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What is the proper place for religion in Britain's public life?- [Also in Polish] - Comments

reckoner's Avatar Comment 1 by reckoner

This Will Hutton fellow seems rather thick.

I got pretty worn out by him, especially once he wrote, "I am agnostic rather than atheist, which means I am much more well-disposed to the values and sensibility of faith."

Sometimes I'm not sure which argument I dislike more: "God exists" or "I'm agnostic and don't have a belief in god (atheist), but please leave these poor, little, helpless religions alone!" Actually, I think I rather despise the latter much more. How smug.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 04:29:43 UTC | #919474

ZenDruid's Avatar Comment 2 by ZenDruid

What is the proper place for a death cult in public life? Gee, that's a tough one...

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 04:44:35 UTC | #919475

msloane's Avatar Comment 3 by msloane

Generally a good dialogue. Both parties were at least listening to one another and considering the other's points of view - even if they ended not entirely in agreement over some points.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 04:47:15 UTC | #919476

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 4 by Steve Zara

Now this is what we need. A calm debate in which Richard's opponents don't get to try and close things down with accusations of stridency or cheap rhetorical tricks.

I am quite astonished at Hutton's deeply mistaken view of secularism and its association (or lack of) with atheism. It shows a worrying degree of ignorance of politics and history for someone in his position.

I'm glad Richard managed to clear up so many misconceptions. Good work, in my view.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 04:54:47 UTC | #919477

rjohn19's Avatar Comment 5 by rjohn19

Not quite a "Happy Jack Fisheries" exchange but amusing all the same. He must be filled with helium to be agnostic and still able to tread so lightly on religious eggshells without breaking a one.

What he really doesn't seem to get is the monumental import of the study Richard's foundation commissioned. The results are astonishing and misleading at the same time.

The survey under-reports the true strength of secularism in the UK because people do not always answer truthfully when surveyed.

You can assure people until the cows come home from the Andromeda Galaxy that such polling is confidential but will they believe it in an age when not even their cellular phones are safe from Rupert Murdock? People, not all but many, will respond to the kinds of questions the survey asked as though Big Brother were listening- and prehaps he was.

It did not take the recent Canadian poll to tell us we were held by the general public in the same high esteem and trustworthiness as rapists. We all kind of intuited that, didn't we?

I cannot properly relate to the situation in the UK, but on my side of the world, I cannot imagine a church-going atheist (there are plenty of those even here in the Deep South for social, political or business reasons and I have met more than a few) answering the questions Richard's foundation posed with complete honesty because "confidential and anonymous" just ain't what it used to be.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 05:34:34 UTC | #919488

Starcrash's Avatar Comment 6 by Starcrash

I don't think "reason and science" are vastly different from atheism, and they're certainly not incompatible. . . there certainly are a lot of atheists here. Otherwise it appears to be a sound rebuttal.

Tolerance is a good thing, it really is. Mutual tolerance could work, but it simply has to be mutual (otherwise we are taken advantage of). Christianity keeps imposing on the laws of the UK and US, which is why it keeps becoming the enemy and never the ally.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 05:36:07 UTC | #919489

mmurray's Avatar Comment 7 by mmurray

I wonder where Hutton stands on faith schools and the raising of children in a religion.

Some background:


Sun, 19 Feb 2012 06:10:57 UTC | #919491

Steve Zara's Avatar Comment 8 by Steve Zara

This interview is interesting, because it suggests that both political atheism and secularism have a lot of work to do in the UK. If many share Hutton's view that secularism and atheism must be connected, then there needs to be an awful lot of education to explain the differences. It will require alliances with religious leaders who support secularism to help show that campaigns for secularism don't have atheism as an end goal.

