Wednesday, 15 February 2012

In which I enter the lists, possibly foolishly

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

*Huge warning for length, possible controversy, and a bit of dog nonsense at the end. So sorry.*


I was going to do an adorable post about horses. I really was. Then I read an article by Stephen Pollard and I got cross. Up came the rant, from my boots; I could feel it bashing and clawing to get out. Oh no, I thought; the poor readers.

Stephen Pollard is an interesting journalist. I think he writes with clarity. He has done good work on anti-Semitism. He holds a lot of views with which I disagree, but sometimes I find myself nodding my head in harmony. Then I came across his really rather strange message of jubilee in today’s Telegraph.

He seemed to be celebrating the defeat of the secularists. They had gone down in flames because their leader, Professor Richard Dawkins, had made an unforgivable error. It was one of those mistakes from which no movement can recover. The ghastly heathens and their horrid cause were left smouldering in ruins.

What was this catastrophic mistake? It turns out that Dawkins could not remember the full title of On the Origin of Species.

Pollard was so delighted by Dawkins’ car crash that he reproduced the transcript of the disaster in full. This, he wrote, ‘only hints at how cringingly embarrassingly bad it was for Dawkins’:

Canon Giles Fraser: Richard, if I said to you what is the full title of The Origin Of Species, I’m sure you could tell me that.

Dawkins: Yes I could.

Fraser: Go on then.

Dawkins: On the Origin of Species…Uh…With, oh, God, On the Origin of Species. There is a sub-title with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.

This was the moment that Pollard thought was so significant that he used it to prove that Dawkins was ‘feeble’, and that the movement he supposedly leads is filled with ‘arrogance and intolerance’.

Here, for the record, is the full title of Darwin’s extraordinary book:

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Dawkins wasn’t actually that far off, was he? He left out five words, and got a couple wrong. It wasn’t as if he said: ‘Oh, On the Origin of Species, with reference to The Magic Roundabout’.

What is so odd, though, is the jeering, cheering tone of Pollard’s piece. Yeah, yeah, those hideous, preening secularists, with their nasty logic and their refusal to believe in invisible gods, now, now, they have their comeuppance. Now they must slink back to their noisome lairs and give up any intellectual pretention at a coherent argument. Fuck ‘em, and the ropey old godless horse they rode in on.

There are so many odd things about this I hardly know where to start. First of all, I am an atheist secularist, and Richard Dawkins is certainly not my leader. I do not have a leader. If the prof says something idiotic, it does not mean that my entire intellectual framework tumbles to the ground. The whole point of him is that he is not the Pope. (Although I understand that all Catholics do not agree with everything the Pope may say; certainly many of them are gay or use birth control or get divorced, all of which would not please the Vatican.) I am as likely to disagree with Dawkins as I am to agree with Jonathan Sacks, the humane and articulate Chief Rabbi.

Second of all, why is there such a dancing desire for the beastly secularists to be defeated? It is not a zero sum game. (I rather hate that expression, but it is the only one that works here.) It is so crazily Manichean. Just lately, I have noticed an increasing tendency to draw a severe red line between the believers and non-believers. The truth is, as in all human life, drawn in shades of grey. There are shiningly moral atheists and agnostics, there are unkind believers, and vice versa. Just because someone prays to a specific god does not automatically mean that they are gleaming and immaculate in every particular.

The very devout can be quite intolerant (the word currently used to describe secularists), most obviously towards women, homosexuals, and other religions. If an atheist behaves badly, it is not necessarily because she does not worship a deity. As the argument about religion heats up, the clear implication is: godly equals good, godless equals bad. This is so simplistic that it ends up sounding manifestly silly.

The third thing that puzzles me is how secularism is completely misrepresented and misunderstood. The very word now seems to stand in for loathing of religions, the religious, any form of belief. In fact, it is something the religious should cherish, since it protects them from persecution.

It is represented most clearly by that wonderful American ideal: the separation of church and state. Secularism's guiding principle is that every person has the right to be free from religious rule, and, most crucially, the imposition of religion by the government. It is the bulwark against theocracy. It goes back to Epicurus, Diderot, Spinoza, and runs all the way up to Bertrand Russell. These were not swivel-eyed zealots, foaming at the mouth at the very thought of the numinous.

The idea that no single religion should be privileged in public life, that no faith tests be required of citizens, would be as much of a relief to a Jew in a majority Muslim country, or a Christian in a mostly Hindu nation, as it would be to a mild agnostic or a convinced atheist.

Recently, I heard one of the most lovely secular sentiments, spoken in a simple declarative sentence, by a good and kind man: ‘Religion loves power, and must always be denied power’. This was not a rabid Dawkins acolyte or a tear down the walls of the temple crackpot. It was said by Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi himself, and I nodded in agreement.

When Baroness Warsi says, as she did yesterday: ‘Europe needs to be more confident in its Christianity,’ this must sound a little strange to the European Jains, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims, and Zoroastrians. Whether Christian or not, Europe is pretty confident there is a god of some complexion; atheism and agnosticism average out at around 18%, from a low of 1% in Malta to a high of 33% in France. It is only 20% in dear old Blighty, which does not sound very militant to me.

