstractions. Atoms were not concrete realities, but creations of the scientific mind. They were, however, declared to be realities by Naturalism, and so became, as he described it in his 1899 Naturalism and Agnosticism, ‘physics treated as metaphysics’.  Like Vico in the 18th century, Ward turned to history as a depiction of true reality. According to Ward, historical inquiries were based on the notion of the active, striving, valuing individual, interacting with the world around him and seeking his own preservation and development. In the 1905 edition of the Hibbert Journal, he declared ‘History offers us facts, individuals, purpose and meaning, all that we miss in the world of mechanism’. History did not present a false abstraction of the subject away from the object, rather it took as its subject the individual in their environment, which is the reality of everyday experience.

Ward did not believe there was a sudden break between mind and matter, and acknowledged that materialism recognised this. However, for Ward materialism could make nothing of the striving, valuing individual, who Ward considered comprehensible only if one saw them as possessing purpose, an approach discarded by materialists. Furthermore, if the environment too is considered to be purposive and spiritual then all the problems of relating humanity to its environment are solved. It is automatically possible to understand how the mind discovers in its environment the means of fulfilling its ideals, something that it is otherwise incomprehensible. Ward was keen to point out, however, that this does not mean we have to abandon the idea of scientific law. Rather scientific law should be seen as a product of mind, the human way of dealing with the environment, closely analogous to the laws humanity creates to govern its communities. Thus in his 1911 book The Realm of Ends he saw the universe as a plurality of minds but not a single entity, as other Idealist philosophers had maintained. Only God could unite this plurality into a single universe, though Ward himself admitted that he could not prove the Lord’s existence. 1

Now clearly modern science has established that atoms are more than mere abstractions, while paradoxically quantum physics has also demonstrated that at is most minute levels, reality is profoundly abstract and can be grasped only through statistics and probability. Nevertheless, scientific laws exist in that they are abstract models created by the human mind to explain reality, and the purposive nature of the human self defies reductionism even today. Thus there is certainly a warrant for accepting Ward’s contention that humans are able to understand and interact with their environment, which also obeys rational laws, because this environment is also shaped and governed by a purposive mind.


1. John Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1957), pp. 81-4.

Religion and War

January 20, 2008

‘They say a good cause justifies any war, but I say unto you, a good war justifies any cause.’

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra.

One of the aspects of religion that most people find troubling is the strong role it has often played in war and violence throughout history. Richard Dawkins has laid particular emphasis in this, stating that a belief that one has a divine mandate may enable a person to justify any war or atrocity. Now it is true that religion has played a very strong role in providing support for war and aggression throughout human history. In Britain the violence and terrorism in Ulster has part of its origins in tension and conflict between the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities in Ireland. The question has become particularly pressing because of the militaristic concept of martyrdom in Islam, where within the Prophet Mohammed’s lifetime a shahid – ‘martyr’ – included someone who fell in battle for the faith, rather than was the passive victim of murderous persecution, such as the early Christians in the Roman Empire. However, religions will also act to limit aggression and brutality. Christianity, Islam and Sikhism all have rules regarding what is a just war. Some denominations within Christianity, such as the Quakers and the Amish, reject war altogether. Dawkins himself is aware that the conflict between Roman Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland was not simply one of theology, yet his comments seem to suggest that violence is intrinsic to religion. Indeed his whole attack on organised religion is based on his assumption that religious moderates, by giving support to faith, justify irrationality which receives its murderous expression in warfare and violence. This is profoundly mistaken.

Rational Basis of Faith

Firstly, Dawkins’ view of religion supplying a justification for war, no matter how irrational, is part of his general position on faith. Dawkins believes that faith is belief in something despite lack of evidence: ‘faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence … Faith is not allowed to justify itself by argument.’ 1 This is quite simply wrong. Christian theologians such as W.H. Griffith-Thomas state that faith involves reason as well as inner conviction:

 ‘[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind based on adequate evidence; it continues in confidence of the heart or emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct.’ 2 The early Christian Fathers and apologists stressed that Christianity was both reasonable and based on evidence. St. Augustine declared that ‘they are much deceived, who think that we believe in Christ without any proofs concerning Christ.’ 3 The whole project of Christian apologetics is based on supplying rational proofs for the existence of God, a project that has its counterpart in Islam in kalam theology. As Dawkins himself recognises, this project has resulted in the rich tradition of Christian apologetics and philosophical argument that he attempted to refute in the God Delusion. Thus Christians do not simply blindly accept the existence of God despite proof.

Faith and Desire for Justice and Warfare

This important distinction between reasonable faith and blind faith has consequences for the view religion and its involvement in warfare that Dawkins aparently has. I went to an Anglican (Episcopalian) Church school here in Britain. The emphasis was laid on possessing a reasonable faith. For this faith to be genuine, fanaticism and violence were to be avoided. If one’s faith resulted in hatred and bigotry towards others, then it was bad faith. Nevertheless, there has often been a religious component to warfare because of the need to seek justification for acts of mass violence. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, God is the supreme source of justice and morality, so those seeking support for wars have naturally turned to God for moral support. This is not necessarily a cynical attempt to enlist God to justify otherwise baseless and self-interested acts of aggression. Nations generally have waged war from a sense of injustice, an injustice that can only be corrected through national violence. Those seeking to defend their rights, or who believe that they are right in waging war, naturally turn to God for support in their struggle as the source of right and justice.

 Furthermore, even when wars have been waged under the belief that it has been commanded by the Lord, it has usually been fought for rational reasons other than a simple divine command. For example, God’s commission of Israel to conquer Canaan was due not because of Israel’s strength, but because the Canaanites had failed to honour God and had fallen into extreme wickedness. Deuteronomy 7:7 declares that ‘It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the dewest of all peoples’. 4 The conquest of Canaan was granted to Israel on the provision that they follow the just laws established by the Lord. Leviticus 20:22-23 contains the command from the Lord that ‘You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and do them; that the land where I am bringing you to dwell my not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they did all of these things, and therefore I abhorred them.’ 5 The conquest of Canaan was part of the establishment of a strict legal code that Israel also had to follow. It was far more than the simple demand for Israel to attack the settled cultures in Canaan.

Just War Regulations in Ancient Israel, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism

Christianity inherited the ideas of a holy war from Judaism, but modified it with Christ’s demands for love and forgiveness. It also drew on Roman theories about the constitution of the just war. The great 12th century Roman Catholic canon lawyer, Gratian, codified this into a theory of the Just War that was steadily developed. By the time of the Reformation, this theory stated that a war could only be just if it met seven principles.

1. It had to have a just cause. These were to regain something stolen, to punish evil, or to defend against planned or actual aggression.

2. There had to be a proper authority initiating the war.

3. Those waging the war had to have the right intentions.

4. The use of force had to be proportional, so that it did not commit more harm than good, and was relevant to the issue.

5. War should be conducted as a last resort.

6. The purpose of the war should be to establish peace.

7. The war should also have a reasonable hope of success. 6

The jihad, the Islamic holy war, is governed by regulations laid down by Muhammad himself: ‘In avenging injuries inflicted on us, do not harm non-belligerents in their homes, spare the weakness of women, do not injure infants at the breast, nor those who are sick. Do not destroy the houses of those who offer no resistance, and do not destroy their means of subsistence, neither their fruit trees nor their palms.’ Violations of these rules will be punished at the Day of Judgement. 7

In Sikhism, the five rules governing the just war or dharam yudh (war of righteousness) were drawn up by the 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh. These are –

1. War must be the last resort, taken when all other methods of settling the dispute have failed.

2. It must be conducted from pure motives, and not from enmity or the desire for revenge.

3. It must not be waged to gain territory, and any territory so taken must be returned after victory.

4. Those engaged in combat must be committed Sikhs following ethical standards in the treatment of non-combatants and the defeated, amongst others.

5. The war must be waged with minimum force. 8

Thus, although attitudes to war vary considerably from religion to religion, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism all have a set of laws governing the correct conduct of war with the intention of limiting the violence. This is an important point, and marks these religions out from many pagan cultures. For the Vikings, for example, warfare and raiding was an accepted part of life and society. Viking jarls would go raiding in the season when no more agricultural work could be done on their own land. Their violent attacks on the surrounding nations, with the intention of gaining slaves and plunder, had the character of a business trip for profit. While Christianity did not remove conflict or stop warfare, it did regulate it with the demands that warfare be conducted justly and for just motives and with the restoration of peace as the goal, rather than from simple greed and a delight in violence for its own sake. The rejection of these aspects of warfare can also be seen in the wars fought by ancient Israel in the Bible. The Israelites were instructed not to attack certain peoples, such as the Ammonites, and the Canaanite nations who made peace with them. In Deuteronomy 2:19, God said to Israel ‘and when you approach the fronterir of the sons of Ammon, do not harass them or contend with them, for I will not give you any of the land of the sons of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the sons of Lot for a possession’. 9

Similarly, God in Deuteronomy 20:10-11 commanded Israel that ‘when you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if its answer to you is peace and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you.’ 10 Although such terms constitute the enslavement of the city’s population, nevertheless the law places a limit on violence and allow conflict to be avoided.

Christian Origins of Rejection of Religious Violence 

Within Christianity, attitudes towards violence may also vary considerably. The medieval Byzantine Church had a strong pacifist tradition, viewing war as little more than mass murder. Originally soldiers were required to perform seven years’ penance after fighting in a battle, but this had to be reduced due to necessity of defence against attacks by the invading Muslims. In the West this pacifist tradition in Christianity found particular expression in the Protestant sects of the Quakers, and the Amish and Mennonites. The Quakers are particularly important for the prominent role they played in promoting religious toleration. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, based his arguments for liberty of conscience on the Bible and the arguments of the early Church Fathers. Penn considered that Christianity was so excellent a religion, that it did not require conversion by force. Indeed, rather than promoting Christianity, the use of violence in its favour acted against it. Penn declared that

‘It is the privilege of the Christian faith above the dark suggestions of ancient and modern superstitious traditions to carry with it a most self-evidencing verity, which ever was sufficent to proselyte believers, without the weak auxiliaries of external power; the Son of God, and great example of the world, was so far from calling his Father’s omnipotence in legions of angels to His defence, that He at once repealed all acts of force, and defined to us the nature of his religion in this one great saying of His, my kingdom is not of this world. It was spiritual, not carnal, accompanied with weapons, as heavenly as its own nature, and designed for the good and salvatio ofthe soul, and not the injury and destruction of the body: no goals, fines, exiles, etc. but sound reason, clear truth and a strict life. In short, the Christian religion entreats all, but compels none.’ 11 Amongst the arguments Penn used against the use of force in religion were quotations by St. Hilary against Auxentius stating that the Christian church does not persecute, but is persecuted, and the great theologian St. John Chrysostom ‘that it is not the manner of the children of God, to persecute about their religion,b ut an evident token of antichrist.’ 12

My point here is not that pacifism is the correct Christian attitude towards war, but that Christianity as well as endorsing war for a just cause, has also led others to renounce war and the use of force, and that the contemporary Western attitude which strongly rejects the imposition of religion by violence and persecution derives in part from arguments by Christian ministers and theologians. These arguments stressed the importance of human reason in faith to demonstrate that the use of force was an obstacle to salvation. Penn thus argued that

‘as he that acts doubtfully is damned, so faith in all acts of religion is necessary: now in order to believe, we must first will; to will, we must judge; to judge anything, we must first understand; if then we cannot be said to understand anything against our understanding; no more can we judge, will, or believe against our understanding: and if the doubter be damend, what must he be that conforms directly against his judgement and belief, and they likewise that require it from him: In short, that man cannot be said to have any religion, that takes it by another man’s choice, not his own.’ 13

Thus for Christian theologians like Penn, the essential rational nature of faith and Christianity meant that the use of force to ensure religious conformity was both impious and self-defeating. This is very far from Dawkins’ conception of faith as inherently unreasonable, and making the person of faith far more inclined towards violence than the atheist.