Also, what needs to be far more widely understood is Richard's point that what we 'strident' atheists are about is persuasion, not compulsion regarding matters of personal religious belief. We are after nothing more troubling than an open on-going debate, certainly not forcing atheism on anyone. We want the same freedom to discuss religious ideas as we expect to have to discuss scientific, philosophical and political ideas. Far from being illiberal and intolerant, we want more liberalism and tolerance when it comes to the discussions of beliefs.

It looks like we have a lot to do to get that message across!

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 07:08:28 UTC | #919495

reckoner's Avatar Comment 9 by reckoner

"sensibility of faith"

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 07:44:16 UTC | #919496

Achamian's Avatar Comment 10 by Achamian

There's one thing that I continually see in these types of debates and it frustrates me to no end. Someone arguing against "pure secularism" (e.g. Hutton here) will conflate the ideas of "part of public life" and "government endorsed" when talking about religion. Religion should have just as much an opportunity to participate in the open/public marketplace of ideas as anything else. On the other hand, no religion has a right for the government to impose their ideas on others (e.g. faith schools).

I suppose this is obvious to everyone here, but I think there is an important distinction here that gets muddled all the time. There is a difference between private citizens/groups acting in the public sphere to promote religious ideas (totally fine) and government publicly using funds from everyone to impose/promote a particular religion. People like Hutton don't seem to get this.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 07:52:45 UTC | #919497

rjohn19's Avatar Comment 11 by rjohn19

SZara- A losing battle. The other team does not wish to engage; they just want us to go away.

And stridency is in the ear of the be-hearer. Some of our arguments seem strident because they cannot be answered logically. To them a low-volume, sensible statement must feel like we just stuck a screwdriver deep into the festering boils on the ends of their noses that they look in the mirror and deny exist.

I've listened to every debate on the subject I can find involving not just the Four Horsemen but anyone willing to stand up for reason and I'll bet you this-

Were it possible to find a true feral man (or woman), teach him/her English and let them listen to any one of these exchanges- guess which team they would identify as "strident and shrill?"

I think the best we can hope for is a fair shake in the courts. Judges, having been elevated to deific heights with power over life and death, tend to be less awed by the pretend god.

In the meanwhile, we should keep digging and jabbing away at the silliness and hope not for knock-out punch but a death from an accumulation of the blows.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 08:10:01 UTC | #919499

kev_s's Avatar Comment 12 by kev_s

"Liberalism is a doctrine of live and let live.." Great. Except what to do with religionists that don't share the same viewpoint? Give in out of 'respect'? ... or fight to keep the rights hard won over the last few years? (and extend them.) Woolly liberals are part of the problem.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 08:28:05 UTC | #919502

ColdThinker's Avatar Comment 13 by ColdThinker

This was a very civilized conversation, but still a bit frustrating to read. It made me think that Richard faces such a strong opposition because many people, as exemplified by Will Hutton, simply can't follow clear and logical arguments.

Hutton seemed nice, and I'm not saying he is unintelligent. But intelligence seems to come in varieties, some people just have difficulties understanding certain kinds of concepts. In this case Hutton seemed to lack reading comprehension. Frustratingly, Hutton just didn't seem to get the conceptual difference between atheism and secularism, opposition and intolerance. Or freedom to believe and freedom to impose these beliefs on others. He just didn’t get the point Richard was trying to make based on the poll. He just managed to understand that it is somehow against UK having the Christian values he seems to appreciate, so it must be opposed. So he came back repeating the same, as if he hadn’t read Richard’s response at all.

Actually, it reminded me of the point Richard once made about counting Hitler in the inflated numbers of nominal catholics. Some just failed to grasp the indisputable logic of this fair and even humorous remark. The kind deductive reasoning Richard often employs in his argument seems lost on them, and failing to understand, they just jump on the argument they ASSUME Richard makes, based on their own prejudice.

