The Guardian on Faith

The main feature in yesterday’s G2 was an article by Stuart Jeffries on the growth of loud disagreement between religious people and atheists. Regular readers will know that I usually agree with the Guardian, but this article has got it horribly wrong.

The article’s main error is to give time to the views of Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark. He has this to say:

We are witnessing a social phenomenon that is about fundamentalism. 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.

This is a straw man that I’m tired of hearing. “Oh, look,” says someone from the Church of England’s more liberal wing, “On one hand you have those nasty fundamentalist christians and on the other you have those nasty fundamentalist atheists – they’re both as bad as each other, the obvious compromise is to be like me”.

But it’s nonsense. There is no comparison between the religious fundamentalists and the atheists. Let’s see if we can make this clear.

Religious people have certain beliefs. They have no evidence for these beliefs but they are sure that they are true. If you present them with evidence that contradicts these beliefs then they will ignore or ridicule that evidence. The one thing that they won’t do is to change their beliefs to incorporate this new evidence.

Atheists also have beliefs. But they have evidence for their beliefs. The amount of confidence that they have in their beliefs is directly proportional to the strength of the evidence. If you present them with evidence that contradicts their beliefs then they will incorporate the new evidence into their view of the world and change their beliefs accordingly.

Atheists are “anti-fundamentalists”. They have no beliefs that can’t be changed if they are given the right evidence. Theists will do everything they can to avoid changing theif beliefs. And when the level of evidence gets too great then they’ll often resort to the equivalent of sticking their fingers in theirs ears and chanting “la-la-la, I can’t hear you”.

Equating atheism with fundamentalism is a ridiculous proposition. It’s appalling that Jeffries allowed Slee to get away with such a weak argument. We expect better from the Guardian.

There is a discussion of the article on Richard Dawkins’ web site.

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