Martyrdom in Christianity, Islam and Secular Ideologies

Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ suspicion of martyrdom as inclining people of faith towards violence is similarly flawed. It’s true that Islam states that the warriors for the faith who die in battle will experience the delights of paradise as martyrs, and the ideology of martyrdom has been used by Middle Eastern regimes, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and revolutionary Iran to encourage enlistment in their armies and instil morale and a willingness to face violent death. The same cult of martyrdom has also been used to justify and encourage suicide bombing as acts of self-sacrificing faith against what is seen as Western oppression. However, according to the militant atheist sociologist, Scott Atran, Islamic suicide bombers are psychologically no different from their secular counterparts, and it is a careful programme of psychological pressure and preparation that creates and sustains the suicide bombers, rather than a simple belief in martyrdom. Atran has pointed out that the organisation that made the greatest use of suicide bombers was the Communist Tamil Tigers.

In fact, military service and an absolute dedication to the state, including the use of force, has been a feature of secular regimes since the French Revolution. The French Revolutionary Communist, Buonarroti, believed in compulsory military education for every male youth as part of an educational system designed to promote patriotism and equality. 14 Military-patriotic education, designed to prepare schoolboys for their national service and good Marxist values, was similarly a part of the Soviet school system. This included patriotic songs celebrating death for the workers’ cause. A cult of martyrdom is by no means confined solely to supernatural religion.

There are also important differences with the Christian conception of martyrdom. Although the papacy promised absolution and entrance to heaven to the knights who fell in battle during the Crusades, the early Christian view of martyrdom was less militaristic. William Penn again stressed that the great prophets and martyrs of the faith, including Christ Himself ‘enacted and confirmed their religion, with their own blood, and not with the blood of their opposers.’ 15 Indeed, the early Christian martyr Ignatius, in his Epistle to the Ephesians recommended gentleness in dealing with aggression from non-Christians:

‘Give them a chance to learn from you, or at all events from the way you act. Meet their animosity with mildness, their high words with humility, and their abuse with your prayers. But stand firm against their errors, and if they grow violent, be gentle instead of wanting to pay them back in their own coin. Let us show by our forbearance that we are their brothers, and try to imitate the Lord by seeing which of us can put up with the most ill-usage or privation or contempt – so that in this way none of the devil’s noxious weeds may take root among you, but you may rest in Jesus Christ in all sanctity and discipline of body and soul.’ 16

Although by second century the martyr was regarded as the ideal Christian, and martyrdom the ultimate test of faith, there was a concern to avoid martyrdom becoming a form of suicide. Clement of Alexandria advised against actively seeking martyrdom as some of those who did so were motivated by a hatred against the Creator. ‘Clement concluded that false martyrs needlessly sacrificed themselves out of suicidal love of death.’ 17 Thus, unless the Christian genuinely received the call to martyrdom, they should hide from the authorities in case, by seeking out arrest, they became complicit in the crime of the persecutors. 18 Thus Christian martyrdom was held to be distinguished from pious suicide by some members of the early Church. This attitude to martyrdom did not necessarily reflect a pacifist attitude in the Church as a whole. The early Christian apologist Tertullian, although doubtful about the suitability of a military career for Christians because military duties including sacrificing to idols and the execution of capital punishment, nevertheless states that there were Christians serving in the Roman army. ‘We sail with you, we serve in the army with you, and till the ground with you,’ he wrote in his Apologeticus. 19 Thus early Christianity, while celebrating the sanctity of those who refused to compromise their religion, did not advocate using violence to force their religion on others and distinguished between it and suicide. Religious convictions and a willingness to suffer for one’s religion or beliefs do not automatically make a person more inclined than others to be a suicide bomber, as some of the New Atheists, such as Dawkins, seem to believe.

Secular Origins of Conflict Obscured by Atheist Focus on Religion

There is also the problem that the focus on the involvement of religion in many conflicts can lead to the immediate, rational, secular causes being ignored. While religion clearly was a motivating force in the Crusades and the wars of the religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were also strong secular causes for the wars. Most of the violent conflicts in the Middle Ages arose from secular causes such as dynastic arguments, ethnic conflicts, attempts by monarchies to contain challenges from overmighty vassals, economic complaints and grievances by subjects who felt themselves oppressed. One of the reasons for the distinction historians make between ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ is the difference in national foreign policy followed by states after the supposed end of the Middle Ages. Europe in the Middle Ages was essentially Christendom, a geographical entity which received its identity from the Christian faith and culture of its constituent states. After the 16th century this religious identity was weakened to the point where individual states, such as France, were willing to ally themselves with non-Christian powers, such as the Muslim Turks, against threats from rival European, Christian powers, such as the Holy Roman Empire. The notion of a united Christendom was slowly giving way to that of a secular Europe. It is a feature of the modern period that most of the wars fought arose from purely secular causes, regardless of the way the states turned to God for aid and victory in their struggles. Andrew Brown in his book The Darwin Wars, states that ‘it’s difficult to think of any lasting or atrocious conflict in which religion has not been one of the factors spearating and defining the two sides.’ 20 As an example of how even atheist states used religion as well as their official secular ideologies, he cites the way Stalin let Orthodox priests out of the Gulags to celebrate communion during the War with Nazi Germany. 21 Yet this was a cynical political strategy to draw on the religious sympathies of the Russian people to support his regime in the ‘Great Patriotic War’, the immediate and real causes of which were ethnic, and based in secular ideologies concerning the correct structure of society and the perceived need to dominate the Eurasian landmass in order to achieve economic prosperity and domination in the global economy. Similarly, the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland is not simply a product of religious tension, but also has its origins in the British colonisation and rule of Ireland from the Anglo-Norman invasion in the 12th century. Religion is therefore one element in a conflict that is also strongly determined by questions of ethnicity, national identity and political affiliation.


Thus, while religion has clearly been a factor in many wars, it is rarely their sole cause. Even when there has been a religious mandate for a war, it has frequently been for deeper reasons than a simple belief that God simply desires it. In the case of ancient Israel, the holy wars waged against the Canaanites derived from a mandate to establish justice, a justice to which Israel itself was subject and which repudiated purely selfish, commercial attitudes to warfare that characterised other and later societies, such as the Vikings. Christianity, Islam and Sikhism later developed strong theological codes to limit violence and ensure that war be waged justly and with restoration of peace as its goal. Moreover the different attitudes to martyrdom in Christianity and Islam mean that martyrdom is not necessarily connected to the use of force and violence against others, while the modern, secular attitudes that view religious violence with suspicion are partly derived from early Christian attitudes against the use of force to secure religious compliance. Atheist ideologies have also developed a cult of violent martyrdom, and the common secular view that religion is fundamentally connected with violence may lead to the deeper, immediate roots of such conflicts in material grievances being ignored. People generally resort to war when they feel their cause is just, and look to God as the source of justice to aid them in what they perceive to be a just use of force deriving from a legitimate grievance. In this sense, in the involvement of God in warfare is no more surprising or sinister than the observation that a desire to correct an injustice leads nations to resort to violence. Christianity, along with other religions like Islam and Sikhism, have developed rules to regulate and contain violence in the name of God’s justice. Violence is a part of human nature, and religion may supply a cause for it, but it also may and has acted to contain it. As for causing wars, it was Friedrich Nietzsche, the apostle of Nihilism, who stated, in the quote I placed at the very beginning of this article, that once God was dead, then war itself could become a legitimate cause itself.


1. R. Dawkins, ‘Lions 10, Christians Nil’, in The Nullafidian, vol.1, no. 8, December 1994, cited in Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing 2005), p. 84.

2. W.H. Griffith-Thoms, The Principles of Theology (London, Longmans, Green, 1930), p. xviii, cited in McGrath, Dawkins’ God, p. 86.

3. St. Augustine, On Faith in Things That Are Not Seen, cited in Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman jr., Faith Has Its Reasons: An Integrative Approach to Defending Christianity (Waynesboro, Authentic Publishing 2005), p. 17.

4. Deuteronomy 7:7, Eyre and Spottiswood Study Bible, RSV, p. 266.

5. Leviticus 20:22-23, Eyre and Spottiswood Study Bible, RSV, p. 376.

6. ‘Just War’ in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford, OUP 1997), p. 518.

7. ‘Jihad’, in Bowker, ed., World Religions, p. 501.

8. ‘Dharam Yudh (‘war of righteousness’)’, in Bowker, ed., World Religions, p. 275.

9. Deuteronomy 2:19, Eyre and Spottiswood Study Bible, RSV,  p. 257.

10. Deuteronomy 20:10-11, Eyre and Spottiswood Study Bible, RSV, p. 283.

11. William Penn, The Great Case of Liberty and Conscience (1670), in Edwin B. Bronner, ed., William Penn: The Peace of Europe, the Fruits of Solitude and Other Writings (London, Everyman 1993), pp. 161-2.

12. Penn, Liberty and Conscience, in Bronner, ed., Peace of Europe, p. 182.

13. Penn, Liberty and Conscience, in Bronner, ed., Peace of Europe, p. 166.

14. J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy – Political Theory during the French Revolution and Beyond (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1952), p. 247.

15. Penn, Liberty and Conscience, in Bronner, ed., Peace of Europe, p. 162.

16. St. Ignatius, The Epistle to the Ephesians, in Maxwell Staniforth, trans., and Andrew Louth, ed., Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (Harmondworth, Penguin Books 1987), p. 64.

17. David Chidester, Christianity: A Global History (London, Penguin Books 2001), p. 91.

18. Chidester, Christianity, p. 91.

19. Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus (Tertullian), Apologeticus, in Henry Bettenson, ed. and trans., The Early Christian Fathers (Oxford, OUP 1956), p. 156.

20. Andrew Brown, The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods (London, Simon & Schuster 1999), p. 168.

21. Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 168.

Moral Darwinism 2

January 19, 2008

One objection to the link I posited between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the massacres and brutality of the Nazi regimes is that massacre and brutality have always been a feature of human society long before Darwin. As Rich, one of the commentators to this blog points out, the Spartans in ancient Greece were doing it long before the Nazis in order to maintain their physical and military dominance as a herrenvolk over their conquered Messenian helots. Evil people will always use any doctrine as a pretext to support their brutality, so the horror of the shoah is not necessarily a product of Darwin’s theory.

