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Posted by on Dec 8, 2008 in Uncategorized | 27 comments

Atheism is pretentious and cowardly

I only just found this piece from the Guardian June 2007. It makes a number of points along similar lines to the Rev Sam, though I’m sure Sam wouldn’t agree with all of them. Some truth in there (towards the end), but not much.



For years I wished that the intelligent media would show a bit more interest in religion. Be careful what you wish for. The resurgence of the discussion of religion has come, sort of, but forgive me for failing to rejoice in it. How odd that there seems to be an endless appetite for militant atheism. How odd that anyone over 17 admires these angry ageing men, scowling at us indignantly, and competing with each other in tough-talking God knocking. How odd that they get such an easy press, that their (usually female) interviewers are so fawning. Now it is Christopher “Hitch” Hitchens’ turn. Behold the jowly prophet, staring from endless features and book pages, tremendous in his certainty, unflinching in his regard for his own intellectual courage.

Surely Hitchens is a cut above Richard Dawkins – surely his literary mind has more room for nuance? In most things, yes. In religion, no. The same applies to AC Grayling, who is presumably a competent professor of philosophy, but chooses to conceal the fact when in militant atheist mode.

All three are in the grip of an ideology that is pretentious and muddled. Atheism is pretentious in the sense of claiming to know more than it does. It claims to know what belief in God entails, and what religion, in all its infinite variety, essentially is. And atheism is muddled because it cannot decide on what grounds it ultimately objects to religion. Does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged falsity? Or does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged harmfulness? Both, the atheists will doubtless reply: religion is false and therefore it is harmful. But this is to make an assumption about the relationship between rationality and moral progress that does not stand up. Atheism is the belief that the demise of religion, and the rise of “rationality”, will make the world a better place. Atheism therefore entails an account of history – a story of liberation from a harmful error called “religion”. This narrative is jaw-droppingly naive.

Some will quibble with the above definition. Atheism is just the rejection of God, of any supernatural power, they will say, it entails no necessary belief in historical progress. This is disingenuous. The militant atheists have a moral mission: to improve the world by working towards the eradication of religion.

Let me take a step back, and ask a rather basic question. What is this thing that the atheists hate so much? What is religion? Believe it or not, I don’t know the answer. Indeed it seems to me that anyone who does claim to know is underestimating the complexity of the topic considerably. If the atheist deigns to define religion at all, he is likely to do so briskly and conventionally, as belief in and worship of some species of supernatural power. It’s a terribly inadequate definition. Dictionaries would do better to leave a blank, to admit ignorance.

In reality, “religion” is far wider than a belief in a supernatural power. This is only one aspect of what we mean by “religion”. For example there is surely something religious in the communal ecstasy of a rave, or a pop concert, or a play, or a sporting event, or a political rally. Some would say that these events are quasi-religious, that they echo religious worship, but are distinct from it. But how on earth is one to make the distinction? Is a yoga class “religious”? What about a performance of a requiem? What about Hitchens’ own belief in the saving power of literature? In practice, “religion” cannot really be separated from “culture”.

The atheist will doubtless call these reflections irrelevant. Yes, there is an affinity between religious worship and various secular cultural practices, he may say, but so what? The issue is belief in the supernatural. Religion, in the full and harmful sense, exists when people cringe under the illusion of a celestial being, and when people propagate teachings that are not true. This leads to superstitious ignorance, and to immoral actions, for example the persecution of homosexuals.

It is here that the atheist ought to tread with very great care, but instead he straps on his clown-sized jackboots, and stomps around. The fact is that the relationship between religion, morality and politics is infinitely various and complex. The critic of religious abuses must be specific, particular. He must focus on particular practices, particular institutions, and explain why they have a detrimental effect on society. But the militant atheist cannot humbly limit himself to the realm of the particular; he necessarily lapses into sloppy generalisation. For he has to insist that religion in general is harmful, all of it, always. He has to show that he has the answer: if people shared his total rejection of God, then the world would be a better place. He needs to believe this. For he finds grounds for hope here. If humanity moves away from religion, things will get better. It’s a faith.

