Tag Archive | Dawkins

Westminster Faith Debates

A series of debates on religion in public life, running from February to May 2012 at RUSI, 61 Whitehall, SW1A 2ET, Wednesdays fortnightly, 5.30-7pm.

Between 2007-2012 £12m was invested by two research councils, the AHRC and ESRC, in the largest-ever funded research programme on ‘Religion and Society’. In this series leading academics will present findings arising from that research, for response by public figures. Together they will open up debate about the place of religion in public life today.

The series is organised by the Rt Hon Charles Clarke, Professor Linda Woodhead and Dr Rebecca Catto, in co-operation with Theos.

1. Religious Identity in ‘Superdiverse’ Societies – 8th Feb

  • Trevor Phillips, Dominic Grieve, Kim Knott, Therese O’Toole

2. What’s the Place of Faith in Schools? – 22nd Feb

  • Richard Dawkins, John Pritchard, Jim Conroy, Robert Jackson

3. What have we Learned about Radicalisation? – 7th March

  • Mehdi Hasan, Ed Husain, Mark Sedgwick, Marat Shterin, Mat Francis

4. What role for Religious Organisations in an era of Shrinking Welfare? – 21st March

  •  David Blunkett, Peter Smith, Adam Dinham, Sarah Johnsen

5. What Limits to Religious Freedom? – 18th April

  • Lisa Appignanesi, Maleiha Malik, Peter Jones

6. What are the main Trends in Religion and Values in Britain? – 2nd May

  • Aaqil Ahmed, Cole Moreton, Linda Woodhead, Grace Davie

Please email p.ainsworth@lancaster.ac.uk to register for the debates you would like to attend, and visit http://www.religionandsociety.org.uk/faith_debates for further details.

New Atheism, Open-Mindedness and Critical Thinking

The diary for 2012 is sure filling up! I’ll be presenting the following paper at Lancaster University as part of the (New) Atheism, Scientism and Open-Mindedness Conference, 2-3 April 2012.

New Atheism, Open-Mindedness and Critical Thinking

Based upon prevalent emic and etic presentations of “New Atheism” in the media and online, it is unlikely that one would feel inclined to describe the dominant discourse as ‘open-minded’. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the situation is much more nuanced than such a superficial overview would suggest. One of the key criticisms levelled at “religion” by four illustrative exemplars of “New Atheism” – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens – is that it stands in the way of knowledge and progress, and fosters a “totalitarian” atmosphere of submission to unquestionable authority. This portrayal of closed-minded “religion” is contrasted with one of the key aspects of the worldview they promote, where fully naturalistic and rational education is presented as essential for the good of humanity, allowing individuals – according to Dennett – “to make their own informed choices”.

Drawing upon William Hare’s extensive writings on the subject of “open-mindedness” and Harvey Siegel’s subsequent clarification of the relationship between “open-mindedness” and “critical thinking”, this paper shall consider the following three interrelated areas of “New Atheist” discourse: a) their critique of religion, b) the worldview they promote, and c) the framework within which these occur. I shall demonstrate that “critical thinking” – described by Siegel as a “sufficient (but not necessary) condition of open-mindedness” – is a key epistemic virtue extolled throughout the “New Atheist” texts. This contrasts markedly with the “religion” portrayed in their critique. I conclude, with reference to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of “paradigms” (adapted by Wayne Riggs), that the “New Atheist” position cannot be understood as “open-minded” (and neither, following Siegel, as involving “critical thinking”) through their apparent failure to engage with “religion” on its own terms, and the tendency towards propaganda and rhetoric inherent in their texts.

Christian Minister ‘bored’ by the ‘bland majority’

I have just read the following ‘reflection’ from Lillian Daniel, the senior minister of the First Congregational Church, UCC, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Have a read of it yourself and try and guess what might have got my heckles up:

Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.

August 31, 2011

Matthew 16:18

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Reflection by Lillian Daniel

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating. Can I switch seats now and sit next to someone who has been shaped by a mighty cloud of witnesses instead? Can I spend my time talking to someone brave enough to encounter God in a real human community?  Because when this flight gets choppy, that’s who I want by my side, holding my hand, saying a prayer and simply putting up with me, just like we try to do in church.


Dear God, thank you for creating us in your image and not the other way around. Amen.

As someone who studies religion, this is admittedly a similar conversation that I dread (however, I have yet to have this conversation on a plane – maybe this only happens in the US). My current conversation runs as follows:

– What do you study?

– Religious Studies

– Oh, so you want to be a priest, or a Religious Education teacher?

– <Sigh>. Religious Studies is not the same as Theology. Religious Studies is a social science. It makes no comment on the truth claims of religious individuals or institutions, but considers all people and their ‘beliefs’ worthy of study. For instance, I have written a lot about contemporary atheism, and I currently study the nonreligious from the perspective of Religious Studies and would generally advocate a movement away from labeling individuals as ‘religious’ or ‘nonreligious’ as in almost every case, both labels can be shown to be inaccurate, and they don’t tell us very much about what being (non)religious might mean to that individual.

– So, you want to be the new Richard Dawkins then?

– <Sigh> Did you listen to anything I just said?

However, this was not the same conversation Lillian Daniels purports to have encountered.  I’m not going to get into whether or not her beliefs are more valid than those of the man on the plane. However, it is interesting to see how Daniels labels this gentleman as part of the ‘bland majority of people’, whilst seeing herself as part of a ‘real human community’. I am curious to know:

  • how she defines real;
  • what gives her a right to make this assertion;
  • and how she feels that making this sarcastic diatribe will encourage individuals like this gentleman to decide that he actually wants to do as she presumably wishes and join her church…

Maybe I am getting the wrong impression here, but it seems that Daniels does not want individuals like this to be part of her ‘brave’ community. If so, why does she bother trying to engage with them online? Perhaps this is because her community would become the ‘bland majority’ if it were, in fact, the majority. Perhaps it is because her worldview is threatened by individualism. I find it personally encouraging, however, to see the leader of a mainline Protestant institution exhibiting the same tendency to sarcasm and ridicule as the rest of the ‘bland majority’.

Most importantly, however, this is a prime example of someone defining their terms to suit their own agenda. As I have just been discussing with my friend Suzanne, this is all about power… Daniels is defining her sort of belief as worthy of attention and engagement, but the beliefs of others as bland, boring and unworthy. This unjustified behaviour is one of the main objections I have to inter-faith dialogue (although I see many positives as well): groups of ‘religious’ individuals get together and talk politely about what they believe, all the time acknowledging that whilst they may have nothing else in common, at least they are ‘brave’ enough to believe in ‘something’ and belong to a ‘tradition’. This is a prime example of the Western Christianised bias to see religion as being a ‘monogamous’ commitment to some established tradition, which does not scan with non-Western traditions, and with the scene portrayed by the 21st century world at large.

