I’ve been a Level 7 Atheist for as long as I can remember; the idea of “god” always seemed strange to me. I was fascinated by science as a boy growing up in early 60s England. I loved “outer space” and stories about the undersea world. My first brutal encounter with “the Scriptures” was at Prince Edward’s Infants in Sheffield. I drew a picture story of taking a “rocket ship” into space to meet up with God; it seemed logical to me – a child of Sputnik – that if Heaven was where the Bible said it was, somewhere “up there”, we should be able to visit the place.
My teacher, the twitchy Miss Gamble, took great umbrage at my insolence and ignorance. I was hauled to the front of the class and given “the slipper” across my buttocks. I had, it seems, offended both Church and State with my childish views of materialism and space travel.
Growing up I was offered a remarkable degree of choice about religious instruction. It was compulsory at school, but my parents never made me go to Sunday School. As far as I can remember the only time I’ve been in a church with my parents was on my Christening day; perhaps there was the odd family wedding too, but we never went to pray as a family.
I did go to Sunday School with my cousins as a young boy; I liked to get out of the house and play with friends, but I could never take the hymn-singing very seriously and when it came time to close my eyes and pray I would always sneek a look around to see who was communing and who was conning.
As a teenager, I had my share of encounters with religious families too, usually because I was lusting after a girl. This led me to the Seventh Day Adventists for a brief period. I was thrown out of the sect and the house when the girl’s parents realised my Passion was for their daughter, rather than their God.
I went to Fellowship for about three years during senior High School. Every Friday night I would leave the house with as much pocket money as I could obtain legally and by subterfuge from my mother. It usually amounted to no more than a few dollars. That didn’t matter though; a schooner of Resch’s was about 30 cents and a packet of B&H Special Filters less than 50 cents. We’d go to the Wagon Wheels, or the Station hotel and get ourselves a bit drunk; then we’d go up to the church hall and try to pick up girls. One memorable evening Gail let me go upstairs inside. That was my idea of religious ecstasy. All my prayers – to that point – had been answered.
I offer you this confessional background in order to make the point that, despite my hardcore atheism, I am very tolerant of religion.
You see I believe that a Level 7 Atheist has a duty to be a strong proponent of the freedom to worship. I think it is important to make this point at a time in history when Secularism is being given a bad name by religious bigots.
And the worst of them – now that Christopher Hitchens has gone to meet his maker (or not) – is the renowned, but increasingly erratic Oxford Professor, Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins coined the term “Level 7 Atheist” in his book The God Delusion, which is an intelligent argument for religious instruction being “adults only” and for the cogent practice of atheism as a wholly moral outlook. In other words, Dawkins is right that we don’t need to be “religious” in order to have a good “moral” worldview. In fact, like all Level 7 Atheists, I firmly believe that NOT having to kowtow to a fictional “Higher Authority” makes us more moral, not less, because it means we have to take full responsibility for our actions in the “here and now”, not leave absolution until the day after we kick off this mortal coil.
But sadly, despite the greatness of his previous work, Richard Dawkins has become an embarrassment to any self-respecting atheist.
In the last five years or so, Dawkins has become an awful parody of himself. He is now so religiously fanatical about his opposition to Islam that he has turned himself into an intolerant zealot. Just look at this tweet from August 2013; it borders on racist, but it is certainly Islamophobic:
This one, from March 2013 is both racist and Islamophobic:
Of course, Dawkins, and those who still support his line of reasoning, will argue that Islam is not a category of ethnicity – in other words, it’s not a “race” – and strictly speaking they are semantically right. However, to defend Dawkins in this way falls right into the “I’m not a racist, but…” line of arguing which is thoroughly discredited. Dawkin’s Islamophobia is a form of racism; it identifies a specific group with common characteristics and it denigrates them on the basis of those characteristics.
I’ve heard it said that Dawkins is the champion of the “New Atheism”, a more militant form of secularism and one that is supposed to be a counter to a rising tide Islamic fundamentalism. If the aim of this “new” atheism is to “convert” Muslims by berating them about the logical fallacies of their religion, then it is clearly not working.
The end result, unfortunately, is to give succour and political cover to the really really nasties who would have us equate Islam with Fascism and therefore justify a never-ending global war against Islamic “terrorism”. You do not win hearts and minds through a campaign of brutal suppression. It has never worked; from My Lai to Abu Ghraib it has failed.
For instance, demanding that Muslim women forsake the hijab – as is now the law in France – just drives Islam underground and reinforces the mistaken ideas of the Jihadis. That is not tolerant secularism; it is religious bigotry.
The New Atheism is wrong because it makes excuses for the worst kind of anti-Islamic hatreds. For Muslims, as for adherents of any religion, the only way they will be free of the “opiate of the masses” is if they come to secularism of their own free will and after considering the material aspects of their religion in a rational way. Secularists can best help this process by getting out of the way, not joining the chorus of Islamophobic ranters like Dawkins.
First published in Australian Rationalist