As in all movements, there are some religious people who are extreme and frightening, and some non-religious people who are intolerant and wrong. There is no clear dividing line. One is not perfectly good and the other perfectly bad. There is no war. I am an atheist not because I hate gods or the godly, but because I cannot square the idea of human suffering with a benign creator. I am a secularist because I believe in liberty.

I do get very grumpy when I am told that I am like a totalitarian regime, which is the burden of Baroness Warsi's song. The problem with this jacked up, black and white argument, egged on with shouty headlines in the press, which loves nothing more than a knock-out, drag-out fight, is that it bleaches the situation of its humanity. It removes subtlety and nuance and the complexities of human desire. In the Venn diagram between the godly and the godless, I suspect there is a huge, overlapping area which says: be good, be kind, do your best.

It is the old Shakespearian idea of if you prick me, do I not bleed? This artificial battle over religion achieves nothing except crossness on both sides. Whatever we believe, we pretty much all have beating human hearts, which yearn to love and be loved well in return. As with every argument I make at the moment, I come back to first principles, which are for me, just now: love and trees.

Love and trees, love and trees, I chant in my head: those are what matter. Almost everyone can agree on those.

And, of course, dogs. Which, I would like to point out, is gods spelt backwards. (Absolutely no idea what that means, but I was craving a bit of levity with which to end this rather solemn post.)


Pictures of the day. I may not be able to believe in a deity, but I do believe in these:


15 Feb 1 15-02-2012 13-33-30

15 Feb 2 15-02-2012 13-38-35

15 Feb 3 15-02-2012 13-42-22

15 Feb 4 15-02-2012 13-42-29

15 Feb 5 15-02-2012 13-44-06

15 Feb 6 15-02-2012 13-44-53

And most of all, I believe in my Pigeon, who is a byword for loveliness, and all that is good and kind and fine:

15 Feb 8 15-02-2012 14-35-17

Look at that determined ball face. Also, please note her perfect action. She is a very, very good mover:

15 Feb 9 15-02-2012 14-35-56.ORF

Little collage of ball fun:


And the beloved hill, to which I lift up mine eyes:

15 Feb 10 15-02-2012 13-45-29

Oh, also: one final thought. I still hold a tremendous candle for President Obama. He said a lovely thing once, about political difference. He said: can we not disagree without being disagreeable?

It's such a good question.

My answer: YES.


  1. Amen, and hallelujah. I am terrified of the decline in respect for the secular ideal in the US, and am infuriated by the repeated insistences from the right wing that we are "a Christian nation." I am sorry to hear the same idiocy is going on where you are-- I always considered Great Britain (Jonathan Swift says never to call it Great Britain, by the way-- can you tell me why? I would hate to be doing it wrong) to be sensible on these matters, even though there is a state church. The Anglican church seems so benign there-- I am sometimes surprised when Rowan Williams says something that indicates that he believes in the divinity of Christ. I work for the American Episcopal Church, by the way, though I am not myself religious. I find them to be in general lovely in their policies, careful and respectful. This applies to the national church as a whole, not to the vile little splinter groups who are breaking off because the Mother Church is insufficiently full of loathing for The Gays. Anyway thank you for a beautiful and articulate piece.

  2. Ellie - what a fascinating comment. I think you are generally right that the argument is usually quite sensible here. We do not have the culture wars in quite the same way as you do; abortion, for instance, is not a defining issue, and civil partnerships for gay couples went through without a ripple. So for us, this furious argument is quite new, and I'm not entirely sure where it comes from. It is true the new atheists are louder than their predecessors, and may have provoked the faithful, but that doesn't seem quite to explain the thing. Anyway, this entirely invented war on religion is too absurd for anything, on both sides of the pond.

    I always forget how odd it must seem to other countries that we do have a state church; the Queen is officially defender of the faith. Also, our bishops sit in the House of Lords by right, which is quite strange. But the Church of England is so low-key, and fades so gently into national life, that I think many Britons hardly think of it as a religious thing, almost more of a cultural artefact. I grew up in it and am fond of it still.

    As for naughty Mr Swift - I wonder if he was making mischief on account of his Irishness. Great Britain is perfectly correct and in common use; perhaps he did not think it deserved the 'Great'.

  3. Possibly a rant, but really, a very thoughtful and articulate one.

    DO come out from behind the sofa. If it's in the least like ours, there's dust, dog fur and the odd mouse dropping (lots of rodents running around Australia at present, it's been a damp summer and there's LOTS of growth).

    It's lovely to have you back. And it's even lovelier to know that you were able to help.

    1. Erika - what a very kind and generous comment. Thank you so much. Coming out from behind sofa at once.

  4. Good heavens, it sounds like the Tea Party has taken root in the UK. Rant on; I'm with you all the way.

    I wonder if some of this contentious "everything is black and white" and "you are completely wrong and I am completely right" is a sort of last gasp thing as more people move away from simple concepts and into the more complex, challenging world of grey. Intolerance is so much easier than trying to understand.

    Anyhow, well said.



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