So Hitchens calls religion:

“… violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”

Never mind that plenty of manifestations of religion are simply not guilty of these charges. Evidence that doesn’t fit the system is inadmissible. Likewise he grandly pronounces that there are:

“… four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is the both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.”

Never mind that only a tiny proportion of British Christians are creationists; there is no room for such awkward facts in the atheist system. And as for the evil of “sexual repression”, well, maybe some day all men will be as liberated as Hitch.

I consider the atheist’s desire to generalise about religion to be a case of intellectual cowardice. The intellectual coward is one who chooses simplicity over complexity and difficulty. The militant atheist chooses to uphold a worldview of Animal Farm crudity: atheist good, believer bad. He has to believe this; it is his claim to the moral high ground. Christopher Hitchens sounds like a man who is desperate for a big cause, for an agenda that will give him one last chance of some high significance, a last stab at prophet status. By seeking his grand purpose in atheism he exhibits the sort of intellectual timidity he claims to despise.


This is an ironic piece, because it does precisely what it ends up accusing all atheists of (especially the title): “The intellectual coward is one who chooses simplicity over complexity and difficulty.” Yet Hobson himself does just that. He lumps all atheists together in a simplistic – indeed, caricatured – way, and then generalizes about them – they’re all “pretentious and cowardly”.

Does Hobson over-generalize? Of course. While some atheists believe what Hobson says all atheists believe, many don’t. I am an atheist – I’m sure I’d be classed as “militant” – yet I don’t argue religion is more a force for evil than good. Just, for the most part, a load of cobblers.

Moreover, I tend specifically to target one kind of religious belief – belief in the Judeo-Christian God as traditionally understood. Not much ambiguity there. Hobson needs to deal with those arguments, if he believes in what I am attacking (but does he? – he can of course do a “now you see it, now you don’t”)

Hobson’s point about “religion” being vague and thus something we cannot justifiably reject is just wrong – “facism” is also a very vague term, yet I’m sure Hobson would rightly describe himself as being against facism.

But in any case, we can reduce the content of belief in the Judeo-Christian God to rubble without making any generalizations at all about religion per se – the vagueness of the term is, in this case, irrelevant.

This piece is really a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy – can’t defend what you believe? Attack the character of your critics!


  1. Atheism is the belief that the demise of religion, and the rise of “rationality”, will make the world a better place. And here I thought it was just the belief in one less thing that makes the world a worse-off place. So, I guess, in absolute terms, it is “better,” in the sense that “an infinite number of bad things minus one” is “better.”

  2. Should one reason from 1. “A C Grayling has it wrong on God” to 2. “A C Grayling is not a good philosopher” or from 1*.”A C Grayling is a good philosopher” 2*. “So it might be worthwhile considering what he has to say on God”?Hobson seems to make the common theist mistake of confusing premises and conclusions. (Or, more precisely, starting off with the conclusion and changing the premises to fit).”If the expert doesn’t agree with me that just proves he’s not an expert”

  3. Heh, nice catch. I had a look at this article a little while ago here: have to love the irony of Hobson continuously and without a second thought accusing ‘the atheist’ of generalization and the sheer class of anyone who can argue with the dictionary definition of atheism, insist on all atheists being exactly the same (whilst saying that religion is so diverse it can never be defined) and then saying that we’re the arrogant ones.

  4. Theo Hobson is a twit. He regularly gets soundly trounced on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ site – which I refuse, on principle, to post on because its pretentious name is belied by the heavily politically-correct censorship exercised by the moderators.

  5. Read through that and was expecting a Fisking from you at the end. Happy to pursue a more detailed discussion on points that he raises (have to say I generally prefer Andrew Brown to Theo Hobson – see, eg, this one which is on a topic close to your heart!