Now I entirely agree with ability of humans to corrupt any institution, however noble. The great German theologian, Paul Tillich, dealt with this in his book Moral Man in Immoral Society, explaining the corruption and complicity in horror and brutality of the church through the all-too human corruption and brutality of its members, not through its doctrines. However, in the case of Darwinism the link between the atrocities of the Nazis to Darwin’s own theories come from those theories themselves, not from the Nazis reading their own twisted desires into them.

Firstly, while the destruction and sterilisation of those held to be unfit by society is indeed artificial selection, the eugenicists took it over from what they believed was occurring in nature. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, coined the term ‘eugenics’ and was the first president of the Eugenics Society. In the 20th century, Darwin’s grandson also served as president of that society. The whole point of my original article was that the supposed difference between Nazi attitudes towards eugenics and racial science really wasn’t that far from established, mainstream scientific attitudes based on the ideas of Darwin himself, regardless of how much later anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have tried to distance themselves from the ideologies of the Fascist regimes.

Now not all eugenicists were Fascists by any means. Interest in eugenics and demands for selective breeding to control the human stock went right across the political spectrum. The geneticist Hermann J. Muller, who in 1912 advocated support for eugenics, was a politically progressive idealist who tried to emigrate to the USSR in the 1930s as part of his desire to build a better world. 1 The eugenics theories on which the Holocaust was based received enthusiastic support from German geneticists, anthropologists, psychiatrists and other members of the medical profession. 2 Indeed, while eugenics in Britain and America was dominated by people from the humanities and statisticians, in Germany it was dominated by doctors. 3 The Nazis themselves boasted that they were doing nothing that had not already been put into law or advocated by scientists elsewhere in Europe and America. ‘It is important to realize that the Nazis drew directly on eugenic arguments and programs developed by scientists and politicians in Great Britain and the United States. They just made these policies more inclusive and implemented them more decisively than British and American geneticists may have intended.’ 4 As early as 1897 the Michigan legislature considered and defeated a bill to sterilise those with ‘bad heredity’. In 1899 Dr. Harry Sharp began to perform involuntary vasectomies on convicts he considered to be ‘hereditary criminals’ at the Indiana State Reformatory at Jeffersonville. The Pennsylvania legislature in 1905 passed a bill providing for the compulsory sterilisation of ‘idiots and imbecile children’, though this was vetoed by Governor Samuel Pennypacker as illogical and immoral. 5 The first state to pass such legislation successfully in the US was Indiana. 6 The Swedes set up an Institute for Racial Biology in 1921, and made compulsory sterilisation legal in 1934. Although these sterilisations were in priniciple voluntary unless the subject was so retarded that they could not understand what was being done to them, there were considerable social pressures that forced unwilling Swedes to undergo the operation. Over the next thirty or so years, one per cent of the Swedish population – 63,000 people – were sterilised. 7 In 1923 a chair of Rassenhygiene – racial hygiene – was set up in Munich, occupied by Fritz Lenz, a supporter of Hitler’s NSDAP. 8 By 1931, 30 American states had enacted laws for the compulsory sterilisation of those they considered unfit, mostly aimed at the insane or ‘feeble-minded’. These laws were also occasionally extended to include sexual perverts, drug addicts, drunks, epileptics and others considered ill or degenerate. These laws remained mercifully unenforced, but by January 1935 20,000 people in the US, mostly in California, had been sterilised. 9

In America there was also a racist aspect to the eugenics programme. There was a concern about the quality of the new immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe, seen by many WASP Americans, such as the racist author Madison Grant, as ‘the sweepings of gaols and asylums’. 10 Charles Davenport, the Harvard biologist who became the director of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in Long Island, shared these racist concerns and perceptions. The Irish, for example, were considered to be drunk and feckless, while Slavs were ‘dimwitted’. He was a friend of the racist academic and Nazi supporter, Eugen Fischer, one of the architects of the Nazi eugenics policies in Germany. Fischer specialised in the study of mixed-race children, and in 1929 Davenport invited him to chair a commission on the subject under the supervision of the International Federation of Eugenics Organisations. Through the introduction of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, developed by Davenport’s fellow eugenicist, Henry Goddard, from the IQ test produced for the French government by Alfred Binet, administered in English to the new immigrants, who largely spoke no English, it was concluded that over half of these immigrants were mentally defective. Thus legislation was passed to prevent further immigration into America. Application of the same test to recruits to the US armed forces concluded that a large proportion of them were similarly ‘feeble-minded’, especially Blacks and those of eastern European stock. 11 Virginia suffered particularly from the excesses of the American eugenics programme. Whole families on welfare were rounded up, and large numbers of women and girls were sterilised. The architects of this odious policy were consciously concerned with outdoing the Nazis. In 1934 Dr. Joseph De Jarnette, one of the most vociferous advocates of mass sterilisation in the US, complained that ‘the Germans are beating us at our own game.’ 12 Evolutionary biologists and supporters of eugenics in Britain held similar views. Julian Huxley, the son of T.H. Huxley and the author of Neo-Darwinism – the Modern Synthesis, ridiculed the notion of the ideal Teuton in 1935 as being as ‘blond as Hitler, as tall as Goebbels, as slim as Goering, as dolichocephalic as Rosenberg and as manly as Streicher’. 13 Nevertheless, in a 1941 article, ‘The Vital Importance of Eugenics’ Huxley complained that it was ‘very difficult to envisage mehtods for putting even a limited constructive program [of eugencis] into effect .. due as much to difficulties in our present socioeconomic organization as to our ignorance of human heredity, and most of all to the absence of a eugenic sense in the public at large. 14 The eugenics legislation itself remained on the books until long after the Nazi era in those nations in which it had been passed. The Department of Race Genetics at the University of Uppsala was only closed down in 1975, and the Swedish eugenics legislation repealed in 1976. 15 The eugenics laws in California were repealed three years later in 1979, but by 1985 at least 19 states still retained eugenics legislation – Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia, according to the physician and lawyer Phillip Reilly. 16 There was even advocacy of euthanasia for the mentally subnormal amongst some, though mercifully this was never enacted. 17 James Watson, whose remarks last year on the supposed mental inferiority of Blacks caused such controversy, was working at the biological institute at Cold Spring Harbor at the time, although this institution no longer supports eugenics and made great pains to distance itself from his comments. Watson’s co-discoverer of DNA, James Crick, has also been an advocate of eugenics.

Now there’s no question that eugenics is a pseudo-science, and its shortcomings were exposed in America by the geneticist Thomas Hunt Moran and in Britain by Lionel Penrose, who occupied the chair at the Galton Laboratory. Penrose was a Quaker, who believed that a compassionate society should look after its supposed genetic defectives, rather than mutilate them. He also recognised that mental deficiency and indeed intelligence was not a simple Mendelian characteristic, but was the product of a number of factors and influenced by external circumstances. 18 Goddard himself became convinced on genetic scientific grounds that he was wrong, and publicly renounced his previous advocacy of eugenics. 19

Despite this, what emerges from this picture is that large sections of the European evolutionary and genetic scientific establishment believed in eugenics, following the arguments of Darwin and Galton, and that the Nazis’ genocidal regime was only the most extreme extension of these doctrines. The point of my original post was that Fascist extremists like Sir Oswald Mosley based their racial policies on Darwin and the pronouncements of respected and entirely respectable mainstream scientists. Rather than being something the Nazis read into Darwin, or distorted simply to justify their own brutal regime, Nazism was the product of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, albeit an extreme example that would have shocked Darwin himself. During the scandal over Watson’s comments, Sue Blackmore, the British psychologist and Sceptic, published a piece decrying what she saw as an attempt to silence scientists in the on-line section of the British liberal newspaper, the Guardian. Considering the staunch advocacy of eugenics by large sections of the scientific establishment, I strongly believe that scientists should be held to account for their views, and subject to criticism when these do seem to support brutality and racism.


1. Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth: How Genetic Information is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators and Law Enforcers (Boston, Beacon Press 1997), p. 15.

2. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, p. 17.

3. Walter Gratzer, The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception and Human Frailty (Oxford, OUP 2000), p. 293.

4. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, pp. 17-18.

5. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, pp. 19-20.

6. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, p. 20; Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 289.

7. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, pp. 290-1.

8. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 293.

9. Hubbard and Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth, p. 21.

10. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 286.

11. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 287.

12. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, pp. 289-90.

13. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 301.

14. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, p. 16.

15. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 291.

16. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, p. 21.

17. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 290.

18. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 292.

19. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 290.

Moral Darwinism

January 17, 2008

There was a storm of protest last summer when a documentary appeared on American TV linking Darwinism to the Holocaust. Some Jewish groups were understandably upset at what they felt to be a cynical attempt to use the shoah for an ideological attack on Darwinism. Supporters of Darwinian evolution, on the other hand, were naturally outraged at the theory being posited as the direct cause of the Holocaust. Indeed, when Richard Wikert published his book arguing that Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection directly led to the Holocaust, the book was bitterly attacked and vilified by the theory’s ardent supporters. For most, if not all evolutionary scientists, the connection between Darwin’s theory and the racial policies of Nazi Germany and the Tremendum are accidental, the product of a deliberate perversion of Darwin’s ideas by the Nazis, rather than a result of those ideas themselves. Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most ardent opponents of the racist appropriation of Darwinism, certainly felt this way, and expressed considerable outrage at the way it had been so used by Fascist ideologues.

Such views are not universal, however. Roger Liddell, the British agnostic journalist and broadcaster, in his polemic against atheism, The Trouble with Atheism, broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4 a year or so ago, spoke to an historian at Reading University in the UK who was very much of the view that Darwinism was a cause of the Holocaust. He taught a course, ‘From Darwin to the Holocaust’, and showed Liddell Galton’s own writings on race and eugenics, including his photographs of Jewish boys from the East End of London, taken as part of Galton’s massive research into measuring and evaluating the biological characteristics of the human race. And however much the ideologues of the Far Right may have twisted Darwin’s ideas, they were extremely well-read in them and mainstream racial anthropology, and were able to use this to support their own vile doctrines.

The writings of the British Fascist leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, show this familiarity with Darwinism and contemporary racial anthropology. Mosley had started his political career as a Conservative, before joining the Labour Party. Impatient with that party, he split off in the early 1930s to form the New Party. Impressed with Mussolini, and convinced that the Italian Fascist leader had solved the labour problem, he then turned to Fascism, reorganising the New Party as the British Union of Fascists. He was interned in the Tower of London during the Second World War. After the War, he attempted to revive Fascism and forge alliances with the post-War European neo-Fascist parties. However, he found himself increasingly isolated and overtaken by a new generation of right-wing extremists, and so eventually retired to Nice in France.

It’s questionable how racist Mosley was. He always denied being an anti-Semite, and the BUF’s stewards were trained by the Jewish boxer, Ted Lewis. Nevertheless, he loudly denounced Jewish opposition to Fascism, and the BUF certainly drew on anti-semitism as part of its programme. A Jewish journalist for the British middle market tabloid, the Daily Mail, interviewing Mosley in the 1970s before his death found him unrepentant about the Holocaust. He was also a staunch opponent of racial intermarriage and advocated the introduction of race laws similar to those of Apartheid South Africa. Despite the rejection of the spurious pre-War racial anthropology by biologists and anthropologists after the War, Mosley nevertheless cited respected and respectable scientists, including Darwin himself, to support his odious opinions on race.

