Archive for the ‘Agnosticism’ Category

UKIP, Islamophobia and the Loud Atheism Website

April 18, 2015

On Thursday, Hope Not Hate published a piece UKIP’s Stretford & Urmston Candidate Thinks Islam is “Despicable” reporting that Kalvin Chapman, the UKIP parliamentary candidate for Stretford and Urmston, Kalvin Chapman, had posted a comment on the ‘Loud Atheism’ Facebook page attacking Islam. He described it as a ‘despicable’ and ‘f***ed up’.

The article’s at, if you want to see it.

Now I have the impression that this is pretty much par for the course for much of the ‘New Atheist’ movement. This is the form of organised atheism that emerged in late decade, led by Richard Dawkins, Sue Blackmore, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel C. Dennett. The movements critics have pointed out that by and large the New Atheism didn’t have any new arguments, except perhaps an extension of Darwinian theory to try and explain religious belief. In the case of Sue Blackmore and Daniel C. Dennett, it had an extremely reductive view of human consciousness that saw it as being nothing more than a series of biological computer programmes. Sue Blackmore in particular took this to its most logically absurd extent and denied consciousness actually existed.

If the arguments were largely the same, traditional arguments used against religious belief and organised religion, the presentation was quite different. It was much more vicious, vitriolic and intolerant. Atheist movements in the past have persecuted organised religion. Religious belief in the former Communist bloc was severely limited and fiercely persecuted, with religious believers killed or sent to forced labour camps. In the former Soviet Union the penalty for holding a religious service in your own home would see you arrested and your house demolished.

The older, atheist tradition in the West could be much more genteel. Angry revolutionaries like the Surrealist film-maker Bunuel and his counterparts could and did make blasphemous films and art attacking organised religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. In the 1950s they held a mock trial of the Roman Catholic church in a disused church just outside Paris, while the Surrealists’ leader, Andre Breton, wrote an article denouncing recent attempts to combine surrealism with Christianity, entitled ‘To Your Kennels, Curs of God’.

Against this, there were atheist intellectuals like A.J. Ayer and Ludovik Kennedy, who were much less personally abusive. Kennedy when he appeared on Mark Lamarr’s chat show, Lamarr’s Attacks, in the 1990s, was courteous and polite. A.J. Ayer became friends with a Jesuit priest after having a Near Death Experience choking on a piece of fish in hospital. It didn’t make him become a religious believer, but the incident does show that people of differing and opposed religious views needn’t be personal enemies.

The New Atheism, by contrast, was much more aggressive, with a far greater use of invective. Rather than merely being attacked intellectually, religious and religious belief should be actively discouraged and given much less tolerance. Richard Dawkins has been quoted by his critics as saying that religious believers should be humiliated and shamed into abandoning their beliefs.

The result of this is that some atheist websites have a reputation for abuse and invective, like P.Z. Myers’ The Panda’s Thumb, set up to defend evolution from creationism, and Raving Atheism. I was warned off the latter by a friend, who said it was just atheists being extremely blasphemous and abusive for the sake of it.

To be fair, this approach has its critics from within the atheist movement, many of whom are genuinely shocked at how extreme and bitterly intolerant the New Atheist rhetoric is. A few years ago one atheist writer published an article in one of the papers actually saying that Richard Dawkins’ made him ashamed to be an atheist. And within the last couple of years in particular a strain of Islamophobia has emerged within the New Atheist movement. Again, this has been exemplified by Richard Dawkins, who become the subject of further controversy because of his posts and tweets attacking Islam, particularly the low status of women in Islamic countries and Female Genital Mutilation. Chapman’s comments about Islam are part of this strand of New Atheism.

And the fear of Islam, or at least radical Islamism, may have been one of the catalysts of the New Atheism from the start. I was talking to a friend of mine a while ago about the origins of the New Atheism. I thought it was a reaction to the growth of Creationism and Intelligent Design, which recognises the emergence of new species over time, but claims this is due to the intervention of intelligent agencies, rather than the mechanism of random mutation and natural selection, suggested by Neo-Darwinian theory. I also wondered if it was also due to the accession to the Presidency of George ‘Dubya’, an Evangelical Christian, and the increasing power and influence of the Christian religious right in American politics.

My friend took a different view. He believed it was a reaction to 9/11 and the rise of aggressive Islamic terrorist movements, like al-Qaeda, and radical and aggressive Islamic political movements within the largely secular West, such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. He stated that some of Atheists’, Agnostics’ and Secularists’ Societies set up on university campus in practice were little more than anti-Islam societies.

