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When did atheists become so damn fragile? I thought the whole point was that atheism wasn’t just another faith, to be filed along with Zoroastrianism and Voodoo. As a non-believer, you’re supposed to be able to remain untouched by the belief systems that others profess; your rationalism makes you immune to whatever they’re breathing. But to race to the authorities at the first hint of a well-intentioned prayer smacks of massive insecurity rather than of disagreeing with a belief from any position of strength. Could your atheism really crumble so easily in the face of someone believing extra hard?


Partly, of course, this is down to the irascible Dawkins. His increasing impatience with and intolerance for believers, while understandable in a man who has spent his life immersed in scientific study, has long been in danger of overwhelming the value—and, importantly, the essentially positive nature—of his message. The more he has shifted from demonstrating how the world has not been designed and is amazing in its own right to explaining to anyone who does not understand this, carefully and painstakingly, why they personally are a scrofulous moron, the more he has alienated people whom he might once have reached and the loyal choir he has ended up preaching to has become ever more militant.

Which is why, at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People (the idea of which might sound as if it should be up for a Rory Bremner Award for Sledge-Fisted Satire, but it’s actually excellent) at Hammersmith on Sunday, I was impressed with any performer who was prepared to say that, while they were happy to criticise and satirise religion, they didn’t actually despise people who were religious; in front of a righteous “right-thinking” crowd and especially with Dawkins in the building, that’s veering close to heresy.

It’s kind of nuts that I feel driven by this and other similar cases to turn and face the massed ranks that I usually find myself travelling alongside, especially at a time when so much faith-related nonsense abounds. Feeling beleaguered in a secular society, some Christians are so desperate for validation that they can find virtue in anyone professing a faith at all—witness the idiot bishop to the armed forces subsequently having to apologise for admiring the Taliban. Tony Blair often makes similarly profound pronouncements about just how great it is that people around the world have some faith, any faith, so long as it’s faith. (Presumably it’s even better if it’s somehow modern faith, right, Tony?) But criticising a religion, dismantling its superstitions and pretensions piece by piece, does not have to equate to being stung by its every manifestation in other people’s everyday lives. Someone offering to pray with you for your child, be they Christian or whatever else, is reaching out and offering support. What the hell is wrong with just taking that as it’s meant and declining with grace?

If asked “How tolerant are you?”, a huge majority of Sunday’s Nine Lessons crowd would probably have replied “Irreproachably”. But I’d like to know how many of them, faced with someone expressing their beliefs around their children, would start hysterically calling for them to be sacked.

If someone’s proselytising at you and trying to make you sign up to their holy book, it’s only natural that you’ll vigorously resist. But if someone is expressing heartfelt support using the language and symbols of their own belief system—such as offering to intercede with their gods on your behalf—then it’s churlish, at best, to try to punish them for it. What’s that, Sooty? “It can be a fine line between ‘offering support’ and evangelism”? Yes it can, which is why I recommend we use those rational processes that we advertise so proudly to work out what’s happening at the time, respond accordingly and settle the fuck down.

Comments

( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
carsmilesteve
Dec. 22nd, 2009 11:53 am (UTC)
interesting that that teacher knows someone else a similar thing happened to earlier in the year...

...not that i'm suggesting conspiracy or anything...

also tony is all about Old Faith hence him now officially being a cat-lick, none of this modern CofE claptrap for him...
webofevil
Dec. 22nd, 2009 12:06 pm (UTC)
> tony is all about Old Faith

But surely if it’s modern, it’s better. Don’t tell me he’s abandoned this central only tenet of Tonyism.
mrslant
Dec. 22nd, 2009 06:55 pm (UTC)
Oh don't worry, he'd only been a Catholic for about five minutes before he was lecturing the Pope about sexuality...
nudejournal
Dec. 22nd, 2009 12:17 pm (UTC)
"If asked “How tolerant are you?”, a huge majority of Sunday’s Nine Lessons crowd would probably have replied “Irreproachably”. But I’d like to know how many of them, faced with someone expressing their beliefs around their darling children, would start hysterically calling for them to be sacked."

Expressing beliefs, or repeatedly ignoring requests to stop preaching?

The quotes in this version of the story:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/6861696/Christian-teacher-left-pupil-distressed-with-preaching.html

suggest that there may be slightly more going on here. We're also not just dealing with "atheists", rather "atheists who have daughters suffering from potentially terminal diseases", who are understandably likely to be a bit fragile.

