Monday 3 December 2007

Contrasting views in the religion vs secularism debate

Who said this?

The Church portrays itself as the victim of an aggressive secularism. It looks to me, rather, as if the Church is itself in danger of adopting an aggressive fundamentalism and that the secular societies it excoriates demonstrate a tolerance that is often closer to the ideal of Christian charity.

No, not a spokesperson for the National Secular Society, but Stephen Wall, a self-proclaimed 'lifelong Catholic' and former adviser to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor. In an article in The Tablet which is a breath of fresh air in the religion vs secularism debate, Wall criticises the Catholic Church for 'giving pre-eminence to its concept of law and disregarding its duty of love' in recent controversies over abortion, IVF and gay adoption. He concludes:

Above all, the Church's approach should be rooted not in power, authority and threat, but in love and understanding and, dare I say it, in acknowledging that it can be wrong or that many of life's most poignant problems raise issues of right and wrong, love and duty, pain and suffering that are not susceptible to simple answers.

Wall's thoughtful article is in contrast to a hysterical piece by Chris Hedges in the same magazine. Hedges is reviewing Tina Beattie's book The New Atheists. Here's a taste:

The agenda of the new atheists is disturbing: they embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinist and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists, proposing a route to the moral advancement of the human species through science and reason....Those who believe in the
possibility of this perfection often call for the silencing or eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress...

These new atheists are a secular version of the religious Right ... They too are anti-intellectual. And while the atheists do not have much power and are not a threat to the democratic state as they are in the United States, they engage in the same chauvinism and call for the same violent utopianism of the fundamentalist Christian Right. They sell this under secular banners, but this does not excuse it. ...They argue, like these Christian fundamentalists, that some human beings, maybe many human beings, have to be eradicated to achieve this better world ...They urge us forward into an unreal world, where force and violence, selfexaltation and blind nationalism are an unquestioned good. ...They use this fear to justify cruelty and war.

Phew! Now, I've read one or two of these 'new atheist' books and, though I don't agree with everything in them, I don't recall Dawkins or Hitchens calling for the 'silencing' or 'eradication' of anyone, or advancing 'violence' or 'blind nationalism' as good things. Like all attempts to find moral equivalence, this one is laughably short of evidence and quickly descends into bluster and hyperbole.

Chris Hedges is described by The Tablet as 'a Pullitzer Prize-winning writer' and a former staff member at the New York Times. Apparently his book American Fascists has been acclaimed for pointing to the threat to democracy from the Christian Right. It's disturbing that a writer with such a track record can confuse the rationalist critiques of a handful of atheist authors with the irrational bigotry and violence of religious fundamentalism.

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