Broadcaster says atheism is not the answer to our prayers

By staff writers
December 19, 2006

Writer and broadcaster Rod Liddle, who has in the past been attacked by Christians and Muslims for his media assaults on religious extremism, has now invited the wrath of secularists by criticising “evangelical non-belief” in a UK Channel 4 TV programme, ‘The Trouble With Atheism’, broadcast last night.

Liddle argues that current disputes about religion in society have brought to the surface intolerance and arrogance among some “militant atheists” which matches the style, tenor and argumentative approach of the religion they attack.

Among those interviewed in the programme is Richard Dawkins, Charles Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, who critics accuse of abandoning objectivity and balanced research in his recent attacks on faith.

Questioned about his evidential approach in the programme, Professor Dawkins declares that “I treat God as I do fairies and unicorns”. And American Atheists’ president Ellen Johnson says of the religious: “their ideas are stupid, beliefs are stupid, theology is stupid”.

However, Peter Atkins, Fellow and professor of chemistry at Lincoln College in the University of Oxford, asked if people of faith are less intelligent than those who hold his atheist view says: “Clearly not… but I think they are more conditioned than I am.”

He goes on to claim that “we will be able to explain everything through science” and accuses senior scientific colleagues who advocate religious convictions of being “half-scientists”.

But John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and pioneering theoretical physicist, replies that while belief in God can be given rational exposition, “the existence or non-existence of God is not scientifically knowable… none of us have access to knock-down arguments, whether believers or non-believers.”

The programme questions Dawkins’ advocacy of meme theory, which claims that religious and other ideas spread like viruses. Denis Alexander, an immunologist and molecular biologist who heads up the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, says that the meme metaphor “doesn’t tell us anything… it’s nothing like a virus”.

Liddle also talks to Alister McGrath, a biochemist and Christian theologian whose response to Dawkins’ sweeping claims about religion was edited out of his two-part TV polemic, ‘The Root Of All Evil?’

McGrath’s 2005 book ‘Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life’ critiques his colleague’s philosophical and theological inadequacies, and in February 2007 he will publish a response to the best-selling ‘The God Delusion’.

‘The Trouble With Atheism’ TV programme praises the work of secularist groups in making the case for non-belief, protecting civil rights and advocating the separation of church and state.

But it claims that “even atheism’s rational ways breeds its own brand of bona fide loonies” – featuring as an example David Bedford, self-proclaimed New York “atheist Messiah”, who proclaims: “I don’t think we should tolerate religion at all”.

Liddle argues that it is not religion or atheism per se that produces conflict and intolerance, but a strand of the human lust for certainty and absolutism which crosses all belief systems and ideologies.

The programme also questions the way Darwinian theory has been turned into a metaphysical proposition, and interviews agnostic Jeffrey Schwartz, a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, who says that it explains how novelty evolves in the universe, not how it appears.

But in criticizing specific arguments about adaptation and gradualism in neo-Darwinism, Dr Schwartz does not dispute his theory that humans, animals and plants evolved from common decent – the issue which upsets religious fundamentalists.

Liddle acknowledges that religion has been widely used to legitimate or deepen war and injustice. But he also points out that the Jacobin ‘cult of reason’ killed 250,000 people in revolutionary France and that the anti-religious purges of Stalin claimed 20 million lives.

However, Dawkins says that “it’s incidental that Stalin was an atheist”, while Atkins says that he was Confucian.

Rod Liddle, a former ‘Today’ programme editor, is no stranger to controversy. Earlier this year he defended far-right BNP leader Nick Griffin’s freedom of speech, while disagreeing with his racist polemic.

His 2006 Dispatches documentary ‘The New Fundamentalists’ attacked the infiltration of the Church of England by extreme ideas. And he upset the Muslim Council of Britain with accusations of anti-Semitism in relation to its refusal to participate in Holocaust Memorial Day, which MCB says is not broad enough because it focuses on the Shoah.

Last week, before ‘The Trouble With Atheism’ was broadcast, the National Secular Society accused Liddle of “peddling the same tired and tiresome cliche beloved of those religionists who are most threatened by Dawkins’ unanswerable polemic ‘The God Delusion’. Namely, that non-belief is a belief.”

Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think tank Ekklesia, commented today: “We need a much more intelligent and rational debate about religion in public life, and sadly we are not going to get that either from absolutist religious ideologies or from the alarmingly unsophisticated anti-religious polemics which seem popular in some circles.”

[Also on Ekklesia: Dawkins anti-religion school crusade is met with scepticism; Dawkin's God by Alister McGrath; why Richard Dawkins is right to attack facile God-talk, but wrong to portray all religion as ignorant and dangerous (Turning God into a disaster area). On Guardian Comment-is-Free: Difference based on friendship - Simon Barrow: The antagonism between organised religion and hard-line secularism is unproductive and excluding.]

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