Richard Dawkins is an ally to the oppressed

Richard Dawkins is no longer a humanist. At least, not one that deserves to be honoured as such, according to the American Humanist Association (AHA), which excommunicated him from the Humanist of the Year award last week. The fatwa issued by the AHA, which generously includes ‘critical thinking’ in a list of its own Ten Commitments, accused the evolutionary biologist of ‘demean[ing] marginalized groups’ when he asked his Twitter followers to ‘discuss’ the vilification of critics of transgender theory. Proponents of the new blasphemy codes have seemingly forgotten the decades of humanist work in favour of free speech. More qualified persons can better comment on Dawkins’s implied scepticism of modern

When atheists stole the moral high ground

In 1585, Jacques du Perron presented to the court of the French king Henry III, as a kind of after-dinner entertainment, a formal logical argument for the existence of God. Du Perron, formerly a Protestant, was now well on his way to becoming a cardinal. He was a highly intelligent and rhetorically gifted man and he performed his task well, to the great pleasure of the assembled nobility. Flushed with success, he then turned to his audience and announced that, if they wanted, he could prove the opposite case too. The king was not amused. Most of us like to believe that we believe what we believe because rigorous reasoning

Can giving voice to the horrors of the past re-traumatise?

It is 50 years since Ronald Blythe published Akenfield, his melancholy portrait of a Suffolk village on the cusp of dramatic change. Akenfield was actually a composite of two real villages, Charsfield and Debach, and Blythe’s oral history was a patchwork created from about 50 conversations — with figures including a pig-farming colonel, the over-stretched blacksmith and a rural dean who reported residents being ‘blunted and crushed by toil’. It was an unsparing vision of rural poverty, yet also a homage to disappearing ways of life and the virtues of small communities. Last Saturday’s Akenfield Now, on Radio 4, followed local sixth-former Anna Davies as she surveyed the landscape afresh.

The beauty of Soviet anti-religious propaganda

Deep in the guts of Russian library stacks exists what remains — little acknowledged or discussed — of a dead and buried atheist dream. The dream first took shape among Russian radicals of the mid-19th century, to whom the prospect of mass atheism seemed the key to Russia’s salvation. When Lenin seized power in 1917, the Bolsheviks integrated it into their vision of heaven on earth. To the extent that people in the West have heard of this atheist dream, it has come to them mainly through the voices of its enemies. In 1983, Ronald Reagan put Lenin’s rejection of religion at the heart of Soviet unfreedom in his ‘Evil

Losing our religion | 8 August 2019

There is no faster way to get yourself classed as dim than by admitting that you hold religious belief, especially Christian belief. Anti-Catholicism used to be the anti-Semitism of intellectuals; now Catholics get no special attention. All believing Christians are regarded as stupid, eccentric or malevolent. Some conservatives will make the case for the social usefulness of Christian values. The conservative asks: if society prospered with these traditions and customs, is it really wise to throw them away without a moment’s hesitation? That is just what the West is doing, especially the Anglophone West. Britain, Australia and even the God-fearing United States are becoming atheist societies. Britain is more atheist

More secrets and symbols

Being reflexively snotty about Dan Brown’s writing is like slagging off Donald Trump’s spelling: it just entrenches everyone’s position. In a world where a quarter of people read literally no books in any given year, can we give each other a break on this kind of thing? If you found Angels and Demons good fun, thoroughly enjoyed The Da Vinci Code (as I unironically did), but despised Inferno for the worthless piece of rat doodah that it was, then the good news is that Brown is back on form here. Origin is brisk, fun and filled with adorably pointless Wikipedia paragraphs; and what’s at stake is endearingly grandiose. Here, the

Letters | 4 May 2017

Liverpudlian censorship Sir: I enjoyed Kelvin MacKenzie’s Diary (29 April). The obloquy thrown at him after his criticism of Everton footballer Ross Barkley would be laughable if it were not for the unpleasant undercurrent on Merseyside now. His remark was football banter, not a racist slur as the mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, has alleged. What the mayor (or ‘Fat Joe’, as he is known) has failed to do is speak up for free speech. It is — and I deeply regret to say this about my home town — a scandal that newsagents in Liverpool are threatened by violent thugs if they stock the Sun. There was a ‘Ban