I vaguely recall there being slightly more to that story about the nurse than "nurse says "Would you like me to pray for you?", is immediately suspended" but the details escape me.
webofevil
Dec. 22nd, 2009 12:26 pm (UTC)
Yes, the "darling children" is not meant to refer to that particular case.
webofevil
Dec. 22nd, 2009 12:42 pm (UTC)
In fact fuck it, I've changed it. I wasn't clear.
chiller
Dec. 22nd, 2009 12:18 pm (UTC)
Basically, yeah. I'm not anti-faith, but I am broadly anti-religion (because religions are responsible for a lot of ongoing atrocities, and I find it hard to justify the pomp and gilding of first-world worship against the stonings, forced circumcisions, witch-beatings and AIDS-denial of third world worship), and the sneering some atheists adopt towards anyone who believes in something intangible is, to me, indistinguishable from the sneering adopted by militant believers. Coming from a Catholic/Muslim/Anglican/atheist family, It kind of makes sense to me to leave room for people to differ, and to take things in the spirit in which they're offered.
nudejournal
Dec. 22nd, 2009 12:41 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure Dawkins or anyone else particularly cares about people believing in the intangible in and of itself, it's just that a significant number or people think their belief in something intangible is justification for extremely silly things like abstinence only education or opposing gay marriage. Or justification for anything at all that actually matters to anyone who doesn't believe in your particular brand of intangible thing.

(e.g. as a reason for continuing to proselytise to seriously ill children after having been repeatedly asked to stop).
webofevil
Dec. 22nd, 2009 12:45 pm (UTC)
> continuing to proselytise to seriously ill children after having been repeatedly asked to stop

And if this is actually the case then my point still stands.
nudejournal
Dec. 22nd, 2009 01:25 pm (UTC)
But that's not a "race to the authorities at the first hint of a well-intentioned prayer", that's making a complaint because a loon couldn't stop talking about how Jesus wants sick kids for sunbeams without any regard for anyone else's feelings. There's a difference between tolerating someone else's beliefs and tolerating someone coming round your house and being a dick. I respect your right to believe in God, I don't respect your right to shit in my fridge, even if you think that's "sharing your testament".

It would be awesome if this story turned out to be based on confusion between Pascal's theorem and Pascal's wager.
webofevil
Dec. 22nd, 2009 01:32 pm (UTC)
No, I mean that if this was actually a case of vigorous and unsolicited proselytising then it runs headlong into the “If someone’s proselytising at you and trying to make you sign up to their holy book, it’s only natural that you’ll vigorously resist” part.

I bet you’d let Dawkins shit in your fridge. If only to get an anecdote out of it.


nudejournal
Dec. 22nd, 2009 01:41 pm (UTC)
But if you're putting someone in a "vigorously resist what this person is telling me" frame of mind, that's probably going to be detrimental if you're supposed to be teaching maths, something which is already a struggle to get many kids interested in the first place.

Although maybe there's an angle where they'll desperately try and get her to talk about triangles just so they don't have to listen to another boring parable (a parabola??!?!??!?!?!).
webofevil
Dec. 22nd, 2009 01:46 pm (UTC)
No, I mean that if someone’s actually proselytising at you then you're more than within your rights to tell them to piss off and stop teaching your child maths.
nudejournal
Dec. 22nd, 2009 02:01 pm (UTC)
Oh, ok, fair enough. I struggle to imagine that anyone who would actually bother to make a complaint if it was just a prayer.

The thing with the nurse was someone else within the NHS overreacting to something a patient had told them because they were worried about violating some guideline or other IIRC.

I think they introduced some new teaching guidelines that included this sort of stuff a while back that upset a load of religious types who were upset that they wouldn't be able to teach children that sex before marriage was wrong any more. (Or more like OH NOES TEH GOVERNMENT EXPECTS ME TO TEACH ALL MY STUDENTS TO BE HOMOSEXUALISTS? IS THIS THE USSR?)
nudejournal
Dec. 22nd, 2009 02:08 pm (UTC)
What I'm basically saying is that, as a problem, Atheists getting people sacked for praying is in same ballpark of graveness as local councils banning Christmas.
pete23
Dec. 22nd, 2009 10:00 pm (UTC)
what - you mean the ballpark of entirely imaginary strawmen?