I sincerely respect Richard for endurance. He is just about the clearest of thinkers and writers I’ve ever read, always making his point with elegant, uncomplicated clarity. But it seems human brains are frustratingly differently wired, and to some brains, however civilised or educated, you just can’t get through. If this is the level of understanding among the liberal agnostic, I cry for the rest of us.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 08:33:36 UTC | #919505

mmurray's Avatar Comment 14 by mmurray

That, at least, is where my liberalism leads – and during our exchanges I've wondered if your position is not closer to mine than I suspected.

A fact Will Hutton could have found out years ago given he is supposed to be a journalist. Surely he could have spent half an hour with a pile of Richard's press cuttings? Or, given he lives near Woodstock which is close to Oxford, taken Richard out for an expense account lunch? The intellectual laziness is astounding.


Sun, 19 Feb 2012 08:44:20 UTC | #919511

IDLERACER's Avatar Comment 15 by IDLERACER

What is the proper place for religion in Britain's public life?

Um, how about history museums?

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 08:56:54 UTC | #919515

Sharpur's Avatar Comment 16 by Sharpur

Comment 13 by ColdThinker :

This was a very civilized conversation, but still a bit frustrating to read. It made me think that Richard faces such a strong opposition because many people, as exemplified by Will Hutton, simply can't follow clear and logical arguments.

Hutton seemed nice, and I'm not saying he is unintelligent. But intelligence seems to come in varieties, some people just have difficulties understanding certain kinds of concepts. In this case Hutton seemed to lack reading comprehension.

Reading comprehension of his own remarks at times; as I have remarked in that other place:

*"Nor do I understand what you mean by religious secularists: it sounds like "expansionary fiscal contraction" – a contradiction in terms."*

No, it doesn't. Secularist means someone who believes that: Civil policy should be conducted without the introduction of a religious element. It's quite straightforward to have a religious faith, but to also believe that.

*"Martin Luther King and Gandhi certainly had secular ambitions, but their inspiration and inner strength came from religious conviction."*

Yes, that's right. You see, you do understand it.

*"You've made your reputation by being one of the country's most articulate atheists. Don't muddy the waters!"*

And you've made your reputation by not understanding one of your sentences, in terms of the next one? Or that 'secularist' does not mean 'atheist''. The mud is between your ears.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 09:03:10 UTC | #919518

SomersetJohn's Avatar Comment 17 by SomersetJohn

Was this a "conversation" or a debate? The distinction is quite important.

If it's a conversation then Hutton comes across as a bit of a fool, certainly ignorant of the true meaning of certain terms such as secularism.

If it's a debate then Hutton has no choice but to defend his side of the debate; it's hardly his fault his side happens to be largely indefensible.

Personally I would like to see more of this type of debate.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 09:49:07 UTC | #919527

Mr Blue Sky's Avatar Comment 18 by Mr Blue Sky

Mr Hutton IMO is a fence sittter able to write about anything for money so long as he can be a bit contentious and remain apparently civilised and unthreatening. He is probably quite well paid to be a bit less shrill than some other reporters. I wasted a few minutes reading the exchanges and as expected once again Richard comes out ahead by a long way, so what's new?

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 09:54:22 UTC | #919530

irate_atheist's Avatar Comment 19 by irate_atheist

It's proper place, is in the history books.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 09:59:07 UTC | #919532

Hume's Razor's Avatar Comment 20 by Hume's Razor

Here's something I posted in the Guardian comments section (pardon my lousy english):

It should be pretty clear by now that anything other than discrimination in religion's favour will be construed as anti-religious discrimination or "imposing atheism". The appalling thing is that in the west in the 21st century "secularism" (i.e. the absence of any religious bias from politics) still needs defending at all.

