A Perfect Storm – Militant Atheism and Fundamentalist Islam


Adrian Martinez on ‘the iron fist of short term thinking that always sees imposing control as the answer, rather than understanding the real issues that need to be addressed, and building the relationships needed to address them’. 

The mother of Brighton jihadi, Ibrahim Kamara (19), was interviewed on BBC radio 4 on Monday morning. He is said to have died, along with five more British nationals, after a US air strike on Aleppo in Syria.  His mother said that her son was a normal boy who had fallen in with the wrong people.

Last month, Nick Cohen complained in the Observer that ‘cowardly intellectuals’ attack “aggressive secularism” and “militant atheists”, when they should instead attack those who are really aggressive and likely to throw bombs, namely fundamentalist Islamists.  He complained that it is the Christian right who may “encourage a future Conservative government to repeal the Human rights Act”.

Nick Cohen misunderstands the problem.  Militant fundamentalists and so-called militant atheists are not separate issues/extremes. They are connected and related strands of thought with contrasting expressions of intolerance. One is clearly murderous and violent, and that is also an expression of context. There is a more causal relationship between the two than many atheists would recognise or allow. It is not a matter of ‘moral equivalence’ as Cohen would have it, it is more a matter of whom we are talking to.

If and when I condemn the violence of Islamist groups I am not talking to or arguing with them. They are not members of a community to which I belong and I cannot talk to them in the same way I talk with and to my peers.

I can argue with Muslims and atheists about what religion is, what fundamentalism is, and how best to engage with the problem of fanatical Islamism; and we may agree that we mutually detest the murder and deaths that such groups inflict on mainly their own neighbours and some of our young men and women.

There is no shortage of people lining up to condemn groups like the Islamic State. This is already part of the tired, hyperbolic rhetoric of condemnation that our politicians ritualistically engage in: ‘brutal’, ‘barbaric, ‘medievalist’, ‘horrifying’ etc.

When I critique the aggressive rhetoric of the new atheists it is because these are people I call my own and I think that they might listen to me. Small hope I know.

When Cameron or Obama et al condemn the violence of groups like the Islamic State, this is more of a gesture to us in the West. It is a performance of condemnation for them and sympathy for us, rather than any speech act to IS or al Qaeda. It is what we expect, and it is for our benefit.  Regardless of any genuine feeling they may have on the matter, they simply must perform such gestures of condemnation and sympathy.

These speech acts may be monitored by those they purport to address, but again, how they are heard and understood is a matter for conjecture.

If an IS captain has just ordered the beheading of a British NGO worker or journalist and listens to the British PM condemning those actions in the strongest terms, then that will be added to the evidence of a job well done.  It may indeed legitimise their authority as a leader of a war against Britain and the US, since others will now see that they have struck home.

The very last thing such condemnation is likely to do is to give pause for thought, to lead to a re-evaluation of principles or to open negotiations, but then, that was never its purpose.  There are other channels for those purposes, and they are seldom reported.

Of course, these performances happen on the other side of the conflict too, on YouTube, via CDs and DVDs, on the radio, or in the field.  From what I have seen, these condemn western imperialism, violence and neo-colonialism in the Middle East using the language of the ‘caliphate’.  Again, this is often delivered by an apparently pious Muslim as if a religious sermon or discourse. It isn’t so much for our benefit, except perhaps to give imagery to our fear of ‘the other’; but truth be told, who can argue with a critique of multinational and neo-colonial manipulation of the Middle East in order to gain control of raw materials and further western business interests?

In ‘Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern’ John Gray argues that we misunderstand ourselves as much as ‘the other’ (and those we are ‘othering’ – some are our own sons and daughters) when we represent these groups as throwbacks, primitive, barbaric or medieval.  This is a similar misunderstanding to the notion that we are involved in a ‘clash of civilisations’.  Before packing their bags for Syria wannabe Jihadists Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who both pleaded guilty to terrorism offences in July, ordered from Amazon ‘Islam for Dummies’ and ‘The Koran for Dummies’. Such was their knowledge and understanding of Islam.

Anthropologist Scott Atran, in his testimony to the US Senate of March 2010, said:

“What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world”.

He described would be jihadists as “bored, under­employed, overqualified and underwhelmed” young men for whom “jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer . . . thrilling, glorious and cool”.

A briefing note prepared by MI5 on radicalisation leaked to the Guardian in 2008 concluded that;

“Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could… be regarded as religious novices…. a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation”.

Both al-Qaeda and the IS represent a break from traditional Muslim philosophical grounding and owe more philosophically to Nietzsche, Camus, Fanon and 20th C European Bolshevist, Nazi and anarchist movements in their utopian idealism to remake humanity.  As such they are products of modernity and modern globalisation. Egypt’s grand Mufti, spokesperson for Wahhabism, one of the most conservative and fundamentalist strands of Sunni Islam, has condemned ISIS for parting from Muslim norms and values (even if, ironically enough, it has funded its birth).

John Gray and Mary Midgley both critique the western modernist myth that the world is involved in an inevitable path of ‘progress’, which suggests that we will become more reasonable and more alike (more liberal and secular), that humanity is perfectable.

The utopian belief in ‘perfectable progress’ is shared by radical Islamists who believe in something very similar.

Our Western myth is informed by the positivist secular religious dream of Auguste Comte and Saint-Simon who believed that science would end all human ills, a dream which has led to the promulgation of global capitalism as a manifestly rational way of ordering society, and it has led to totalitarianism whether in its capitalist, fascist or socialist forms. All of them promoting a supposedly rationally managed method of achieving the same.