We mustn’t commit the faux pas of tarring an institution, movement or group of individuals with the same brush as their leaders. However, blandness is fine by me :)

Article on ‘New Atheism’ published in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions

With four days to go until thesis submission, I just thought I’d let you know that I have finally had my journal article published! If you’d like any more information, please just get in touch. Here are the details:

Full citation: Cotter, Christopher R., 2011. “Consciousness Raising: The critique, agenda, and inherent precariousness of contemporary Anglophone atheism.” International Journal for the Study of New Religions 2 (1): 77-103.

From the editors preface:

The fourth article, Christopher R. Cotter’s “Consciousness Raising: The
Critique, Agenda, and Inherent Precariousness of Contemporary Anglophone
Atheism,” deals with a completely different area, contemporary atheism
(sometimes called the “new atheism”). The author discusses what agenda
is promoted in opposition to the criticized “religion.” Not only religion, but
also atheism, is changing over time and in specific contexts, and thus different
kinds of agendas are pursued. The author pinpoints certain characteristics
of contemporary atheism, bearing interesting resemblances to the New Age

And the abstract:

Atheism, as a subject in its own right, has received comparatively little scholarly attention in the past. This study begins by unpacking the term ‘atheism’, specifying an appropriate timescale and limiting the scope of the investigation to the work of four key authors. Their critiques of religion are considered and common themes under the appellation ‘dangerous religion’ are discerned. The author then pursues a closer reading of the texts, discerning what agenda is promoted in opposition to the heavily criticised ‘religion’, and discussing contemporary atheism in relation to Enlightenment values. Finally, the author examines why contemporary atheism fails to state its agenda more explicitly. The main players are shown to be individuals, with different foci that cannot be encapsulated by labels such as ‘Enlightenment’. Indications emerge of a ‘consciousness raising’ agenda, resulting from various factors that make contemporary unbelief a particularly organisationally ‘precarious’ phenomenon – a precariousness enhanced by an implicit ambivalent attitude to certain aspects of Christianity, and a correlation with Enlightenment, Romantic and New Age concerns.

An un-Christian message on an ‘anti-Christian’ policy from Cardinal Keith O’Brien

Whilst eating my breakfast, I was watching BBC Breakfast News, and picked up on the following story: “Cardinal brands UK aid foreign policy ‘anti-Christian’”

Essentially, Cardinal Keith O’Brien ‘has attacked plans to increase aid to Pakistan to more than £445m, without any commitment to religious freedom for Christians.’

The key points of his argument, as reported by the BBC, are as follows:

Cardinal O’Brien said: “I urge William Hague to obtain guarantees from foreign governments before they are given aid.

To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy.

“Pressure should now be put on the government of Pakistan – and the governments of the Arab world as well – to ensure that religious freedom is upheld, the provision of aid must require a commitment to human rights.”

He said the report’s [see article] estimate of persecution against Christians was “intolerable and unacceptable”.

“We ask that the religious freedoms we enjoy to practice our faith, will soon be extended to every part of the world and that the tolerance we show to other faiths in our midst will be reciprocated everywhere,” he added.

Now, I am not suggesting that any form of religious persecution is a good thing… it isn’t… it’s very bad. But, from my limited understanding of the basics of Christian teachings I am pretty baffled by the language utilised by the Cardinal… and the fact that he has made this statement at all.

One of the core teachings of Christianity is not only to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins et al commonly reduce it to – attacking Christianity for having an inward looking love), but is, in fact, to love your enemy. Take some of the following cherry-picked teachings from the New Testament (NIV translation):

Matthew 5:42-44

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Romans 12:19-21

19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

People may attack me, saying that these are cherry-picked… but they are quite simply summations of universal core teachings of Christianity.

Persecution was seen in the early church as a prime sign of faith, and something to be celebrated:

2 Thessalonians 1:4

4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.

Those believers whose faith withers in the face of persecution are castigated in the famous parable of the sower:

Matthew 13:20-21

20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.

I would counter Cardinal O’Brian with the following: it might just be that Britain’s foreign policy is too Christian for your diluted, decadent twenty-first century Western Christianity. I would maintain that the policy of giving aid to countries where Christians are persecuted is a supreme example of the Christian virtue of loving your enemy.

Personally, I wouldn’t be giving aid to a country which actively, systematically persecutes any people… and, personally, I think the government probably shouldn’t either. However, I am cynical, secular, and don’t have much faith in humanity’s ability to change without a bit of a push.

I would have expected a more ‘Christian’ response from a prominent leader of the Catholic church.


Science as a Myth of Our Time

It has been a long time since I posted anything… clearly I have been busy. This is just a flying post, with a long quotation from Michael Shermer, which expresses something quite simple but profound.

“In fact, science is a type of myth if we think of myths as stories about ourselves and our origins (and not in the pejorative sense of myths as things “untrue”). Many gain considerable emotional, even “spiritual,” satisfaction from reading scientific articles and books by geologists about the creation of the Earth, by palaeontologists about the evolution of life, by paleoanthropologists about human origins, by archaeologists about the genesis of civilisation, by historians about the development of culture, and especially by cosmologists about the origins of the universe. Tens of millions of people watch Carl Sagan’s 1980 Cosmos series with rapt attention. In 1997 the PBS series Stephen Hawking’s Universe gripped viewers every Monday night. Books on evolution by Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Donald Johanson, and Edward O. Wilson are eagerly sought by readers and often find themselves on bestseller lists. Why? Because at these boundaries of scientific knowledge the lines between science, myth, and religion begin to blur as we ask ultimate questions about ourselves, our origins, and our place in the cosmos.”

Shermer, Michael. 1999. How we Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science. New York: W.H. Freeman, p. 29.

I think I have mentioned this before, but the way in which many people gobble up books on evolution, cognitive science, cosmology etc does seem to suggest an overriding underlying human need for narrative.  This narrative might have been provided in the past by religion, but now more and more are turning to other forms of narrative. This is not to say that religion is ‘right’… just that it might fulfill a fundamental human function which can be replaced with other narratives…

Worth a think, eh?


Religious And Irreligious Hyperbolism: Pushing the Boundaries of Social Acceptability?

