Yes, I know. I’ve already written about cultural equivalence and its various stupefying effects. But in some quarters it seems to be the default way of fudging almost any contentious issue. Here’s another illustration of how it dulls the senses to grimly comical effect. Writing in yesterday’s Guardian, Stuart Jeffries struggled to imply some bogus symmetry between religious zealots and those of us who view them as absurd and sometimes dangerous. In what seems an attempt to be ‘even-handed’, Jeffries described Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, as “voguishly intemperate”, before announcing, “The backlash against Dawkins' abusiveness, as well as his arguments, has started.”
Well, the backlash may well have started – indeed, it seems to have always been with us - but a convincing argument has yet to materialise. Though we have heard fits of sanctimonious umbrage and vaguely threatening noises like those quoted in Jeffries’ piece, made by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres: "If you exile religious communities to the margins, then they will start to speak the words of fire among consenting adults, and the threat to public order and the public arena, I think, will grow and grow."
Ominous rumblings aside, if the Bishop wanted to muster a counterargument to “fundamentalist atheism”, he could, for instance, suggest that agnosticism is more epistemologically sound than atheism. (Provided, that is, atheism is defined as a belief in the non-existence of God – a definition that is, I think, open to debate.) To the best of my knowledge, no rational, empirical or statistical tools exist for making a meaningful determination either way. One can neither prove nor disprove God’s existence by any conventional means; nor can one calculate the probability of His existence. But this isn’t the kind of objection we’re hearing from the Bishop of London, who nonetheless assumes he should be taken seriously.
What we’re hearing instead, and hearing very often, are statements like another quoted in Jeffries’ article, by Oxford theologian Alister McGrath: "We need to treat those who disagree with us with intellectual respect, rather than dismissing them - as Dawkins does - as liars, knaves and charlatans.”
This rather presupposes that intellectual respect could in all fairness be assigned to a person who presents no credible argument to support grandiose claims regarding the origin and nature of existence, and the alleged preferences of a hypothetical deity on whose behalf he affects to speak. Well, if you want to avoid being viewed as a knave or a pompous little fraud, it helps to have the goods to back up your claims. Appeals to paranormal authority and supernatural insight simply don’t count, and quoting scripture - however loudly one does it - is an epistemic non sequitur.
And a person’s credibility is hardly enhanced by disingenuous assertions of equivalence, as voiced in the same article by the Dean of Southwark, Colin Slee: "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.” In terms of actual unthinking menace, I’m pretty sure one could make some rough but real distinctions between Dawkins, jihadist tube bombers, Jewish settlers and the hermeneutic tantrums of Nigerian Anglicans. Contrary to Mr Slee’s self-serving equation, these things are not exactly comparable in terms of extremity and possible harm. By ‘harm’, I don’t mean being saddened or offended, or emotionally bruised. And I don’t mean being peeved, slighted or made to feel ridiculous. I mean, physically, mortally harmed, as by the detonation of home-made explosives.
If the Dean of Southwark doesn’t wish to be regarded as evasive, dishonest or inadequate, he might want to think more carefully before he opens his mouth. And if the Bishop of London feels relegated to the margins of intellectual credibility, perhaps he should consider his own role in getting there. And I think I’ll risk making one more distinction between Richard Dawkins and, say, the tube bomber Mohammed Sidique Khan. I’m pretty sure I could argue quite emphatically with Dawkins or any of his atheist peers – say, regarding agnosticism or epistemology - with no fear whatsoever that they would subsequently try to kill me, along with whoever happened to be standing near me at the time.