Positivism influenced both Marxism and neo-liberal “free market” ideology, both of which adopted the idea that science (and via technology, history) is cumulative, universal, and “the One Way” to truth. The Christian doctrines of the redemptive direction of history, and the sole authority of Christian salvation were absorbed into the key drivers of 20th century politics.

The Islamist myth is both informed by the same philosophical roots, and is critical of the outcomes.  A great summary of Gray’s argument is in his conclusion to his book ‘Al Qaeda and what it means to be Modern’, where he paraphrases Karl Kraus’s definition of psychoanalysis:

‘Radical Islam is a symptom of the disease of which it is pretending to be the cure.’


The new wave of atheism is born of a frustration that the modernist enlightenment hope has not resulted in us becoming more rational and less religious, and has not resulted in us creating fairer and saner society.  I suspect that to vent that frustration by arguing in the aggressive and entitled way we hear many new atheists doing is to pour petrol on a fire.

On the contrary, what is needed is more education, more support for youth and a capacity for critical thinking, reflection and empathy.

I suspect we are brewing a ‘perfect storm’ out of a confluence of major historical forces, ‘mundane’ policy choices, and our largely unquestioned worldview:

  1. Conquest: Historically we have invaded other lands and, because our system and its elites want their raw materials, we attempt to convert them to Christianity (or feminism, or democracy and now, atheism).  This expression of colonial and neo-colonial imperialism has been succumbed to, resisted and accommodated in many diverse ways depending on which part of the world you go to. Al-Qaeda, Islamism, and the Wahhabi movement are just the last in a long line of reactions, some less enlightened than others.
  2. Rejecting religion as part of the plural mix: The lack of a nuanced and developed core curriculum in Religious Education (especially in englandshire) concerning religion, philosophy of religion and its corollaries means that there is very little comprehension of what it means to call oneself religious, and what it means to live in a plural society. It has even been claimed that many young folk cannot now even understand what ‘The Life of Brian’ is about, and what’s so funny about it.
  3. Refusal to integrate other ethnicities: Failure to integrate minority ethnic communities and ensure a quality education and opportunity for our own young second and third generation Asian and BME men and women (Cameron promised to do this when he took office and has effectively done very little). This political refusal means that, for those unmoored, the temptations to seek certainty and glory, instead of unemployment and binge drinking, are just a plane ticket away.
  4. Constant war, now justified by so-called humanitarian ‘liberal interventionism’ and imperialist projects across the Arab world involving the mass murder of (mostly) Muslims.
  5. Growing ‘secular’ intolerance of faith of any kind leading to breakdown of dialogue and increasing fracturing of debate and ghettoising on the internet.
  6. Anchorless Consumers: We have been raising our children in a neoliberal society in which they are defined as consumers first, where systems of values are privatised, where they are, “cast in a condition of liminal drift, with no way of knowing whether it is transitory or permanent” (Zygmunt Bauman).
  7. Ecocide: The myth of progress and continuous consumption are leading us to an ecological catastrophe which we are unlikely to survive, unless we can stop ‘fiddling’ and stop arguing about who is right, and instead understand our part in this drive for utopia (meaning no-place) that tears apart the fabric of the places and communities where we live and which we depend on.

So-called ‘militant’ atheists argue as if all that has to happen is for people to give up their childish, stupid superstitions and beliefs in “imaginary friends and sky pixies”. Such straw man arguments betraying just how little understanding they have of what they are attacking.  They assume religion is one single thing (even atheism is not one single thing), and that it is backward or primitive rather than many different kinds of overlapping cultural phenomena.

Durkheim suggested, in one of many failed attempts to arrive at a definitive definition, that religion is:

“a unified set of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions – beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community called a church”.

How many social phenomena might fit this definition?

Nick Cohen, and others advocating this new form of secularism, regard the widespread growth of fundamentalist Islam as something to do with our having been too soft and ‘polite’. I would refer him to the British orchestrated coup d’état which overthrew the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh from office and replaced him with a long line of puppet Shah’s which finally led to the Iranian revolution and the first fundamentalist anti-western power in the Middle East. This is a good example of how polite we can be when we really try. It is a good example of the iron fist of short term thinking that always sees imposing control as the answer, rather than understanding the real issues that need to be addressed, and building the relationships needed to address them.

I have yet to read a ‘militant’ atheist who understands:

  • That religion is much more than merely a set of propositions which are self-evidently false;
  • That religion also involves a set of practices structuring a day, a year, a life, concerned with identity, meaning, purpose and community;
  • That it is a way or “form of life” (Wittgenstein), that it has no single essence but rather has “family resemblances” (ibid) to other religions and other less explicitly religious cultural practices and beliefs;
  • That it is not merely a matter of individual choice, although it can be if that individual is well resourced. Religious faith is more to do with belonging and yet many belong to their religious communities without assenting to all of its tenets or proclamations of their faith leaders; and
  • That there are many tensions within these communities up to and including atheist members of them.

Cohen wishes we had taken on militant religion and exposed its texts, decried its doctrines and found arguments to persuade young men not to go to Syria, as if these young men would engage in such arguments.

Surely, instead, we need to value those young men more, and give them more to live for than the narrow, materialist, commodified culture to participate in. A culture which defines them as consumers within that culture, even if they are unemployed or uneducated consumers with precious little capacity to consume the most delectable offerings capitalism has to offer. Dare I say: we should have loved them more?