  6. I have added a comment to the main text of this post. Alex really hits the nail on the head, I think.

  7. Forgive me, Sam, but that man is a terrible thinker:”Two things struck me about this research. The first is that the idea that children would have no idea of God if they weren’t told by wicked grownups is a very persistent atheist myth.”But is it? He’s not making any “big g, little g” god distinctions. He’s drawing conclusions not at all hinted at in the study. The study, further, doesn’t delve into why these children by age five know mom can be fooled but not god. It’s interesting, but not useful when applied to adults. Or even older children.Worse, the man’s a terrible writer.

  8. If Hobson thinks that the religions of the US and Middle east are there for the good of all, he should read the newspapers. Never a day goes by that there isn’t a piece about a beheading, a stoning in the middle east or some other atrocity done in the name of Islam. The US is steeped in religion and they still have all kinds of evil performed on a daily basis. Where is this god that they all revere so much? If this god was worth his salt he would put a stop to all that evil or so one would think. The fundies will bleat, “Oh, they’ve taken god out of the schools and he knows he’s unwanted and stays away.” What a load of crap. God or the lack of god has nothing to do with it.Humankind has been doing evil since time began, and god has not stopped any of it. The population of this planet has grown andso crimes of all sort have increased. So it’s reasonable to believe that if 10% of the population are likely to offend then now we have huge problem on our hands.The governments have to see that the problem is how they treat crime. They have to somehow make serious crime a thing that is too expensive for the perpetrator to even think about doing. A Police State? I hope not but there must be a happy medium. A belief in a omni-everything entity hasn’t worked, ever, in history.

  9. Hi SamI read that piece and cannot see anything in it that either confirms of disconfirms a/theism. Why do you think it’s relevant?

  10. Hi Sam – maybe you were just offering it as an example of his writing?Anyway, I guess we could discuss the posted piece in more detail. Which bits, specifically, do you think are right?

  11. OK, let me run through my sequence of thought slowly:- introduction of Theo Hobson’s column to discuss, with mention of me at the beginning (an invitation to discuss it?);- my comment on it;- Andrew Brown is also a columnist in the same place as Theo Hobson who often writes about similar things (religion/atheism) who I find more congenial than Hobson (Brown is an atheist btw);- of the many columns he’s written I chose one with a reference to children’s education as I thought it would be of particular interest to Stephen, not because it was directly germane to this thread;- I believe such conversational asides and tangents are legitimate in a blog thread, as opposed to a rigorous academic discussion where the discussion needs to be kept within narrow parameters. If you disagree do let me know and I’ll happily shut up again.

  12. Ha – that last comment crossed in the ether with yours. As for what is worth discussing, let’s begin by agreeing that he’s tarring all atheists with the same brush and failing to distinguish between different sorts. What I would ask is two-fold: i) are there atheists who could be legitimately criticised in the way Hobson does, and ii) if so, what should atheists do to discriminate between the different varieties.(I think, btw, that there is something of a parallel between these broad brush approaches on both sides of the aisle, ie Christians need to be much clearer about the difference between Christianity and fundamentalism.)

  13. I did ask a question Sam: which bits do you agree with? (you just said what you didn’t agree with)My answers to your questions are:(i) Yes of course there are some atheists who are pretentious and cowardly.(ii) Atheists should simply be clear about exactly what they reject and why. I do try to be.

  14. What do I agree with? I agree that there are some atheists who are guilty of not knowing what they are talking about – I call them humourless, as you know.I’d agree that such atheists tend to think that eliminating theism would make the world a more moral place.I’d agree that such atheists are in thrall to an ideology that is muddled (not sure about the pretentious bit, that doesn’t seem right to me).That do for starters?

  15. A bit more on the need to discriminate between different sorts of believers here.

  16. What is the extent of “ad hominem”? There are plenty of writers I pay no attention to because they invariably wrong about whatever they choose as their topic for the day. If they aren’t being deliberately contrarian then they are not acting immorally. When I ignore them is this a form of the argumentum ad hominem? Is noticing that someone is always wrong judging their character?

