Being Good: response to The Young Atheist’s Handbook #4 (Chapter 2)

Reading this chapter evoked some very strong emotions. As it is, I have been really helped in recent days by the work of René Girard, who is best known for something called ‘mimetic theory.’ In particular, I wish to draw attention to an idea he called ‘doubling’. Here’s how Simon Taylor explains it:

“Rivals can, Girard tells us, become so focused on one another that they come to resemble each other very closely. This is what he calls doubling, becoming the double of a rival. Often the rivals themselves refuse to see this, and see one another as hugely different. But to an outsider, each appears alike.”

One of the most interesting aspects of hiding behind a one-sided story is that in addition to growing in our inability to acknowledge that there is at least one other side to whatever story it is that we tell so well, we are often extremely good at pointing out when others are themselves hiding behind one-sided stories. The ways in which I felt roused by this chapter fed into some natural drives to not only take a defensive stance against what I take to be both an unsophisticated and remarkably juvenile caricature of religion in general (to say nothing of a level of argument that some of us would find disappointing of sixth-form students – i.e. 16-18 year-olds) but also forcibly attack the contents of this chapter in ways that would be designed to draw attention towards some very undistinguished aspects of Alom Shaha’s character. Not for the first time, his candour is unravelling his credibility as an advocate for an atheism that actually inspires.

The question becomes, however: how does one offer something better? It is easy for me to sit here poking holes at what I take to be cardinal failures in one ex-Muslim’s attempts to evangelise on behalf of atheism (which is his declared intention). But if I were to actively set out to evangelise as a Christian, that is an enterprise which itself would offer other parties ample scope to sit at their own desks and fire criticisms (some of which would, in all likelihood, be legitimate). One of the issues that I will address below is the nature of what I take to be Shaha’s unedifying pride in his pre-adolescent thievery; actions that (at the same time) he himself characterises as moral failures. Easy as it is for me to be unimpressed at the way in which Shaha admits pride in, the fact that I would not think of being proud of my own pre-adolescent delinquency (make that delinquencies) can come across as being emblematic of moral superiority. Now, I may not feel that for a second – but that is the way in which it is quite likely to come across. In that regard, I come across as being no different to Shaha. And so I wish to be very careful – not only in this post but for the rest of the series – to not become his double, wittingly or unwittingly. So now, the question of how I express myself in response to this chapter…!

Not for the first time, I wish to draw attention to the closing words of the chapter in question (in this case Chapter 3, ‘Being Good’):

“But I’m not a cynic; I believe that most of us at least aspire to lead moral lives. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but I’m certain about one thing: slavishly following the words of long-dead men in books that bear little relevance to our contemporary world is no way to truly go about being good.”

One of the reasons why this blog series has been so valuable is because the process of thinking through writing helps one to see that one’s immediate reactions to thoughts and ideas really are less accurate and helpfully reflective than many of us are comfortable with. At first glance, I would have been quite happy to agree (without qualification) to the final clause of that final sentence. But as I looked more specifically at precisely how the whole sentence is constructed, I found an increasing number of problems. As a short scale starting point, ‘slavishly’ following anything or anyone is no way to live, so there is a sense in which nothing meaningful has actually been said. The nature of dependence on holy books as part of spiritual life praxis in other religions is too big a matter for this blog post. However, Christianity certainly does not teach slavish dependence on anything. This does not mean that there are no traditions that claim to be Christian that do not insist on slavish dependence – one of many reasons why Christian theology is so fiercely contested; and yet, for me, one of the positive spin-offs of this reality is that every seeker really is forced to study the faith for themselves as part of the process of deciding which tradition or denomination – if any – they want to be part of.