In Moseley’s 1961 book, Right or Wrong?, written to promote his post-War political programme, the would-be Fuhrer quotes Darwin’s the Descent of Man, T.H. Huxley’s Man’s Place in Nature and E.B. Tylor’s Anthropology on the immense physical, intellectual and moral differences between the various human races. 1 He quotes the contemporary geneticist, C.D. Darlington, on how ‘Galton had uncovered the process of racial differentiation in its simplest instance much as Mendel had uncovered the process of recombination in its simplest instance.’ 2 He Further quotes Darlington from the latter’s book The Facts of Life and an article in The New Scientist for 14th April 1960 to argue against racial mixing: ‘ The future of mankind rests with those genetically diverse groups … which can practise mutual help and show mutual respect. neither of these habits can be assisted in the long run by make-believe of any kind, certainly not by a make-believe of equality in the physical intellectual and cultural capacities of such groups.’ 3 Other authorities cited by Mosley to support his arguments for profound differences, including mental and moral, between the different varieties of humanity, include the 1946, 1947 and 1959 editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica;  Juan Comas of the Mexican School of Anthropology and G.M. Morant in the 1956 UNESCO symposium, The Race Question in Modern Science; Ashley Montagu, the rapporteur to the UNESCO committee that drafted the Statement on Race, in his book Man: His First Million Years; Amram Scheinfeld’s You and Heredity; Dr. R. Gayre, editor of The Mankind Quarterly, in the January 1961 edition and the eugenicist G.C. Bertram’s West Indian Immigration. 4 Now I am not accusing any of the above scientists cited by Mosley of being Fascists. However, it is clear that despite the campaigns against eugenics and the discrediting of scientific racism after the rise of the Nazis, many eminently respectable scientists nevertheless held views on race that stressed difference and argued for segregation or separate development, based very much on Darwin and Galton.

Now Darwin himself held liberal views for his time. He was an opponent of slavery and imperialism. He was not, however, an observant anthropologist. Listening to the three Yahgan Tierra del Fuegian amerindians taken aboard the Beagle, Darwin concluded that their whole language had only about 100 or so words. By contrast, Thomas Bridges, who was in charge of the Christian mission to the Fuegian amerindians from about 1863 onwards, made it his business to learn their language. His son, Lucas Bridges, considered the Yahgan language to be ‘within its own limitations … infinitely richer and more expressive than either English or Spanish’ with a vocabulary of about 32,000 words and inflections. 5

Darwin also believed in a literal struggle for survival, and saw the deliberate extermination of native peoples like the Amerindians of Tierra del Fuego by White farmers almost as the result of natural forces. This struggle was vital for human advancement. He declared that ”It may well be doubted whether the most favourable [circumstances for advancement] would have sufficed, had not the rate of increase [of population] been rapid, and the consequent struggle for existence severe to an extreme degree.’ 6 The result of this was that ‘Darwin and the theorists of social evolution reinforced belief in European superiority just at the time when European countries and the United States scrambled for territory in the rest of the world. Political imperialism; popular culture, Darwin’s name and belief in social evolution were closely connected.’ 7 Moreover, such evolutionary theories viewed the acquisition of rational knowledge – interpreted as science – as a crucial development in human culture. ‘In effect civilisation was equated with the acquisition of a scientific outlook and scientists were the personification of progress. The comparative, evolutioanry method was one means by which Western society constructed a social theory of its own nature. At the same time, this theory represented the value of progress actually held in the West as the natural law of social development. Thus, Victorian values were not added to the human sciences but were intrinsic to the framework of these sciences.’ 8 Evolutionary theory also rationally justified the classification of society and institutions on a scale from primitive to advanced. Through its equation of rationality with science and portrayal of the way science had supposedly emerged from primitive superstition ‘it deeply challenged religious faith by treating religious customs and beliefs as evidence of the stage that a people has reached. The anthropologists implied that monotheistic Christianity, though advanced as a religion, is only one stage on man’s progress towards reason, as Comte had earlier argued. Anthropology made religion a subject of scientific study and in the process altered the authority that religious beliefs themselves could command.’ 9

The result of this was that scientists, rather than religious clergy, were increasingly seen to have the definitive truth about the human condition, and their statements undercut religion’s moral authority. The result was that the Nazis and other radical groups could attack Christian humanitarianism as unscientific while justification the sterilisation and extermination of racial and social undesirables.

Darwin believed in the unity of humanity through descent from a common ancestor, yet his insistence on their divergent evolution undercut this unity by stressing their difference. Earlier anthropologists who adopted a more Biblical view of humanity laid greater stress on their unity. The British anthropologist, James Cowles Prichard, explained the emergence of the different types of humanity through the passage of time, and influences of climate, custom and the diffusion of the individual peoples. He believed that all nations were originally Black, from which the White peoples had emerged. Although he equated the White peoples with civilisation, ‘he referred to race merely as a cluster of characteristics caused by climate, not a rigid quality; and his use of the word ‘primitive’ connoted man’s closeness to Adam rather than the apes.’ 10 His family were Quakers, though Prichard himself became an Anglican and was a staunch supporter of the abolition of slavery. Against attacks on the Biblical depiction of the origin of humanity, he nevertheless argued against racial differences from the psychic unity of humanity. 11

The 19th century assumption within Darwinism and evolutionary theory that science was the pinnacle of human rationality no doubt explains the furore and extreme hostility with which any criticism of evolution from a religious direction is greeted. Religion, supposedly demonstrated by evolutionary theory to be a relic of previous evolutionary epochs, is construed as attacking the very essence of human rationality itself. Thus there are the statements by atheist groups that belief in God is somehow holding back human evolution. The other point is that, despite evolutionary science being, in Tylor’s view, a reformist’s science, the naturalistic grounding it offered to ethics attacked traditional Christian morality and paved the way for those totalitarian regimes that saw this as an obstacle to be cleared away by force and violence.

If Darwinism had merely been a mechanical theory that explained how God created the wonderful creatures that occupy this beautiful world, as envisaged by Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, and Bishop Baden-Powell, an Oxford professor of Mathematics without making any statements about the existence of God or the nature of morality, then it would arguably have been much less controversial and the 19th and 20th centuries far less brutal. But it didn’t. Instead, it allowed scientists to make pronouncements on ethics that were far outside their field or competence. Instead of leading to greater morality, it lent support to regimes based on a ruthlessly mechanistic view of humanity and a naturalistic ethic that justified mass murder and violence. Now this does not mean that evolutionary theory is wrong. It does mean, however, that evolutionary science does not have an automatic moral authority and that moral claims made by its practitioners should not be accepted without scrutiny. Science rightly, can and should inform the moral debates and positions of philosophers and theologians. It cannot, however, replace them.


1. Oswald Mosley, Right or Wrong? (Lion Books, London 1961), p. 118.

2. Mosley, Right or Wrong?, pp. 118.

3. C.D. Darlington, The Facts of Life, cited in Mosley, Right or Wrong?, p. 119.

4. Mosley, Right or Wrong?, pp. 122-123.

5. Lucas Bridges, The Uttermost Part of the Earth (London, Century 1948), p. 34.

6. Roger Smith, The Fontana History of the Human Sciences (London, Fontana Press 1997), p. 474.

7. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 481.

8. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 482.

9. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 479.

10. Smith, Human Sciences, p. 397.

11. Smith, Human Sciences, pp. 396-7.

The Gospel of Rationalism

January 13, 2008

This is a kind of postscript to my earlier blog posts on atheism as a religion. Going through a secondhand bookshop recently, I came across a book that very much took the view that certain forms of atheism – in this case, rationalism – were indeed religious. It was entitled The Gospel of Rationalism, and had been published in the ‘Thinker’s Library’ imprint of rationalist, Humanist, agnostic and atheist texts, published by Watts and Co in the 30s and 40s. Flicking through the text, it was clear that the author really did view rationalism as a religion, as he referred to it as a ‘gospel’ and a ‘religion’. Now this doesn’t prove that atheism is a religion per se, but it does show that some atheists saw their particular form of atheism as a religion, in line with Dewey’s view that there were religious attitudes that stood outside the religions.

 As for the ‘Thinker’s Library’, some of their editions would now be looked on with some disapproval now because of their very dated, and morally dubious, scientific views. One of the books they published was Ernst Haeckel’s The Riddle of the Universe. Haeckel was a militantly pantheistic evolutionary biologist with a particular hatred of Christianity, although his philosophy was widely interpreted as atheist. He believed firmly that the Aryan peoples, particularly the Germans, were biologically superior to all others and was firmly behind the eugenics programme. He wasn’t a Nazi, and indeed there was a museum to him at his home in Jena in the former East Germany. Nevertheless, under Ostrander the Monistenbund – the Monist League he founded to support his philosophy – was one of the precursors of the scientific racism of the Nazis. There was considerable opposition to him in Germany at the time, not just from the churches but also from a Sceptics’ organisation, the Keplerbund – Kepler League- named after the great 17th century German pioneer astronomer, Johannes Kepler. Despite his strong influence in the introduction of Darwinism into Germany and his own personal influence in the history of evolutionary biology, his ideas are very much out of favour and I can’t imagine many atheist organisations wishing to promote them today. The majority of the writers published in the ‘Thinker’s Library’ weren’t that politically dubious, however.

Stalin, The Gulags and Christianity

January 11, 2008

Wakefield Tolbert, one of the great commentators on this blog, has pointed out here at that Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have blamed Stalin’s Eastern Orthodox upbringing for the atrocities committed by his regime. Now I’ve already blogged explaining how Hitler wasn’t a Christian, and the genocide of the Nazis was not based on Christianity. Now also I’ve heard from a number of other people who’ve come across the same assertion that Christianity is somehow responsible for Stalin’s atrocities. This is demonstrably untrue, and deserves rebuttal.

Religious Nature of Communism

It is true that many researchers and scholars of Communism have noted a strong religious quality within the movement itself and the devotion it aroused in its adherents. Of 221 former Communists studied by one sociologist, almost half came from homes where religious interests were important. 1 Marxism can be seen ‘as a modern prophetic movement, proclaiming the way to justice’. 2 The search for ‘an overwhelmingly strong power’  on which the individual can rely may lead people to God can also lead others to embrace the Communist party. In the West, many of the recruits to Communism in the 1930s were highly sensitive and bewildered by modern social confusion. These idealists sought a programme that would solve the problems of modern society they felt so keenly. ‘They found in the authoritative program of communism and in its seeming dedication to justice an ‘escape from freedom’ that gave them both a sense of belonging and a sense of power. They were no longer the alienated; they had a ‘home’ and a program’. 3 Thus some of the scholars studying former Communists, concluded that the rejection of their parents’ religion by those with a devout religious background was not an antireligious statement, ‘but a redirection of interest to a movement that was embraced with religious fervor.’ 4

Stalin himself added a religious element to Soviet Communism. His oration at Lenin’s funeral was modelled on the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, and included the response ‘We vow to be faithful to they precepts, O Lenin.’ Lenin’s held the orthodox Marxist view that the individual has no importance in history. This caused him to reject any cult of personality around himself through the belief that if he had hadn’t led the revolution, it would have occurred anyway under someone else. Stalin, in opposition to this, created a distinct cult around Lenin through the establishment of Marxism-Leninism as the official Soviet ideology, and Lenin’s mausoleum as a public monument and site of pilgrimage.