lovely place, it's the only ground in the premier league where the teams have to bathe together whilst sodomising fairies.
webofevil
Jan. 2nd, 2010 06:51 pm (UTC)
To be clear: if all the stories about apparent hysterical religious intolerance turn out to be straw herrings, I'll be delighted. But it's still worth being vigilant for signs that we're becoming as paranoid and intolerant as any zealot. The moment you find that you'd prefer the company of the most abject unbelieving wanker over that of a decent believer, it might be time to take stock. Is all.
chiller
Dec. 22nd, 2009 01:10 pm (UTC)
I agree with you. I just wish the humanist/atheist camp was more constructive about it and less sneery. It is all very well to say "our ideas are better than yours", but those ideas need to be channelled into constructive action rather than a load of swearing. Like: it'd be nice to see secular ethics on the school curriculum in non-religious schools, for instance.
amuchmoreexotic
Dec. 22nd, 2009 02:26 pm (UTC)
They didn't "race to the authorities at the first hint of a well-intentioned prayer", they complained when this woman repeatedly ignored their requests to stop proselytising to their sick daughter and do her job.

If there is a fine line here, my rational processes tell me that it was crossed the first time she ignored their request to stop preaching. As usual with these cases, though, this stupid woman thought that she had the moral high ground.

I think there's room for both hard-line militant atheism and softly-softly discussion. You're not going to de-convert anyone using the former tactics, but there is a need for a vigorous atheist lobby to counteract the lobbying of the crazier God-botherers - let's not forget, they want the right to discriminate against gays, they are gaining increasing control of the schools, they're still plotting to restrict womens' abortion rights, bishops still get automatic seats in the Lords, and they are given platforms like Thought For The Day on the false assumption that they have some special insight into ethical issues. Once all these problems are fixed, then is the time to consider if atheists are being too uppity.
amuchmoreexotic
Dec. 22nd, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
Here is her "heartfelt support" - bear in mind this is to a girl suffering from leukaemia:

"...after the death of my daughter's close friend, Miss Jones told my fourteen year old daughter that when young people die they go to heaven.

"These conversations upset my daughter deeply."


Yeah, you're right, I can't see how the daughter could object to that. What a stupid, hysterical bitch, arrogantly trying to impose her godless world view and stifle her maths teacher's divine right to preach at her about magic tractor-based incidents.
pw201
Dec. 22nd, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC)
According to the parents, this wasn't a "race to the authorities at the first hint of a well-intentioned prayer", it was a last resort when the teacher wouldn't stop evangelising, despite their objections. There are strong hints of this in the original BBC article, but perhaps you need to be familiar with evangelical jargon to get them: a "testimony" is an evangelistic story about how the speaker became a Christian. So, we've got the teacher who by all accounts should have been sacked, and the nurse who was re-instated. Who needs to settle down?

I'm not sure where Dawkins comes into it: there's also no sign in any of the reporting that the parents are keen Dawkinsians.
webofevil
Dec. 22nd, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC)
Nowhere have I said that the damage caused by religion shouldn't be highlighted and countered, nor that evangelism shouldn't be resisted. What I have said is that it's worth making sure that we're not dicks about it. It's all too easy for believers and non-believers alike to assume they're under overwhelming attack from the other side and start circling the wagons.

I submit that Dawkins's chippiness is increasingly unhelpful as it turns up the heat to no good effect, and is not nearly as much fun for anyone else as he assumes.
amuchmoreexotic
Dec. 22nd, 2009 09:14 pm (UTC)
Crucially, though, it's neither hysterical nor dickish to ask someone to stop upsetting your 14-year-old daughter who has cancer. Which was kind of your main example.
_moggy_
Dec. 22nd, 2009 03:21 pm (UTC)
I have to say I was shocked during my first placement as a nursing student to witness two nurses talk about religion to patients.

One was a muslim who (ok, gently) berated a north-african patient for not being a practising muslim. She asked him a few times why he drank and why he didn't go to mosque. I thought this was incredibly bad form.

The second one was an evangelical christian who asked a patient with liver mets if he prayed as she believed in divine intervention. For a start once you have liver mets it is pretty much game over, and also it's just NOT comforting if you aren't a believer. It actually makes you face up to things that maybe you don't want to think about - ie death, the idea of eternity, even 'shit, what if I'm wrong?'.

Patients are a very vulnerable group of people, often unsure of what's happening to them, in pain, confused and scared out of their wits. The staff have a duty not to freak them out any more. Of course if the patient instigated it, and the nurse was also of the same religion then fine. But I thought after these scandals that nurses would be far more careful about pushing their agendas - and I saw it happen twice in two weeks on the same ward, so it's obviously not isolated cases.
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )

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