Special Privilege for Religious Values

There’s a feature on religion by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian today. It’s positively riddled with things that piss me off.

“We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism,” says Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube, the hardline settlers on the West Bank and the anti-gay bigots of the Church of England. Most of them would regard each other as destined to fry in hell.

Is it appropriate to describe Dawkins as a fundamentalist? I suppose it depends entirely on how you’re defining the term. Well, whatever, for the sake or argument let’s assume it is. But there’s fundamentalism and there’s fundamentalism. There are some things it’s not quite so bad to be an extremist about as it is others. For instance, being absolutely adamant about needing evidence for belief is very different from being absolutely adamant about needing to kill everyone who doesn’t worship the right God. Even if Dawkins is as much of a fundamentalist as the bigots and the jihadis, then he’s certainly not fundamentalist about the same sorts of things or in the same ways as they are. That’s quite an important distinction. It’s precisely the reason you don’t see people like Dawkins and Harris committing mass murder in the name of their beliefs. Slee looks to be evoking a variation of the epistemological equivalence tack that Jim posted on. It’s a crock. But there’s more of it from John Gray:

Gray, professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, whose book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia will be published later this year, detects parallels between dogmatic believers and dogmatic unbelievers such as Hitchens and Dawkins. “It is not just in the rigidity of their unbelief that atheists mimic dogmatic believers. It is in their fixation on belief itself.”

As far as I’m aware both Hitchens and Dawkins are unbelievers because, in short, they have seen no evidence to warrant belief. Their unbelief is not fixed; it’s evidence dependent. So, unless they’ve been exposed to decisive evidence for the existence of God and yet they stubbornly refuse to believe, it’s hard to see how they’re epistemologically equivalent to believers.

Neuberger is to take on Hitchens, Dawkins and Grayling when she speaks at a debate against the motion We’d Be Better Off Without Religion next month. The debate has been moved to a bigger venue. “What I find really distasteful is not just the tone of their rhetoric, but their lack of doubt,” she says. “No scientific method says that there is no doubt. If you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest.” This is a thought taken up by Azzim Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought. “I refer to secular fundamentalism. The problem is that these people believe that they have the absolute truth. That means you have no room to talk to others so you end up having a physical fight. They want to close the door and ignore religion, but this will provoke a violent religiosity. If someone seeks to deny my existence, I will fight to assert it.”

So, “if you don’t accept there’s doubt in all things, you’re being intellectually dishonest.” Apart from when you don’t accept there’s doubt in that sentiment, presumably. You could be forgiven for thinking a Rabbi would be on very thin ice with a statement like that. If, where their beliefs that we’d be better off without religion are concerned, Hitchens, Dawkins and Grayling are simply dogmatic then, presumably, at least one of the following has to be true:Either: They have stated directly that whatever the evidence they will continue to believe that we’d be better off without religion. Or: They have been exposed to decisive evidence that we’re better off with religion yet continue to believe we’re not. Now, I’m pretty sure the first is false, and to suggest the second would be to beg a central question. It would presuppose such evidence exists.

If someone seeks to deny your existence, I suppose you may want to fight to assert it. But is Azzim Tamimi’s ontological status really being disputed? Denying the very existence of the faithful is hardly a corollary of arguing that religion is pestiferous and its manifestation in the public sphere inappropriate. Who knows though? That fact may not prevent Tamimi or some of his acolytes from expressing their “violent religiosity” regardless.

The refrain of Christians like [Nick] Spencer is that unless religion is a part of public-policy debates, then society will be impoverished. Last November the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a lecture in which he distinguished between programmatic and procedural secularism. The former meant that in the public domain, everybody had to silence their fundamental convictions and debate in a value-free atmosphere of public neutrality. For Williams, this was a hopeless way of carrying on public discourse in a bewildering society that embraced not only many faiths but many anti-faith positions, and in which real disputes over very different values needed to take place. Better was procedural secularism, which promised that different groups could at least converse with each other in public discussions over sensitive questions of value and policy. This would involve, said Williams, “a crowded and argumentative public square that acknowledges the authority of a legal mediator or broker whose job it is to balance and manage real difference”.

It is an idea similar to one set out by Yahya Birt, research fellow at The Islamic Foundation. “One form of secularism suggests that religion should be kept in the private sphere. That’s Dawkins’ position. Another…, is to do with establishing a modus vivendi. It accepts that you come to the public debate with baggage that will inform your arguments. In this, the government tries to find common ground and the best possible consensus, which can only work if we share enough to behave civilly. Of course, there will be real clashes over issues such as gay adoption, but it’s not clear to me that that’s a problem per se.”

Argues Spencer: “We should be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable rather than as primitive or grotesque mutations of liberal humanism to which every sane person adheres.”

I’m not sure we should accept that religious people will “come to the public debate with baggage that will inform [their] arguments.” They may well come with baggage that will motivate their arguments, but not inform them. Furthermore, I’d have thought that the only time we should feel obligated to “treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable” is when those value systems are, indeed, coherent, reasonable and even valuable. Not at any other time nor for any other reason. Not, for example, because they’re religious values. Religious values that might not actually be coherent, reasonable and valuable but instead deranged, irrational and disgusting. Moreover, how could this proposed public mediation even work? Yahya Birt doesn’t think it’ll be “a problem per se”. Oddly enough though, he doesn’t feel the need to go into detail. Without engagement on the foundations, however, it looks somewhat intractable. If one side, for instance, is arguing that homosexuals should enjoy freedom from discrimination and the other that they should be executed because their God says so then how does one mediate such a thing? And how about when two faith positions themselves are in direct opposition? You can embellish the matter with woolly terms like “common ground”, “mediation” and “the best possible consensus” all you want. But the idea that we should exempt certain values from being judged purely on their merits by granting them special privileges on religious grounds seems, putting it mildly, unsettling.

P.S. David Thompson, Ophelia Benson, Jim Denham, Caspar Melville, Ben at Religion is Bullshit and the peculiarly monikered “Shuggy” also have a go. The Guardian has also posted some letters in response to the piece.

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3 Responses to “Special Privilege for Religious Values”


  1. 1 Ed February 28, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    In retrospect I almost certainly gave Slee far too much credit for his comparison of Dawkins with murderous fundamentalists. It’s plain the reason he specifically chose bloodthirsty fanatics, as opposed to merely, say, “the most dogmatic of theists” or something like that was because he wanted to imply some kind of moral equivalence or guilt by association. Perfidious stuff.

  2. 2 Toby February 28, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    With so many omnipotent gods its a wonder that we dont all believe in some sort of religion. It must be gods will. He/they have deliberately moulded some unbelievers and some gays to spice it up a bit.

    Nice work, I have put it in my “special priviledge” box so I no longer have to question it.

  3. 3 Ed March 1, 2007 at 11:05 am

    You do that. It is a “cherished belief” after all. Oh, how warm and fuzzy. Thanks for the encouragement!


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