He will distinguish between atheists and “new atheists”. Bishop Baines said: “People such as Richard Dawkins are aggressively evangelistic in a way that is alienating many sensible, rational atheists. I do not have a problem with atheism, but now you have the new atheists evangelizing and propagandizing their own faith. To deny anyone with religious faith any access to the public square is both dangerous and irrational.”

He added that there was a backlash against this “caricature of atheism” towards a more “reasonable” atheism in which the religious voice had its place.

This is a good example of what we are up against: religious apologists swallowing whole what other religious apologists have quoted from what yet other religious apologists have lied about what “new atheists” have ever said, or stand for.

Of course I  have never tried to “deny anyone with religious faith any access to the public square.” Free speech is precious, and I of course defend the right of anybody to go to any public square and speak, preach or proselytize freely about their religion. I also defend my own right, and the right of my fellow atheists, to go to the same public square and criticize what the religious preacher says. And I defend his right to come back and attempt to criticize what I say in return. Incidentally, one of the most effective ways to ridicule religious beliefs is to quote them, verbatim and without comment.

So, no problem with free speech for religious apologists. What I am against is giving religious people privileged access to the public square simply because they are religious: privileged access for priests, imams and rabbis which is less readily granted to others with greater – though non-religious – qualifications. And there is no doubt at all that, certainly in British and American society and I suspect in most countries of the world, religious spokesmen do indeed enjoy privileged access. The BBC’s notoriously insipid Thought for the Day is the tip of a very large iceberg. Discussion programmes on moral questions, social questions, even political questions almost always invite spokesmen from Christian churches (and nowadays, increasingly, other faiths). Faith schools receive government subsidies despite their discriminatory employment and admissions policies. Parliament still has 26 Anglican bishops, and leaders of other faiths are also frequently appointed to the House of Lords. The title “Reverend” doesn’t quite guarantee access to the Letters to the Editor columns of national newspapers, but who would doubt that it helps!

I discussed the whole matter of privileged access to the public square in my 1997 essay Dolly and the Cloth Heads[1]:

Dolly and the Cloth Heads

A news story like the birth of the cloned sheep Dolly is always followed by a flurry of energetic press activity.  Newspaper columnists sound off, solemnly or facetiously; occasionally intelligently.  Radio and television producers seize the telephone and round up panels to discuss and debate the moral and legal issues.  Some of these panellists are experts on the science, as you would expect and as is right and proper.  Equally appropriate are scholars of moral or legal philosophy.  Both categories are invited to the studio in their own right, because of their specialised knowledge or their proven ability to think intelligently and speak clearly.  The arguments that they have with each other are usually illuminating and rewarding.

The same cannot be said of the third, and most obligatory, category of studio guest: the religious lobby.  Lobbies in the plural, I should say, because all the religions have to be represented.  This incidentally multiplies the sheer number of people in the studio, with consequent consumption, if not waste, of time.

Out of good manners I shall not mention names, but during the admirable Dolly’s week of fame I took part in broadcast or televised discussions of cloning with several prominent religious leaders, and it was not edifying.  One of the most eminent of these spokesmen got off to a flying start by refusing to shake hands with the women in the television studio, apparently for fear they might be menstruating or otherwise ‘unclean’.  They took the insult more graciously than I would have, and with the ‘respect’ always bestowed on religious prejudice  –  but no other kind of prejudice.    When the panel discussion got going, the woman in the chair, treating this bearded patriarch with great deference, asked him to spell out the harm that cloning might do, and he answered that atomic bombs were harmful.  Yes indeed, no possibility of disagreement there.  But wasn’t the discussion supposed to be about cloning?

Since it was his choice to shift the discussion to atomic bombs, perhaps he knew more about physics than about biology?  But no, having delivered himself of the daring falsehood that Einstein split the atom, the sage switched with confidence to history.  He made the telling point that, since God laboured six days and then rested on the seventh, scientists too ought to know when to call a halt.  Now, either he really believed that the world was made in six days, in which case his ignorance alone disqualifies him from being taken seriously.  Or, as the chairwoman charitably suggested, he intended the point purely as an allegory  –  in which case it was a lousy allegory.  Sometimes in life it is a good idea to stop, sometimes it is a good idea to go on.  The trick is to decide when to stop.  The allegory of God resting on the seventh day cannot, in itself, tell us whether we have reached the right point to stop in some particular case.  As allegory, the six-day creation story is empty.  As history, it is false.  So why bring it up?

The representative of a rival religion on the same panel was frankly confused.  He voiced the common fear that a human clone would lack individuality.  It would not be a whole, separate human being but a mere soulless automaton.  When I warned him that his words might be offensive to identical twins, he said that identical twins were a quite different case.  Why?