Comments (48)

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  1. Bryan Weir says:

    What absolute nonsense.

    1. mickeycool34 says:

      Sorry but someone speaking sense for a change. We live in a culture so wrapped up in its money, status and own blinkered view of the world. I dont agree with loving them more but certainly there are questions on why they do what they do and id suggest they do behead as the ideology they bought into is wrong doesnt make them less evil what they do but at least as a Christian i can see why they may do it

  2. Has this site been hacked. To let this rubbish have house room.

    1. Iain Hill says:

      Get a grip, Bella!

  3. Stuart Murray says:

    I was with you, kind of, until the bonkers last paragraph.

    “Surely, instead, we need to value those young men more, and give them more to live for than the narrow, materialist, commodified culture to participate in.”

    The materialist, commodified culture leads to people beheading others?

    The jihadists just laugh at you.

    1. Bill McLelland says:

      Hi Stuart, I disagree with you about the last paragraph. If I was 17 again and faced with the choice of a tedious minimum wage job or going abroad to take part in something of global significance, to fight against evil (imperialism) as I saw it, I know what I would choose. Does nobody remember the Spanish Civil War, when idealists from this country went to fight against fascism?

      What attracts many people to the Independence cause is not party politics, but the chance to do things differently. Many feel that Western society is empty, its values shallow, the system set up to benefit the few at the expense of the many. People yearn for a life of significance, idealistic young people especially and if our society is more concerned with profit rather than people, then they will find that significance elsewhere – I’m not condoning IS, just explaining its attraction.

      For me, Independence is not just about having our own government, but about changing our values, how we think and how we do things. Because right now, the prevailing values are leading us to catastrophe.

      1. Stuart Murray says:

        Hi Bill, if you and I had a conversation I think we’d agree on almost everything. But don’t you yourself find it interesting that you’d have been willing to travel abroad to fight fascism, but prefer non-violence/reconcilliation when it comes to ‘Islamic’ extremism? We all talk of double-standards, and many would point to it in this case. Sweden is one of the fairest societies in the world, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference to the Swedes who are part of ISIS and now beheading people in Syria.

      2. mickeycool34 says:

        Bill i agree with you in that sense western society is very shallow unequal and many can see this. I dont think suddenly if we all become scientific the world is magically going to be better or if we all believe in progressing (we progress anyway we dont have to believe in utopia for this to happen). A big unequality thing is how society views jobs, work money status it has left large numbers who dont fit the ‘perfect’ label feeling pretty miserable instead of actually incorporating people in various ways communicating with these people we might even find we are more productive. I dont see how simply attacking religious people will solve these issues? If you believe in a utopian view and it doesnt happen when you think it should i guess id be angry and start attacking people but as i dont i am quite happy at the moment really. This militant atheism is as intolerant as the jihadists

  4. billcraig44 says:

    I would describe it as interesting, and might even agree with some of it, although I have to observe that religious people seem determined to pretend that “atheism” is just another religion when, in fact, it is the absence of a belief in “God”.

    I certainly agree with the final paragraph, even though I could be described as a “militant atheist” who sees all religions as, at best, very strange.

    1. Stuart Murray says:

      Mr Henning believed in the final paragraph too. If you agree with the paragraph, what would be your suggestion for reaching out and showing love to these young men?

    2. Coatbrig says:

      Atheism as practised by the “militant atheists” under consideration is undoubtedly religious in nature. (see the review of Dawkin’s autobiography in the New Statesman with the reviewer’s conclusion “HIs atheism is its own kind of narrow religion”) Dawkins et al refuse to acknowledge the fact that their presuppositions are articles of faith.
      There is much to agree with in the article. I agree that the universal commitment to economic growth rather than efficiency/sustainability is bad for the planet. I agree that intolerance in all shapes and colours is the breeding ground of wars.
      Where I part company with the author is in the way he lumps all religions together. This is postmodern nonsense.. Let each claim to truth be put to the test. Islam is very different from Christianity.

      1. Ian Vallance says:

        In what sense is Christianity different from Islam? Have many forms of Christianity never had their zealots and those willing to mercilessly murder those who don’t share their world view? Never indulged in acts of persecution of those not in their gang, when they gained control of a region? Never used religion to justify brutal expansion and conquest? And were those who undertook these vicious acts maybe not often more opportunists, adventurers and chancers than devout knowledgeable practitioners of their apparent faith?
        That Christianities (Don’t many Christians not even accept that the word can be plural?) don’t typically have them now is surely more to do with the post enlightenment triumph of secularism, than with any innate tolerance within Christianity. It is indeed ironically secularism that has better ensured freedom of religion than any pre-enlightenment religiously dominated state ever did and ever would. E.g. Was their religious diversity in 17th Century Spain? Was the idea of Catholic emancipation act in Britain introduced by the Church of England authorities?
        The problem for all religions is that given that they have no objective basis on which to build their theologies/ideologies on, and are all essentially tautologically self bootstrapped on their own theology,they have to rely on ritual, irrational dogma and sophistry to justify their call to faith. And this means they they have the potential for dogmatic exclusion of others built into them. And human nature means that exclusion will almost always lead to persecution, it to easy to blame something about the world you don’t like on folk who don’t think, act or behave like you.