Inadequacy of Religion as Explanation for Stalinism

Despite this, I have to say I’m not impressed by the argument as it’s too close to some very similar assertions I’ve come across which are very clearly wrong. Jack Chick in one of his rabidly anti-Roman Catholic comics claimed that Stalin’s regime was all a Roman Catholic plot, because Stalin had been a Roman Catholic priest. Er, no. Stalin was Georgian Orthodox, and did intend study for the priesthood, but got kicked out of the seminary for reading Adam Smith and Charles Darwin. The fact that many Communists were idealists and came from a religious background does not necessarily mean that the atrocities committed by Stalin were due to his religious upbringing. Communism is a highly idealistic political system, even if this idealism expresses itself in a brutally utilitarian attitude to human life and political strategy. The membership of people from religious backgrounds in the Communist simply shows that the type of idealistic individuals who traditionally sought meaning in religion then sought it in Communism. The religious trappings around the cult of Lenin don’t demonstrate an innate religiosity in Stalin so much as a cynical appreciation of the way the collective, corporate aspects of religion by a traditionally religious people could be used to provide a sense of community and collective purpose amongst them. However, this is a tactical development, and does not demonstrate any deeper continuity in ideology or outlook between Communism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Communist Persecution of Orthodox Christians and Other People of Faith

 As a convinced Communist, he was certainly not a Christian. Furthermore, as Timothy Ware points out in his book on Orthodoxy under the Communists, the Soviet regime was militantly atheist, and had no compunction about killing and torturing Orthodox clergy long before Stalin came to power. In 1918 and 1919, the Communists killed 28 bishops. From 1923 to 1926 fifty more were martyred. By 1926, 2,700 priests, 2,000 monks and 3,400 nuns had been killed. It has been estimated that from 1917 to 1964 12,000 priests alone had been murdered by the regime, or died of illtreatment at their hands. And this is only Orthodox clergy.  5 It does not include the laymen and women.

Similar massacres of laypeople and clergy were also experienced by other faiths long before Stalin. Just before Christmas, for example, Channel 4 screened a fascinating programme of very early colour documentary film shot by a French traveller to China, India and Mongolia about the time of the First World War. It was excellent material documenting these nation’s way of life before the turmoil of the succeeding decades. What was particular poignant was the footage of Buddhist monks in a Mongolian lamasery. When the Communists took power, these were closed down and the monks martyred. About 15,000 were killed by the Communists. Now part of Mongolia was indeed annexed by the Soviet Union, but this also occurred in the independent part. So, Stalin was clearly not responsible, or not wholly responsible, for the atrocities committed there.

Middle Eastern Ethnic Violence and the Genocides of Stalin

In fact, some historians do consider that Stalin’s cultural background did play a role in the horror of the Gulags. The crucial factor here, however, is not his religious background, but the clan and tribal orientation of Georgian culture and society, and indeed through the peoples of the Caucasus. The Caucasus has been called ‘the mountain of tongues’ because of the wide variety of languages and dialects spoken there. There has been a history of fierce nationalist violence between the various peoples of the Caucasus. Stalin’s began his revolutionary career as a Georgian nationalist, taking the codename ‘Koba’ after the Georgian people’s great national hero, who fought for their country against the invading Turks. It’s been suggested that Stalin’s slaughter of whole families, and even whole nations, comes from this background in nationalist violence, in which clan feuding, and the slaughter of the relatives of one’s enemies as part of the feud, was practiced. Stalin applied this tactic of clan violence at the level of whole nations.

In fact state action against, including the exile and extermination of opposing subject nations, had been a policy of the Turkish and Persian Empires that dominated the area. The Turkish conquest of the Balkans in the Middle Ages included the mass deportation of the Turks subject peoples. This use of mass exile was a distinctive feature of the absolute nature of Turkish rule: ‘Equally characteristic of absolutist rule was the employment of mass deportation. Albanians, Serbs and Greeks were transferred in vast numbers to Anatolia and – after 1453 – to Constantinople, while Anatolians (often nomads) were transplanted to Thrace, Bulgaria and the border zones of the Balkans.’ 6 The great Persian historian, Muhammad-Kazim, in his Name-yi ‘Alamara-yi Nadiry, the Book of the World-Ruling Nadir, documents various pogroms against and the exile of various ethnic groups, such as the Tatars in Merv c. 1725-6. 7 This use of mass terror against subject nations continued into late 19th and early 20th century, when it culminated in the Armenian massacres of 1915, when 750,000 to 1.8 million Armenians were murdered by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. 8 The inaction of the European powers and their complete lack of interest in protecting the Armenians convinced the Nazi leadership that the great powers would also be completely indifferent over the fate of the Jews when they planned the Holocaust. Given Stalin’s own background in the Caucasus, it’s possible that the Armenian atrocities similarly convinced him of the effectiveness of genocide as an instrument of state policy.

Lenin as Founder of Communist Tyranny 

Hitchen’s and Harris’ assertion that Stalin’s atrocities came from his Eastern Orthodoxy is also similar to the Marxist and Trotskyite claim that the brutality and repression of institutional Soviet Communism was solely the result of Stalin’s psychology, rather than the product of Communism. According to this view, Lenin was the great hero who brought freedom and equality to the Soviet people, until his ideas and system was corrupted by Stalin. The socialist state created by Lenin was then twisted into a ‘state capitalist’ dictatorship.

The problem with this is that, while Lenin wasn’t the monster that Stalin was, he was certainly no democrat. Lenin established the policy of ‘democratic centralism’ which severely curtailed democratic discussion in the Communist Party, made the former Soviet Empire a one-party state, and began the creation of the labour camps that expanded so rapidly under Stalin. Contrary to the depiction of the Russian Revolution presented by the brilliant Russian cinematographer Sergei Eisenstein in his film October, the 1917 revolution wasn’t a mass uprising. It was a military coup against a democratically elected government, led by Kerensky. The biggest party in the duma – the Russian parliament – at the time were the Kadets, or Constitutional Democrats. They stood for the extension of the franchise to the ordinary people, and improving conditions for the workers and peasants, as well as welfare reforms. They were liberals, or left liberals, but not Marxists. During the coup, the Communist troops surrounded the duma and prevent the delegates from taking their seats, thus seizing power. The use of force to seize and legitimate power was thus a feature of the regime from its foundation.

Lenin also deliberately curtailed freedom of speech within the Communist through the institution of ‘democratic centralism’. This meant the process by which the free discussion of ideas on a particular topic was only possible when the leadership invited it, such as when a particular problem needed addressing, but no policy had yet been formulated to tackle it. Once the leadership made a decision, however, no further discussion was permissible. Lenin created this policy in order to centralise power in the Communist Party, and prevent the factionalism that had divided the Socialist Revolutionaries. These had been the main Russian revolutionary movement. They were agrarian socialists, rather like the Populist Party in America but without the racism. However, despite their use of violence and assassination, the Socialist Revolutionaries were deeply divided. Lenin felt this had hampered their effectiveness as a revolutionary organisation. To prevent the nascent Communist party suffering the same fate, Lenin established democratic centralism to ensure a rigid party discipline.

As for the labour camps, these too were a creation of Lenin. After the Revolution Soviet Russia experienced a famine. As an emergency measure, the government began requisitioning supplies of food. Hoarders were strictly punished. A group of 100 peasants were found guilty of hoarding food, and sentenced to imprisonment in a labour camp in the Russian north. This marked the beginning of Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag Archipelago’.

Pre-Communist Origins of Soviet State Propaganda and Secret Police

Other authoritarian features of the regime were taken over from Kerensky’s government. Kerensky himself was well aware of the propaganda value of the cinema. Indeed, his government created a system of mobile cinemas that travelled the country showing propaganda movies for his regime. Lenin took this over, similar fashioning Soviet cinema as the instrument of state propaganda. Kerensky’s regime had also included a secret police, ultimately derived from the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, led by Felix Dzherzinsky, whose job was to guard the regime from counter-revolutionary activity. Lenin took this over too, and made Dzherzinsky the head of the new, Soviet secret police. Thus the instruments of repression Stalin used were inherited from previous regimes, including Lenin’s.

Constitutional Weakness of Pre-Fascist and Communist Nations 

Historians examining the rise of the Communist dictatorship in Russia have noticed parallels with other dictatorships, including the Fascist tyrannies of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. These common features are considered to be the crucial elements in the creation and perpetuation of these regimes. Common to both the Communist and Fascist dictatorships was the use of military force to seize power. Both Germany and Russia were constitutionally very weak, with very little democratic tradition, thus enabling the nascent democracies in those nations to be overthrown by its determined enemies. Stalin’s soviet dictatorship was thus the product the country’s general consititional weakness and the use of military force by secular regimes to enforce their power, rather than just the grotesque psychology of Stalin himself.

Authoritarianism and 19th Century German Constitutional Theory

One can also trace the authoritarianism of Soviet Communism back to Marx himself and the 19th century German political philosophy. Political philosophers have suggested that there is a difference between British and German philosophical views on constitutional theory. British political theory tended to view the state as a system of checks and balances to prevent one element in the state gaining too much power at the expense of the others, thus preserving their freedom. German political philosophy, on the other hand, is held to view the state as an administrative machine, and is less concerned with preserving the freedom of its citizens than with the efficient operation of that machine in governing society. This view is probably overstated, however. 19th century German constitutional theory certainly believed in the separation of power in the state, and the operation of checks and balances characteristic of British and American constitutional theory. This system was, however, limited by the power of the Wilhelminian monarchy, a fact brilliantly sent up by the German radical, Adolf Glasbrenner, in his satirical essay, Konschtitution. Deliberately written in the Berlin dialect as a father’s explanation of the German constitution to his son, the piece satirises the situation with the statement ‘Constitution, that is the separation of power. The king does what he wants, and the people, they do, what the king wants.’ 9 Nevertheless German 19th century political theory didn’t quite see the state as the monolithic governmental machine as some have considered it did.

There were also strongly authoritarian tendencies within the German Social Democrats in the 19th century. Historians of German socialism in this period have noted the strongly authoritarian nature of Ferdinand Lasalles leadership of the party. However, by the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th the German Social Democrats were far less rigid in their party discipline. Lenin, with his absolute insistence on the revolutionary struggle, could not understand how the notorious reformist, Eduard Bernstein, retained his party membership. When, during a visit to Germany, the German Social Democrat’s leading political theorist, Karl Kautsky, explained to him that they allowed dissent and discussion even of fundamental issues like that in the German party, Lenin went berserk, hurling a string of invective at him. Before then, Lenin had had great admiration for the German Social Democrats. Afterwards he had very little to say in their favour. Arguably, this shows the origin of the dictatorial nature of Russian communism as due less to the nature of German socialism, and more to the rigid and doctrinaire attitude of Lenin.

Revolutionary Leader as Strong Man 

In fact you can also see in Lenin as well as Stalin the insistence that the ruler should be personally a strong man of iron constitution. Stalin was an assumed name, meaning ‘man of steel’. Stalin’s real name was Iosip Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. He took the name ‘Stalin’ as a deliberate statement of his personal strength and to symbolise his strong leadership. Lenin similarly believed that the true revolutionary was a man of iron following the dictum of earlier Russian revolutionaries that the true revolutionaries should physically toughen himself, metaphorically recommending that he should sleep on a bed of nails.

