Posts Tagged ‘New Atheism’

Counterpunch Demolishes Some Churchillian Myths

December 8, 2017

There’s a very interesting piece by Louis Proyect over at this weekend’s Counterpunch, The Churchillian Myths of 1940, where he takes a well-observed aim at two of the recent films about the Second World War. One is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the other is the forthcoming biopic about Winston Churchill’s battle against the appeasers in the British cabinet in 1940, The Darkest Hour. This hasn’t been released yet, and is set to come out on December 21st (2017). It stars Gary Oldman as Churchill, and is directed by Joe Wright.

Dunkirk’s already attracted much criticism because of its historical inaccuracies. I think it’s been accused of racism, because it ignores the large numbers of the British forces, who were Black and Asian. But Proyect also draws on a critique of the film by Max Hastings of the Telegraph to show how the film presents a very mythical view of Dunkirk. The film has it that the British troops are under constant shooting and bombardment by the Germans, and that they are saved by the flotilla of small vessels that went over there to rescue them. In fact, according to Hastings, the Germans largely left the retreating British alone. As for being saved by the small ships, 2/3 of the troops were rescued by the fleet of big ships that were sent by the navy. There were 37 of these, but six were sunk. Proyect also criticises a scene where the sailors aboard a sinking ship discuss how they are going to get to the surface without being mown down by the Germans. He compares this unfavourably to the Poseidon Adventure, producing the quotes by the critics to show that this is actually a far superior film.

More serious is the way the film deliberately omits atrocities committed on the civilian population by the retreating British. Proyect states that at the time the British squaddies were under immense physical and psychological stress. They responded by shooting anyone that moved, including old women and nuns. This is historical fact. Proyect cites and describes one of these incidents. The trooper had been told to take no prisoners, except for interrogation, and so blazed away accordingly.

As for the Darkest Hour, Proyect draws on an article by Clive Ponting on the Churchill Myth. Older readers of this blog will remember that Ponting was the civil servant Maggie tried to prosecute under the Official Secrets Act because he leaked two documents about the sinking of the Belgrano to the Labour MP Tam Dalyell. Ponting was acquitted, because the jury weren’t about to be told what to do by Maggie.

He points out that in fact the difference of opinion between Churchill and the appeasers, like Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, was actually much smaller than most people realised. At the time, Churchill was in favour of making peace with Germany, and had sent feelers out to see what their terms were. Where he differed from Halifax and Chamberlain was that they were in favour of making an immediate peace, while he wanted to fight on for a few more months.

The film does show Churchill hesitating at one point, and Proyect states that this would have been unthinkable a few years ago, as the official archives were still closed and the only source material available were Churchill’s own self-aggrandising writings. In which he portrayed himself as the resolute warrior.

But this ignores just how pro-Nazi Churchill had been, as well as anti-Semitic. What! Churchill pro-Nazi? The very idea! But he was. In 1937 Churchill wrote of Hitler

Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face in public business or on social terms,” he said, “have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism.” Despite the arming of Germany and the hounding of the Jews, “we may yet live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age,” Churchill wrote. He was doubtful, though.

As for Leon Trotsky, Churchill reviled him with all manner abuse, not just because he was a Bolshevik, but also because Trotsky was Jewish. He quotes Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, a revision history attacking the notion of World War II as ‘the good war’, from which he also took the above quote about Hitler from Churchill. Baker writes

Churchill also included a short piece on Leon Trotsky, king in exile of international bolshevism. Trotsky was a usurper and tyrant, Churchill said. He was a cancer bacillus, he was a “skin of malice,” washed up on the shores of Mexico. Trotsky possessed, said Churchill, “the organizing command of a Carnot, the cold detached intelligence of a Machiavelli, the mob oratory of a Cleon, the ferocity of Jack the Ripper, the toughness of Titus Oates.”

And in the end what was Trotsky? Who was he? “He was a Jew,” wrote Churchill with finality. “He was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that.” He called his article “Leon Trotsky, Alias Bronstein.”

https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/12/08/the-churchillian-myths-of-1940/

I am not surprised by Proyect’s description of Churchill’s highly equivocal attitude to Nazi Germany. Churchill himself was very authoritarian. He had visited Mussolini’s Italy, though he had not been impressed when the Duce compared the Blackshirts to the Black and Tans, and privately remarked that Musso was ‘a swine’. But he did like General Franco. The historian Martin Pugh, in his book on British Fascism between the Wars, states that Churchill’s opposition to Nazi Germany did not come from any deep ideological view, but simply because he was bitterly suspicious of Germany and believed that it would block British interests in the North Sea. Pugh points out that he didn’t seem concerned that a bloc of Fascist states in southern Europe could do the same to British interests in the Mediterranean.