      2. Coatbrig says:

        Christianity is different from Islam in that the Koran urges jihad whilst Christ urges turning the other cheek to violence. Militant Islam is,however, consistent with its Scriptures.
        Militant atheism behaves like a religion ( in its desires to proselytise and in the faith required to hold to its unproveable assumptions in relation to origins, morality and personality) Because it does not acknowledge its “faith” character but presents itself as the evidence based arbiter of reality it frequently lacks tolerance towards other faiths.
        John Knox gave our nation a vision for a school in very parish and and energised practical compassion for the poor. The revitalisation of Christianity led to a flowering of education, discovery and industry in Scotland. I don’t see atheism replacing Christianity as a power for good and I don’t see it as potentially any more tolerant than Islam.

      3. Islam is not much different from Christianity at all. Take it from a Muslim. I’ve never seen much difference between my religion and that of many of my friends. We have the same values.

        In fact the Bible, the Torah and various other scriptures are all true scriptures and religions according to Islam, at least, their original form, hence why every single prophet in Christianity is mentioned in the Quran-as well as the bible and the torah mentioned in the Quran as the books revealed by god to his messengers-and founders of these various true religions.

        Every teaching in the bible, down to the original biblical teaching of Jesus Christ that to eat the meat of a pig is forbidden, is in the Quran, hence the teaching that to forgive someone is mentioned in the quran.

        But while the torah says eye for an eye, because at that specific time in humanity, there was no other way the Jews could survive their oppressors, and the bible says turn the other cheek, because at the coming of Jesus, this was the only way the Jews could build a healthier society and the time for revenge was over, the Quran says you have both options, but to forgive is surely better. I’ve read the Quran, I read it, I’ve grown up by its teachings, I would know. It;s interesting to note that those most in danger of radicalisation are lost, young muslim men who have not grown up in very religious households. The 9/11 bombers, after all, went to strip clubs in Vegas before carrying out their attack. The Boston bombers were potheads. The killer of Fusileer Lee Rigby ordered “Islam for Dummies” and the “Koran for Dummies” on the Internet before he murdered.

        Jihad is an arabic word which means ‘to strive’.

        There are two types of Jihad.

        The first one, to defend oneself when one is physically attacked and oppressed due to their religion (self-defence only.). The second, the greater jihad, to strive within oneself to rid oneself of evil etc and become a better person.

        This holy war rubbish that the creation of Wahhabism, its forceful teachings and utter utter zealous and perverted interpretations of islam in the 18th century has brought us nothing but what would drive human beings into wild beasts-as we see in the case of ISIS etc.

        There is no need for physical jihad in this day and age where people of all religions are given shelter and freedom to practice their faith in the west.

        The extremist minority within islam is responsible for Muslims being led astray and away from the true meaning of Jihad, and mainstream media is responsible for non Muslims being led astray from what Jihad truly means.

        It is very easy for both groups to misinterpret the meaning of Jihad for their own political/ideological ends.

        But its also easy to see that Islamic extremism has not borne fruit till the last century. It should be remembered when here in the west was going throughout e dark ages (burning woman as ‘witches’ for showing signs of intelligence etc), islam was producing scientists and philosophers and mathematicians (many of them women) and Universities like that of Baghdad, and sheltering Jews who were fleeing the persecution and anti-semitism of Christian Europe for the rights, the dignity and the status that, i.e Moorish Spain afforded them

        It is true that most religions and cultures must have their dark ages. Muslims are going through theirs now. However, it seems their dark ages will be relatively shorter than the of Christianity’s, which lasted centuries upon centuries of bloodshed. Why? Because today, we have far more advanced weapons, and a nuclear threat for the whole world is very very real.

    3. Ian Campbell says:

      Atheism is not an absence of belief in God. To be certain that there is no god is as much as a belief as to believe that there is a god. You might get away with defining agnosticism as an absence of belief in God but not atheism.

      1. Ian Vallance says:

        Agnosticism is not the absence of belief in a God, It is the idea that the answer to the question “Is there a God?” is unknowable.An agnostic might acknowledge that the question of there being a prime mover/creator of the universe is unknowable but they would also go on to argue that their is no objective or even very logical means to conclude that any particular religion can represent the will of such a being even if they existed. Agnostics more reject religion than the idea that there is/could be a god.

      2. Coatbrig says:

        Thanks for that. You helpfully point out that it is important to distinguish between what a religion teaches and the actions of people who use that religion as a cover for their own particular agenda. I know that there is a great deal of variation within Islam and that the vast majority of Moslems are peace loving. However it is difficult to read the references to jihad in the Koran and not see that they are capable of inciting the kind of violence that we are seeing today. If more Islamic leaders were to publically denounce IS it would do far more good than western intervention.
        Don’t buy the line that all religions are the same. I’m sure that you don’t but your opening sentence is a sound bite designed to fit the modern antipathy to absolute truth.
        BTW it is rather daft to claim that Christ taught that eating pork was sinful when his coming fulflilled so as to dispense with the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. Many of his confrontations with legalistic Pharisees centred on such issues. Salvation doesn’t come by such rule keeping.