Sense of Personal Inadequacy Cause of Stalin’s Brutality

In fact some psychiatrists and historians have also seen the origin of Stalin’s brutality in a sense of inferiority, supposedly shared by other dictators who were similarly less than physically imposing. Stalin, like Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon, was short, though he attempted to disguise this by wearing great coats too large for him, and selective camera work in photographs. Mussolini similarly tried to disguise his lack of height by a variety of tricks, and literally stood on soap boxes when haranguing the crowd during Fascist rallies. These were then airbrushed out in official photographs of the occasion. Stalin was also physically disabled – he had a withered arm. The German psychiatrist Adler considered that Stalin’s dominating urge to power came from a sense of ‘organ inferiority’ due to his disability and short stature. Stalin’s ruthless acquisition of power and massive destruction of human life was an attempt to compensate for this feeling of inferiority. The crucial factor in the creation of Stalin’s authoritarian and dominating personality was his sense of personal inadequacy, not his religious upbringing.

Genocide in Writings of Marx and Engels

However, one can go further and see the genocidal elements of Stalin’s regime in some of the very writings of Marx and Engels. Marx and Engels, as Hegelians, saw the dialectical process as leading society from lower levels of culture and civilisation to successively higher stages of development before culminating in socialism and finally world communism. Although bitterly critical of capitalism, they enthusiastically embraced as a liberating force from feudalism. They also took over Herder’s notion of ‘historic states’. True states were only those which had a history behind it. Thus, Marx and Engels were supportive of the desires of Polish revolutionaries to gain independence for their country, as Poland had had a history as an independent nation. Engels in his 1847 speech commemorating 17th anniversary of the Polish revolution of 1830 stated ‘German princes have profited from the partition of Poland and German solideries are still exercising oppression in Galicia and Posen. It must be the concern of us Germans, above all, of us German democrats, to remove this stain from our nation.’ 10

They were, however, bitterly opposed to the national aspirations of some of the other Slavonic peoples, whom they saw as not possessing a historic identity and thus excluded from the process of historic development towards higher stages of civilisation. These nations, like Scots Gaels and the Celtic Bretons in France, represented a lower stage of civilisation that should rightly become extinct as they were absorbed and assimilated into more advanced peoples. ‘There is no country in Europe that does not possess, in some remote corner, at least one remnant-people, left over from an earlier population, forced back and subjugated by the nation which later became the repository of historical development. These remnants of a nation, mercilessly crushed, as Hegel said, by the course of history, this national refuse, is always the fanatical representative of the counter-revolution and remains so until it is completely exterminated or de-nationalized, as its whole existence is itself a protest against a great historical revolution.

In Scotland, for example, the Gaels, supporters fot he Stuarts from 1640 to 1745.

In France the Bretons, supporters fo the Bourbons from 1792 to 1800.

In Spain the Basques, supporters of Don Carlos.

In Austria the pan-Slav South Slavs, who are nothing more than the national refuse of a thousand years of immensely confused development.’ 11 

Engels himself was vehemently opposed to the nationalist campaigns by these Slav peoples during the turmoil of 1848, the ‘year of revolutions’. He saw them as constituting a threat to true revolutionary socialism, because of what he viewed as these societies’ socially backward nature, and urged their suppression in chilling, even genocidal terms. He considered that the Slav nationalist campaigns in 1848 would lead to a global war which would exterminate the Slav nations utterly: ‘The general war which will then break out will scatter this Slav Sonderbund, and annihilate all these small  pig-headed nations even to their very names.

The next world war will not only cause reactionary classes and dynasties to disappear from the face of the earth, but also entire reactionary peoples. And that too is an advance.’ 12

‘We reply to the sentimental phrases about brotherhood which are offered to us here in the name of the most cuonter-revolutionary nations in Europe that hatred of the Russians was, and still is, the first revolutionary passion of the Germans; that since the revolution a hatred of the Czechs and the Croats has been added to this, and that, in common with the Poles and the Magyars, we can only secure the revolution against these Slav peoples by the most decisive acts of terrorism. We now know where the enemies of the revolution are concentrated: in Russia and in the Slav lands of Austria; and no phrases, no references to an indefinite democratic future of these lands will prevent us from treating our enemies as enemies … Then we shall fight ‘an implacable life-and-death-struggle’ with Slavdom, which has betrayed the revolution; a war of annihilation and ruthless terrorism, not in the interests of Germany but in the interests of the revolution!’ 13 Thus Engels himself advocated a policy of genocide in the interests of the revolution, a policy which Stalin ruthlessly implemented in his regime of terror.

Scientific Socialism and the Rejection of Moral Sentiment

One factor which may have facilitated the acceptance of this policy amongst Stalin’s colleagues in the Communist party was the ‘scientific’ nature of Marxism and its rejection of moral theory as the basis of revolutionary action and sentiment. Many of the non-Marxist European radicals and socialists had come to their views from a profound sense of moral outrage at the poverty, squalor and oppression experienced by the poor in the Europe of the time, rather than from any commitment to a philosophical or economic theory. The great British Socialist and leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, told an interviewer that he had absolutely no interest in Marx’s theory of surplus value. Russian Marxists, on the other hand, like Lenin, saw Marxism as superior to the other forms of socialism because it was based on what they saw as objective fact – economic laws and the dialectic of history – rather than moral sentiment, and sneered at those socialists who did base their socialism on a moral critique of society. This is not to say that they didn’t have a moral sense, but it was circumscribed by their sense of the impersonal movement of history, economics and society that legitimated the revolutionary struggle aside from or against moral concerns. This sense that they were acting from entirely objective, ‘scientific’ principles, principles which would inevitably lead to a better society, acted to suppress their moral instincts that revolted at the horrors they inflicted.


Thus, despite the superficial trappings of religious ritual around Lenin, the atrocities of the Stalin era had their basis in the authoritarian nature of the Russian Communist party created by Lenin; an apparatus of state repression and propaganda inherited from Tsarism and Kerensky; a history of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe and the Middle East; the establishment of the true revolutionary as a physically strong man, complemented by Stalin’s own ruthless urge to power through a sense of personal inadequacy; and an advocacy of genocide by one of the founders of Marxism, Friedrich Engels himself, coupled with a notion of scientific objectivity that rejected morality in favour of impersonal societal forces as the basis for political action and commitment. This was further exacerbated by a political ideology that saw individuals as unimportant and which viewed the collective group or interest – the working class and the nation as a whole – as the centre of moral concern to whose interests the individual could be ruthlessly sacrificed.

Rather than Stalin’s atrocities arising from Christianity, they came from the brutal tactics of secular rulers in the Middle East, and authoritarian, genocidal ideologies within Russian Communism itself, based on the ideas of that ideology’s founder, magnified to truly horrific levels by Stalin’s own personal paranoia and brutality. The irony here is that Marx declared himself to be a Humanist, and Soviet Communists viewed Marxism as the only true Humanism.  


1. J.M. Yinger, ‘Secular Alternatives to Religion’ in Whitfield Foy, ed., The Religious Quest: A Reader (London, Routledge 1978), p. 548.

2. Yinger, ‘Secular Alternatives’, in Foy, Religious Quest, p. 547.

3. Yinger, ‘Secular Alternatives’, in Foy, Religious Quest, p. 547.

4. Yinger, ‘Secular Alternatives’ in Foy, Religious Quest, p. 548.

5. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Penguin Books 1964), p. 156.

6. Daniel Waley, Later Medieval Europe: From St. Louis to Luther (London, Longman 1985), p. 166.

7. N.D. Miklukho-Maklaya, ‘Introduction’, in Muhammad-Kazim, Name-yi ‘Alamara-yi Nadiry (Miroykrashayushaya Nadirova Kniga), volume 1, (Orientalist Institute of the Soviet Academy of Science, Moscow 1960), p. 6.

8. ‘Armenia’ in Andrew Wilson and Nina Bachkatov, Russia Revised: An Alphabetical Key to the Soviet Collapse and the New Republics (London, Andre Deutsch 1992), p. 17.

9. Adolf Glasbrenner, ‘ Konschtitution’ in Florian Vassen, ed., Die Deutsche Literature in Text und Darstellung: Vormarz (Stuttgart, Philipp Reklam 1979), p. 230. (My translation).

10. David Fernback, ed., Karl Marx: The Revolutions of 1848 (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1973), p. 100.

11. Friedrich Engels, ‘The Magyar Struggle, in Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx, p. 222.

12. Engels, ‘Magyar Struggle’, in Fernbach, Karl Marx, pp. 225-226.

13. Engels, ‘Democratic Pan-Slavism’, in Fernbach, ed., Karl Marx, p. 244.

Scepticism Ancient and Modern

January 8, 2008

There’s a tendency in contemporary atheism to present itself not as a dogmatic denial of religion and the supernatural, but as an attitude of simple doubt. Atheism is stated to be the lack of belief in God or gods, rather than an outright disbelief in them. The attitude therefore becomes one of philosophical Scepticism, which is perceived to be essentially rational and open-minded, as against the perceived close-mindedness of theism. This strand of atheism dates from the 17th century, when European philosophers and scholars took a renewed interested in the philosophical Scepticism of the ancient world. The arguments of Pyrrho and Carneades against the existence of the gods were taken over into the nascent free-thinking milieu of the period.

Yet despite this position of critical doubt, Scepticism, both ancient and contemporary, nevertheless is constructed on certain assumptions about the world, assumptions which paradoxically act as dogmas in constructing a Sceptical worldview, despite philosophical Scepticism’s rejection of dogmatism. Examining the nature and the underlying assumptions of Graeco-Roman and contemporary Scepticism not only gives an insight into the changing nature of Scepticism and atheism, but also the paradoxical nature of atheist doubt as a worldview in itself.

Ancient Scepticism 

Firstly, ancient Scepticism was a systematic application of doubt not just to religion, but to just about aspect of intellectual life. According to Pyrrho of Elis, one of the founders of Hellenistic scepticism, who lived from c. 280 to 80 BC, the universe was fundamentally unknowable. Nothing definite could be said about the world as it really was, and so the correct attitude towards it and its objects should be one of suspension of belief. This non-committal attitude was held to have the benefit of conferring peace of mind. 1 In some respects this position is closer to philosophical postmodernism, which states that all conceptions of reality are intellectual and cultural constructs with no objective validity, than to the scepticism of atheists and agnostics like CSICOP. Richard Dawkins, for example, is a religious sceptic, but as an avowed opponent of Postmodernism I doubt he would consider that reality is fundamentally unknowable.