  17. I’d agree that such atheists tend to think that eliminating theism would make the world a more moral place.I’d agree that such atheists are in thrall to an ideology that is muddled…..Obviously, there are secular ideologies that can be as “toxic” as any religion. Stalin ablely demonstrated that.But I’m not sure people who argue that the demise of belief in the supernatural would tend to make the world a better, or more moral, place are wrong (I’m not sure they’re right either—but I do think its a defensible position).If nothing else the decline of religious belief would remove one of the most persistent obstacles to moral progress—the belief the values endorsed by religious scriptures are Moral Truth direct from God Himself rather than what they appear to the objective eye—merely the humanly imperfect value systems of ancient cultures.That alone, it could be reasonably argued, would tend to make the world a more moral place.

  18. The end of theistic belief would eliminate a gigantic red herring from moral discourse. Much ethical discussion would still be illogical, irrational and irrelevant but the elimination of belief in a Celestial Umpire whose inscrutable pronouncements can be prayed in aid by theists to settle matters in their favour would make the world a marginally saner place.

  19. Gosh that’s quite surprising Paul. And encouraging, I think.

  20. Yes, I certainly see it as encouraging. It has the possibility to polarise some people, but there are other aspects of society (like politics) that do that as well. But if it sticks to its purported aim, to teach children to think for themselves, then, personally, I think that’s a good thing.Melbourne (the capital of Victoria) has always been more multi-cultural than other parts of Australia, so if it can’t succeed here, then I don’t like its chances anywhere else.Regards, Paul.

  21. Ken – ad hominem is when you attack your opponents’ character in an irrelevant way, as in the above piece. Saying someone is grumpy, bad-tempered, vain, etc. is usually irrelevant to whether or not they have a good argument, or are a reliable witness.Arguing that someone is usually wrong so is probably wrong here would not be ad hominem, as their general unreliability would indeed be grounds for supposing they were unreliable here too.

  22. Mark Vernon, eh. I might post this – thanks.

  23. “atheism is muddled because it cannot decide on what grounds it ultimately objects to religion”What a clear demonstration of ignorance regarding atheism! He talks as though atheism is an ideology. There is no common goal. How lack of belief in something constitute an organized objective?Perhaps if this individual, who seems to think that they are smarter than Hitchens, Dawkins and Grayling combined, ought spend a little time understanding the points of view levelled at religions rather than seeking to demonize and belittle free dissent from dogma full stop.

  24. I’m an atheist who simply believes that god is unnecessary. I noticed too that Richard Dawkins had a grumpy air about him, and it lead me to read quite a few of his books to try to discover where the grumpiness was coming from. He is a great writer of science and I would recommend his books to anyone, especially the God Delusion. However I’ve read criticisms of the God Delusion which suggest his denial of god is poorly argued, and I am inclined to agree. I think we have a lot to thank Dawkins for in shoving atheists off the fence, it’s no good being an atheist and not being militant about it. Agnostics on the other hand are not actually very helpful to the cause, if anything their indecision gets in the way. Reading the the God Delusion certainly helped me understand that. But Dawkins is in a mess about one thing: if god is a delusion there is no need to disprove his/her/its existence and it is inconsistent to say you “almost certainly” agree there is no god. It’s a delusion, you’ve recognised it as such, it doesn’t exist.I think Dawkins’ mood at least can be credited as being sourced from this slight bit of intellectual cowardice on his part, good as I believe the God Delusion is as an atheists’ call to arms. Hobson’s piece can be criticised in the sense that not believing a delusion is “good” not in the moral sense, but in a practical sense. I don’t believe in Father Christmas any more, but I don’t think the fact that I once believed in him put me in a morally hazardous position. It was part of growing up and gaining a more sophisticated understanding about the relationship between children and adults and the moral value of telling lies. Christians are declaring themselves to be in the same childish position as a believer in Father Christmas. Irrationality won’t just go away, but individuals can grow out of it.

  25. The title alone (“Atheism is pretentious and cowardly”) is enough to mark this out as raging atheophobia (fear/hatred of atheists). Why Hobson feels the need to make a tit of himself just like Dawkins is beyond me – why do these people have to keep escalating the antitheist vs atheophobe war that’s giving both sides a bad name?

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