Okay, so the writings of men who are long dead; what about those? Under the type of non-religious pluralism that Shaha is pointing towards, what is the criteria for ‘relevance’? And who and/or what is the arbiter of what is and is not relevant? The writings of Confucius could be deemed completely relevant to our contemporary world by one person and hopelessly irrelevant by another. We might say the same for Marcus Aurelius, Descartes, Martin Luther King Jr, the Upanishads, the list goes on. I am not about to begin considering converting to Buddhism, but this does not mean that I have not been deeply impressed by the specific way in which Buddhism teaches the concept of attachment. Now, a fellow Christian could very easily argue that we find the same principle within Christian teaching. Certain types of sectarian Christian (even if many of those would disavow that word) would do one of (at least) two things. On one hand, some people would assert that if an idea has come from anywhere outside a genuinely recognisable canon of Christian teaching, then it cannot possibly be worthwhile because only Christianity possesses truth in any form. On the other hand, some would suggest that if there is any truth in this concept of attachment, then there will be some version of it within Christian teaching and even if Buddhism has offered something that might be understood as being true beyond the proscriptive boundaries of religious borders, that fact is best ignored because one’s duty is to promote Christianity. I have clashed quite intensely with more than one such Christian mind in my time and have realised that this sort of sectarianism is – sadly – almost never unlearned. However, I have also enjoyed the fellowship of fellow Christians – some of whom are similarly theologically conservative to myself, with others being very different in ways beyond what is too often taken to be liberal (an increasingly-sadly abused rubric) – who are able to coexist peacefully with difference (theological and otherwise). One need not become a signatory to religious pluralism (however construed) nor become sceptical of one’s own faith tradition to acknowledge that truth is found in many places in our world. Moreover, Jesus himself was quite clear that not everybody who claimed to believe in God (read: be a Christian) was genuine or sincere in this claim. A particularly bad bit of news for some Christians is found in the first several verses of Luke 16. In verse 8 of this chapter, there is a very important Scriptural moment. In the pseudonymous literature of Kierkegaard, readers have to decide to what extent specific perspectives espoused by certain characters are those of Kierkegaard himself and to this day those debates continue. Some of the more sophisticated readings of this literature succeed in part by avoiding short-scale binary formulations. Returning to Luke 16: one might say that in the moment that a parable is being told, the person doing the ‘telling’ effectively assumes the role of a narrator who is ‘inside’ the story itself. In the aforementioned verse, the narrator points out that the ‘children of the world’ are wiser than the ‘children of light’. There’s quite a bit that needs to be said in order to not distort a legitimate understanding of this text, but we have very good reason to believe that at that moment Jesus Himself is commenting on the story through the ‘internal narrator’ – and he is saying that there are some things that Christians can learn from secular people. And if that is true, then it makes sense to apply that to people who are religious in a different way.

At a deeper level of Christian theology, there is indeed almost complete conformity with Buddhism on this specific matter of attachment, but most Christians never get that far. Injunctions against attachment to material possessions and ‘love of the world’ all fall within the regular round of soundbytes that are so easily tuned out. And ‘idolatry’ is an increasingly dirty word for many Christians, one consequence being that the very idea of inappropriate attachment can be glossed over as a problem for other people but never oneself. But one need not be religious to accept that inappropriate attachment is a serious problem that not infrequently leads to psychopathology. So when Alom Shaha states that:

“Atheism does not claim to make you a better person, and in that sense it is something that no religion is: honest.”

the fact that as a Christian I can point to a completely different religion such as Buddhism and say that Buddhism is absolutely right about a crucial aspect of human lived experience is not in itself proof of anything – but if other people from different backgrounds could also attest to the problems that inappropriate attachment causes, it is rather difficult to say that this religion has failed to be honest – at least in this one area. For Shaha to say that no religion is honest (with no qualifications or caveats) says more about him and his willingness to make unsubstantiated categorical statements than any religion. And the fact that modern psychology – having been initially disparaging of ‘attachment theory’ when it was initially proposed – has embraced it within the discipline’s canon of ideas is not to say that modern psychology is actively endorsing Buddhist teaching, but if one looks at the Buddha’s teaching on its own terms it stretches credibility greatly to say that this religion is dishonest by definition.

But let’s go back to Alom Shaha’s career as a pre-adolescent thief. Here is a moment at which I am completely baffled at how a thinker like A. C. Grayling could expose the wonders of this book as he has. Here’s Shaha:

“Of course, I knew that it was wrong to steal, but it didn’t seem like I was hurting anyone. I may have been mistaken about this, but that’s how I thought about it at the time.”

I know no small number of secular people whose moral rectitude is greater than that of many Christians (and other religious people). Once again, Alom Shaha’s candour does him no favours as the hubris is breathtaking. He ‘may’ have been mistaken about this? Let us be charitable and assume that this is a euphemism of some sort. Even so, there is a principle here that is fully accepted by secular (never mind religious!) morality. So what does one make of the sentences that follow immediately after those I just quoted?

“I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was a shoplifter. Statistically speaking, most of the people reading this will have stolen something at some point in their lives. Shoplifting is an entirely normal thing for a child to do; in fact, I can’t help but feel that people who have never stolen anything are a bit odd.”

I am no longer embarrassed (in the way that I used to be) to admit that I made mistakes in the past. I hate the idea that I will make mistakes in the future. But C. S. Lewis (one of the great writers of my faith tradition and about whom we’ll talk more in the next post as Shaha references one of the literary worlds he created in the next chapter) makes a very important point:

“The Christian has a great advantage over other [people], not by being less fallen than they nor less doomed to live in a fallen world, but by knowing that [they ARE] fallen [people living] in a fallen world.”

