THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
God's words

Militant Agnosticism?

Am I alone in being disturbed by the tone of current public discourse on religion? I am - as I have explained before - an atheist, but rather wish I wasn't. I can see that religion meets a basic human need. I would be a fool not to see that, given that religions with very similar characteristics have arisen (and continue to arise) in every human society. The religious may be wrong about the details of their beliefs. Amusingly, like militant leftists, they tend to devote a lot of energy to denouncing the heresies of their fellow-believers. So even most of them think that most of them are wrong. Still, there's no denying the needs their diverse faiths express.

I am human too and would love - for example - to believe that Mrs P., my late wife, still exists somewhere - safe and happy. Offer me a pill that would make me think that and - for all my love of truth - I might just take it. So who am I to criticise those whose faith gives them just such comfort?

As Mrs P converted to Catholicism in her final months, I have had a lot to do with Christians over the last year. I have found them, contrary to their depiction in both msm and blogosphere, to be more tolerant and respectful of other views than many atheists - not least the unscientifically arrogant Dawkinsites. I defend, of course, the freedom of my fellow atheists to scoff at "sky fairies". On the whole, however, I think their arguments might prosper better if they were as civilised in their discourse as the faithful.

There is no more need for a special "freedom of religion" than there is for "gay rights". Human freedoms and rights are for all or for none. Freedom of thought and expression will suffice for all sensible purposes. Right now, the religious seem to pose little threat to either and the attacks on them seem - at best - disproportionate.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


Well I think Suboptimal Planet makes some really good points.

Trooper T makes a very good point about the persecution of Christians, more to the point that persecution is almost exclusively at the hands of Islamics.

Cascadian’s quote is a good one.

I have read Dawkins also and I think he makes many good arguments. Tho some are not so good. He seems to be held up as a terrible person, most often by people who react like he dissed their mother. I guess it is as basic as that.

The thing is Dawkins does not suggest people who disagree with him should be killed and he never, as far as I know, ever blew anyone up or committed mass murder. He does try to persuade with argument and tells it how he sees it.

I am not sure what to think. A bit Like The original Thomas Paine, who I admire (and I think looks kind in his portraits), I do hope for some survival and the possibility of happiness beyond this life. I can go with his Justice/mercy/happiness. Plus Jesus’ Treat others as you would be treated and my personal “Try to leave the world a nicer place each day than you find it”.

I am not so big on isms and such. I do like to think stuff through and it does not matter who says something is so or how many if it seem like it does not quite fit together then I generally won’t just follow blindly along.

I do agree that religion seems to fill a gap in some people’s thought processes and it can be a comfort. That does not necessarily mean any of them are right or true. It does not make the opposite so either.

I can’t help noticing some people have a gap somewhere that causes them to become addicts to alcohol, or Opium too.

To my mind religion is like fire or strong drink, a good servant and a poor master., and I think on the whole better to follow Jesus, or the Buddha, than Mohammed.

But it is the intolerant, fanatical ones, those who would force their views, the authoritarians of any stripe who are sharks swimming through the medium of belief.


Thank you for your thoughtful reply. First for the removal of doubt, I am not propounding Deism or any other *ism as a solution to my befuddlement.

As to the original Tom, I believe that he lived in a far more intellectual age than we do, when time was spent in discussion at the meeting houses and at home, therefore the great issues would be subject to mature discussion. However given the enormous lack of scientific knowledge available to Tom's cohort which is now available to most of us, the unexplained causes of illnesses and early deaths must have been terrifying. Perhaps in some small way this explains the need for belief in a benevolent power that one could pray to fervently to avoid a similar fate. The form of the greater power is of course unknowable, humans in their conceit frequently perceive it in human form. I think that original Tom's Deism at least concedes that if God is of human form he cannot be "responsible" for all humaity's good and ill deeds. A kind of libertarian God, who provides most inhabitants with the basics-a conscience, a brain to learn and an able body to work but leaves the moral and charitable to one's own conscience. Whether that makes Him irrelevant is debatable, perhaps He just does not need as much "God bothering" as the atheists say and the organized churches like to promote.