It would be interesting to know what Peter Hitchens thinks of all this. Hitchens is deeply Conservative, but he is a fierce critic of the Second World War as ‘the good war’, and has absolutely no love of Churchill. Indeed, in his book taking aim at New Atheism a few years ago, The Rage Against God, he attacked the cult of Churchill as a kind of ersatz religion, put in place of Christianity. It’s a bit of stretch, as it wasn’t quite an exercising in God-building that the Soviets tried. In the former USSR there was a brief movement after the Revolution to create a kind of atheistic religion, centred around great revolutionary heroes, to harness religious sentiments for the cause of Communism. The cult around Churchill isn’t quite like that. But nevertheless, to some Churchill is almost a sacrosanct figure, against whom you must not utter a single word. You can’t, after all, imagine Dan Snow on the One Show, striding around what remains of Churchill’s office and papers, telling the world how ‘Winnie’ at one time looked approvingly on Hitler and was very nearly ready to make peace. Or that, when it suited him, he was viciously anti-Semitic.

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Young Turks: Terrorists More Motivated by Politics than Religion, Study Finds

December 15, 2015

This is another video from The Young Turks, which is extremely relevant as it takes apart the view that terrorists and suicide bombers are motivated solely or mainly by religion. Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago, and the founder of that university’s Centre for Security and Faith, studied the motives of suicide bombers and other terrorists going back to 1980. He found that in 95 per cent of cases they were far more motivated by politics, and particularly the desire to retaliation after a military intervention, often a military occupation. The attacks were an attempt to take or retake territory that was important to the terrorist. This was the dominant motivation for terror attacks, including the recent massacres in Paris.

Uygur and Iadarola point out that suicide bombing are the tactics adopted by the losing sides. America doesn’t use suicide bombers, because it has the advantage of drones, tanks and aircraft. The Japanese also turned to using suicide tactics in World War II – the Kamikaze pilots – when they were losing, not when they thought they were winning, as at Pearl Harbour. The same is true of other organisations using suicide bombers, like the Tamil Tigers.

They also make the case that while religion is part of it, like Christian fundamentalists, who hate gay people, this is more of a case of someone looking for and adopting a worldview, that confirms their existing beliefs. They also cite Lydia Wilson, a journalist for The Nation, who also interviewed ISIS terrorists. She found that they had a ‘woeful knowledge’ of even the basic tenets of Islam, and had difficulty answering questions about sharia law, jihad, or even the caliphate. But such knowledge wasn’t necessary to support the ideal of fighting for the caliphate. As could be seen from the actions of one British ISIS fighter, who ordered ‘Islam for Dummies’ on Amazon.

The Turks compare their ignorance of Islam with that of Dear, the right-wing fundamentalist Christian, who shot staff and patients in an attack on Planned Parenthood. They also point out that terrorist attacks and suicide bombings have been carried out by secular organisations and individuals. The Turks also point out that military intervention is not necessarily a bad thing. The Korean War succeeded in keeping South Korea free of Stalinism, and World War II was, obviously, a military intervention, that was exactly the right thing to do. Suicide and terrorist attacks do not necessarily make the original military action wrong. They’re just something to be expected as a consequence.

This report sounds pretty much spot on, from what I understand about terrorism. Bassam Tibi, the German-Egyptian writer on Islam and the problems it is experiencing through modernisation, states in his book Islam and the Cultural Accommodation of Social Change states that the Egyptian Islamist terrorist he personally interviewed in Egypt had only a superficial understanding of Islam. A few years ago, the anthropologist Scott Atran also pointed out that violence and terrorism were not solely the product of religion. He pointed out that the organisation that had made the most use of suicide bombings was the Tamil Tigers, who were secular organisation. Atran himself is an atheist, and he made this point as a rebuttal to the claims that religion was mainly responsible for such violence by members of the New Atheism, like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

A~s for reading one’s own political views into a particular religion or holy book, that’s always been a problem. It’s called ‘elective affinity’, and sociologists of religion have acknowledged and studied its importance. One example I was taught at College was the declaration by a 19th century British Tory that ‘the Bible is Conservative through and through’. It’s a classic example of the way a person with strong political opinions believed he had found them in his holy book through projecting his own prejudices and opinions onto the text.

As for the political motivations of many terrorists, there’s an interesting review of a book on the Lobster site by Carol Shaye, one of the officials involved in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Shaye has since become extremely cynical about the whole process because of the massive corruption at all levels of Hamid Karzai’s regime. She found that the Taliban fighters she interviewed almost exclusively joined because they felt it was a solution to this problem.
Of course, the Taliban isn’t. It is, however, a brutal and murderous collection of genocidal maniacs and mass-murderers. But the point remains.

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 http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/ukip/ukip-s-stretford-urmston-candidate-thinks-islam-is-despicable-4397, 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.