How many of you have, on occasion, been simply baffled at the extreme views of leading figures of religion (and, significantly, nonreligion) across the globe?

What is it that makes evangelists like Pat Robertson think it is okay to come out with statements like this?

“If the widespread practice of homosexuality will bring about the destruction of your nation, if it will bring about terrorist bombs, if it’ll bring about earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor, it isn’t necessarily something we ought to open our arms to. ”
Pat Robertson, The 700 Club television program, August 6, 1998, on the occasion of the Orlando, Florida, Gay Pride Festival 1998, see here.

What is it which inspires Richard Dawkins to overstate his case with such hyperbolic statements as this (which Dawkins himself acknowledges as one of the most oft-quoted examples of a somewhat intentional hyperbolism):

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us who are school from infancy in his ways can become desensitised to their horror.” (Dawkins 2007, 51)

How can Osama Bin Laden feel justified in coming out with the following statement, with which the majority of Muslims would wholly disagree?

“We — with God’s help — call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan’s U.S. troops and the devil’s supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.”

Osama Bin Laden (February 23, 1998). See here.

Now, clearly I am not equating these statements in any way, shape or form. Some of the views expressed above have the capacity to cause offense, some to cause people to lose their faith or their self esteem, and others which can have very drastic consequences for the lives of others. However, these statements (and countless millions more to which I don’t have quick and easy access) are all united in their distinct hyperbolism. They vastly overstate their position, and seemingly alienate not only those of opposing viewpoints, but also those within their own ‘community’ who hold more moderate views.

Why on earth do people do this? A potential answer, which I had never really thought about, jumped out at me from the pages of an article I was reading recently. Referring to the extreme positions taken by a number of high profile atheists (my area of expertise), Samuel Bagg and David Voas write:

“It doesn’t mean that every one of their followers will then become atheistic, just that the extreme position must be publicly taken in order to legitimise the moderate ones. In a process that Voas has earlier termed “diffusion”, the traits of a few visible figures may be copied by many others, and even if the original character and meaning of the trait is lost in the process, the copies will stand on their own. For example, cultural diffusion occurs when celebrities stop wearing fur because it represents cruelty to animals, and people on the high street stop wearing it because it is now unfashionable.” (Bagg and Voas 2010, 105)

This makes an awful lot of sense. Although I am not sure how conscious this would be on the part of leaders taking extreme standpoints, you can certainly see how pushing the boundaries of acceptable dialogue to greater and greater extremes allows more moderate positions to fill up the space in between. With every documentary that Dawkins makes for Channel 4, the message of contemporary atheism gets a little bit more socially acceptable. People may not buy into any of it, but they start to realise that smart people are out there saying very extreme things about religion, therefore it is okay to hold much diluted versions of those positions.

It also says a lot about the power of celebrity endorsement. Think of Tom Cruise and John Travolta in the Church of Scientology, or of Madonna and her Kabbalah. These are minority religious positions or movements which receive major attention and endorsement from individuals who are very publicly visible. Although many of us would like to think that we were not influenced by celebrity endorsements, I wonder how effective this sort of thing is?

A very tangible example that I can think of is the emergence of Darwinian evolution as a sort of meta-narrative for the contemporary atheistic cause. At a recent workshop I attended, Matt Sheard (Birbeck College, University of London), whose work focuses on Working Class Atheists in Britain (1900-1980) suggested that only two of his 70+ sources made any reference to Darwin in their personal atheistic ‘testimony’. Whilst I don’t have any statistics or references to provide, I think that most would agree with my subjective impression that Darwin is a BIG deal in contemporary atheism. One highly plausible suggestion that we discussed on the day was that Dawkins et al have done a remarkably good job in bringing Darwinism to the masses, and through constantly talking and writing about it have diffused this enthusiasm throughout contemporary atheism, and wider society at large. Whether a positive or negative, atheism lacks the overarching narratives which are bought into upon religious conversion or a religious upbringing… this focus on Darwinism, to some extent brought about by the leading figures of the contemporary atheistic cause, could be providing a very valuable function for the movement at large.

Personally this is something that I can totally relate to. I am going to say something potentially controversial – “I do not care about Darwin”. I just don’t. This doesn’t mean I don’t accept evolutionary theory. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t think it is a very important scientific advance which has benefitted humanity in innumerable ways over the past 150 years. However, I am not a scientist. I don’t want to read about it. I don’t want to hear about it. There are plenty of other things which I find much more interesting. However, the simple fact that I know what I know about evolutionary theory, that I consciously weigh the evidence and make a decision, and that I know that it is significant is for the most part down to the diffusion of that message throughout the contemporary atheistic milieu.

So… the next time you hear a celebrity or a religious or world leader making extreme statements and find yourself confused as to why anyone would expound such views, take a moment to think: “What does the presence of that position in the public domain do to the boundaries of socially acceptable positions?” Attitudes can change for better and for worse. It just may be that some of these extremely articulated positions aren’t as ill-conceived or naive or insensitive as might first appear. They may be part of a shrewd and well-thought out publicity campaign. And even if this is not the conscious purpose which they serve, with time they can shift the cultural barometer in their favour.


Bagg, Samuel, and David Voas. 2010. The Triumph of Indifference: Irreligion in British Society. In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 2: Global Expressions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 91-111. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.

Atheism or Agnosticism: A Brief Appraisal

I am currently sitting in my guest accommodation at the University of Cambridge, before finally deciding that I should start the day. I am here for what promises to be a fascinating day of interaction and discussion – the first of the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network’s series of workshops… this one specifically on research methods. It could be quite intimidating… as I am actually presenting my research thus far, and all the problems I have encountered, to twenty-one other (proper) academics. However, I am really looking forward to it… after the discussion yesterday evening over dinner it seems like we have such an exciting bunch of people in attendance… people working on atheist and humanist organisations in Britain, India and Egypt (for example), representatives from both sides of the Atlantic, people working with the representation and manifestation of “nonreligion” through social networks, folk attempting, like myself, to probe into the underexplored phenomenon of religious “nones”… absolutely fascinating. And I am writing the official conference report, so I had damn well better find it interesting!

Anyway… on the train down to Cambridge from Edinburgh yesterday, I had the opportunity to work my way through some of the articles that have been building up in my “to read” pile over the last few weeks, and one of them just got right under my skin. This was P. J. McGrath’s “Atheism or Agnosticism”, which although written in 1987 still sounds remarkably similar to other articles that I have read lately, and to many conversations that I have had over the years.