Now I don’t know how true this is. The AAS at Bristol University did not seem to be particularly interested in Islam, only in attacking religion in general. The events and lectures it organised seemed generally disrespectful, such as a social evening in which members were encouraged to dress up as their favourite religious figure. One of their lectures was a general account of traditional, religious beliefs about the creation of the world from antiquity onwards.

Now I do believe that if you are going to criticise religion, then this should extend to all religions, rather than just Christianity as the former majority, mainstream religion of the West. However, in the case of Islam at the moment, such criticism has become extremely dangerous. It can easily lead to the persecution of innocents, including racist attacks and the demonization of Islam generally because of the atrocities committed by the Islamist militants. This in turn may fuel the alienation and resentment in Muslim communities, and further the Islamists’ goal of their further radicalisation.

In the case of Chapman, I’m not surprised that his post against Islam was particularly splenetic, given the title of the website on which it was posted. What is worrying is that it comes from a prospective parliamentary candidate for a party that has developed a reputation for racism and a bitter hostility to Islam.

18th Century Religious Scepticism Not Based on Science: Part 3 – David Hume and Scepticism

June 9, 2013

David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is one of the classic anti-religious texts. Hume was an agnostic sceptic, rather than an atheist materialist. Published after his death in 1779, the Dialogues are a sustained attack on Natural Theology. In them, Hume attacked the idea of the universe as a machine, and suggested other, organic metaphors. The universe could have grown instead like some kind of vegetable. He also criticised the idea that the features and characteristics of animals were proof of the existence of a Designer. He argued instead that an animal with a particular set of characteristics would have to follow a particular lifestyle or die out. This did not, however, show that those features were designed, or that the animal was intended to pursue this particular manner of existence. He also argued that the immense suffering in nature also argued against the existence of a benevolent deity. He also argued that the regular operation of natural laws also did not show that they were grounded in God’s will. He also argued that miracles were so highly improbably that they should not be accepted, and that if they did exist, they were not necessarily proof of God’s existence as every religion had them. As for the origin of religion itself, in his unpublished book, the Natural History of Religion, he believed that the original religion of humanity had been polytheism, the belief in many gods. This was in stark contrast to the Deists and orthodox Christians, who believed that the first religion had been monotheism. He also saw all religions as leading to fanaticism, and attacked religious virtues as being useless to society.

Hume’s Arguments not Accepted at Time, Criticism by Joseph Priestly

Hume’s Dialogues are considered by the majority of scholars as totally destroying the arguments for the Almighty’s existence based on nature. This is, however, very much a post-Darwinian view. Matt Ridley, in his collection of texts on evolution, places an extract from the dialogues in a section entitled ‘Philosophical Consequence of Evolution’. At the time it was felt that Joseph Priestley had decisively refuted Hume’s arguments in his 1780, Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever. Priestley stated that

‘With respect to Mr. Hume’s metaphysical writings in general, my opinion is, that, on the whole, the world is very little the wider for them. For though, when the merits of any question were on his side, few men ever wrote with more perspicuity, the arrangement of his thoughts being natural, and his illustrations pecularliarly happy; yet I can hardly think that we are indebted to him for the least real advance in the knowledge of the human mind.’

Regarding Hume’s ideas on how humans form concepts, Priestley believed that they had all been refuted by Hartley’s Observations on Man, which Hume didn’t appear to have read.

‘He seems not to have given himself the trouble so much as to read Dr. Hartley’s Observations on Man, a work which he could not but have heard of, and which it certainly behoved him to study. The doctrine of association of ideas, as explained and extended by Dr. Hartley, supplies materials for th emost satisfactory solution of aolmost all the difficulties he has started, as I could easily show if I thought it any consequence; so that to a person acquainted with this theory of the human mind, Hume’s Essays appear the merest trifling. Compared iwth Dr. Hartley, I consider Mr. Hume as not even a child.’

Priestley was also highly critical of the quality of the arguments for the non-existence of God advanced by the character of Philo in the Dialogues. According to Priestly, the character of Philo advanced ‘nothing but common-place objections against the belief of a God, and hackneyed declamations against the plan of providence’.

