Today's Sydney Morning Herald contains an article by religion reporter Jacqueline Maley on the forthcoming Global Atheist Convention (12-14 March, in Melbourne).
Maley starts off well:
Something you will never see: an atheist boarding a plane with a bomb strapped to him, waving a copy of On The Origin Of Species, before he blows himself up in a violent attempt to further his cause.
So says David Nicholls, the head of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, the man at the increasingly pointy end of the reinvigorated and freshly vocal atheism movement.
Quite so. Atheists tend not to be fanatical people - at least not unless caught up by some kind of comprehensive quasi-religion such as Stalinism. Neither the lack of belief in God nor a commitment to good science is likely, in itself, to lead to fanaticism and violence. For that, you need a worldview with some kind of apocalypic content, something that makes you think you are doing the work of God or History, and that the lives of ordinary people may rightly be sacrificed in a great cause. Like the Marxist-Leninist political tradition, the traditions of the Abrahamic religions contain much to encourage that sort of worldview.
Good for Nicholls in making that point, and good for Maley in leading with it.
However, the headline "Atheism's true believers gather", is already off-putting. This was probably chosen by a sub-editor rather than by the journalist, but its condescending suggestion that there is something paradoxical and funny about the convention is reflected in the article itself, with such barbs as the reference to Richard Dawkins as the atheist movement's "supreme deity". Why not just say, truthfully, that he is the most prominent figure in contemporary atheism? Dawkins provides leadership of a kind, but he is not the equivalent of a pope or a patriarch, or even a priest or a bishop, let alone a deity. His leadership comes from the power of his ideas and his ability to present them lucidly.
Yes, it probably does no great damage to insert such wording, but the cumulative effect of this sort of thing is to make the article seem like smartarse journalism.
That's unfortunate because it could have been better than this. Maley appears to be fair in the way she treats the people she interviewed, so why spoil the effect? The quotes attributed to me, from a phone interview earlier this week, seem to be correct, and she allows Nicholls, Tanya Smith, and me to come across as sensible people. I don't think the article is damaging to us, in the sense that we will look bad to unbiased readers, but for all that I do find much of it annoying.
Take the following:
As atheists organise and unite, they increasingly face the criticisms they are used to levelling against their faithful counterparts - that they are extremists, skewed fundamentalists. Others warn that strict adherence to evolutionary theory leads logically to social Darwinism.
Hitchens is often accused of recycling arguments and of demolishing his marks with one-eyed fervour. His targets include Mother Teresa, a woman well on her way to canonisation.
Dawkins has been criticised for his ignorance of Christian theology, and his inability (and that of science in general) to disprove the existence of God.
The bit about recycling arguments is odd: is he really supposed to come up with wholly original arguments or with new ones each time? But the sentence about Mother Teresa is especially tendentious.
Mother Teresa may be on her way to canonisation, but there is much controversy as to whether her work genuinely ameliorated suffering among the poor of India or had the opposite effect. Within the culture of the Roman Catholic Church, suffering is not loathed as an unmitigated, radical evil, as it is by most people who simply respond with healthy human sympathy to those who are in pain. For the Church, suffering is accepted as a mystery, and sometimes even valorised for bringing us closer to God. Conversely, birth control and the emancipation of women from traditional roles are considered morally problematic. The sort of figure who is likely to be canonised by the Roman Catholic Church is not necessarily the sort who does the most secular good in helping people attain their freedom and in carrying out good works that really do help those who are suffering from illness and pain.
However, Maley skips over all this by hinting strongly that Mother Teresa is, of course, an inappropriate target for criticism by a public intellectual such as Christopher Hitchens - and thus that Hitchens himself merits criticism for going there. But there's no of course about it. Mother Teresa was, at best, a problematic figure, even though (or, rather, because) she conformed to the dubious values of Mother Church.
Similarly, it is unfair to refer, as if it is unproblematic, to Dawkins' (or science's) supposed inability to disprove the existence of God. It is highly controversial just how far the Christian image of the universe can be reconciled with the image arising from science. Dawkins, along with many other atheists, argues that the two do not go together well - in the light of science, the Christian picture does not make sense. I realise that many people disagree with this - and I will doubtless attract arguments about it even though it's not the topic of this post - but it is not reasonable to refer to Dawkins' "inability" to disprove the existence of God as if this is uncontroversial, or as if this way of putting it is uncontroversial: talk of "disproof" is very tricky here, since there are many kinds and standards of proof.
And there's more in the passage quoted. Do "others" really "warn" that strict adherence to evolutionary theory leads to social Darwinism? That's not an argument that you often hear except from the nuttier US religious zealots, and surely there's a better word than "warn" for a proposition that is not only contested but almost certainly untrue. The English language has the perfectly good and useful word "allege", which might have come in handy at this stage. The fact is, there's no reason at all to think that "strict" adherence to evolution leads anyone to support social Darwinism; on the contrary, the countries with the most widespread acceptance of biological evolution are precisely those which do not have dog-eat-dog social Darwinist societies, but are conspicuous in pursuing egalitarian policies.
The kinds of things that I find annoying will not do much good to Maley's reputation as a fair journalist with no axe of her own to grind. I repeat, however, that she has been fair to me personally. The views attributed to me are my real views: e.g. I have no problem with individuals being religious, as long as it's their private belief, not something they try to impose through public policy; I do see enormous influence being wielded by the churches, and I think it's time for secular people to have more of a say; and I certainly do contest the idea that high-profile atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens are fundamentalist or extreme. When that claim is made, they are judged by a ridiculous standard of open-mindedness and civility that is never applied to their opponents or to anyone else in public life.
Overall, my attitude is that almost any publicity for the convention is good publicity, and this article is not one of the exceptions. David, Tanya, and I, as portrayed here, seem like sensible people ... who actually have a point.
I do hope, though, that we can get some media coverage from journalists who are not religion writers and will be more critical about the virtues of religion or the likes of Mother Teresa, and less credulous about the more naive criticisms that are sent the way of Richard Dawkins and company. If you're a journalist who matches that description, and if you have an "in" to get articles like this published somewhere, why not contact the organisers?