Friday, 6 February 2015

Humanists shouldn't apologize for being human

My throat is sore, my joints are aching, and I'm shivering. I also lack the energy to coat my words in sugar so let me just hammer this keyboard and see what comes out for the next thousand plus words.

I'm writing from my sickbed because I just want to know what the hell is it with apologies today. Tristram Hunt has been apologising to nuns, Channel 4's Cathy Newman has apologised because she might or not have been turfed out of a London mosque, and I've just noticed that Stephen Fry has apologised lest his comments about God had somehow upset Christians.

I'm not sure what annoys me the most: that three eminently rational people felt obliged to apologise to believers in dogmatic nonsense or that believers in dogmatic nonsense should be so sensitive to insult that they demand an apology whenever their beliefs are questioned. At least two out of the three opinions shouldn't warrant an apology and I'm not entirely convinced that Cathy Newman has much to feel ashamed about either.

I'd previously thought it commendable that all three showed a little independent spirit and expressed opinions that many people would quietly share. Whether you like him or loathe him, Stephen Fry spoke undiluted sense and did so in a way the expressed the compassion as befit a true humanist. What's so wrong about questioning God about the suffering of children? In fact, I see no point in making this point any further. If a person is misguided enough to believe that the world is flat, then no empirical data will alter their opinion since we're clearly dealing with a matter of psychology rather than intellect. And belief in religion is precisely that. It is not a belief in empirical data. It's a state of mind like ecstasy or depression which might one day be entirely unlocked by science but, for now, remains an unexplored realm of organic chemistry.

Instead, let me just talk about Tristram Hunt who admirably let his political blandness slip a little in order to question the right of anybody to teach children without proper teaching qualifications. It was a moment of passion and revealed more character than some of the charlatans we usually see peddling the party line on Question Time. Despite the notion that Conservatives are somehow for the privileged elite, it's been a long time since they were advocates of the intellectual elite. At least since Thatcher's day, they have actively promoted the destruction of the professional classes, constantly trying to introduce less qualified people into hospitals, schools, the army, the police force, as well as the judicial system. It wasn't that long as since they floated the notion of non-qualified teaching assistants taking lessons. Just a couple of days ago, I noticed that they wanted to reduce the time it takes doctors to train as consultants. It fits perfectly into their long established practice of cheapening costs at the expense of quality. Tristram Hunt never attacked nuns. Nuns obviously have the right to teach providing they have teaching qualifications. Yet it seems patently absurd to say that somebody has the right to teach children simply because they've chosen a life devoted to God. In many ways, such irrationality should invalidate them from teaching children. If I walked into the local primary school and declared 'I'm been chosen by the spirit of the late Sir Alec Guinness to spread his message of love, hope, and the Jedi mind trick, now lead me to your infants!' what kind of response would I get? At the very least, I'd expect a restraining order to keep me away from the school but, in truth, I should really be sectioned under the mental health act as a danger to the community.

As for Cathy Newman, whether she was 'ushered out' of the mosque or simply turned away, she was making a valid point about the discrepancy that exists between the values of a modern liberal democratic society and a culture in which woman are routinely treated as second class citizens. At the worst, you could argue that she set out seeking to make a story in the sensitive period of time after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, though you could also argue that is precisely what journalists do and that was a valid time to do it. People have predictably accused her of stoking racial tension but the tension isn't and shouldn't be seen as racial. It's the debate that needs to had about mutually exclusive mindsets, one of which expresses the right of every individual to live their life free from religious persecution and the other which actively promotes religious persecution towards non-believers. It's an important debate that needs to be heard and not dismissed by conflating it with incendiary topic of racism. To do so genuinely promotes racism. Indeed, the rise of UKIP is not simply a sad reflection on the rise of the political right in British politics. It's a shameful expression of how there's been a lack of intelligent debate in the centre ground. If the Tories can be accused of destroying education, health and pretty much every other area of our 'elitist' culture through their obsession with market forces, it's to the great shame of the Labour Party that, for at least a decade, they routinely avoided questions about immigration and integration by accusing their opponents of racism, as they did to great 'success' in the 2005 general election.