      3. mickeycool34 says:

        Problem with your argument Ian V is you see science as a new religion as opposed to understanding where people of faith come from and respecting it. I respect peoples right to not believe in god and wouldnt even question and argue with them. Thats the difference. Seeing the world has to be all reason that has to be proved is quite bizarre to me. Pol Pot, Stalin, Mussulini were all atheists but all did bad things. There are good and bad humans simples! There are many reasons people do bad things not simply religion. But a claim being made that all humans can be perfect is as mad to me as IS beheading people

  5. oighrig says:

    We cannot bomb them into oblivion, can we? So what is the alternative? The more we react with violence the more violence we breed. Have we not created this horror by going to war over the last century assuming we can control all threats by doing so? You may not agree with everything here but its food for thought. Ask any teacher how youth are alienated and why they join gangs. Then add wars, dislocated societies, shattered families, disrupted value systems and multiple other horrors. That’s how you arrive at a situation like this. So what are we doing about it? Same old, same old.

  6. Dawn in NL says:

    I find myself in broad agreement with the writer. This is a logical extension of our premise that the WM government is broken. The issues in Islamic countries are caused by the colonial past, the superiority and sense of entitlement of citizens of these ex-colonial powers. We are responsible and bombing innocents is not the answer.

    Remember we are victims of propaganda in all things not just Scotland. We need to open our eyes to all the problems and find solutions and not condemn our fellow human beings to constant terror.

  7. Stuart Murray says:

    The article perfectly illustrates the need to ask “Who are you?” whenever a leader/s ask you to “Follow me”. We all want independence. But scratch below the surface and find out who-is-who before following anyone.

  8. Mike says:

    My experience is that most aithiests and also those that claiming to be “religious” argue from a duelistic intellectual point of view that by necessity cannot “understand” what “belief” and “god” are signposts to.ⁿ

  9. Overwhelmingly, I’m with you. However, I’d also probably label myself as a militant atheist.

    This for me means that it’s incumbent upon me to understand the human urges that drive the widespread acceptance and community / familial / national etc etc uses of religion. In other words, without attempting to grasp the subtleties of religion and its influences, you can’t do justice to your own belief. And the connected claim to the superiority of the west that can come from atheism is … just silly really.

    Nice one. That was a good read.

  10. Stuart Murray says:

    How many of the brave left-wing idealists who populate these pages are now in eastern Ukraine, fighting against the fascist Kiev junta? It’s easy to wear Che Guevara t-shirts, easy to associate with George Orwell’s bravery in the Spanish Civil War. But there are thousands of ‘pro-Russia’ rebels fighting fascism right now in Europe (many are being beheaded by alienated Chechens, who suffered from having tedious jobs back home).

    1. Brian Fleming says:

      Stuart, in case you are unaware, Chechnya was a bastion of Sufi Islam, a very relaxed and tolerant form of the religion, until Russia destroyed the country and pushed it into the embrace of the Islamists, the only people willing to help them.Given what Putin’s Russia has done to Chechnya, the actions of the ‘alienated Chechens’ seems quite understandable. And what’s with the “fascist Kiev junta”, “fighting fascism” etc? Do me a favour.

  11. Alastair McIntosh says:

    To me this is a brilliant analysis, especially the compassion and call to relationality of the last paragraph. Martinez points out “That religion is much more than merely a set of propositions which are self-evidently false.” For some people religion is based on evidence – on transformative experience in consciousness. Arguably this is a deep-held hunger that a materialistic world denies in the name of reason, but that as an all-too-human form of reason that is unable or unwilling to see beyond its own self-referential paradigms.

    1. barakabe says:

      The only post that has went beyond the usual bifurcated superficiality of either/or, true-false propositions debated for god knows how long ( whoops sorry!) in the West- in many ways people like Dawkins are just as ignorant as the idiots that propagate fundamentalism. It’s rare for someone in our culture to lucidly see the limitations of reason & how it acts as an effective censor for many subtler, wider, deeper facets of human experience that lie beyond the survival matrix of everyday “concrete thinking” championed by rationalists of nearly every persuasion.

      1. Stuart Murray says:

        By all means take a trip to visit Dawkins, with your guitar and spiritual enlightenment books in hand, to put forward your uncensored ideas. On the second day, you could take a trip to the Turkish border and stroll across to make the same appeal to the young chaps at ISIS. I expect we’ll see you on the news at the end of Day 3, rather than Day 2.

  12. Stuart Murray says:

    A documentary from Norway, narrated by an Iraqi (who is clearly suffering from false consciousness/prone to scaremongering).

  13. denismollison says:

    There are some good points about materialism amd demonising muslims here, but the idea that there’s a significant body of “militant atheists” on a par with religiously inspired militants is nonsense. Plenty of atheists, myself among them, are anti-materialist, and can see that today’s dreadful situation in the middle east is largely the fault of outside interference by western powers wanting to control its resources: British forces were bombing Iraq because of oil in the 1920s and 30s, Iran was destabilised by the British/US coup that overthrew Mossadegh in the 1950s, etc.

    1. Donald Howitt says:

      I think the word “militant” is an important qualifier here…..

  14. BobbyDarin says:

    ‘Militant atheism’? What a load of nonsense. You can’t even point to anyone who fulfills this description other than Nick Cohen, and I cannot see anything ‘militant’ about someone writing an opinion piece in a newspaper. If arguing a point of view in public has become all that’s necessary to be described as militant, then you might as well describe Bella Caledonia’s writers as ‘militant nationalists’. When did the British Humanist Association or any other atheist group protest outside a cathedral or stage a demonstration? Get a grip.

  15. Craig Macdonald says:

    Interesting. I particulary enjoyed the measured and constructive comments from the presumed Dawkinites. I’d be interested in any statistics on the socio-economic backgrounds of these young jihadists and how they compared with new recruits to Northern Ireland’s paramilitaries or the gangs of many of our major cities. I’m guessing few of their families shopped at Waitrose.

