Last night, Channel 4 aired journalist Rod Liddle's documentary criticising atheism. Presumably, this programme was made partly to cash in on the success of Richard Dawkins's God Delusion, but also as a balance to last year's Root Of All Evil documentary, also by Dawkins. You can watch it here:
Part 1Part 2
Unsurprisingly, I found the programme to be annoying, though not without merit. I'll discuss its good points in a minute, but first it's worth covering where I feel it went wrong.
For a start, it was transparently cut to cast "atheists" in a bad light. I almost punched the screen when Dawkins was cut off mid-sentence just after suggesting that Marxist communism might naturally rise to fill the void left by a departing religion. Well, I suppose this is the nature of TV journalism. The name of the documentary isn't, after all, "The Potential Problems With Atheism Investigated With Fair And Unbiased Reporting". Liddle has an agenda, and he's not alone in using his art to support that.
Second, his choice of scientific experts was a touch suspect. I was tickled by the physicist who drew the sacred "pyramid of complexity" on a black board before comprehensively dismissing multi-verse theory and implying that the notion of a designer was far more likely. I'd like to see his working for that calculation! Similarly, Darwin's evolution by natural selection was cast in a far weaker light than it deserves. Liddle ominously asks the question "how long will it be before Darwin is comprehensively rewritten?". "It could be rather rapidly", is the triumphant reply - from the scientist who thinks that punctuationism is a new and threatening idea. Worst of all, was the implication that change, or "paradigm shift", is something that scientists don't welcome.
This is where Liddle's main thesis runs into major difficulty. He relies far too much on the old stick that atheism/science (one and the same in this treatment) is a religion just as much as Christianity is. I'm tired of this viewpoint, it is old and flawed. Yes, science is eventually reducible to axioms, and yes scientists have to accept these on faith, and yes we are forced to take research on trust because the universe is simply too vast for every researcher to start from scratch. But there the similarity ends - no matter how many flawed parallels you draw between Fermilab and temples, Dawkins and gurus, the scientific method and religious doctrine, you simply cannot get away from the fact that science is essentially mutable and invites questioning. Nothing is sacred, neither theory nor personality. You have an alternative to Darwinism? Brilliant, suggest it, present your evidence and if it fits the observations better you win yourself a Nobel prize.
All of these are fairly predictable criticisms for a documentary on this subject. However, I do come away with the sense that Liddle, no matter how loathsome he might be, has a rather good point.
"New atheism" seems to be the popular fad at the moment both in terms of a position to adopt and a movement to criticise, largely thanks to Dawkins. Really though, there's nothing "new" about it, other than a new found vocal confidence. It is still an absence of belief in a supernatural creator. As I've argued before, this is not the same as a belief in no creator. God is not the default position that will rise to fill the void the moment atheists stop believing, it is merely a hypothesis that has no compelling evidence.
Ultimately, in a pure sense, the only honest position to take is that of agnosticism. You simply cannot rule out a creator and anyone who claims they can is just plain wrong. Agnosticism, however, implies more theism than most rationalists can bear, so the name "atheist" is adopted by convention. "Agnostic-atheist" is a better way of describing the true rationalist view though: a God may exist, but I see no evidence for it and will live my life as though it didn't. This is the position we, as rationalists, should be adopting - open-minded but honest.
Liddle's documentary does not attack this way of thinking though. Liddle goes for the pure atheists, and he is perfectly correct to do so. In this context, his painting of atheism as a religion is entirely justified. The fashionable atheist that spouts unjustified hatred and intolerance towards religion is just as contemptible as a lorry load of Ted Haggards. And just as wrong.
It should be noted that I'm not suggesting a return to the bad old days of meekly kowtowing to religious idiocies. One of the most important accomplishments of Dawkins, Harris and Dennet is that they've overturned the taboo of criticising theist thinking. But we need to be very careful to ensure that the rationalism we defend is actually being deployed correctly. Saying "there is no God" is an indefensible position and equally as absurd as saying "there is a God".
Similarly, evoking morality to damn religion is asking for trouble. How can we ever reverse the damage caused by Stalin and Mao to the rationalist cause? I've long thought that the morality issue is a red herring for both sides. Theists claim that religion provides a moral code to live by - but they can't explain why atheists and different-flavour-theists have just as good morality. While atheists claim that religion causes evil, but can't explain why the two great experiments in removing religion have resulted in countless millions of deaths.
Ultimately, the cause of rationalism is sound only as long as we remain, forgive the pun, rational. Demanding evidence for bold claims is not at all unreasonable, nor is defending the right of children to approach the world with a questioning mind. We shouldn't be trying to make atheists, we should be trying to make thinkers. We shouldn't condemn those who reach theism by rational means, while equally we should condemn those who preach atheism with irrational claims.
To sum up Liddle's documentary, I was tempted to write that it is easy to prove a point by picking extreme examples - the atheist nutjob crying no-Gods outside the church or the frankly frothing Peter Atkins spring to mind. But then I realised, Liddle's work is guilty of exactly the same tricks as Dawkins' Root Of All Evil. So what right have rationalists got to criticise one and not the other?