Amongst the most brilliant exponents of ancient Scepticism was Carneades, who lived about 214 to 129 BC. A superb debater, he became notorious after his arrival in Rome as head of the Platonic Academy in 155 BC for his ability to argue both for and against any position. He caused a furore by first demonstrating this tactic in a piece of oratory in which he first argued for, and then against, righteousness. 2 While respecting his brilliance, the Romans didn’t like him because of this critical attitude to just about every intellectual or moral idea. I got the impression he was distrusted because he was ‘too clever by half’. Nevertheless, while the Sceptics attacked the Stoic doctrine of cataleptic phantasies, which stated that there were sense impressions that were clear and trustworthy, they did not entirely reject sense experience. 3 Carneades himself believed that there were sense impressions that were persuasive and credible, and that their persuasiveness increased when corroborated by associated impressions and perceptions. He did not believe, however, that such sense impressions could ever be certain. 4

Now clearly there’s an element of common sense in the Sceptical attitude. It’s accepted that sense experience is unreliable, and clearly a statement or impression of reality does become more persuasive with supporting impressions. And the attitude that notions of reality should be lightly held has allowed science to progress as its statements have been refined and superseded by fresh evidence. Indeed, Scepticism had an influence on the Roman empirical school of medicine through the writings of the physician and sceptical philosopher, Sextus Empiricus. 5

Difference Between Ancient and Modern Scepticism 

Yet despite the similarity between the empiricism and attacks on dogmatic statements about the nature of the gods by the ancient Sceptics and contemporary atheists, there are a number of important differences. The most significant of these is that while Pyrrho argued that the world was innately unknowable, contemporary atheism assumes that the world is intelligible and that definitive statements about the world can be made with a very high degree of confidence. Even if scientific views of the world are subject to revision, it is nevertheless assumed that they correspond to reality. Moreover, the intelligible, rational nature of the universe means that the universe does not require the existence of a Creator, and that the existence of any kind of supernatural entities is unlikely to a greater or lesser extent. Moreover, however tentative the philosophy of science insists scientific explanations are, in practice the assumed close correspondence between scientific models and reality mean that many are taken to be established, dogmatic fact. For example, despite his religious scepticism, Carl Sagan always strongly insisted that evolution was fact, as against the possible view following the logic of ancient Scepticism that evolution was more persuasive than the alternatives of special creation, but not certain. Thus, contemporary religious sceptics nevertheless make dogmatic statements about the world.

Limited Nature of Modern Philosophical Scepticism

Indeed, Scepticism itself has its limitations which prevent it merging into Nihilism. For all that philosophers may strenuously debate the meaning and nature of justice, morality and individual ethical qualities, like good and evil, few would actually state that there is no such thing as justice or morality, even if the universe as a whole is simply taken to be a brute fact, neither good nor evil, as Dawkins does in his attitude towards natural evil. Yet there is a problem in that if the existence of God or the gods is dismissed because the different conceptions of them renders the idea of divinity incoherent, then it is equally possible to dismiss morality and justice as illusory because of the sharply different concepts of them in various cultures. Atheism assumes the existence of some kind of objective morality, especially as one important part of its attack on religion is based on the supposed evil or lack of morality in religion. This demonstrates another difference between contemporary Scepticism and that of the ancient world. Carneades, Pyrrho, Arcesilaus and the other ancient Sceptics argued against the existence of the gods because it was felt that the idea of them was incoherent. They did not dismiss religion as evil. Contemporary religious scepticism moves beyond this stance and does declare religion to be evil. You only have to look at the pronouncements of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens and co.

Basis of Atheism in Philosophical Assumptions 

In all of this, however, there are a set of assumptions about the nature of reality, science and morality on which atheism is based. All of these assumptions are vulnerable to attack. However, the stance of some forms of contemporary atheism that atheism is really nothing more than the lack of a belief in God or the gods, and that as such the burden of proof is on the theist, acts to disguise this position. Those atheist polemicists who adopt this position effectively try to avoid exposing their own assumptions to scrutiny by denying that atheism is anything beyond this lack of belief. Yet if atheism is anything more than a simple fideistic denial of the existence of God or the gods, without any supporting reasons or arguments, then clearly there is a structure of belief – positive beliefs and truth statements about the nature of reality – behind it that have to be argued for.

The attempt by atheists to put the burden of proof on the theist is based on the presumption that atheism is somehow more rational than theism. This presumption is considered to be so axiomatic and self-evident that it is not argued for. Instead, it is stated that atheism is merely the lack of belief in God or the gods, while theism, it is suggested, is about the existence of entities for which there is no evidence or proof, that atheism is the default, commonsense position.

Yet this is another assumption. Throughout history, the vast majority of societies have believed in God or gods, and atheism as a belief system based on logic has had to be argued for. It is not for nothing that the British atheist philosopher, Robin le Poidevin, entitled one of his books, Arguing for Atheism. Given that atheism is based on logical argument and positive beliefs and truth statements about the world, it is far more than a merely negative position as expressed by the statement that it is about nothing more than the lack of belief in God or the gods, and the theist is entitled to expect the atheist to provide proof for his statements as well.

Atheists Required to Critique Beliefs in Socratic Dialogue 

This is also true if the debate is seen as a kind of ‘Socratic dialogue’. For many atheists, Socrates is a hero because of his execution by the Athenians for atheism, despite the fact that contemporary historians and classical scholars consider that his own religious views were entirely orthodox. Indeed, Socrates himself claimed to have been inspired by a daimon – a spiritual entity like the Judaeo-Christian concept of a guardian angel, that acted as an intermediary between the gods and humans. Part of Plato’s Phaedo consists of the arguments by Socrates in support of life after death and the existence of superior, transcendental world. Now atheist groups like the RRS admire Socrates for his questioning of dogma, just as the ancient Sceptics did. However, Socrates saw himself merely as a midwife helping to deliver the ideas of other people. Now clearly, as the presumption that atheism is nothing but the lack of belief in God or the gods, and so is somehow more rational, is based on a set of assumptions that are not articulated by this stance, and indeed it is the purpose of this stance to avoid having to articulate them, then, if the Socratic method is to be properly followed, there is the requirement that these assumptions should be brought out into the open and critiqued, just as Socrates brought out of his interlocutors their assumptions and critiqued them in order to get to the truth.

William James’ Criticism of Withholding Faith 

In fact the atheist position that it is better to withhold faith, and doubt the existence of God until there was sufficient evidence to accept it was criticised by the great scholar of the psychology of religion, William James. James considered it to be a tantamount to stating that risking the loss of truth was better than the chance of error. This stance he considered to be like a man indefinitely hesitating to marry a woman in case she wasn’t the angel he thought she was when he took her home. In so hesitating, he lost the good as surely as if he had disbelieved. ‘We cannot escape the issue by remaining sceptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve.’ 6 James considered this stance of withholding consent from religious belief because of the possibility of error to be no wiser than accepting it through hope, and strongly criticised it, stating

‘to preach scepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in the presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. It is not intellect against all passions, then; it is only intellect with one passion laying down its law. And by what, forsooth, is the supreme wisdom of this passion warranted? Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear? I, for one, can see no proof, and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, in a case where my own stake is important enough to give me the right to choose my own form of risk.’ 7

This is not to advocate religious belief against reason, merely to state that the policy of withholding faith until some criterion of ‘sufficient evidence’ is met is not necessarily any better guarantee of finding the truth than accepting religious belief because of the hope it offers.

Conclusion: Modern Atheism and Ancient Scepticism Different, and Atheists also Required to Provide Proof

Thus, despite its adoption of some of the conventions of ancient Scepticism, modern atheism and ancient Scepticism are very different worldviews. Ancient Scepticism stated that the world was fundamentally unknowable, and that statements about it could only be tentative. In this situation, the correct attitude was to cultivate an attitude of detachment. Contemporary atheism, on the other hand, is predicated on the belief that the universe is intelligible and that true statements about it may be made. It is based on a distinct set of assumptions and statements about the nature of the universe, statements that are not intuitively and self-evidently true, but which have had to be actively argued for. As such, it constitutes a distinct worldview in itself, not merely the lack of belief in God or the gods. Theists are therefore entitled to demand atheists also provide proof for their statements, while the principles of Socratic dialogue means that any attempt to disguise the assumptions on which atheism is based by shifting the burden of proof to the theist means that it is even more necessary that the assumptions of atheism should be stated and critically examined. Furthermore, the attitude that theist needs to provide sufficient evidence before belief in God can be granted is not necessarily a wise decision in itself.

Thus, atheism is indeed a worldview, whose scepticism is limited and whose assumptions deserve to be critiqued by theists. For a true Socratic dialogue to occur, the atheist needs to share provide proof for his worldview as well as the theist, and it needs to be recognised that the Sceptical policy of withholding belief pending sufficient evidence is not necessarily wiser than immediate acceptance. Atheism still makes truth statements about the world, and Scepticism is no guide to the truth, either of religion or the cosmos.


1. ‘Scepticism’ in Jennifer Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1984), p. 314.

2. ‘Carneades’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56.

3. ‘Scepticism’, Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 314.

4. ‘Carneades’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56; ‘Scepticism’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 314.

5. ‘Scepticism’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56; ‘Sextus Empiricus’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 326.

6. William James, ‘The Will to Believe’ in Paul Helm, ed., Faith and Reason (Oxford, OUP 1999), p. 243.

7. James, ‘Will to Believe’, in Helm, ed., Faith and Reason, p. 243.

Sheldrake Claims Dawkins Got Interview through Misrepresentation

January 7, 2008

There was a bit of a storm a few months ago when news broke about Ben Stein’s film covering the sacking and persecution of scientists and supporters of Intelligent Design, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. A number of the Darwinists featured in the movie claimed that the interviews had been gained through false pretences. One of these, as I recall, was Richard Dawkins. However, from an article by Dr. Rupert Sheldrake in the February edition of the magazine of high weirdness, the Fortean Times, it appears that Dawkins himself, or rather his producers, used similar tactics in getting him to appear on camera. 

Sheldrake is a scientific maverick. A biologist, he became notorious for his theory of morphic resonance, a non-Darwinian theory that explained the emergence of new features, both physiological and behavioural, through probabilistic morphic fields. Nature magazine denounced his book expounding the theory, A New Science of Life, as ‘the best candidate for burning since Galileo’, and in the ensuing controversy he lost his academic tenure. This did not stop his research, however, which continued independently and included telepathy, which he felt morphic resonance could explain. It was because of his research into psi that he was contacted by a production company, IWC, who stated that Dawkins was interested in discussing his research. Sheldrake himself was reluctant, but agreed to an interview with Dawkins after being promised by the production team’s representative that it would be ‘an entirely more balanced affar than The Root of All Evil?‘, which was Dawkins polemic against religion.

Sheldrake was contacted by the production company shortly before the filming of Enemies of Reason, Dawkins polemic against the paranormal, and in the event the programme was as biased as Dawkins’ previous documentary. The interview duly went ahead, and Sheldrake and Dawkins talked about telepathy. Sheldrake states in the article that he had sent copies of some of his papers, giving the evidence from his research for the existence of telepathy, in peer-reviewed journal to Dawkins the previous week. However, when Sheldrake attempted to discuss the evidence with him, Dawkins looked uneasy, stated he didn’t want to discuss it, and said that it wasn’t what the programme was all about. At this point filming stopped. The director, Russell Barnes, confirmed that he wasn’t interested in evidence, and that the film was merely another piece of polemic by Dawkins. When Sheldrake complained that he had ‘made it clear from the outset that I wasn’t interested in taking part in another low-grade debunking exercise’, he got the reply from Dawkins, ‘It’s not a low-grade debunking exercise. It’s a high-grade debunking exercise.’