Unfortunately, McGrath is arguing against another article that I have not read, however he summaries this article in such a way that I believe I can continue to engage with McGrath’s position without having actually read the offending article. He states:

“THOMAS V. MORRIS has argued (‘Agnosticism’, ANALYSIS 45.4, October 1985, pp. 219-24) that if someone has no good grounds for believing in God, then he should be an agnostic rather than an atheist. The absence of good grounds for accepting an existence claim would warrant its denial, he believes, only if one were in a good epistemic position for assessing it. But since the assertion that God exists is a metaphysical existence claim, it is unlikely that one could be in a good position with regard to it unless one could prove or disprove it. Atheism is neither justified nor required therefore by the fact that one has no good reason for thinking that God exists. Morris’s position seems plausible at first glance…” (McGrath 1987, 54).

Well… yes, indeed it does! McGrath begins his critique by proceeding along the following, well trod, lines:

“a theory which requires us to suspend judgment about the existence of [hobgoblins, Devils, Zeus etc] must be open to serious question. Surely the reasonable attitude is that they are nothing more than the products of the human imagination.”

Can agnosticism not involve a probability judgement? You can still be an agnostic and say “I think that’s ridiculous/ludicrously unrealistic”. It’s just humble… I am aware that I may be bleating a little like Mark Vernon (see, for example, 2008) here (something I do NOT want to do), but it is entirely possible to judge something very unlikely, to live like an “atheist”, but at the same time accept that we simply cannot answer these questions. Hell, even Richard Dawkins admits that he would change his mind if sufficient evidence were to present itself. He just judges that this is so unlikely that it basically will never happen…

Jack David Eller succinctly sums up the agnostic endeavour as follows:

Agnosticism is “a means of arriving at a position. We might be better served to use the term in an adverbial sense, in the sense of thinking or judging “agnosticially”. But when we make this shift, we see that “agnostic” means nothing more than “rational”, for to use reason is to the follow the facts and only the facts, to base conclusions only on what can be demonstrated or detected in some way, and to refrain from “jumping to conclusions” on the basis of personal preference, emotion, or “faith”.” (2010, 9)

This is precisely what agnosticism is generally understood to be. However, Eller let’s his true colours show when he precedes this paragraph with the harsh statement that “agnosticism is not a “middle position” between theism and atheism because it is not a position at all” (ibid). Fair enough it might not be a middle position, but “not a position at all”??

This view is explained by the fact that Eller believes that:

“despite the insincere attempt at humility inherent in conventional agnosticism, the god-question only has two possible answers: yes there is such a thing as god(s) or no there is no such thing as god(s). […] “There is no third position between being in jail and not being in jail, or between prescribing a medicine and not prescribing it. Hesitating – often a wise course – is tentatively not doing. The conventional agnostic may think that she is hesitating to decide between god(s) and not god(s), but in the meantime she is not believing in god(s)” (ibid).

Rarely have I seen such a ludicrous example of a false dichotomy. A question may have only two answers… but the position that you believe one of these answers to be true but know that you cannot, no matter what evidence is presented, definitely land on one option rather than the other is most certainly a position! And this takes no account of the different connotations the word “god(s)” can have… many agnostics may well be de facto atheists regarding many particular religious of god, for whatever reason, but concerning a general overarching idea which appears to have convinced billions of people across the globe of its truth, they might be slightly more hesitant. Find a few billion people who are convinced of Zeus’ or leprechauns’ existence, and maybe there will be a few more agnostics regarding these entities.

Eller’s text is a perfect example of proselytising atheists attempting to co-opt agnostics, ipso facto and against their will, into their atheistic cause.

Whilst I don’t have the book here with me to properly cite, Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion (2007), refers to what he calls the ideas of Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP) and Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP). PAP is fairly obviously an untenable and intellectually exhausting position to maintain… constantly maintaining that one cannot know anything truly about anything… it doesn’t really bode well for life in the modern world. TAP, according to Dawkins, is what all proper logical thinkers should adopt when approaching something about which they do not have sufficient evidence to make a decision. However, this is an agnosticism which they would willingly abandon should any suitable evidence present itself. However, where we disagree here seems to be on the assessment of the evidence. McGrath continues his article, stating that in his interpretation of Morris’s agnostic position:

“one should be an agnostic about all existence claims which one did not have good reason for believing to be true, so that it would be irrational to deny the existence of hobgoblins, Lilliputians, Descartes’s evil demon etc.

Since it does not seem possible to emend Morris’s account in any other way that is remotely plausible, I conclude that there are no good grounds for placing limits on the application of Ockham’s razor to pure existence claims. In the absence of positive evidence for God’s existence, therefore, one should be an atheist rather than an agnostic.” (McGrath 1987, 57)

A more nuanced articulation of the supposed dichotomy between belief and non-belief in “god(s)” is articulated by Michael Martin, who designates ‘lack’ of belief as “negative atheism” – exemplifying the etymologically rooted “someone without a belief in God” (Martin 2007, 1). He contrasts this with ‘positive atheism’, which applies to the standard dictionary definition – “the belief that there is no God” (ibid)

To this extent, then, are all agnostics who live their lives effectively like there is no god(s) really atheists, albeit of a “negative” variety? Jack David Eller is not convinced by this position:

“On the surface this may seem like a valid distinction, but upon closer inspection [we see the] false dichotomy between “not believing” and “believing not”, that is, not believing in god(s) and believing that there is no such thing as god(s). Indisputably, someone who maintains that there is no such thing as god(s) does not believe in them; to maintain otherwise is to be incoherent. Indisputably, someone who believes in god(s) maintains that there is such a thing; to maintain otherwise is equally incoherent. But what other possibilities are there? Can one maintain that there is no such thing as god(s) yet believe in them? Not without contradicting oneself. Can one maintain that there is such a thing as god(s) yet not believe in them? Not in any sensible way. So, it emerges that there are only two consistent positions: either one claims that there is such a thing as god(s) and believes in them, or one claims that there is no such thing as god(s) and does not believe in them. The dichotomy, then, is not between positive and negative atheism, but between theism and atheism.” (Eller 2010, 7)

There is some merit in this critique… technically if one does not believe in something, then one does not believe in it. In this sense then all agnostics are atheists. But contained within the agnostic position, as far as I understand it, is a willingness to engage with questions of the existence of the supernatural, and a much less active, and perhaps much more “measured”, disbelief than the type of atheism being advocated by McGrath, Dawkins, Eller and others.

