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Britain: the new divide

March 2nd, 2007 · No Comments


Britain’s new cultural divide is not between Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Jew. It is between those who have faith and those who do not. Stuart Jeffries reports on the vicious and uncompromising battle between believers and non-believers

Monday February 26, 2007
The Guardian

Protesters from different faiths join to oppose proposed new regulations on gay adoption. Photograph: Martin Godwin

The American journalist HL Mencken once wrote: “We must accept the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.” In Britain today, such wry tolerance is diminishing. Today, it’s the religious on one side, and the secular on the other. Britain is dividing into intolerant camps who revel in expressing contempt for each other’s most dearly held beliefs.

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“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.
“You have a triangle with fundamentalist secularists in one corner, fundamentalist faith people in another, and then the intelligent, thinking liberals of Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, baptism, methodism, other faiths – and, indeed, thinking atheists – in the other corner. ” says Slee. Why does he think the other two groups are so vociferous? “When there was a cold war, we knew who the enemy was. Now it could be anybody. From this feeling of vulnerability comes hysteria.”

“We live together but we don’t know each other,” says Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim scholar and senior research fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford. “And this is something not just true of secularists, but of people of faith. I moved to Britain shortly after the July 7 2005 bombings in London and since then things have changed radically. Everyone treats the perceived ‘other’ as a threat.”

Or so one might be forgiven for thinking if one listens to the most vocal of dogmatic believers and non-believers.

For example, Richard Dawkins, the British scientist and chair for the public understanding of science at Oxford University, whose perhaps timely insistence on the hideousness of the other fellow’s wife and fatuousness of his offspring made his book, The God Delusion, sell 180,000 in hardback – a figure that rivals sales of Jordan’s memoirs, thus demonstrating what an appetite there is for unapologetically militant atheism. This is the man so voguishly intemperate that when speaking to the Times recently about Nadia Eweida, the British Airways worker whose employer refused to allow her to wear a Christian cross openly to work, said: “I saw a picture of this woman. She had one of the most stupid faces I’ve ever seen.”

Before The God Delusion was published, Dawkins wrote about something called Gerin oil that was poisoning human society. “Gerin oil (or Geriniol, to give it its scientific name) is a powerful drug that acts directly on the central nervous system to produce a range of characteristic symptoms, often of an antisocial or self-damaging nature. If administered chronically in childhood, Gerin oil can permanently modify the brain to produce adult disorders, including dangerous delusions that have proved very hard to treat. The four doomed flights of September 11 were, in a very real sense, Gerin oil trips: all 19 of the hijackers were high on the drug at the time.” Gerin oil, of course, was an anagram of religion. His bestseller charged that God was a “psychotic delinquent”, invented by mad, deluded people.

The backlash against Dawkins’ abusiveness, as well as his arguments, has started. Oxford theologian Alister McGrath has just published The Dawkins Delusion?. He argues: “We need to treat those who disagree with us with intellectual respect, rather than dismissing them – as Dawkins does – as liars, knaves and charlatans. Many atheists have been disturbed by Dawkins’ crude stereotypes and seemingly pathological hostility towards religion. In fact, The God Delusion might turn out to be a monumental own goal – persuading people that atheism is just as intolerant as the worst that religion can offer.”

It is worth noting that The God Delusion included an appendix entitled “a partial list of addresses, for individuals needing support in escaping from religion”. In this Dawkins offers a similar service to the National Secular Society whose certificate of de-baptism is downloadable from www.secularism.org.uk. “Liberate yourself from the Original Mumbo-Jumbo that liberated you from the Original Sin you never had,” urges the site.

Dawkins and the National Secular Society, though, are no match for Christopher Hitchens in their hostility to religion. His new book, God Is Not Great: the Case Against Religion, is to be published by Atlantic Books in May. Its first chapter, drolly entitled Putting it Mildly, concludes: “As I write these words and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon. Religion poisons everything.” (Hitchens’ italics.)

John 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.”

Gray argues that this fixation misses the point of religions: “The core of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice, in ritual, observance and (sometimes) mystical experience . . . When they dissect arguments for the existence of God, atheists parody the rationalistic theologies of western Christianity.”

The intolerance for people of faith, though, might not seem to be the preserve of only angry atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens. Instead, there is a widespread fear that religion is being treated as a problem to British society, best solved by airbrushing it from the public sphere. British Airways’ insistence that employee Nadia Eweida remove her Christian cross, and Jack Straw’s plea to Muslim women constituents to remove their veils at his surgery, have helped bring a sense of mutual persecution to many people of different faiths (including yarmulke-wearing Jews and turban-wearing Sikhs) – and a sense of solidarity. Many people of faith share a concern that Britain may be following secularist France, where 2004 reforms meant that “conspicuous religious symbols” could not be worn in public places, such as schools.

One particularly fraught current issue creating inter-faith solidarity is gay adoptions. Many Catholics, Anglicans, Muslims and Jews last month united against the government’s sexual orientation regulations that would mean all adoption agencies could not discriminate against gay couples in placing children with adoptive parents.

Catholic leaders warned that their seven adoption agencies could not breach Vatican guidelines against allowing gay couples to adopt. Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, supported the Catholics’ stand, as did the Federation of Synagogues. And, of course, the issue of homosexuality is also dividing the Anglican communion. For evangelical groups such as Reform, the C of E is polarising into two churches, one “submitting to God’s revelation”, the other “shaped primarily by western secular culture”. Again, western secular culture – if not of Dawkins’ stamp – is seen as the worm in the apple, corrupting not just British society but the church itself. By contrast, for liberals in the church, whose number includes many gay vicars, the evangelicals’ hostility to homosexuality seems unChristian, as does their stance on gay adoption.

The gay adoption issue also outraged many non-believers, among them philosopher AC Grayling, author of Life, Sex and Ideas: The Good Life without God. “These groups are trying to be exempt from the effort to be a fair society, and we are faced with the threat of a possible return to the dark ages. We are trying to keep a pluralistic society, and elements in the Christian church and other religions are trying to destroy it.”

Why this departure from tolerant, if nicely ironic, Menckenism? Why the increasing division of Britain into shrill camps shouting unedifyingly at each other? One thing is certain: we’ve been here before. In 1860, one year after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and TH Huxley, the naturalist described as “Darwin’s bulldog”, went toe-to-toe at Oxford’s Natural History Museum. According to a contemporary report in McMillan’s magazine, “The bishop turned to his antagonist with smiling insolence. He begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey? Huxley rose to reply … He [said he] was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth … One lady fainted and had to be carried out.”

“At that time the church was feeling very threatened and uncomfortable with non-religious society,” says Hanne Stinson, executive director of the British Humanist Association. “There is a parallel with today – the church is feeling very threatened.” Hence, perhaps, the nature of a dispute at Exeter University where the Christian Union was banned from using student union facilities after the Students’ Guild charged that the CU was breaking equal opportunities policy by asking members to sign up to a list of beliefs that were discriminatory against non-Christians and gay people. The CU accused the guild of threatening its right to freedom of expression by imposing the ban: as in the gay adoption issue, anti-discrimination policy was running up against religious conviction. The Exeter ban has been repeated at other universities, prompting the Archbishop of Canterbury to argue that the bans threaten “the integrity of the whole educational process”.

But today everyone is feeling threatened. Not just religious groups, but also pressure groups seeking to represent those without faith (who Stinson, citing last December’s Ipsos Mori poll, suggests amount to 36% of Britons). Slee argues that low (below 7%) church attendance is a result of Christians being revolted by “the church presenting itself as narrow and non-inclusive”.

Tags: Science & Religion

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