In Saudi Arabia Hamza Kashgari faces prosecution, and possibly execution, for being insufficiently deferential when tweeting about Mohammed. In Indonesia Alexander Aan is in jail (after being violently attacked by the religious mob) for making an atheist remark on Facebook (atheism is officially a crime in Indonesia). In India Salman Rushdie had to cancel his appearance at the Jaipur literary festival because of death threats. In Amsterdam muslim extremists stormed a book launch by muslim reformist Irshad Manji, threatening to break her neck. In London the Atheism, Secularism, and Humanism Society at Queen Mary College had to cancel a meeting after a muslim began filming the attendants and threatening to kill them. And some people want to tell us to that "militant" secularism is really the problem here (Notice the double standard btw: Atheists are called "militant" if they use logic and humour, whereas militant believers use threats and violence.)

Atheists are not the ones who are advocating a double standard. We are not singling out religious beliefs for special criticism. We just don’t see why it should be singled out for special protection, and we are confident that no religion could survive in the absence of the astronomical double standards that are now applied in their favour. The moment we start judging religious claims by the same standards of logic and evidence by which even the believers themselves judge secular claims, then religion will have been dealt a mortal blow. Even weak scientific hypotheses generally have more going for them than any religious claim ever had (the argument from design is just embarrassing, and all the other arguments for God's existence are even worse), yet no scientist worth his weight in salt refrains from criticizing a weak hypothesis (or indeed a strong one) for fear of causing offence. Those who have good reasons for what they believe, appeal to those. Appeals to "respect for the beliefs of others" are only ever heard when there are no good reasons to appeal to. But a belief can hardly become any more worthy of respect for being based on bad reasons. As Sam Harris so eloquently put it: "Faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail".

There is an equally appalling moral double standard. As a thought experiment, imagine a ruler of some foreign country (preferably a white, western, secular one, otherwise we might just have to "respect his culture") who said and did all the same things that the biblical god supposedly said and did (ordering genocides, demanding rape victims to be stoned, threatening to force anyone who disobeys him to eat their children etc.). Now imagine the reaction if someone in our part of the world publically sided with this disgusting monster. My guess is that they would be met with public outrage and charges of “hate-speech”. Leftist radicals would organize protests wherever they went, and we would see attempts to have their views censored. Substitute our imaginary dictator for an equally imaginary god, and much of the indignation suddenly turns against those who criticize the same evil. If this is not hypocrisy, then nothing is.

Even if the Bible represented the very best of its day (which it clearly didn't), the best of the Iron Age is still awful by the standards of the 21st century and should not be allowed to influence modern life in any way. If you believe in a god who literally said and did everything that Yahweh is supposed to have said and done according to the Bible, and in spite of this you still take God's side, then there is nothing you can accuse anybody else of that is worse than what you, yourself actively favour. Religious moderates and liberals, on the other hand, may not promote intolerance and violence themselves, but through their disingenuous whitewashing of their holy texts they give legitimacy to books and doctrines that definitely promote intolerance and violence. And just in case you wonder, I have read the Bible, and if there is any overarching message to be derived from this disaster area of a book it's that God is not a moderate.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 09:59:25 UTC | #919533

Raiko's Avatar Comment 21 by Raiko

A fact Will Hutton could have found out years ago given he is supposed to be a journalist. Surely he could have spent half an hour with a pile of Richard's press cuttings? Or, given he lives near Woodstock which is close to Oxford, taken Richard out for an expense account lunch? The intellectual laziness is astounding.


Agreed! If you compare his first and his last letter, it goes from a rather direct "uhm, no - not part of your team, Richard" to "oh, we might actually kind of sort of be on the same team", and to those who actually have done their reading that was clear from the start.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 10:13:21 UTC | #919534

godsbelow's Avatar Comment 22 by godsbelow

Nor do I understand what you mean by religious secularists: it sounds like "expansionary fiscal contraction" – a contradiction in terms. Martin Luther King and Gandhi certainly had secular ambitions, but their inspiration and inner strength came from religious conviction. You've made your reputation by being one of the country's most articulate atheists. Don't muddy the waters!

