This is pretty small beer, but seems worthwhile making a short comment on. In the Independent Mark Steel has a very short piece which claims that “just because you’re an atheist doesn’t make you rational.” Indeed, it doesn’t. Poor Mark. He made some remarks about Richard Dawkins and got fuming responses, he says. But then he goes on to say this:
It’s not the rationality that’s alarming, it’s the smugness. Instead of trying to understand religion, if the modern atheist met a peasant in a village in Namibia, he’d shriek: “Of course, GOD didn’t create light, it’s a mixture of waves and particles you idiot, it’s OBVIOUS.”
But of course this is nonsense. A modern atheist would no more shriek such a thing at a peasant in Namibia, than at a journalist at the Independent. Some modern atheists might write internet comments that seem not very short of shrieking, but then the internet is a medium which both encourages shrieking and makes innocuous words seem like a shriek.
What’s strange about Mark Steel’s piece is that he lards his very short article with comments about what some anonymous atheist has said, and some irrelevancy about missing the point by making the refutation of God one’s primary aim. For instance, he speaks about an interview with Giles Fraser — the one who quit as a canon of St. Paul’s cathedral, and how, during the interview, in which, we are to understand, Fraser spoke with “inspiring compassion”, he was interrupted by an atheist
who declared the Christian project is doomed because we’re scientifically programmed to look after ourselves at the expense of anyone else. So the only humane rational scientific thought to have was “GO Christian, GO, Big up for the Jesus posse.”
I’m not confident I know what this means, but I do not think this is representative of the atheist project any more than I think that Giles Fraser is representative of the Christian project. Nor do I know any atheists who would think that this was a particularly useful interruption.
But by this time the article is almost finished, and he ends on this note:
Similarly, Hitchens appears to have become obsessed with defying religion, so made himself one of the most enthusiastic supporters for a war he saw as being against the craziness of Islam. But the war wasn’t about God or Allah, it was about more earthly matters, which the people conducting that war understood. And, as that war became predictably disastrous, they were grateful for whatever support they could find. And so a man dedicated to disproving GOD was praised in his death by the soppiest, sickliest, most, [sic] irrational, hypocritical Christian of them all.
This just seems confused to me, and I wonder why anyone thought it worthwhile saying, and, moreover, why the Independent thought it worthy of publication. (And, just so that Mark Steel is clear on this point, since religion is really about earthly matters, even when it most pretends to speak about the divine, wars can be about God or Allah even if these non-existent worthies are not mentioned.) Even if Tony Blair is ”the soppiest, sickliest, most irrational, hypocritical Christian of them all”, it’s hard to imagine what Mark Steel had in mind by taking Christopher Hitchens’ death, anonymous atheist commenters, some freeform abuse of Tony Blair, and a few ill-chosen words into a hat, shaking them vigorously, and then writing down the jumbled ideas that resulted. The moral of the story is, just because you write something about atheism not making people rational, doesn’t mean that what you have written manages to achieve rationality. Why do people think that, by writing such empty-headed nonsense, they are doing anything useful? If it’s meant as comedy, Mark, it simply falls flat — this, since Mark Steel is reputed to be a stand-up comic. Apparently, he can’t even do it sitting down. If it’s meant as serious journalism, the man needs to go back to school.