Things are going to go wrong. People are to make decisions that they regret. This is true irrespective of how we self-identify. As a small child growing up in a religious home, my predisposition towards not doing wrong was because I loved my parents and knew that they loved me and did not want to make them sad or ashamed. But as I grew older and more independent in my own identity – and faith identity – I realised that ethics and morality are underpinned by principles that are bigger than any one child’s love for their parents (not least because some children had no parents still living to love, and others had been abandoned (or were otherwise unloved) by theirs. It is very sad that Alom Shaha’s father was so incapable of finding a more measured approach to the news that his son had been caught stealing that he beat him to the extent that he wet himself. So the fact that his head-teacher’s disappointment hurt him more than the savage beating he received from his Muslim father makes it easy to see why he could conclude that this religious fundamentalist dinosaur – who happened to be an unloving father – represented a vastly inferior way to understand right and wrong than secular morality. But what if his schoolteacher had been a very negative character? In fact, what if all of the people who were conspicuously racist and abusive to someone were fully confirmed atheists? And then, what if the only people who were kind to that aforementioned someone were religious in whatever kind of way?

And what of every religious parent who continues to love a child or children who have not only rejected their faith heritage but actually fallen foul of secular morality and the law? I know more Christian parents whose children are ‘inside’ who have not ever given up on their children (and by this I do not mean that they are trying to force their children to return to their childhood religion, although some do). I also know that more than a few secular parents effectively stop showing love (i.e. I am not trying to make a statement about who does and who does not love their children) when their children give them reason to be ashamed. Alom Shaha has shared this anecdote for a reason. He wants to make a specific point about religion, love and secular morality. But if after all these years he can recount with pride the exploits of theft that were successful, justifying both his actions and his stance by saying that he did not grow up to become a criminal, he is missing the point that the specificity of the ways in which we use the word ‘criminal’ bear no relation to the question of whether or not a person could be described as a genuinely law-abiding citizen, or as a person who actually possesses integrity. A simplistic mind could argue that there is a difference between being embarrassed and being ashamed, and that Alom Shaha was simply saying that he was not embarrassed to tell the truth about his past. I can only direct such people to the chapter for themselves and ask atheists whether or not they would be proud to espouse such sentiments themselves.

There are more questions here that this post can handle but what I hope can be seen is that without getting into whether Alom Shaha is right or wrong to be an atheist (the question that this entire blog series has eschewed from the outset), what he is holding up as an anecdote in support of a viewpoint that is evangelistic in the cause of atheism is still telling us more about him than about anything else. And I am intrigued that he sees shoplifting as ‘normal’. So if parents from any ethnic background/s espousing any worldviews/s take it upon themselves to impress upon children in their care that stealing is wrong – and not least because there are others who might steal because they are poor – and those children grow up and do not steal (whether because opportunities never presented themselves, or because they genuinely connected to the importance of not taking what is not yours, or because they were scared about the consequences of getting caught, or whatever), are they less normal than other kids who might steal without any pang of guilt whatsoever? Shaha has all but admitted that whatever he meant by ‘I knew [stealing] was wrong’, his sense of its wrongness came solely from external sources, and so I have no confidence in his moral compass. I have learned a huge lesson – and I am continuing to learn a huge lesson – from this book and the process of writing this blog post series: sometimes candour tells other people things that you’d prefer them not to know about you given your cause. None of us are perfect, for sure. But what are our values, and who do we hope to become? Is succeeding in not being a criminal the most an atheist can hope for, morally and ethically speaking? Even in a non-technical work such as this, I was hoping for more of an insight as to why a person would find a way to be good without God.

Let us now explore a few of the issues created by his citing of the research that Christopher Hitchens undertook for his book against Mother Teresa. Although Girard’s ‘doubling’ is still fresh in my mind, I have realised that it makes no sense to try and write as if there is an audience with whom I have made an agreement (an expression Hitchens used). And so as gently as I can, let me try to make my final point by holding up a mirror.

I ended up reading a lot more about a lot more things than I had intended in writing this particular post. Here is Michael Wolff in 2013:

“Christopher Hitchens, my colleague at Vanity Fair, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. But even before his illness, and his death almost two years later, he was on his way to sainthood.”