    1. Stuart Murray says:

      What’s even more interesting is the idea that fundamentalist islam would decrease if only peoples socio-economic condition improved. Fundamentalist islam is – if nothing else – a rejection of all the things ‘held dear in the West’ (nice job, nice house, nice car), is it not? I’ve still to see a video from an ISIS member who claims that his inability to shop at Waitrose was what led him to cutting peoples heads off.

      1. Stuart Murray says:


  16. donnywho says:

    I am confused, an atheist and probably a so called “militant”.
    I am confused because though I feel that people of “belief” are fundamentally wrong and misguided till the age of thirteen I was one of them. I still like most atheists have a sneaking jealousy of religious certainties and the order and belief it can bring to life.
    I am confused because I do not recognize this “militant” atheism that is put forward as a counterweight to religious extremism. That some shock jock atheist puts forward the inconsistencies of religion in the most offensive and demeaning terms on question time, does not a movement make. That we defend our rights too a secular education protects all beliefs, it does not demand your relinquishing of yours or ours. Is your belief so week so frail that the state must sanction it and if so whose flavour of god should be supported.
    No I believe that militant atheism is a construct of the Church, busy othering their own problems, justifying their own failures, objectifying others who do not agree to keep the “troops” in line. This has never been a good policy, religious or secular. When out of control it creates pogroms or inquisitions ( macarthy in the states, the inquisition in Europe).
    Religion is under pressure, and it knows it and the rise of fundamentalist is a kneejerk reaction, Christian, Muslim or any other. The response to lack of faith is more faith and don’t you dare question it or you will be branded a dangerous militant atheist… Rant over.

    1. Coatbrig says:

      He doth protest too much, methinks.

  17. Stui says:

    Good article, interesting, challenging. I am an ” anti theist” (hitchens defined) even if you could prove god exists I would argue against it, I am a democrat and a rationalist. I understand the damage of western foreign policy from Iran – Mossadegh, sanctions against Iraq between gulf wars all the way up to the present. I agree with you on the misuse of humanitarian intervention, I think the term humanitarian must be reserved for interventions that are independent, impartial and neutral… I don’t think this can ever be confused with or mixed up with military intervention and war. Even the scotparl seemed to be mixing the two up last week with topical questions on how scotgov will support humanitarian efforts in Iraq in light of uk air strikes. Is it is clear that humanitarian aid and war cannot be mixed? The civilian populations inside and outside Isis controlled areas will need aid, the term humanitarian should be reserved to those organisations providing aid to civilian populations according to need.

  18. people keep tossing around the term ‘militant atheism’, and it is a telling term.

    the ‘correct’ term, is ‘anti-theist’, and it is a stance seperate, although often tied in with, atheism.

    it is not a prerequisite for anti-theism, that one be an atheist, it is possible, and not unheard of, for there to be deist anti-theists, as well.

    anti-theism is opposition to religion, to the dogmatic structures and nonsensical claims which tend to surround belief in deities. some anti-theists extend that to the belief in deities itself, and some do not.

    but you seem to have a very flawed understanding of what it is to be an anti-theist.

    probably the best explanation, and by far the most commonly agreed with explanation, for anti-theism, came from karl marx, in his contribution to athecritique on hegel’s philosophy of right, and reads as follows :

    “The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

    Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

    The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

    Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself. ”

    when you consider that THAT is the basis for most people’s anti-theism, the idea that you have never met someone who understands what religion is, and how it functions and works, is patently a nonsense. what you mean is that you have never found someone you could persuade of religion having sufficient value to be worth keeping around, and that you are equating that with lack of understanding. ( a very common flaw for theists. )

    now, about this ‘new wave of atheism’ nonsense.

    there is no ‘new wave of atheism’.

    atheism has not changed.

    anti-theism has not changed.

    what has changed is merely that atheists and anti-theists have finally encountered a society where they can speak up without having to worry about being killed, otherwise persecuted, or suffering social disenfranchisement for doing so.

  19. Courtenay Young says:

    I believe – and this is a belief – that the only way forward for us (as a species, as humanity) is that we have got to get out of all different sorts of polarised thinking: good / bad; right / wrong; us / them; black / white; religios / atheist; Christian / Muslim; Catholic / Protestant; liberal / fundamentalist; etc. etc.

    In this liberal-fundamentalist belief system, every viewpoint has some value; no views are ignored; all have the right to speak. And – ideally – this is done before any action takes place.

    Instant responses, over-enthusiastic missions, crusades, jihads, pogroms, Final Solutions, revolutions, etc. – all have a fundamental flaw: they leave out, or exclude, or try to get rid of, the “Others” – those who disagree with our point of view.

    Most religions actually preach (but don’t necessarily teach) tolerance and understanding, compassion and acceptance – why do we ignore this teaching?

    This lack of acceptance, toleration, understanding, compassion is – probably – the basis of a massive amount of human misery and suffering: it also causes – retaliations, revenge, further pain, and destruction. It is furthermore fairly futile: no mission, crusade, pogrom, war, or whatever, has ever succeeded in bringing peace and happiness; in finding a solution; in “winning the peace”.