Do do God

This election was won two days before it was announced, on Easter Sunday. Theresa May put out an Easter message in which she suggested that British values had a Christian basis. It was her version of David Cameron’s message two years before, in which he said that Britain is a Christian country. She was rather more convincing. I don’t know whether Cameron is sincerely religious, but he didn’t seem it. He didn’t even seem to try very hard to seem it, as if fearing that his metropolitan support might weaken, and perhaps that George Osborne would make a snarky jibe about it at cabinet. But it still did him good

War on Mount Olympus

It is a curious fact that the modern Hebrew for ‘atheist’, Tim Whitmarsh notes in passing, is apikoros. The word derives from Epicurus, who set up shop as a philosopher in Athens around 306 BC, but it became so domesticated in Hebrew that the medieval thinker Moses Maimonides, till he found out better, thought it was of home-grown Aramaic origin. In ancient Jewish usage, however, I think apikoros meant someone who denied that God takes care of the world, which was indeed the claim of Epicurus. Though Whitmarsh sets out to show that atheism was quite normal in ancient (Greek) history, atheism turns out to be a slippery notion. Epicurus

We need Christianity more than ever in this Age of Atheists

Have we ever needed Christianity more than we do today? It’s a rhetorical question, for sure, because the loss of our faith and the inability to confront Islam have never been greater. When I was a little boy during the war, my mother assured me that if I believed in Jesus everything would be OK. This was during the Allied bombing on Tatoi, the military airfield near our country house where the Germans concentrated their anti-aircraft guns. My Fräulein, the Prussian lady who brought me up, was more practical. She handed me a beautiful carved knife that made me feel safer than my prayers ever did. Today, of course, 74

The atheist delusion

Dan Rhodes apparently had trouble finding a publisher for this short novel, and it’s possible to envisage a certain amount of sorrowful head-shaking in legal departments at its theme. In the dead of winter, accompanied by his long-suffering ‘male secretary’ Smee, a ‘thrice-married evolutionary biologist’ named Richard Dawkins gets stranded in rural England while en route to address the All Bottoms Women’s Institute on the topic of the non-existence of God. This elderly, irascible scientist is taken in by the local vicar and his wife, and forced to contend with various local problems, from religious disputes — ‘Your silly books are just collections of fairy stories; you might as well

Corbyn’s salvation

On religion, Jeremy Corbyn is interestingly moderate, circumspect — not the angry atheist you might expect. In a recent interview with the Christian magazine Third Way, he said his upbringing was quite religious: his mother was a ‘Bible-reading agnostic’ and his father a believer, and he went to a Christian school. ‘At what point did you decide that it wasn’t for you?’ he was asked. He replied very carefully, even challenging the premise of the question: ‘I’m not anti-religious at all. Not at all… I find religion very interesting. I find the power of faith very interesting. I have friends who are very strongly atheist and wouldn’t have anything to

Jonathan Sacks on religion, politics and the civil war that Islam needs

Jonathan Sacks has an impressive track record for predicting the age we are in. In his 1990 Reith Lectures, ‘The Persistence of Faith’, the then chief rabbi pushed back against the dominant idea that religion was going to disappear. In the early 2000s, he predicted a century of conflict within Islam. And he was one of the first religious leaders and thinkers not only to critique multi-culturalism (‘the spanner in the works for tolerance’) but to try to think of a path beyond it. We recently talked over some of this at his house in London, where he lives during gaps in a busy teaching schedule that also takes him to

Melanie McDonagh

The cult of ‘mindfulness’

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Ruby Wax and Andy Puddicombe discuss mindfulness with Mary Wakefield” startat=75] Listen [/audioplayer]The chances are that by now either you or someone you know well has begun to practise ‘mindfulness’ — a form of Buddhism lite, that focuses on meditation and ‘being in the now’. In the past year or so it’s gone from being an eccentric but harmless hobby practised by contemporary hippies to a new and wildly popular pseudo–religion; a religion tailor-made for the secular West. Think how hostile an awful lot of companies are to organised religion; to any talk of ‘faith’. Now consider that in both America and the UK, it’s probably easier to