On a different panel, this time for radio, yet another religious leader was similarly perplexed by identical twins.  He too had ‘theological’ grounds for fearing that a clone would not be a separate individual and would therefore lack ‘dignity’.  He was swiftly informed of the undisputed scientific fact that identical twins are clones of each other with the same genes, like Dolly except that Dolly is the clone of an older sheep.  Did he really mean to say that identical twins (and we all know some) lack the dignity of separate individuality?  His reason for denying the relevance of the twin analogy was very odd indeed. He had great faith, he informed us, in the power of nurture over nature.  Nurture is why identical twins are really different individuals.  When you get to know a pair of twins, he concluded triumphantly, they even look a bit different.

Er, quite so.  And if a pair of clones were separated by fifty years, wouldn’t their respective nurtures be even more different?  Haven’t you just shot yourself in your theological foot?  He just didn’t get it  –  but after all he hadn’t been chosen for his ability to follow an argument. I don’t want to sound uncharitable, but I submit that merely being a spokesman for a particular ‘tradition’, ‘faith or ‘community’ may not be enough.

Religious lobbies, spokesmen of ‘traditions’ and ‘communities’, enjoy privileged access not only to the media but to influential committees of the great and the good, to governments and school boards.  Their views are regularly sought, and heard with exaggerated ‘respect’, by parliamentary committees.  You can be sure that, when an Advisory Commission is set up to advise on cloning policy, or any other aspect of reproductive technology, religious lobbies will be prominently represented.  Religious spokesmen and spokeswomen enjoy an inside track to influence and power which others have to earn through their own ability or expertise.  What is the justification for this?

Why has our society so meekly acquiesced in the convenient fiction that religious views have some sort of right to be respected automatically and without question?  If I want you to respect my views on politics, science or art, I have to earn that respect by argument, reason, eloquence, or relevant knowledge.  I have to withstand counter-arguments.  But if I have a view that is part of my religion, critics must respectfully tiptoe away or brave the indignation of society at large.  Why are religious opinions off limits in this way?  Why do we have to respect them, simply because they are religious?

How, moreover, do you decide which of many mutually contradictory religions should be granted this unquestioned respect: this unearned influence.  If we invite a Christian spokesman into the television studio or the Advisory Committee, should it be a Catholic or a Protestant, or do we have to have both to make it fair? (In Northern Ireland the difference is, after all, important enough to constitute a recognized motive for murder).  If we have a Jew and a Muslim, must we have both Orthodox and Reformed, both Shiite and Sunni?   And why not Moonies, Scientologists and Druids?

Society, for no reason that I can discern, accepts that parents have an automatic right to bring their children up with particular religious opinions and can withdraw them from, say, biology classes that teach evolution.  Yet we’d all be scandalised if children were withdrawn from Art History classes that teach the merits of artists not to their parents’ taste.  We meekly agree, if a student says, “Because of my religion I can’t take my final examination on the day appointed so, no matter what the inconvenience, you’ll have to set a special examination for me.”  It is not obvious why we treat such a demand with any more respect than, say, “Because of my basketball match (or because of my mother’s birthday) I can’t take the examination on a particular day.”  Such favoured treatment for religious opinion reaches its apogee in wartime.  A highly intelligent and sincere individual who justifies his personal pacifism by deeply thought-out moral philosophic arguments finds it hard to achieve Conscientious Objector status.  If only he had been born into a religion whose scriptures forbid fighting, he’d have needed no other arguments at all.  It is the same unquestioned respect for religious leaders that causes society to beat a path to their door whenever an issue like cloning is in the air.  Perhaps, instead, we should listen to those whose words themselves justify our heeding them.

Religious apologists should be denied privileged access to the public square, and I have often said this. But what the Bishop of Bradford has done is to delete the word “privileged”, and this led him to attack a straw travesty of what I have said. “Caricature of Atheism” is his own phrase and it is exactly what he has perpetrated.


[1] First published in The Independent (1997) and reprinted in A Devil’s Chaplain, 2003, Weidenfeld & Nicolson


Karykatura ateizmu

Autor tekstu: Richard Dawkins
Tłumaczenie: Małgorzata Koraszewska

Biskup Bradfordu wygląda jak miły człowiek, a większość biskupów anglikańskich to mili ludzie. Jest jednak równie zagubiony, jak każdy z nich. Ruth Gledhill,  poważna korespondentka „Timesa" do spraw religijnych, ujawnia, że biskup Baines przygotowuje referat na konferencję w Fundacji Konrad-Adenauer w Niemczech (nawiasem mówiąc, gratulacje za umiejętności lingwistyczne). Konferencja zgromadzi niemieckich polityków i teologów na dyskusję o „przestrzeni publicznej w Europie". Biskupa Bainesa poproszono, by mówił o tym, jak Kościół anglikański reaguje na „nie-wiarę" i „zdystansowanie od wiary religijnej". Ruth Gledhill kontynuuje:

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