To take an example: Up until a month or two ago, I would have described myself as a Liberal Democrat. However, thanks to my opinion that they have abandoned everything that they stood for, I am no longer. In the world of false dichotomies, I am therefore an a-Liberal Democrat. But this tells no one anything about my current position. There are many other political parties to whom I could now give me allegiance. The fact is that I have not given my allegiance to any other party as yet… I am assessing the evidence. And even when I “finish” assessing the evidence, and potentially assign myself to a political party… I may not be 100% convinced that this is the right decision. If we transfer this discussion to the existence of god(s), we can see that there is a lot more to it than the simple yes-no distinction.

So, coming back round to McGrath’s question of “atheism or agnosticism”, it seems that maybe, in the very black and white sense of believing or not believing in god(s), agnosticism is actually a form of atheism. I would maintain that the distinction between negative and positive atheism does apply, although even this is perhaps too dichotomous – as Susan Budd would say, there are “Varieties of Unbelief”. There are bound to be many more nuanced positions between these two poles of atheism. However, those ‘negative’ atheists who are further away from the ‘positive’ end of the spectrum, commonly identify as agnostics, and, I believe, hold this position because they do not want to be co-opted into the proselytising atheistic endeavour. Agnostics may fit some sort of basic criteria for being atheists (negative atheists), but as long as proselytising atheists keep trying to “out” them to the atheistic cause, and gain statistics for their anti-religious campaign, I think agnostics have every right to stick to their guns on this one.

I am not in any way claiming to speak for all agnostics or atheists on this one… no individual should ever attempt to do that. I get so annoyed when I read books where people try to dictate to me what I believe (or ‘should’) believe by virtue of the fact that we seem to identify with the same label. However, this article is my opinion, and my reaction to the setting up of false and/or misleading dichotomies which apply identity labels arbitrarily to people who vehemently disagree with the application of those labels.

I imagine this will be the first of many posts that I will make on this topic. Please do comment…. I, however, must be heading to this methods workshop. Adieu.


Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.

Eller, Jack David. 2010. What Is Atheism? In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 1-18. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Martin, Michael. 2007. General Introduction. In The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin, 1-7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McGrath, P. J. 1987. Atheism or Agnosticism. Analysis 47, no. 1 (January): 54-57.

Vernon, Mark. 2008. After Atheism: Science, Religion, and the Meaning of Life. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.


Invisible Religion? Or just a load of hot air?

The question of what religion is, how we define it, where we find it, and how pervasive it is in people’s everyday lives is a question which plagues the discipline of Religious Studies. One interesting attempt to deal with this is set forth by Kelly Besecke in her 2005 Article “Seeing Invisible Religion: Religion as a Societal Conversation about Transcendent Meaning”. (Sociological Theory 23[2], June 2005, pp. 179-196). This post attempts to set forth her argument, contextualise it, and engage with some of the questions it raises.

The core of Besecke’s argument is that that “contemporary sociology conceptualises religion along two dimensions: the institutional and the individual” (Abstract), and this is a problem for her because the cultural dimension of religion is lost in this dichotomy.

She begins by illustrating the contemporary “religious conversation [occurring] in the United States”, and highlighting bestselling book titles, book clubs with names such as “Spiritual Pathways” and “Wisdom Tea”, talks & workshops, magazine articles and song lyrics which exemplify a “growing societal conversation about… “spiritual matters”” (179-80).

The point that she wishes to make from this initial depiction of the “milieu” is that we can

“look at such phenomena through a… lens… that highlights, instead of individuals and institutions, the important social role of interaction and communication. Seen through this “communicative” lens, the “spiritual matters” [sections of book stores look…] less like individualism in a narrow sense, and more like American society talking to itself about meaning” (181).

That, in a nutshell, is her theory.

She then proceeds to dissect and expand upon a work by Thomas Luckmann – The Invisible Religion – with which she generally agrees, but only up to a significant point. Luckmann importantly defines religion as primarily a meaning system or symbolic universe, and not as a social institution. (182-3):

“Symbolic universes are socially objectivated systems of meaning that refer, on the one hand, to the world of everyday life and point, on the other hand, to a world that is experienced as transcending everyday life.” (Luckmann, 1967:43)

In this sense it is easy to see how religion can be viewed as part of culture… which does indeed meet people in their daily life, but transcend it also.

  • Think of African Independent/Indigenous Churches, which are distinct entities in their own right, incorporating much of local culture, custom, rite and practice, and would potentially be denounced by many “orthodox” “Western” Christians, as un-Christian
  • But then think of Christianity as an overarching whole…

Besecke stakes her claim strongly:

“Religious meanings and other meanings are in the same general category – “meaning” – they are all symbolic representations, they are all culture. Religious meanings are a type of meaning; if culture is shared meanings and practices, then religion is shared meanings and practices that point people to a transcendent reality. In this sense, religion is to culture as Meaning is to meaning.” (184)

Here she is claiming, in line with Luckmann, that religious meanings, consisting of symbols such as God, Tao, Christ, Brahman etc are “the topmost layer of th[e] hierarchy of meanings that constitutes a society’s culture” (184).

At this point I couldn’t help but wonder: In what way are religious meanings the pinnacle of culture? I assume from the context in which she writes this that she means that conversations about ultimate concerns are the highest point of our cultural development, and in some way the most important questions for the vast majority of people… What about the scientific “worldview”, which many would see as a higher level of the hierarchy of meanings:

“I prefer to say that I believe in people [not God], and people, when given the right encouragement to think for themselves about all the information now available, very often turn out not to believe in God and to lead fulfilled and satisfied – indeed, liberated – lives.” Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion 2007 [2006])

A second important consequence of “religion’s cultural nature is what Luckmann calls its “objectivated” status” (184):

“By describing religious meanings [as] “objectivated”, Luckmann opens the way to understanding meaning as a public phenomenon; as something that is not just for individuals, but for societies. […] So religious meaning is not just an individual phenomenon; neither is it just an institutional phenomenon. […] Religion exists in the social world as culture exists in the social world – via shared meanings and practices.”

To me this rings very true, especially in contemporary Britain where most people won’t participate in any formal worship, or may not even give much thought to their own personal faith… but will still participate in the culturally normative religious practices… Christmas, funerals and weddings, memorial services, “praying” for success/people…

This idea can also be seen in contemporary critiques of religion as well… Here we see Stephen Fry divorcing religion from religious institution:

“I have no quarrel, and no argument, and I wish to express no contempt for individual devout and pious members of [The Catholic] Church. It would be impertinent and wrong of me to express any antagonism towards any individual who wishes to find salvation in whatever form they wish to express it. That to me is sacrosanct as much as any article of faith is sacrosanct to anyone of any church or of any faith in the world.”