Spectator letters: St Augustine and Louise Mensch, war votes and flannel

Faith and flexibility Sir: What a contrast in your two articles on religion last week: one liberal atheist parent (Claire Stevens) concerned about her son’s turn to conservative Islam, and one conservative Catholic (Louise Mensch) determined that her children understand her unbending fidelity to the tradition.  Ms Mensch’s problem is endemic throughout the western church, Catholic and Protestant alike: greater confidence in human sinfulness than in God’s forgiveness. Mrs Stevens’s problem is the opposite: a lack of confidence in her atheism. Brought up to believe in nothing, one is prone to believe in anything. At least if you bring a child up Christian, he can always choose to reject the

The bizarre – and costly – cult of Richard Dawkins

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Andrew Brown and Daniel Trilling discuss the cult of Richard Dawkins” startat=788] Listen [/audioplayer]The other day I wrote something to upset the followers of Richard Dawkins and one of them tracked me down to a pub. I had been asked to give a talk to a group of ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ about whether there are any atheist babies — clearly not, in any interesting sense — and at the end a bearded bloke, bulging in a white T-shirt, asked very angrily where Dawkins had said there were any. I quoted a couple of his recent tweets on the subject: When you say X is the fastest growing

Churchgoing is good for you (even if you don’t believe in God)

Few people, don’t you find, are as irritating as those who define themselves as Spiritual But Not Religious? There was a riveting  piece in the Sunday Times ‘Style’ magazine last week about them, featuring people who were both fabulously stylish and spiritual. Among the names checked was a shop called Celestine Eleven (‘when you buy a new dress, you’re buying into a beautiful piece of energy’) and a website called Numinous (motto: ‘material girl, mystical world’). So, you can be spiritual and design-conscious, as in Pamela Love’s pentagram ring, £1,500. What this Gwyneth Paltrow-style combination of spirituality and consumerism involves, apart from the absence of any kind of discernible doctrine,

Humans hunger for the sacred. Why can’t the new atheists understand that?

Does the world have a purpose? The new atheists regard the question as absurd. Purposes emerge in the course of evolution, they tell us; to suppose that they could exist before any organism can gain a reproductive advantage from possessing them is to unlearn the lesson of Darwin. With the theory of evolution firmly established, therefore, there is no room in the scientific worldview for an original purpose, and therefore no room for God. Today’s evangelical atheists go further, and tell us that history has shown religion to be so toxic that we should do our best to extinguish it. Such writers describe the loss of religion as a moral

Spectator letters: How schools fail boys, Jonathan Croall answers Keith Baxter, and why atheists should love the C of E

Why girls do better Sir: Isabel Hardman notes that girls now outperform boys at every level in education (‘The descent of man’, 3 May), implying that this is a symptom of a wider cultural malaise. In fact, boys lost their edge in 16+ exams in 1970, long before their advantages in other areas began to disappear. ‘Child-centred’ reforms were already well advanced when the infamous Plowden report was published in 1967, and informal practices such as ‘discovery learning’ and ‘whole language’ gave girls a decided edge. This was conclusively demonstrated in trials conducted between 1997 and 2005 by the Scottish Office. Children who were taught to read with a rigorous

Would human life be sacred in an atheist world?

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Douglas Murray and Freddy Gray discuss the return of God” startat=37] Listen [/audioplayer]What was your reaction recently when it emerged that thousands of unborn foetuses had been burnt by NHS trusts? And that some had been put into ‘waste-to-energy’ incinerators and so used to heat hospitals? Revulsion, I would imagine. But why? I would hazard that it is either because you are religious or because your customs and beliefs are still downstream from faith, even if you reject it. Because if you grant that an unborn foetus is not a life and that once aborted it could have no further use, there is at least an argument that