Tony Blair's Crusade Against Atheism

| 0 Comments | 0 TrackBacks

Last week, several bloggers expressed their chagrin at Tony Blair for having allegedly made some rather unfortunate remarks about non-theists in a speech the former British Prime Minister delivered to a crowd of religious scholars at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Jonathan Hurley, for instance, likens Blair to the puritanical elders of old Salem, claiming that "[n]ot since leaders tackled the dangers of witches in our midst has a politician sounded such an alarm." Elsewhere, Austin Cline calls Blair "a political menace and an intellectual vacuum." Clearly, Mr. Blair has touched a nerve.


In his speech, ostensibly a gesture of interfaith solidarity aimed at strengthening bonds between Christians and Muslims, Blair claims that "people of faith . . . face an aggressive secular attack from without" as well as "the threat of extremism from within." Blair continues, arguing that "[t]hose who scorn God and those who do violence in God's name . . . offer no hope for faith in the twenty first century."

Even if one gives Blair the benefit of the doubt and presumes that the "aggressive secular attack" to which he refers amounts to the efforts of a small minority of atheists, his wording is uncomfortably imprecise. Although there are, of course, other ways to read his comments, many commentators agree with Blag Hag's Jen, who, in asking "[w]hen's the last time an atheist has flown a plane into a building, or performed a suicide bombing?" interprets Blair's statement as a declaration that non-theists are as potent a threat to "people of faith" as violent religiously-motivated terrorists. Indeed, as Dave Keating puts it, "[a]pparently to Blair, Atheists and terrorists are two sides to the same coin."

Furthermore, semantically-speaking, atheists do not -- indeed cannot -- "scorn God" for the simple reason that one cannot be contemptuous towards that which one does not believe exists. Indeed, even in his most vitriolic of moments, Richard Dawkins does not scorn God; he hates the irrationality with which many "people of faith" approach the world, the same sort of irrationality Blair would likely attribute to the elements of "extremism" he denounces in the same breath as atheists. Thus, at the very least, Blair's comments suggest a particularly retrograde brand of essentialism lies beneath his understanding of non-theists. Likewise, he rather offensively reserves the concept of "faith" for adherents of recognized major world religions while neglecting to acknowledge that quite a few atheists are self-identified Humanists with a very real brand of faith as a central component of their moral philosophy.

Ultimately, though, Blair probably does not deserve the degree of condemnation directed at him. In all likelihood, his attempt to preach a rather pedestrian idea to his own choir (a largely academic crowd of Christians and Muslims hoping to overcome interfaith conflicts) drifted out of the nave and into the street, into the ears of a population to whom the same message would have been phrased more precisely had he intended to address them (i.e., "some of the people Paul Kurtz calls 'atheist fundamentalists,' like the more violent among religious extremists, may say or do things that will cause some 'people of faith' [those whose convictions are susceptible to doubt] to question the veracity of their beliefs" and, consequently, increase the likelihood of intrafaith squabbling). Such a view seems consistent with that of "Brad," who posts the following to the comment section below Keating's essay:
This is plain slander, and poorly-executed slander at that. I attended the Common Word Conference in Georgetown. Blair did not urge all faiths to "unite against a secular agenda," and most certainly did not equate atheism with terrorism. He simply meant that peace between the Muslim and Christian worlds is hindered from within by extremism, which promotes conflict between the religions, and from the outside by atheism, which undermines the need for considering religion in politics whatsoever.
To be sure, Blair's inability to anticipate the impact of his words on non-sympathetic ears may well be the big problem here. Whether it be "fair" or not, speaking in a public forum (even a "closed" forum) places the orator in the difficult position of having to consider the effect his or her words may have on a dauntingly broad range of auditors, including those not in attendance (recall Barack Obama's use of the word "bitter" last year). Thus, while Blair's defenders may see the response of a few secularists as the deliberate decontextualizing and twisting of the speaker's words, they remain his words and, thanks to the Internet, those words (as well as their intended and unintended meanings) have spread far beyond the intended audience. And this possibility, of course, is something Blair could have -- and, some would argue, should have -- anticipated.

Still, even in the most generous of interpretations, in which Blair simply means to imply that some secularists, through verbal argumentation and rhetorical persuasion, threaten to shake the convictions of the faithful, the former Prime Minister does a profound disservice to the "people of faith" he champions so mightily. After all, faith is only faith when its bearer considers the possibility of its fallibility and, after reflection, maintains and reaffirms his or her belief. Theoretically, he should welcome the challenges posed by those people he demonizes because, without them, people of faith such as himself would have nothing against which to test their convictions.

In the end, Blair's broad-sweeping comments on "secularists" do imply an overly simplistic understanding of atheism (there are different kinds of atheists, of course) which will, until clarified, understandably continue to rankle many non-theists, quite a few of whom supported Blair in his political sallies throughout the years.

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL: http://www.sobriquetmagazine.com/cgi_bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/218

Leave a comment

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Sobriquet Magazine published on October 18, 2009 6:45 PM.

"Duopoly Is Not Democracy" Stickers was the previous entry in this blog.

The Mole People of Las Vegas is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.