Stephen Fry (Intelligence Square Debate on the motion “Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?”). Around 2mins in to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvDz9_5me74&feature=related

This is the point where Besecke leaves Luckmann’s argument behind. Luckmann argues that in late modernity, religion became increasingly privatised. However, whilst this is arguably the case, her problem is with his statement that “Religion today [is] essentially a phenomenon of the private sphere” (1967:103). She believes this characterisation has been picked up by almost all sociologists, but rarely challenged, with the notable exception of Jose Casanova’s Public Religions in the Modern World.

There are three tendencies of this characterisation:

  • The limitation of the public sphere to religious, political and economic institutions
  • The assumption that authority has moved from the institutions to the individual
  • “For many scholars, “private seems to be shorthand for “socially inconsequential” (186).

The problems are fairly easy to see here: what is it that people talk about, blog about, listen to, read, think… are these private or public? And who has authority? And in what way are they inconsequential?

Besecke and I agree here: “Much of the religion that has been interpreted as privatised religion or religious individualism is remarkably “public” in the more common-sense definition of the word” (187).

  • This brings to my mind the idea of New Ages seekers: the role of a seeker is embedded in social relationships – pairs, groups, audiences and networks…
  • To what extent could any religion be designated private? Even a hermit who had never had any contact with anyone… regardless of the fact that through our observation and/or questioning their religion would cease to be private… even if it could be observed without interfering, their religious ideas would have been based upon influences from the physical world… from outside…
  • However, there always is a private dimension… all Christians will have a different conception of Christianity… this may even be impossible to get at empirically as they may give identical answers to questions… so does this mean religion is inherently private?

Besecke then proceeds on a largely “common-sensical” description of how important communication is to culture, which I think you’ll appreciate during discussion. It is largely summed up by Bella et al (Habits, 1985:27): “Cultures are dramatic conversations about things that matter to their participants”. However, she importantly points out that “empirical studies of communication have focused almost exclusively on communication that takes place in church, in seminary, or in interviews with individuals who identify as members of a particular church”… sermons, statements by religious leaders, conversion tactics etc [see as Wood (1999) Lukenbill (1998) Wittberg (1997) Bouma and Clyne (1995) Caroll and Marler (1995), Wuthnow (1994)] … But these are completely missing the point!

She proposes a definition of religious culture as “a societal conversation about transcendent meanings” (190)

“Communication is what makes God socially real” (190)

A question I would throw out there at this point is that conversation implies something two way… if there is a seeker who is engaging with reading material, DVDs, CDs and attending lectures etc., but not talking to others, what is this? And on p. 192 there is another problem. Besecke’s fieldwork included a living room discussion event, The Mystic Heart, where a small group (50 or so) got together to talk generally about “mysticism”. In assessing this through her “communicative lens”, Besecke writes: It is religion, it is people talking with each other about transcendent meaning.” What about atheistic discourse? Pub chats? Philosophy? In all of these cases people can be talking about religion… about transcendent meaning… but in no sense of the word “religion” can they said to be in any way being “religious”.

It is true that Besecke has taken the burden off institutional religion: “they now can be understood as important interlocutors, perhaps important nodes or centres for a society-wide conversation about transcendent meanings, rather than bearing the burden of having to be religion in an otherwise secular society” (192). But it may possibly be too wide…

Importantly, for the secularisation/re-enchantment debate:

This allows religion to be found in a whole host of places where it would not normally be looked for, which definitely rescues religion from the Secularisation Thesis.

“if we… recognise the social power of communication, then the secularity of a society would be measured by the extent to which members of that society are communicating with each other about transcendent meaning. Put differently, […] religion can influence a society by permeating its social institutions, by shaping its individual members, and by influencing the character of its culture through communication.” (193)

This brings to mind Colin Campbell’s Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (1971). He proposes the idea that thorough irreligiosity leads to seeing religion as totally irrelevant… not even a conscious rejection (39). If society were totally secular, “the irreligious message would be ignored as much as the religious” (124)… this is clearly not the case…

Hopefully I have demonstrated that Besecke is clearly on to something here… but that whilst finding religion in conversations about “transcendent meaning” is sometimes possible, and certainly a worthwhile enterprise, these conversations are by no means sufficient to “be” religion, in any sense of the word, and that they sometime can be as far away from religion as Nick Clegg is from his pre-election promise to keep his promises.

Do the New Atheists err in their ways? A response to Amarnath Amarasingam

I have just finished reading Amarnath Amarasingam’s recent journal article “To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists” (2010), and I really don’t know how to react. I found myself agreeing emphatically with some of his well-researched points, and yet at other times I was hitting the roof at how unfair and inappropriate some of his statements were. To that end, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the article… positive and negative… and hopefully you can draw your own conclusions.

Firstly, Amarasingam writes:

‘The academic community, with a few exceptions, has largely dismissed the[ New Atheists’] writings as unsophisticated, crude, and lacking nuance.’ (574)

This is not necessarily a criticism of Amarasingam, but a criticism of most academic treatments of atheism (‘New’ or ‘old’). What I want to know is what gives the academic community the right to do this? I guess it is possible to do this from a philosophical perspective… but if we are looking at these texts from a religious studies perspective, it is not our place to critique them in this way. Imagine if a religious studies scholar read something by Karl Barth or al-Ghazali and deemed it ‘unsophisticated’, ‘crude’ or ‘lacking nuance’! According to http://info.wlu.ca/randc/phd/phd-students.html, Amarasingam is a PhD student in Religious Studies, ‘working in the area of sociology of religion with a focus on social theory’, yet he refers to New Atheism as an “evangelical revival and  repackaging of old ideas” and deems the frequency of comments posted in the Converts Corner of Dawkins’ website ‘ad nauseum’.

Amarasingam begins by discussing what he describes as “the fundamental attribution error. This is:

“a pervasive tendency on the part of observers to overestimate personality or dispositional causes of behaviour and to underestimate the influence of situational constraints on behaviour’’

Tetlock, PE, 1985. “Accountability: a social check on the fundamental attribution error” in Psychology Quarterly, 48(3):227-236, p. 227.