Being ignorant is one thing. Entirely forgiveable, provided one aspires to knowledge. Being proud of being ignorant, however, is quite different. Hutton might consider looking up terms and concepts he doesn't understand - "secularism", for example, before pontificating about them. Helps to know what a word means, how it has been used historically, before making pronouncements about it. Best way to avoid embarrassing oneself.

"Don't muddy the waters" indeed!

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 10:16:38 UTC | #919535

AULhall's Avatar Comment 23 by AULhall

I was quite alarmed by Hutton's stance that secularism is not important in a nation where the risk of theocracy is not an immediate threat.

First, he fails to recognize that without an adherance to secularist ideals, religion is capable of doing harm to a society even when it does not possess the political might necessary to authoritatively control all aspects of government. Religious tax exemptions which effectively lower the amount of money the government has to spend on infrastructure or scientific research, as well as the allowance for miseducation of the youth through the granting of special status for certain faith-based "schools" are two such examples of this.

Secondly, he commits the same error as those who would forgo any right to privacy because they "have nothing to hide." To stand up for one's right to privacy is not an admission of guilt or an attempt to conceal. It is to recognize that without such rights, one has less protection from any malicious government entities of the future.

The laws of today must be written so as to prevent the fascist threats of tomorrow. By allowing religion to exist within a grey area of government influence, a nation undermines any future ability it might have had in preventing power grabs that are unforseeable at present.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 10:25:56 UTC | #919537

Alan4discussion's Avatar Comment 24 by Alan4discussion

Will Hutton is clearly a fudge and waffle liberal, rather than an objective realist with liberal views He is posturing as a nicey in the middle, regardless of the merits of the viewpoints and seems to make little effort to understand the issues.

There are many dimensions to liberalism – proportionality, due desert, mutual respect, belief in pluralism and tolerance of dissent –

So if we can also deal realistically with positions of no merit, and the issue of not tolerating the irrational intolerant, this looks reasonable.

but we liberals would no more want to pillory those who have faith than we would want to endorse a philosophy that for all its appeal to rationality does not respect difference.

Then comes the "but", with its total cop-out when it comes to objectively dealing with issues in the real world. Do we really tolerate and respect, fraudsters, liars, homoeopaths, mediums, charlatans, views from the asylum, and destructive religious and political views?

Many Liberal politicians are well known for facing in any direction where there are votes, opposing Labour Party policies where there is a Labour controlled council, opposing Tory policies where there are Tory controlled councils, and abstaining from votes, so they can disown both viewpoints by separately telling opposing groups of voters they, "Did not support or oppose this decision" according to the audience they are addressing!

Classic fudge in the middle posing politicians!

What we are seeing from the theist campaigns, is a move from directing Ad-hom venom at atheists, being extended, to direct this at rational secular views in general. They are losing sheeple membership, support from nominal cultural Xtians, and seeing a major challenge from educated people using evidence based science.

This is a projection of the usual theist-blinkers-narrow-minded approach, which sees only two viewpoints: their own dogma, and the (unspecified) "wrong one"!
The big, bad, "strawman" atheist is being revamped as the strawman secularist!

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 10:41:42 UTC | #919539

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 25 by Premiseless

"The reason why a secularist objects so strongly about the extension of religion into the public sphere – and even its private practice – is because its adherents are delusional, and, using your own words, imposing a delusional set of values and practices on others."

This surprised me.

It suggests, if true to his heart, that Will Hutton is a theist! I remember it well, concept resilience as to what the atheist heart feels. A love bound to a fiction it imagines real sees insincerity in the truth of its teacher.

Surely Will isn't comfort jacketing his life in the soft cushions of theistic affluence and camaraderie his associations have learned to resign themselves to? Though essentially isn't this what all nationalism reduces to? Our cultural Anglicanism even? Isn't it an appeal to emotion that we easily delude a free pass into our consciousness, denied say, an aborigine in the context of our own culture? Isn't this the bottom line? Reason absent emotional bondage to the tenets and 'green pastures' of our upbringing might dull our life experience, therefore why tread those bleak corridors when you can relax amidst the homelands of your youth, though religiously framed to boot? There seems a certain nostalgia that Will actually loves more than reason. There seems a certain cradle of life he has acquired that appreciates his having done so more than the reason behind it. Ipso facto love?

