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Austin Cline

Madeleine Bunting: Atheists Shouldn't Criticize Religion

By June 3, 2007

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I've written many times that when people complain about atheists who are too militant or intemperate in their langauge, their primary concern is more likely the fact that atheistgs are openly and forcefully criticizing religion at all. What atheists are saying is more important than how they are saying it, and forceful critiques of religion would be condemned no matter how they were phrased.

We can recognize this occuring when complaints about "militant" atheists fail to produce any examples of genuine militancy, or complaints about "intemperate" atheits fail to produce any examples of intolerance that is anything like what we already see in religion. Sometimes, we'll even see an admission that it's criticism of religion itself that's the problem.

This is exactly what we get from Madeleine Bunting who criticizes in the Guardian what she calls the "vituperative polemic" of atheist writers:

The danger is that the aggression and hostility to religion in all its forms (moderates are castigated as giving the fundamentalists cover for their extremism) deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged recently in the science/faith debate. The durability and near universality of religion is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking, one of Britain's most eminent evolutionary psychologists acknowledged to me recently. Scientists have argued that faith was a byproduct of our development of the imagination or a way of increasing the social bonding mechanisms.

Does that make religion an important evolutionary step but now no longer needed - the equivalent of the appendix? Or a crucial part of the explanation for successful human evolution to date? Does religion still have an important role in human wellbeing? In recent years, research has thrown up some remarkable benefits - the faithful live longer, recover from surgery quicker, are happier, less prone to mental illness and so the list goes on. If religion declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?

Madeline Bunting probably couldn't be more clear if she hired a sky-writer to spell it out above our heads. The foremost danger for her isn't anyone's language or tone. She doesn't even bother to consider whether atheist critics of religion are right and certainly doesn't try to argue that atheists are wrong. No, the "danger" she cites is that atheist critics of religion might cause religion to decline. That, however, is a possible product of any crtique, regardless of how militant, intolerant, or intemperate it is. We must conclude, therefore, that Madeline Bunting's problem with atheists isn't the "vituperative polemic" she accuses them of, but the mere fact that they are criticizing religion and might actually succeed in convincing people to turn away from religion.

Although few religious theists and Christians state it as baldly as Madeline Bunting, I suspect that this perspective is quite common. Almost anything that is said in defense of religion is acceptable, but almost any critique of religion is unacceptable. People don't adopt this attitude with anything else, just religion - almost as if they are afraid that the critics are right and, if they are permitted to go too far, then others will realize this and religion will decline even further than it already has.

To be fair, though, it is reasonable to be concerned about the decline of religion if religion provides genuine health benefits. That's a big "if," though, and this means that the concern is only really valid if the existence of those benefits can be demonstrated. In such a case, though, apologists will be defending religion not because it's true, but merely because it's useful. If that happens, religion and religious theism will have essentially lost.

Ebon Muse's conclusion to his commenatry on Madeline Bunting's piece is spot-on:

And so, let the so-called moderates wring their hands. Let religious liberals bemoan our incivility because we fail to concede the fight to them at the outset. Let the accommodationists study the problem to death and fiddle while Rome burns. If they will not take up arms and join battle against the fundamentalists who threaten us all, then we will. And if they want to call us uncompromising and controversial, they may do so to their heart's content. None of these groups have any power to silence us, and so long as we know to disregard their unfounded criticisms, they will not succeed in doing so.

People use complaints about atheists' "incivility" and "intolerance" as substitutes for addressing the substance of atheists' criticisms of religion.

This attitude of "it's offensive and wrong for you to question me, to challenge my claims, or to criticize my beliefs" is not limited to conservative religion, though. We can also find very strong examples of it in conservative politics. A recent instance is described in David Leonhardt's column in The New York Times about all the extreme, inexcusable errors being made by Lou Dobbs in his "reporting" about illegal immigration:

When I asked Mr. Dobbs about this yesterday, he said, “You’ve raised this to a level that frankly I find offensive.”

It's amazing how similar Lou Dobb's comment is to things said by apologists for religious theism when their ideology is challenged. Quite often, the only thing a person needs to do to "raise" things to an "offensive level" is to challenge religion in a direct, public, an unapologetic manner. Here, the "offensive level" was reached when Lou Dobb's reality-challenged assertions were questioned. There is nothing about conservatism which should necessitate such an attitude, but given the extent to which the GOP has come under the control of the Christian Right, perhaps conservative religion has influenced conservative politics to the point where such an attitude is now difficult to escape.