Amarasingam states:

‘I am not arguing that secularists are the only group that succumb to attribution biases. Christians may view Muslims as a coherent whole, even though this is far from the case, and Muslims in turn may view secularists with similar biases. However, I focus on the new atheism, because it often presents itself as an objective, value-free, and universal critique of religion en bloc.’ (575)

And continues:

‘One of the most replicated […tendencies that individuals exhibit when attempting to understand why others behave the way they do] is one in which individuals assume that some stable dispositional or attitudinal characteristic lies behind the behaviour of another. [… P]eople often downplay situational reasons for the actions of others while overestimating the significance of dispositional causes.’ (575)

So far so good. I can totally relate to this. As human beings we all too frequently make statements such as “That’s so typical of a…”, without giving that ‘other’ the respect that we would give ourselves by discerning situational reasons for such-and-such an action/statement/belief/etc.

However, Amarasingam suddenly stumbles when he states that ‘It must be noted that religious belief is best treated as a situational cause of individual behaviour, and not as a disposition’ (576). Why is this the case? He provides no justification for making this statement and just assumes that it is obvious. He continues:

‘At times, [New Atheists] effectively treat religion as a social constraint and critique it accordingly. At other times, they treat individual religious actions as if they were dispositional.’ (576)

But is it not both? Doesn’t everyone do this when they assess things? I see his point… we should treat religious actions as both dispositional and situational… but I would imagine that everyone is guilty of focussing on one to the detriment of the other at specific instances in time. The fact that they consider both aspects throughout their writings could be seen as a positive… Just a thought…


Amarasingam then moves on to the following statement from Sam Harris:

‘‘The men who committed the atrocities of September 11 were certainly not ‘cowards’, as they were repeatedly described in the Western media, nor were they lunatics in any ordinary sense. They were men of faith – perfect faith, as it turns out – and this, it must finally be acknowledged, is a terrible thing to be.’’(2006, 67)

From this, Amarasingam somehow infers that, ‘For Harris, all that is required to understand the terrorist acts of 9/11 is the knowledge of the fact that these individuals were people of faith. Situational causes – Western injustice, geopolitical realities, etc. – do not need to be factored into the equation’ (576). Whilst I understand the point that he wishes to make, my problem is with the statement ‘all that is required’… Harris does not say this at all. He makes it quite plain that ‘faith’ is what he sees to be the most important element… but he does not say that it is all that is required. That being said, I do agree with his further elaboration that: ‘To continue to argue that religion is about blind faith and not open to discussion and criticism seems disingenuous’ (576).

At this point I had a thought. Could it have been that the idea of religion and science as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) stopped civilised debate occurring between atheistic and theistic positions before the publications of New Atheistic literature? Could the New Atheists’ books be a deliberate overstatement to force the religious to clarify their position and open up a dialogue?


One of the things that Amarasingam does well, is to draw attention to these massive overstatements which lace the texts of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. He writes:

‘Although there is much in Hitchens’ text to admire, and several philosophical arguments to take seriously, his presentation of basic historical facts about religion as if they are revelatory is rather perplexing, especially since most religious people (not to mention theologians and scholars of religion) have known about them for years.’ (576)

As a ‘scholar of religion’, and someone who has had experience with religious faith, I could not agree more. Most religious people are well aware of the inconsistencies of their religious tradition, and

‘just because [they] have learned to live with inconsistencies in their religious tradition, this does not mean that they practice blind faith. Hitchens’ claim that religion is man-made is particularly revealing as he believes himself, once having stated it, to have made a devastating critique of religion.’ (577)

Just as in science, religious people tend to adapt to new revelatory facts about their faith by accepting, adapting and revising, or stubbornly sticking to old paradigms. This is human nature… the religious do not all, or even mostly, live up to the caricature depicted by many atheists. They do not all stubbornly resist the discoveries of history and science, but take them, work with them, and attempt to understand them and work them into their worldview.

Whilst it pains me to agree with him, the theological critique of John Haught hits the nail on the head, when he writes that in arguing that faith is simply

‘‘‘belief without evidence,’’ the new atheists are undermining ‘‘the intended universality’’ of their condemnation of faith: ‘‘Even one white crow is enough to show that not all crows are black, so surely the existence of countless believers who reject the new atheists’ simplistic definition of faith is enough to place in question the applicability of their critiques to a significant sector of the religious population’’’ (577)

Citing Haught, JF, 2008. God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 62

Amarasingam continues to hit the nail on the head, when he finds Dawkins, in an interview on Youtube, stating, in opposition to this criticism, that

‘“it’s no good saying ‘oh, that’s not my kind of Christianity!’ Well fine, it is not your kind of Christianity, but I didn’t write the book for you’’ […]. Such candid statements by Dawkins contradict the intended universality of his writings. It is unclear, then, whether the writings of the new atheists are aimed at religious fundamentalists or religion en bloc.’ (577)


Getting back to the fundamental attribution error, Amarasingam writes:

‘when the group that we are a member of performs a positive act, we are more likely to see that act as stemming from a dispositional trait. But, when this in-group performs a negative act, we are more likely to see it as stemming from situational, contextual, causes. When it comes to the out-group, however, we tend to do the opposite.’ (578)

This certainly makes sense, and is something which Richard Dawkins draws attention to himself.

‘When their loyalty to Judaism was removed from the calculation, the majority of the children [considered in an experiment by George Tamarin in Israel] agreed with the moral judgements that most modern humans would share. […] But it all looks different from a religious point of view. And the difference starts in early life. [… Religion] made the difference between children condemning genocide and condoning it.” (Dawkins 2007, 292)

Amarasingam continues:

‘As Pettigrew (1979: 464) has noted, there ‘‘appears to be a positivity bias for intimate others, such that you grant them the benefit of the doubt by attributing positive actions to dispositional causes and negative actions to situational causes’’ […] Similarly, there is often a negativity bias, where the situational constraints of a negative action performed by an individual member of a disliked group are underplayed in favour of dispositional explanations. ‘‘And often when race and ethnicity are involved, these attributions will take the form of believing the actions to be a result of immutable, genetic characteristics of the derogated group in general – the bedrock assumption of racist doctrine’’ (Pettigrew, 1979: 465). Although I am certainly not calling the new atheists racist, they do, as we will see, repeatedly fall victim to what is known as the ‘‘ultimate attribution error’’: whenever a member of the out-group (i.e. adherents to a particular religion) perform a positive act inconsistent with their overall view of the group (i.e. all religious people), the new atheists either dismiss it as an exception to the rule or deny that religion had anything to do with the positive act. The reverse is true when the new atheists deal with their in-group (other secularists).’ (578)

Citing Pettigrew, TF, 1979. “The ultimate attribution error: extending Allport’s cognitive analysis of prejudice” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 5:461-476.