Priestly was also unimpressed by Hume’s argument that analogies from animals and plants could also equally be used to explain the cosmos. Hume had suggested that if the universe were an animal, then comets could be viewed as this creature’s eggs. Priestley said of this

‘Had any friend of religion advanced an idea so completely absurd as this, what would not Mr. Hume have said to turn it into ridicule. With just a smuch probability might he have said that Glasgow grew from a seed yielded by Edinburgh, or that London and Edinburgh, marrying, by natural generation, produced York, which lies between them. With much more probability might he have said that pamphlets are the productions of large books, that boats are young ships, and the pistols will grow into great guns; and that either there never were any first towns, books, ships, or guns, or that, if there were, they no makers.

How it could come into any man’s head to imagine that a thing so complex as this world, consisting of land and water, earths and metals, plants and animals, &c &c &c should produce a seed, or egg, containing within it the elements of all its innumerable parts, is beyond my powers of comprehension.’

Hume’s Argument on Organic Nature of Universe Scientific Nonsense, According to Priestly

Priestly even suggested that this view of the origin of the cosmos was based on ignorance, not science.

‘What must have been that man’s knowledge of philosophy and nature, who could suppose for a moment, that a comet could possibly be the seed of a world? Do comets spiring from worlds, carrying with them the seeds of all the plants, &c that they contain? Do comets travel from sun to sun, or from star to star? By what force are they tossed into the unformed elements, which Mr. Hume supposes everywhere to surround the universe?> What are those elements: and what evidence has he of their existence? or supposing the comet to arrive among them, whence could arise its power of vegetating into a new system?’

Priestly had possibly missed the point about HUme’s organic analogies. They were not serious suggestions, but intended to show that the machine metaphors used for the universe were only one of several that could equally be used. Nevertheless, Priestly showed that these metaphors were just as, if not more vulnerable, to criticism as those which likened the cosmos to a machine.

Hume’s Spokesman for Design Champion of Science in these Debates

Most of Hume’s arguments against religion and the evidence for design in the universe are philosophical, not scientific. He does use Newton’s suggestion that the cosmos was permeated by an ether to argue that it was movements in this, rather than the actions of the Almighty, that resulted in the effects of gravity. Despite this it is Hume’s character, Cleanthes, who idealises and defends science. Cleanthes states that ‘The true system of the heavenly bodies is discovered and ascertained … Why must conclusions of a (relgious) nature be alone rejected on the general presumption of the insufficiency of human reason?’

Hume’s Empiricism also Used to Attack Not Yet Verified Scientific Concepts

Furthermore, Hume’s agnosticism could act against scientific investigation. Hume believed that just because two events were seen to occur together did not mean that one caused the other. Hume did not wish to attack science. He was an empiricist, and this attitude that no concepts should be accepted unless they were directly experienced could be used against scientific ideas as well as religious, if taken to extremes. Atoms and genes, for example, were theoretical suggestions long before they were verified by science. These concepts would have had to be rejected if the standards of evidence Hume levelled against religion were applied to science. Those secular scientists that did not believe in them frequently attacked them on the basis that such ideas were exactly like those of religion in their lack of a sound scientific basis. The great 19th century chemist, Marcellin Berthelot, stated:

‘I do not want chemistry to degenerate into a religion; I do not want the chemist to believe in the existence of atoms as the Christian believes in the existence of Christ in the communion wafter’.

Refutation of the Argument against Miracles and Other Arguments

As for Hume’s arguments against miracles, they have been refuted by the secular, agnostic philosopher Earman. Earman’s article attacking them was called ‘The complete Failure of Hume’s Arguments against Miracles’. Hume’s arguments against design in the cosmos have also been attacked by Robin Attfield in his Creation, Evolution and Meaning (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006). Attfield argues against atheism from a theistic evolutionist perspective.

As for Hume’s argument that monotheism originally arose from polytheism, this has been accepted by theologians as not actually affecting the truth of the Christian revelation. I was taught it at my old Anglican church school. There is another theory that the original religion was monotheism. This is based on similarities to Judeo-Christian conception of the Almighty in other cultures, and by the fact that rather than developing into monotheism, the number of gods in polytheist religions actually increases over time.

Conclusion: Hume’s Arguments Philosophical, Not Scientific, and Could be Used Against Science

Thus Hume’s arguments against religion have been attacked in turn, and were largely not based in science. Joseph Priestly, who was a scientist as well as Unitarian minister, attacked them for their lack of a scientific basis. Indeed, Hume’s empiricism, when taken to extremes, could and did occasionally act against scientific discovery, as Berthelot’s rejection of atoms shows.


John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991).