I think this is what is partly in the mix? A metaphor maybe? How can you love this person? It's unreasonable surely?

The problem persists however, as soon as you say, "This is whom everyone should love and I reserve the rights to disrespect any who don't - for life!

Cue god! Theists raise the curtain to a stage with an imaginary cast. Atheists wonder at the scenery.

No wonder my hippocampus had everyone pitching tents in my head then leaving me a shed load of pegs behind for brains. Will, your life seems to have accessed a stairway to some pearly gates, but for many of us, the mirage left us all eating sand! Surely this is no measure of 'faith' from any side of the fence of reason?

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 10:48:13 UTC | #919541

quisquose's Avatar Comment 26 by quisquose

Comment 8 by Steve Zara

It looks like we have a lot to do to get that message across!

It certainly does.

I've just been listening to Broadcasting House on Radio 4, and one of the guests referred to this article and quoted some of Hutton's words, particularly the reference to Jürgen Habermas, and asked why we can't have this tolerant approach rather than the intolerance of Dawkins.

Infuriating. The deliberate attempts to conflate secularism with atheism to protect religious privilege seems to have been quite successful.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 10:58:27 UTC | #919543

"'s Avatar Comment 27 by "

Excellent response by RD - Government imposition of policy based on religious dogma should be opposed by all liberals.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 11:00:33 UTC | #919546

drumdaddy's Avatar Comment 28 by drumdaddy

Another inflation of the number of religious persons appearing in the census results from a head of the household filling out the census form and stating that all of his children are similarly religious.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 11:14:05 UTC | #919548

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 29 by AtheistEgbert

It's great to see Richard Dawkins self-identify as a committed liberal.

I think we should stop using the identities pushed by our opponents--"new atheist" or "militant" or even "secularist", and start using the term "liberal" because this starts getting us allies.

We are in a culture war now, a political war, and it is no longer about people who are only ignorant and misguided. We are now fighting against a system and establishment that is deceptive, manipulative and will do anything to smear and destroy our aims, by hook or by crook.

It is our potential allies, fellow liberals, that are misguided and have been deceived themselves by the establishment. We need to be both strident and confrontational with our enemies, but we need to be open and understanding to our allies.

Sun, 19 Feb 2012 11:16:24 UTC | #919550

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 30 by Premiseless

An incomplete, time restrained, flow of ideas, but relevant:

Why do I have a problem with religious tolerance, or more to the point belief tolerance?

1) It expects me to respect wild claim.

2) It evolves into requiring me to subvert my mind to 1).

3) It demands inoculation against reason.

4) It demands reason to support 1).

5) It usurps my rights due 4).

6) It cumulatively diminishes a society founded upon reason.

7) It seeks power to do 6).

How could I do well out of belief, (money and friends) rather than the relative isolation unbelief might place me in?

1) I could pretend to believe - a far stronger position than being a believer IF my mind is set like a stockbroker + see below

2) I could coerce believers to support my rational exploitation of their delusional loyalties.

3) I could gather myself some large group of support.

4) I could network enough to earn a reasonable or good income.

5) Forget ethics and be an investor wherever it returns a profit. See religions worldwide.

6) I am now on the conveyor belt to power (go to 1) in the first list.

  • This is not a snide comment at Will - he knows what I mean about ethical investment - which is another failing of mine since when I had a little money I refused to put it in oil knowing full well it was the best thing to 'save me' and so I fell due my principles which could be what Will means about atheism - getting some to 'fall due principle to reason' that will only harm their affluence. Belief is a subset of the crude umbrella, money - along with atheism.
  • Sun, 19 Feb 2012 11:28:22 UTC | #919555