    Of course, we also have to find ways to help and love those who feel dispossessed, alienated, not listened to: they will – at some point – react to this rejection: of course, they will. For many reasons, they have to – in order to try and regain any form of self-respect. It is – as if – they adopt the polarised label that we give them: if they are not … what we (covertly) want them to be; and – of course – many will not want to be ‘that’, they will adopt a position, cause, religion, political view, that we will notice. Why should any group, (in this instance, young, alienated, British Muslims) become “good citizens” – especially if we ignore them, repress them, don’t give them jobs, treat them with suspicion, arrest them in the streets, etc.

    Every “movement” has a cause: and … something which is often forgotten and ignored … was also “caused by” a considerable “deficit” – usually cause by the so-called “ruling party”: the Cathars and the Lutherans were a reaction to the venality of the Catholic Church at that time; the various “democratic” movements as a reaction to the authoritarianism of the monarchy and church; the Russian Revolution(s) emerged out of the Tsarist’s total disdain for the ‘workers’ and the increasing urbanisation of Russian peasants; National Socialism emerged out of the post-WW! hyper-inflation in Germany and the punitive treatment of Germany by the “victors” of WW1; the Klu Klux Klan – who were manifestly not Christians (despite their burning crosses) – out of the treatment of and the depression in the American South after the US Civil War; the Northern Ireland “Troubles” out of the suppression of the Catholics by the Protestants and the “British State”; Islamic Fundamentalists (who are manifestly not Muslims) out of the pathological support of Israel’s land-grab of Palestine, as well as America and the West’s 20th century Middle Eastern “oil grab”; the 1970’s young urban terrorists – the Angry Brigade, the Baader Meinhof, the Red Army Faction, the 17 November group – frustrated with the lack of success of the 1960s counterculture; and so on; and so forth.

    You can disagree of course – and I am sure that many of you will – as this is just my view: but (hopefully) we can debate some of the niceties and also acknowledge some of the faults – on both sides; but, please … a request … I would prefer it if you didn’t react with expletives – “WTF”, etc – as (a) that gets us nowhere, and (b) it also demeans you and (c) it diminishes me.

    But if we can actually manage to listen – however painful that may be – to the other person’s perspective, and to allow ourselves the time for a measured and ‘felt’ response; to try to understand the other side’s issues – not demands – and even respond positively to them in ways that are meaningful: you might want to call this – “to love our enemies” – maybe even before they actually become our enemies – then maybe, just maybe – they will respond with the humanity and compassion that has been extended towards them, and won’t become our enemies.

    Otherwise, they will adopt their “cause” – and quite rightly – because … don’t we / won’t we use exactly the same justifications to condemn and attack them? We will polarise them? So – who is now in the “wrong” so-to-speak: they for reacting, or us for not listening? Tricky, isn’t it!

    Before I finish: I am thinking about the way in which Yugoslavia “exploded” after 40 years of enforced suppression that ended with the death of Tito; the way India became “divided” after the end of the British Imperial rule, with Muslims killing Hindus and visa versa in the “Partition” and the subsequent wars between India and Pakistan; versus the importance of people being able to claim their togetherness, rather than their differences; the way that South Africa established a “Truth and Reconciliation Committee”; and the way that the United Nations tries to work; things like that. How can we become more like that? Loving our neighbour, before he becomes our enemy? Or treating him like shit, so that he becomes our enemy? Then it is right to kill him …? Duh!

  20. billcraig44 says:

    Some very valid and interesting points have been made in this thread.
    I could write at length on this topic, but I think I’ll confine myself to some pointers that may encourage people to think a little bit more, and more widely. I have already agreed that the way in which young people are treated will influence their behaviour as adults, but there is the wider question of identity and the fact that there is now an enormous amount of immediate information and propaganda available all around. We all know that the BBC’s historical bias, including propaganda, became very obvious in the referendum campaign (and that bias will probably continue), but the world is full of propaganda and news-management. However, travelling to relatively distant countries to become involved in an allegedly religious war is not new. We all know something about the historic “Crusades” in the Middle East, where conflict has been a constant now for many years.

    As for the current conflict, he first statement that I was aware of from Islamic State (IS) was that IS rejects the Sykes-Picot agreement. So, it’s about politics, and land, and power, rather than religion. Here’s a link:

    The first statement that I heard from US President Obama about the activities of Islamic State in Iraq was that US citizens were in danger. A closer look showed that those US citizens were working at oil-installations. So, it’s about oil, and land, and power. (Is anyone surprised?)

    I’m surprised that anyone would think that the killing of selected hostages, who were dressed in orange clothing (remember the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay?), had anything to do with religion. It surely is about antagonising the countries regarded as the enemy of Islamic State, tweaking the tiger’s tail, and hoping for war.

    Now, turning to questions of religion, I agree that Christians (and others) who claim that Atheism is a religion are simply trying to bolster their own beliefs. Religious people do seem to base many things on “certainty” (where others see nothing, or have no reason to see anything), so it seems likely that theists will build a world-view which supports the idea of certainty rather than the idea of constant change.

    Over many years I have observed that many people who are not religious will say that they believe in a supreme being but, unlike some, they are not particularly exercised by questions of origins or immortality. There seems to be little difference between that point of view and the opinion of those who say they are agnostic, i.e. without knowledge. I have also observed that an individual’s religious belief (or absence of) seems to be linked to personality as well as to upbringing, both of which are obviously intertwined.