‘As Sam Harris (2006: 78) notes, ‘‘the fact that faith has motivated many people to do good things does not suggest that faith is itself a necessary (or even a good) motivation for goodness.’’ This is indeed true: faith, and/or religion, is not necessary for people to be good. However, neither is it a sufficient element for the perpetration of evil. Harris (2006: 78–79), however, does not allow for this: ‘‘By contrast, the most monstrous crimes against humanity have invariably been inspired by unjustified belief. This is nearly a truism.’’ Here we see the ultimate attribution error in full bloom.’ (579)

From my own experience of New Atheist literature, this criticism certainly rings true. However, I would disagree when Amarasingam turns to the New Atheist criticism of the Holocaust. Taking Sam Harris’s statement that ‘knowingly or not, the Nazis were agents of religion’’ (2006:79), Amarasingam writes:

‘Such attribution errors are common in the new atheist corpus. Harris does not even attempt to explain why, if Christian anti-Semitism was the sole driving force behind the Holocaust, the Nazis also attempted to eliminate the Romani people, the deaf, the disabled, as well as homosexuals’ (580).

Sam Harris has not stated that Christian anti-Semitism was the “sole driving force” behind the Holocaust, but that the Nazis were fulfilling a path laid by the religious situation in Germany at this time. Whilst it is not debatable that the Holocaust targeted many more people than just ‘the Jews’, these were certainly the primary targets of Hitler’s extermination. And whilst ‘religion’ is not the only factor involved here, a brief glance at the situation of the Jews in Europe in general in the centuries leading up to the Holocaust, and particularly in Germany will demonstrate that the common, and indeed Christian, attitude to the Jews was largely responsible for providing an atmosphere in which the Holocaust could happen.

To take but a few examples of Christian anti-Semitism at the time of Hitler, Joachim Hossenfelder (1932) – wrote that the Church must help “cleanse the German nation of the foreign blood of the Jews”, Reinhold Krause (1933) declared the Old Testament, the apostle Paul, and the symbol of the Cross to be debilitating signs of Judaism, and Bishop Muller (1934) decreed that Hitler was to be considered the supreme authority of the church. This anti-Semitism was not new to the twentieth century, but had been present for many years before, in the writings of, for example, Wilhelm Marr (1879), Heinrich von Trietschke (1880), and of course the composer Richard Wagner, who wrote in 1850 that moneyed Jews “held it wise to make a Christian baptism wash away the traces of [their origin]”, and that “to become man at once with us, however, means firstly for the Jew as much as ceasing to be a Jew.”

I am not wishing to argue here that Christianity was responsible for Hitler. But simply that Amarasingam is being unnecessarily harsh to Sam Harris in this instance. I would thoroughly recommend seeing (Ericksen and Heschel 1999) for more information on this issue.


Turning to the idea of group consensus, Amarasingam writes that:

‘at times, the[ New Atheists] complain that organizing their fellow secular humanists is a bit like ‘‘herding cats’’ because they are ‘‘such independent thinkers,’’ while viewing religion as homogeneously irrational. At other times, they view themselves as a homogeneous, enlightened whole, fighting back superstition.’ (582)

Whilst I agree that there is some ambiguity here, it would be helpful is Amarasingam included some citations (see my previous post). And can these not be the same thing? Can a group of enlightened, independent thinkers, not fight back superstition in their own individual ways? However, this is me simply being a pedant. Continuing once more:

‘When faced with a threatening group, ‘‘perceivers are quite willing to infer the presence of a consensus without much information simply because they want [584] to see the group as a unified whole’’ (Corneille et al., 2001: 440). Such biases will become apparent below when we explore the new atheist treatment of Islam.’ (583-4)

Citing Cornielle O, Yzerbyt VY, Rogier A and Buidin B (2001) “Threat and the group attribution error: when threat elicits judgements of extremity and homogeneity” in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27:437-446.

‘For Harris, the out-group, Islam, is indeed thoroughly homogeneous. For example, he argues that ‘‘If a twenty-first century [585] Muslim loses his faith, though he may have been a Muslim only for a single hour, the normative response, everywhere under Islam, is to kill him’’ (2006: 115; italics added). If we are to believe Harris, Muslims, regardless of whether they live in Dearborn or Dubai, live under the fear of death if they even contemplate apostasy. As Corneille et al. (2001: 440) noted, individuals are more than willing to believe there is a consensus in a given community simply because they wish to see this community as homogeneous.’  (584-5)

I could not agree more! This monolithic treatment of Islam is completely and utterly inaccurate and misleading.


Amarasingam begins his conclusion stating that his ‘paper has argued that insights gleaned from social psychology – particularly the fundamental attribution error, out-group homogeneity bias, etc. – are especially useful for critiquing the new atheism’ (585).

As I began this post, so I will say again… yes within the context of social psychology it is definitely okay to make this sort of critique. However, I ask once more: how appropriate is it for a religious studies scholar to be critiquing the position of a group of people who are essentially articulating their position on religion?

That being said, Amarasingam has a point when he cites McGrath and Collicutt McGrath (although the majority of their book is utter twaddle), who state that (2007, 22, 50):

‘similarly note that one of the main characteristics of the new atheism is its presentation of ‘‘the pathological as if it were normal, the fringe as if it were the center, crackpots as if they were mainstream. It generally works well for his intended audience, who can be assumed to know little about religion and probably care for it even less. But it’s not acceptable. And it’s certainly not scientific.’’’ (586)

Drawing attention to another Youtube interview, this time between Richard Dawkins and Richard Harries, Amarasingam finds Dawkins confused by Harries’ liberal stance on Christian dogma. On hearing about this, ‘Dawkins responds: ‘‘This, of course, is all music to my ears, but I’m kind of left wondering, why you stick with Christianity at all!’’ Harries (YouTube, 2008a) rightly responds that perhaps Dawkins has spent too much time in fundamentalist circles’ (586).

It is a point…


Amarasingam, Amarnath. 2010. To Err in their Ways: The Attribution Biases of the New Atheists. Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 39, no. 4: 573-588.

Dawkins, Richard. 2007. The God Delusion. London: Black Swan.

Ericksen, Robert P., and Susannah Heschel, eds. 1999. Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Harris, Sam. 2006. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. London: The Free Press.

McGrath, Alister, and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. 2007. The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist Fundamentalism and the denial of the divine. London: SPCK.