Later in the same article:

“This transformation from political irregular and zealous polemicist to towering moral figure was curious, if not amazing, to many people (perhaps all of us) whose careers had intersected with his. How did the character actor become a leading man? How did the fool become a sage? And what about the bad stuff? Not just his full-throttled embrace of the Bush war but, before that, his casual and convenient betrayal of his friend, Hillary Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, back in the Monica Lewinsky days. Or his take on Bill Clinton, as virulent as that of the most kooky right-wingers. Or his weirdly tolerant relationship with some of the era’s most infamous Holocaust deniers. These are the kind of epochal contretemps that, in the chattering class, usually make for deep enmity rather than enduring love.”

You can read the whole thing for yourself here.

More than one person has observed that the flame of the New Atheist movement has flickered more and more with his death. But beyond the vast amount of what more than one American writer describe as ‘encomiums’, Michael Wolff is far from the only observer with absolutely zero interest in Christianity to note that the Emperor (aka St Christopher) may have been rather shorter of clothing than his acolytes may be willing to apprehend.

It is very difficult to respect the fact that Alom Shaha has read one book that attacks Mother Teresa and stopped there. When Jim Al-Khalili describes this book as a ‘powerful and convincing argument’ and Samira Ahmed describes it as a ‘rational exploration of the corrosive power of religious indoctrination’, I am struggling to see how I can be reading the same text that they were seeing. If one was going to be credible, much less ‘rational’ (and ‘scientific, to boot), one would need to at least consider the argument from both sides before settling on one side of the fence (I think of a remark by Professor William Abraham: ‘agnosticism is a failure of intellectual nerve’). There is a counterpart book by Bill Donohue which offers more than a few nuggets worth considering. First, Donohue tells us that there are no references in the entire text Hitchens offers. Second, writing a book on that subject was not his idea – it was that of an Indian doctor who was advised to get Hitchens to write up the final version – but Hitchens did none of the research himself. Third, said doctor officially distanced himself from what Hitchens wrote. Fourth, not a single reasonably-minded Catholic or other Christian would assume that Mother Teresa made no mistakes or serious errors of judgment. But there is a world of difference between that sort of criticism and the character assassination in which Hitchens specialised. That’s important because if you look up the story of how Christopher Hitchens betrayed his friend Sidney Blumenthal during the Clinton impeachment, the journalist Martin Walker (who asked Hitchens to be his best man) publicly owned up to ‘parting company’ with ‘the Hitch’ over his decision to put Blumenthal in the dirt. More than one secular commentator has observed that Hitchens is more style than substance – Will Lloyd’s 2019 article joins Martin Wolff’s aforementioned 2013 article in this regard – and none of these folks are prepared to grant Hitchens the status of ‘scholar’. He was an excoriating polemicist and amusingly brutal interlocutor, but beyond the aestheticism of his fly-by-night literary whimsies, it has been left to others to do the heavy lifting for a credible atheist position. And in being constantly drunk and thoroughly reptilian in stage-managing his career, let’s put it this way: if one non-academic text by Christopher Hitchens is the best evidence that Alom Shaha has to offer for why one should not look to religion for moral authority, then his own major endorser, A. C. Grayling fought a lost cause in trying to argue that Stephen Hawking and co were wrong to say that philosophy was no longer useful because it had failed to keep pace with physics.

Of course, he did not. Philosophy of science is in rude (read: excellent) health and a much-needed scourge on the plague of neo-positivist science which is also being increasingly outed as an Emperor in serious need of underwear (however dirty and ill-fitting). And it is also a thoroughly secular discipline. And Grayling is only one of many articulate thinkers who is not in thrall to science, but not against it. So is this the kind of thinking that a science educator like Shaha is supposed to be sharing with the ‘young atheists’ he wants to reach? How do you enumerate hypotheses? What is data? What’s the definition of ‘evidence’ and what are the problems with the concept? What is an ‘argument’? How do you test differing and opposing ideas? What are valid ways to draw conclusions? Why might an argument be ‘true’ but yet ‘invalid’? Why might an argument be ‘invalid’ but yet ‘true’? Does Shaha even know some of the answers/responses to the above?

I hereby suggest that prospective atheists of all ages who are sentient enough to read and think go and find the ‘masters of suspicion’, those ‘classical’ atheists we know as Marx, Freud and Nietzsche, and really find some better reasons for getting shot of religion than anything Alom Shaha has offered. [You should know, however, that there are an increasing number of Christian philosophers as well as scientists who have engaged forcibly and technically with all three thinkers and some would – and do – also put the sectarian ideologies of Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert into retirement.] However, I indicated that the next post would feature C.S. Lewis, and it will be based on the chapter entitled ‘Escape to Narnia.’ Until then, please stay safe and avoid the Covid-19 virus if at all possible!

 

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