    Beyond those who might call themselves agnostic, are atheists who see no evidence for a supreme being, and certainly no evidence for the old-testament style “vengeful god”, and no reason to choose a religion. Whether of the militant or the marshmallow variety, and despite our education as young Christians, we see no reason to wonder about immortality and we are content for scientists to explore questions about origins of life on earth and of the universe. We see no need to construct a religion based around non-belief, although some prominent individuals may be accused of doing that. We can become exercised about politics, and human rights, and behaviour towards animals and the planet we all live on, but the idea of religion is not for us. To us, it is meaningless.

    Yes, we can see that religious people have all sorts of social and family benefits from their religious activities, all over the world, but we are not part of a different religion. We have no equivalent religious activities. There is no “equivalence” between theism and atheism. The fact that Jews, Christians, Muslims, have a social and family life based around their particular set of beliefs proves nothing other than itself. We are all human, and we all live in communities.

    Christians who claim some kind of religious credit for the education system established by John Knox should perhaps look at the context. John Knox was of his time, a time when not being a Christian was probably not an option. Even today, does anyone think that a politician in the United States would be elected president if he or she defined themselves as an atheist (whether of the militant or the marshmallow variety)? It is a truism that all religions exist within a political society.
    To be more specific about context: if Alexander Fleming had been a Christian, would that make penicillin a Christian discovery?

    On that question about bolstering beliefs, let me offer an analogy:
    Two people go into an empty room, but then one of those people claims that there’s a piece of furniture right in the middle of the room. He or she says it’s a chair, and begins to behave as if the chair was real. Some personalities might go so far as to construct a whole religion, with rituals, titles, and significant stories, around that single belief. However, the behaviour (and the religious construct) is a result of belief in the chair, not a result of the existence of the chair. The other person, seeing no chair and having only the behaviours as evidence, would have no reason to invent some alternative set of beliefs but might wonder about the sanity of their companion.
    There is no “equivalence” between theism and atheism, but the person who chose to believe in an invisible chair might feel better if his companion joined in the game in some way.

    A game? I bet some people will not like that concept!

  21. It’s all basically very easy.
    Universally we all want a utopian existence and I mean all even whacky politicians who think utopia can only be gained with gold. Money won’t buy it, sorry but it won’t. Money only buys power, corruption and greed…..regardless.
    Money is evil personified, totally useless and unnecessary. It causes nothing but pain, degradation and isolation. Unfortunately we’ve all been brainwashed into believing otherwise and are equally guilty of causing suffering both to ourselves and others. Many are breaking away from the norm, creating their own mini utopia’s by refusing to run a car, shop in mega stores, own a television, read newspapers and live supporting charity outlets, ignoring ‘fashion’, growing their own food and are happy with simple pleasures. Each has a means to acquire what they need because they make use of ‘what they can do’ and not dwell on ‘what they can’t’.
    I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again……every human being is born with an ability that can be of use to the whole. It is not taught, it can be learned but it is inherent. If a child is nurtured, given a basic education and observed at play it will become apparent what the ability is and that can then be valued. Rather than forcing a curriculum that is now designed only to tick boxes and pass exams. Our education system is deeply flawed.
    You wonder why teenagers rebel? They want something to live for and they want to contribute but they feel the world is just not worth inheriting as it is and the adults did nothing but let it happen.
    No one wants violence but most of us need to change our perceptions and conceptions to avoid it.
    Nothing is more universal than a smile and a thoughtful deed.

  22. rodjily1 says:

    I am a Christian whose life has improved immensely with the realisation of what are now truths, to me, as stated by Jesus. An improvement that I could not achieve by what might be called secular or worldly methods, no matter how hard I worked them. The truths took the form of ‘if you have faith in this, this will happen. I put faith in it and what he said would happen, happened. I may be called misguided, gullible, delusional even weak minded. What I cannot be called is illogical or unscientific. I followed the logic of the statements and they arrived exactly where they said they would. I tested the statements by placing faith in them and to my surprise the stated outcome was delivered, repeatedly. Believe me when I say many of them tested in the most hostile of situations. Why would I not apply this system when it has repeatedly shown to me the veracity of its core assertions, evidenced not at a distance, but in the honest reality of my private, personal, intimate life of which I have the sole experience.

  23. Steve Arnott says:

    So, the problem with medievalist, misogynist, patriarchal fanatics such as ISIS or the Saudi Arabian regime, who rationalise their actions and prejudices on the basis of a religious text IS not at all a problem related to their belief system, but is in fact caused by Modernity – its the terrible rationalists and all those ‘militant atheists’ that are the real problem. Even the bolsheviks get the blame.

    I know a lot of people who might be described as ‘militant atheists’. They’ve never done anything more harmful tan defend a woman’s right to choose at a church hustings, have a quiet chuckle at Dawkins acerbic wit while reading The God Delusion on a train, or stand up for gay rights in Stornoway, and most of them would happily agree that the actions of Western Imperialism over decades have fostered anti-western sentiment, and most would agree that recruitment to jihadist organisations would be lessened if people were able to live more fulflling lives – but unfortunately the author of this article takes these common sense positions and uses them to turn reality on its head.

    I support the communist Kurds and the secularist Syrians who are fighting Isis, because I’m a modernist, a rationalist and a socialist. I prefer capitalism to feudalism, and socialism to both

    I suspect this writer would have been telling us to get all touchy feely with the poor Nazi’s in the run up to World War 2

    Quite the worst article I have ever read in Bella.

  24. thinking aloud says:

    The question is “Why do we humans exist?” To me this reason is certainly “Not to Kill each other!”
    There is a good cause that we have failed to acknowledge. I follow Islam as my religion and I fail to agree with either IS or aethetists.

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