June 3, 2007 at 10:23 pm
(1) Alan Mackenzie says:

Having studied Bunting’s now infrequent articles in the Guardian, and while she was a regular contributor to this paper, the only conclusion I can draw is that she has fallen prey to something endemic in much of the political left. That is, according to Peter Tatchell:

Paralysed by the fear of being branded racist, imperialist or Islamophobic, large sections of liberal and left opinion have, in effect, gone soft on their commitment to universal human rights. They readily, and rightly, condemn the excesses of US and UK government policy, but rarely speak out against oppressors who are non-white or adherents of minority faiths. Why the double standard? The answer lies, in part, in a perverse interpretation of multiculturalism that has sundered the celebration of difference from universal human rights.

In the United States, the Religious Right are the primary force responsible for wanting atheists silenced. Here in the United Kingdom, it is (and I’m on the left too), the left. I’m afraid, that at least here, the left is not the force it used to be.

You can read Peter Tatchell’s erudite, and persuasive article here.

June 4, 2007 at 2:30 am
(2) Blunderov says:

It sometimes bothers me that it seems unkind to upset someones’s pleasant but mistaken beliefs. But then I remember the ruthless and unprincipled proseltyzation which was inflicted on me and my fellow captives throughout my school years and beyond. Don’t like my belligerent attitude to religion? Then STFU!

June 4, 2007 at 4:01 am
(3) Tor Hershman says:

I usually don’t criticize, I usually analyze, and then, at times, I make a YouTube film as @


June 5, 2007 at 9:41 am
(4) Ned Breschel says:

A couple of comments come to mind. In response to Alan McKenzie’s comment above (1st comment), what he says is, of course, perfectly correct, but not limited to the left. In my experience most folks are reluctant to criticize groups they consider allies, or even oppressed. In terms of political debate, unfortunately, this trend to not criticize one’s allies, even when they are obviously wrong is not entirely unreasonable, especially when political opponents will often use any rhetorical ammunition available, fairly or not.

However, one would hope that, outside of political campaigns, debates could proceed fairly and folks would admit legitimate criticisms, perhaps would even respond to the criticisms rather than just attacking critics without addressing arguments (I can dream, can’t I! Actually, one would hope this could happen even in political campaigns. My dreams just generally aren’t that wild).

This kind of real debate actually can occur sometimes. While Madeleine Bunting seems shocked that some critics of religion would castigate moderates for failing to sufficiently criticize fundamentalists (though she offers no examples or quotes), some moderate thoughtful christians will actually admit this point. A friend who is a retired theology professor (not sure he is completely theistic. He studied under Tillich.) basically made the same critique of moderate christians in a couple conversations we had a decade or so ago. It would be nice if such discussions were the rule rather than the exception.

June 8, 2007 at 8:46 pm
(5) Pearl Ostroff says:

I think this comment is relevent here. Let me first say I am absolutely an atheist, but I was born to a Jewish family and antisemitism hits me viscerally. I became so concerned with the rise in antisemitic acts in Canada that I subscribed to the B’nai Brith newsletter that reports on such acts. I just wanted to be informed about such things while I tried to decide what I could do about it.

I quit when I saw an item that defended Christian fundamentalists. As far as the B’nai Brith is concerned one cannot criticize fundamentalists. This is because fundies support the state of Israel since this is one of the conditions for the second coming. I cannot support this. I cannot in anyway find common cause with fundamentalist Christians and I will not be party to it.

June 10, 2007 at 6:00 am
(6) Andy says:

What a load of rubbish that article is!Atheists loathe religion too much to be able to make valid criticism?By the same logic,you’d have to have some sympathy for racism and peadophilia before you were allowed to condemn them.

June 11, 2007 at 7:24 pm
(7) Alan Mackenzie says:

this trend to not criticize one’s allies, even when they are obviously wrong is not entirely unreasonable

Has this appeasement tactic worked in the past? We need to learn from the lessons of history, and edge slowly towards the truth, instead of sitting around worrying about a few bruised egos. If someone is wrong, then they need to assume responsibility for such. If they cannot accept being wrong, they deserve to be replaced with someone or something capable of error correction.

June 12, 2007 at 1:09 am
(8) Jack Rackham says:

I guess it escaped B’nai Brith’s notice that most, if not all, anti-semites in North America are Christian fundamentalists.

August 27, 2007 at 7:04 pm
(9) John Hanks says:

Appeasement only makes sense in the face of an overwhelming and almost all powerful enemy. It is a way of playing for time. Most of the time, however, the weakness is only a perception, so the appeaser gives in and is overwhelmed.

The Bush administration is a vicious and criminal mafia, which gives it a lot of energy. But, how many people really go along with this, even with overwhelming coverups by the media?

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