Sheldrake then stated that there had obviously been some serious misunderstanding, and produced the emails from Barnes’ assistant claiming that the interview would be balanced. Barnes apparently read them ‘with obvious dismay’, and said that the assurances he had been given were wrong. The production crew then packed up and left.

Now let’s be clear here: Sheldrake is not accusing either Dawkins himself nor the director, Russell Barnes, of gaining the interview with him through deceit. He is, however, stating that the production team’s assistant misled him, and that the interview with Dawkins went ahead because of this deception. Now, while Dawkins isn’t being personally accused of deception here, nevertheless it could be seen as hypocritical for him to be claiming to have been misrepresented in Stein’s movie when interviews for his films have also been gained through misrepresentation.

Anyway, if you want to read the whole story, see the article ‘Richard Dawkins Calls’ in the Fortean Times on page 55.

Kelly Rants against Javed Akbar over Atheist Anxiety

January 7, 2008

Okay, here’s another post linking to a story over at Atheism Sucks. Yeah, I know I’ve done a couple of them recently, but the guys over there have raised some very good issues that deserve further comment and discussion. This time they’re taking issue with yet another rant by the Rational Response Squad’s Kelly. It’s over a letter to one of the papers by Javed Akbar of Markham, which states that much of the shrillness of recent atheist polemic comes from anxiety. Akbar points out that according to the atheist polemicists and ideologues of the past, religion should have died out by now. This has not occurred, and so the venom of Dawkins, Dennett and co against religion is a result of their anxiety over religion’s continued persistence. This has provoked an angry response from the RRS’ Kelly, which is duly dissected and discussed by the good folks at Atheism Sucks here at

Continuation of Religion Despite Atheist Predictions 

In fact, Akbar is entirely correct about the predictions of the end of religion and the emergence of global atheism by atheist ideologues and their failure to materialise. Alister McGrath, in his book, The Twilight of Atheism, lists a number of such predictions, noting that they haven’t occurred. Indeed, Corliss Lamont, one of the pioneers of modern Humanism, was cautiously looking forward to the emergence of a global Humanist order by the end of the 20th century in his 1949 Humanism as a Philosophy. Lamont stated that ‘there is at least the possibility that within the next few decades and before the close of this century the human race will emerge onto the lofty plateau of a world-wide Humanist civilisation’. 1 Clearly this has not occurred, and the emergence of religious fundamentalist regimes and movements across the world, from radical Islam to militant Hinduism and elsewhere, has seriously threatened the secularist project.

Secular Ideological and Scientific Challenges to Humanist Tenets 

I suspect, however, there are other reasons for the vehemence of contemporary atheist polemic deriving not just from the continued persistence of religion and the failure of global secularism, but also from secular developments in philosophy and politics which are in opposition to the assumptions of Humanism itself. These attacks on Humanist assumptions are the increasingly pessimistic view of the value of humanity and its survival; and the questioning of the assumption of human rationality and intentionality by the natural sciences themselves.

Corliss himself was an optimist, stating that ‘despite the appalling world wars and other ordeals through which humanity has been compelled to pass during the first hal of the twentieth century, I believe firmly that man, who has shown himself to be a very tough animal, has the best part of his career still before him.’ 2 However, the increased concern over the ecological crisis, the continuation of political tension and the proliferation of nuclear weapons amongst dangerously aggressive and unstable states, and the rise of technologies that have the potential to eradicate humanity, such as the feared ‘grey goo’ of nano-technology, have all cast severe doubt on humanity’s ability to survive. For example, a few years ago the British Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, published the book Our Final Century? discussing the various threats to humanity’s survival. Rather than sharing Lamont’s confident optimism, there is now considerable pessimism over humanity’s ability to survive.

This pessimism even extends to the value of the human species itself. Humanity’s responsibility, or perceived responsibility, for the current ecological crisis has resulted in some misanthropic views, which at their most extreme look forward to humanity’s extinction. While James van Praag in his ‘What is Humanism?’ states that ‘the world is a human world’, many would now object extremely strongly to such an anthropocentric viewpoint. 2 When Martin Rees was discussing his book when it was first published, at the Cheltenham Festival of Science a few years, one member of the audience remarked that it might be a good thing if humanity became extinct and was replaced by intelligent machines as they might be kinder to the environment. Other philosophers have expressed similarly negative views about humanity.

From a scientific viewpoint, the assumptions about the innate nobility of humanity from a purely biological viewpoint have also been attacked. While previous generations mistakenly viewed humanity as at the top of an evolutionary ladder, evolutionary scientists argue that humanity is no better designed or further evolved than many of the other creatures with which humanity shares the Earth. Furthermore, developments in neurology, such as Libet’s experiments that apparently show that the decision to move arises in the brain before the conscious decision to move has been made, and similar experiments have led to many neurologists and philosophers questioning the existence of consciousness and free will. The result of this has been a reduction in humanity’s status as a biological, thinking organism. Humanity is increasingly viewed as merely another creature on the Earth, rather than one possessing an innate intellectual and moral superiority and dignity. Bernard Phillips in his article, ‘Zen and Humanism’ argued that just as Humanism battled for human independence against the divine, so it has also fought to preserve the human against the darkness and brutishness of nature. In his view, this has meant defending the importance of the humanities against encroachment by the natural sciences. 3 Yet humanity is increasingly seen merely as another part of nature, with the differences between humanity and the other creatures increasingly minimised.

Humanism also assumed that the human condition could be clarified and improved through the natural sciences. This is certainly true to a large extent, but the fact that science itself is increasingly seen as a source of problems, rather than their solution, through the creation of devastating new technologies and weapons, such as nuclear power, industrial pollution and health scares over new technologies, such as the preservatives in food, have cast severe doubt on the ability of science on its own to provide solutions for humanity’s problems.

Furthermore, contrary to expectations the social sciences have not followed the path founders of Humanism, such as Dewey, expect it to. Dewey believed that the social sciences of the early 20th century were in the same position as the natural sciences before they discovered experimental control. He therefore looked forward to a time when the social sciences would catch up and adopt the same methodology of the natural sciences. For philosophers such as John E. Smith, the fact ‘that this has not happened says a great deal about the human species and the social sciences’. 4 Despite expectations, humanity is still different from other parts of the natural world, and cannot be studied using the same methodology of the natural sciences.

Thus, the confident Humanist assumption that science would preserve and enhance human dignity while providing solutions for its problems has come under severe attack as science itself has acted to deny or minimise humanity’s uniqueness and value, while producing threats of its own.

Decline and Challenges to Membership of Atheist Organisations 

In addition to these secular, ideological challenges to Humanist assumptions there have also been decline and challenges to the membership of atheist organisations themselves. While atheism was illegal and subject to suspicion, as it was in Britain up to the 19th century, the various secular and Humanist societies gained their membership through offering mutual support to those whose beliefs placed them outside contemporary society. With the acceptance of atheism within Western culture, and the drastic decline in religious observance, many people who have no religious beliefs simply don’t feel the need to join a specific, secularist or atheist group or organisation. As a result, until recently atheist groups in Britain were in decline.

There may even be an additional factor in the contemporary distrust of ideologies as inherently divisive and destructive. Since the Fall of Communism and the Labour Party’s reinvention of itself as a more centrist party far less concerned with the communal ownership of property – indeed, as an active supporter of free market economics – many political commentators have viewed this as the ‘post-ideological age’. Political ideologies are now viewed by many with distrust as alienating people from each other and causing hatred and conflict. When Premier Blair took power he included amongst his minister several former Conservative ministers as part of a policy of using suitable talent regardless of formal party allegiances. It’s possible that the distrust and apathy many people now feel towards political ideologies also extend to the religious sphere. Now one of the atheist criticisms of organised religion is that it is divisive and supposedly the source of conflict. However, if all ideologies are so considered, then atheist and Humanist organisations themselves become subjects to the same distrust and apathy as specifically ideological institutions artificially creating division because of beliefs. 

This decline in membership of atheist groups paradoxically had the result of making some secularist organisations more receptive to the membership of people of faith. A few years ago I found amongst the periodicals in the local library a copy of the British New Humanist magazine. This featured an article arguing for the inclusion of people of faith in Humanist societies. Interestingly, the front cover was a cartoon parodying the painting of the wreck of the Medusa, with Humanists shown as the shipwrecked sailors on the raft.

Such a policy of inclusiveness is intensely controversial considering the bitter hostility to religion and the supernatural by most atheist and Humanist organisations. Corliss Lamont criticised the religious Humanists, who were largely Unitarian ministers, who signed Roy Wood Sellars original Humanist Manifesto against the supernatural in 1933. I got the distinct impression that part of the controversy now raging in Internet Infidels was over the inclusion of religious liberals and moderates onto the site by the managers. Kurtz included an article by himself in his book on Humanism, ‘Is Everyone A Humanist?’ as a deliberate attempt to preserve it as a distinct ideological movement against its appropriation by other ideologies, such as Roman Catholicism, when Pope Paul VI declared ‘Christianity is a Humanism … centred on God’ and the claim of Marxism to be the only real Humanism. 5 The attacks by the New Atheists on religion as a whole can be seen not just as an attack on religion for its own sake, but also as an attempt to guard Humanism and secularism against religious encroachment.

Conclusion: A Crisis Mentality in Modern Atheism 

Thus, despite Kelly’s rants to the contrary, Javed Akbar and the guys at Atheism Sucks are right: there does seem to be a sense of profound crisis amongst Secularists and Humanists, derived in part from the continued existence of religion despite expectations to the contrary. This is only part of the reasons for the sense of crisis, however. Other factors include the challenge to Humanist notions of humanity, rationality and dignity from science itself and Humanism’s failure to define or defend the human from challenges, real and perceived from science, and the problematic nature of science itself through its abuse by humanity through war, or the deleterious side-effects of its processes, such as pollution. There is even the problem that the greater acceptance of atheism, and the growth of secular society, has meant that many atheist organisations have experienced a decline as otherwise secular individuals felt no need to join them. And despite the attempt to define atheism as a lack of belief in God, rather than a positive disbelief, the post-ideological condition of contemporary society may mean that all ideologies, including secularism, are subject to the same suspicion as sources of ideological division and hatred. And some atheists clearly feel threatened by the inclusion of religious liberals amongst their membership.

In contrast to Kelly’s denials, therefore, organised atheism is experiencing a crisis due partly to the persistence of religion, and secular and scientific challenges to the assumptions of previous generations of secularists and atheists. Hence the bitter attacks on religion by Dawkins and co as they attempt to preserve organised atheism from this continued challenge to their perceived rationality.


1. Corliss Lamont, Humanism as a Philosophy (1949), p. 349, cited in John E. Smith, Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Basingstoke, MacMillan 1994), p. 18.

2. Lamont, Humanism as a Philosophy, p. 349, in Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 18.

2. James Van Praag, ‘What is Humanism?’ in Paul Kurtz, The Humanist Alternative: Some Definitions of Humanism, p. 44, cited in Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 31.

3. Bernard Phillips, ‘Zen and Humanism’ in Kurtz, The Humanist Alternative, p. 160, cited in Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 35.

4. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 43.

5. Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 37.