Two well known atheists -- AC Grayling and Geoffrey Robertson QC -- were on Q&A last night. They are very dapper and distinguished lookin' fellas aren't they? And they both have mighty impressive grey manes.
This seems to be a feature of the celebrity atheist. Richard Dawkins, while possessing a less luxuriant head of hair, is still elegantly, albeit subtly, coiffed. And Tariq Ali surely has one of the most magnificent thatches in all of, er, anti-Christendom. (Though it must be said that Phillips Adams is actually follicularly challenged on top. But to make up for it he sports an excellent wise man's beard.)
Well, whatever their hairstyles are like, it's what's going on underneath them that matters. And sometimes I reckon that's a bit of a worry. Not on the general issue of atheism itself, mind. I agree that religion is irrational and unscientific. It's just the lengths they want to go to with their atheism that worry me a bit.
Take Grayling's attitude to the "why are we here?" question:
AC GRAYLING: The problem with the question is that it is a question begging a question. If you think it is a valid question to ask, you have already made the assumption there is an answer external to what is the case about us, which is that as intelligent monkeys, we are essentially social animals, we live in communities with one another and we have a responsibility to think, to use the intelligence we have got and to make meaning, to make purpose in life. There isn't an antecedent purpose which you can cite as the answer to that question "Why are we here?". The fact is we are here, we have to get on with it, and make the best of it. And the way that we make the best of it is to make life meaningful.
That's not an extreme statement in itself, of course. But there seems to be a quasi-authoritarian subtext to it, particularly when you combine it with other things he said (which I'll get to in a minute).
I mean, why doesn't religion still have a lot to offer in a world in which the question is "invalid"? That is, if people are to get on with it and make life meaningful as he suggests why can't they do that by constructing complex and sophisticated religions that give their followers spiritual guidance and a deep sense of meaning?
But Grayling really doesn't like that idea at all:
AC GRAYLING: I would like to pick Nicola up on something, if I may, with great respect. I don't think it is OK that people can believe what they like. All our beliefs should be based on responsible reasoning and we should look at the evidence and think about it carefully.
So, it's "not okay" for people to believe what they like. Sounds like he would much prefer to live in a world where everyone sees the world in the way he does. Strikes me as a very authoritarian attitude, and one which would make life a lot less interesting.
To Robertson: He got a laugh with a cheap and easy shot at Cardinal Pell when he said this:
GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: I thought that last week's debate was quite extraordinary. Because we had the announcement by George Pell that atheists can go to heaven.
CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Everyone can be saved.
GEOFFREY ROBERTSON: Well, that's right. Why, for example, be a Catholic? Why go to all those Sunday morning services? Why run the risk your kids will be molested by the local priest when you can be... I mean, I am not an atheist, I'm a lawyer. I don't know whether George would accept that lawyers get to heaven. I think God has to draw the line somewhere. Nonetheless, we don't live in a secular society. We may be sun worshippers but in fact there are so many rules, laws, in this country which are biased in favour of Christian believers. You can't buy a bottle of wine on Good Friday.
This just shows how ignorant he is of Catholics' motivations. They don't maintain their faith just so that they can get to heaven. They have many other reasons such as the sense of wanting to be good, caring about others, and having a sense of community, to name a few.
And he couldn't resist making that nasty reference to pedophilia. But the reality is that Catholic priests are no more likely to commit pedophilia than any other group of men. If there'd been a concerted campaign to demonize lawyers as kiddy fiddlers then he'd be copping some of the same kind of abuse he happily hurls at Catholics and I bet he wouldn't like it one bit.
He also clutches at straws with his claims that Christians get lots of preferential treatment, and that we don't live in a secular society. We do live in a secular society. You can go your entire life and never be preached at by a God botherer. You can flout any (or even all) of the ten commandments and get away with it.
Christians are clearly more tolerant of atheists than the other way around, as evidenced by their lack of nastiness when debating them. (And just as Robertson points out, they'll also welcome non-believers into heaven! That's about as non-discriminatory as you can get, isn't it?)
This stark difference is one of the reasons Grayling, Roberston and their fellow celebrity atheists can't make much of a dent in the power and influence of religion in this country or any other.
Religion is here to stay whether they like it or not