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Christian Atheist
Christian Atheism. Photo (cc) zorilla.

The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, has spoken out this Christmas against fundamentalism, including fundamentalist atheists. It’s the kind of message I agree with, or at least I would if I knew any fundamentalist atheists. I don’t know any. Fair play to Dr Morgan, he doesn’t name any so I may never find out who they are. Presumably it’s not a reference to Richard Dawkins because, for reasons I’ll show below, that would be a bit silly. It’s not surprising Dawkins gets ratty about it. But while Dawkins isn’t a fundamentalist, it’s possible one of his one-liners might explain where these fundamentalists come from.

Everybody nowadays is an atheist about Thor and Apollo. Some of us just go one god further.

Technically two lines, but it is a problem because this line doesn’t say what an atheist is. It’s a big point because there’s when you’re talking about Thor or Apollo there’s a difference in depending on whether or not you’re the sort of atheist who believes in gods.

An atheist who believes in a God? That’s the problem.

In the God Delusion (page 73 in my UK paperback) Dawkins talks about belief. Do you believe in god(s)? Yes or no? The answer might not be that simple. For instance you could be agnostic. So Dawkins offers a seven point scale.

1. Strong Theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung, ‘I do not believe, I know.’
4. Exactly 50%. Completely impartial agnostic. ‘God’s existence and nonexistence are exactly equiprobable.’
7. Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God with the same conviction as Jung “knows” there is one.’

Now to fill out those points, at 2 there are people who accept they cannot know with 100% certainty, but strongly believe in a god. They live their lives in the believe that a god exists. At 3 are people who think there’s probably a god, but have doubts. Believers in gods aren’t uniform, they’re spread across the scale between 1,2 and 3. At 5 are agnostics who are sceptical about the idea of a god, but think there might be circumstantial evidence for its existence.

At 6 are what Dawkins calls de facto atheists. These are people who see no evidence for a god and no reason to believe. They live with the assumption no gods exist, but they cannot be 100% sure. This is the level that Dawkins would put himself at. It describes my non-belief. It’s possible I’m a victim of Descartes’ Demon. I’m not sure it’s possible to live my life assuming I’m the victim of supernatural beings so I ignore it in day-to-day life.

One of the things Dawkins says is that this belief scale isn’t balanced. He states get people between 2,3,4,5 and 6. However you also get a lot of people at 1, 100% certain of a god’s existence. In contrast he expects very few people at level 7 because this level of certainty requires a level of faith. The problem is that when he equates athorism, a lack of belief in Thor, with atheism he assumes that people don’t believe in Thor based on the lack of evidence when many people don’t believe in Thor because of faith.

If you’re a Christian or an atheist then you’re athorist. A grade 6 atheist is only a grade 6 athorist. She can be no more certain Thor does not exist than any other god. In contrast a grade 1 Christian is a grade 7 athorist. A grade 1 Christian knows Thor doesn’t exist because he knows there’s one true God. A Christian anywhere between 1 and 3 on the scale could be a grade 7 athorist. Therefore going one god further isn’t necessarily going to help a Christian become a Dawkins style atheist. The difference isn’t in the content of belief, it’s the method of how you get there. This explains in part why discussion of faith so often generates more heat than light. Dawkins is open in his disdain for theology and, when it comes to religion, grade 1 writers show equal disregard for evidence.

Who is likely to be at the grade 1 level of religious belief? I would have thought level 1 Christianity, or at least the pretence of level 1 Christianity would have been essential for professional Christians. Is it fair to say that disregard is a fair word for some of these people? I think so.

Virulent attacks on religion by atheists, he says, are undermining Christian society, leading to new rules such as Christmas being renamed as “Winterval” and Christians being forbidden to wear crosses at work.

I don’t know of a single council that has renamed Christmas “Winterval”. In know that in the late 90s for a couple of years Birmingham City Council had a season of events betwen October and January which they called Winterval. Christmas celebrations were part of this, but so was Diwali. There For some reason not all Hindus would be happy if Diwali was part of the city’s ‘Christmas’ celebrations. The problem for some people is that freedom of religion includes the freedom to practice religions which don’t match the complainants own particular brand of Christianity. Winterval replacing Christmas is a well-known urban myth. At least it’s well known among people with an interest in religion. Therefore a solid example would be helpful.

I could be wrong. It is possible that Winterval has replaced Christmas somewhere and I don’t know about it, so I’ve contacted the Dr Morgan’s press office to find out which councils have abandoned Christmas for Winterval. Unfortunately there’s nothing beyond an assertion in the press release, but that’s me being fixated on evidence rather than accepting his word on faith. Cynics call this kind of approach lying for Jesus, but it’s possibly not a helpful way of thinking about how grade 1 Christians deal with evidence.

Theo Hobson is a doctor of theology writing for the Guardian and a great exponent the imaginary argument. He’s quite open about inventing views for atheists like Dawkins and then castigating them for their beliefs. It’s clear that Dawkins’ arguments are irrelevant to Hobson’s writing. I wouldn’t say Hobson is lying about Dawkins, because it’s a question about what the word Dawkins means. Dawkins is now a totem for atheism as imagined by Hobson. The argument is not with Richard Dawkins, but with the mirror of Hobson’s own faith. The weakness of reasoning he sees is only the reflection of his own arguments, but Hobson isn’t interested in epistemology, only in the content of belief. Sadly Hobson is under the illusion that his beliefs are somehow connected to the actual person called Richard Dawkins.

In a similar way Dr Morgan’s vision of Winterval could carry all the reality and meaning of a vision of Mary or some other divine communication without having to correspond with what a non-believer might call ‘the real world’. Whether or not people really are replacing Christmas with Winterval is not so important as the belief that the only religion to automatically have a say in the British government is being repressed.

Or I could be wrong, and I’ll update this if I am.

The problem with much discussion of atheism is that some believers assume that it really is simply a case of believing in one god less, rather than questioning what grounds you have for a belief. It’s easy to attack faith-based atheism, which is what Dr Morgan is attacking if you read his full statement: “To have a coherent and rational debate about the tenets of the Christianity is perfectly natural. To have a virulent, almost irrational attack upon it claiming that what is being said is self evidently true is dangerous…” Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett are so far away from self-evident truths that they wrote whole books to defend their position rather than brief unsourced press releases. Ironically statements like those of Dr Morgan are arguments for evidence-based reasoning. Nonetheless the one god less line, being an appeal to the religious, could be a call to faith-based atheism. It’s a shame, because until today I thought it was a cute line.