Yet all three examples demonstrate a problem we have in society. It seems to be borne out of the rise of social media, where debates become polarised into 'issues'. It's ironic how in the early days of social media it was heralded for increasing our freedom. The 'Arab Spring' (remember that?) was seen as a victory for social media in which enlightened youth in tyrannical regimes could organise themselves so they might express a belief in intellectual and personal freedoms. How naive that all seems now that social media has turned into a bully's playground, where free speech is routinely shut down by organised campaigns which the newspaper shamefully promote as the latest 'Twitter outrage'.

People are forced to apologies simply because they haven't the energy to expend in argument against the vitriolic thousands. I sense that Fry apologized because it's the easiest thing to do, Hunt undoubtedly apologized for political reasons, and Newman probably apologized since she clearly values her job more than she is willing to invest time in an arguably weak case.

Before my energy runs out, let me ask: what's wrong with a good old fashioned difference of opinion? It is your right to practice any belief so long as you do so peacefully and without restricting another person's fundamental right to hold a entirely contradictory belief. In a free society, men should be allowed to have men only mosques as women should are allowed to have woman only Tupperware parties or sit around chatting about Fifty Shades of Grey. As abhorrent as I find Marine Le Pen and George Galloway, as ridiculous as I find a Christian fundamentalist preacher or a fanatical imam: they all have the same right to speak. I might feel a little prickly whenever I see a woman wearing a headscarf or veil but I also defend their right to do so if it's truly their choice.

The notion of freedom of expression is inherently simple. Everybody has the right to be offended by an opinion but nobody should feel obliged to apologise for what they think. Inciting violence towards others is, of course, the point at which this abstract concept becomes a matter of practical law. If one were to believe utterly in freedom, one would maintain a distinction between words and actions. However, to do so is to believe that humans are somehow rational beings. We're not. It's what makes us so interesting and capable or great beauty as well as terrible evil. The best we can ever hope for is a kind of clamorous riot in which we all walk away unscathed but slightly more enlightened.

Today we had three people contributing to that clamorous riot but walking away looking a little bruised. That's not how it should be in a free society. The fact they apologized actually shames us all.


  1. Aha! Something for me to disagree with you on! (Mind you, it is only a slight disagreement.) While I agree with you with the point about people feeling they have to apologize in case they might have offended someone… I mean… WHY? So what if someone takes offence? The beauty of free speech is that you are also free to be offended. But, offence is an odd thing: it cannot be given, it can only be taken; thus, if someone takes offence, it is their choice, ergo, they are to blame. Simples!

    The disagreement is that Mr Fry is speaking undiluted sense. Sure, it might appear profound, but it is shallow; truly, truly shallow. How can he possibly understand the universe from the point of view of God? He cannot even view the universe from the point of view of a dog! His interpretation, then, is severely limited to his human viewpoint. Yep, question God, get mad with him if you wish, but do not try and understand him, as you never will. I suspect that Mr Fry’s beliefs are just his attempts to assuage his guilt – if there is no God, there is no sin, therefore, whatever he gets up to in private is for him and any co-enjoyer only (sexual preference is really irrelevant), with no guilt to worry him (though he may well still have guilt, but, hey… Hence, perhaps, his public denouncement of God). Hints for his existence may be found in the mystery of life, itself; or the awareness of its surroundings exhibited by a single cell, as well as its ability to move in a selected direction; or in the existence of a truly miraculous molecule: water.

    I do agree with your general opinion of religion, as religion is basically a human construct, usually for the benefit of those in charge of it (put your own examples in, here). God, however, exists; all you have to do is seek him (not necessarily easy, though studying – not just reading – the Bible will help). To make it more irritating, finding him is unlikely to give you empirical evidence to show others, but you will certainly know. Remember, people, often hiding behind the shield of “science”, say he cannot exist as he cannot be seen, heard, felt or detected in any way; however, people accept as true when science says that dark matter exists, even though it cannot be seem, heard, felt or detected in any way.

  2. […] Radical Rodent left a great comment last night and I found myself writing a response this morning which began with a couple of lines and then ran to a page and a half. If you’re not interested in vague theological rambling, then I’ve also drawn a slightly less profound cartoon for today which you can see below. If you enjoy theological rambling, then excuse what follows for being heavy on the rambling and light on the learning. Though I largely agreed with what she’d said, I didn’t know how much I agreed. I’ve never really tried to consciously write about my atheism, God or my sense of theology in a coherent way. This is probably my first attempt to do just that. The result is that I think I agreed with what Radical Rodent said about God but that’s dependent on what we think of when we talk about God. […]