Whatever our conclusions, I think we can agree that God (if he/she/it exists or existed) has a wicked sense of humour and original Tom a great deal more intellectual horsepower than Dawkins.

My big question on Dawkins is whether he is principally motivated by selling his books, or saving Homo sapiens sapiens from itself.

If the former, that's fine by me. But I'm not buying as I have better uses for both my money and my time.

If the latter, there are many others with much better ideas.

Best regards
Nigel Sedgwick


I am inclined to think it's not a specifically religious problem. The State's encroachment into personal life is generally wrong. This is being noticed by the religious as it is by everyone else, but their reactions are more intense. The power and danger of religion is this; anyone of real faith will resist what they feel to be truly wrong, even at the risk of their lives. The religious were the great resistors in Communist Poland, for example, when everyone else (with noble exceptions) kept their heads down.


I wonder (as did many at the time) if the original (and best) Tom wasn't really an atheist in a time when that wasn't really acceptable. The Deism schtick is an intellectual cop-out, isn't it? "Voltaire est hypocrite" etc. I am prepared to buy a Dylan Thomas-like "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower" type Deism, I guess, but it's not much more than anthropomorphising a joy in/wonder at/fear of the Universe.

It seems to me that once you believe like a Deist that there is a God but He's not much interested in his creatures, then He becomes irrelevant. If we are cultures in some hyper-being's petrie dish then so what? We may as well get on with it in mutual disregard.

Of course, with his Quaker background and influences, there might be a less Age of Enlightenment explanation for Old Tom's religious beliefs. For what it's worth (Deism aside) I pretty much agree with him on most points, especially his rejection of established churches. Any organisation that claims a moral basis (e.g. the State) is going to be corrupted double quick, attracting as it must those who wish to manipulate their fellow men for their own ends. A moral organisation that claims to speak with the authority of an omnipotent creator is only going to be corrupted faster.


We can live with each other, I have found most religious people on an individual basis very nice people, particularly if they have seriously thought about their religion.

It seems (for want of a better word) that fundamentalists who have not thought through their faith and only parrot-like repeat what their "preachers" are propounding are very dangerous. Many atheists seem to fall into this category, because lets face it, they too hqave their "preachers".

A shortcoming in any religion seems (to me) the blind acceptance of their holy book as the "only" true word. In reality these books were mostly written by committees and contain the dogma of their day. Then again attempts by the likes of the church of England to recruit personnel expounding the latest socialist dogma also leaves me wishing for a bit more conservative interpretation of the bible.

By now, you will have realised that I am as conflicted and confused as Tom Paine (the blog-owner).


Trooper Thomson is indeed correct to point out the Christians elsewhere who are really living their faith - also Syria, Iraq, Sudan.

To Tom's original point, I think he is absolutely spot on. There should not be a need for freedom for religions, but what do you do when the law encroaches so fundamentally on religious beliefs? When so much much of the prevailing winds fly in the face of the foundations of our society. To pitch it at its broadest, we in the West live in a society with the values and traditions of monotheistic religions at its heart (I would say the Church, but others have different views!). In many senses that is where I agree with the libertarian perspective - too many laws are bad and should be removed.
My difficulty is that is not enough. What about the immoral laws? Or, from our perspective, the application of the natural law? What about laws that supposedly protect freedoms but attack the natural law - or religious values or freedoms? Obama's current efforts, abortion laws, family law, euthanasia, stem cell research.

Regrettably we are now in an environment where the religious perspective (not shared by all, but as even Mr Dawkins implicitly acknowledges, is the foundation for where we arel), is aggressively marginalised In the pursuit of legislative morality.....


I'm quite enjoying this faux debate out there and the howls of the Mail, chasing militant atheists and rationalists around the barnyard with a whip. About time they got a bit of their own back. :)

Suboptimal Planet

Nicely done, Cascadian :-)

The position of the original Paine was indeed well-considered (for his day).

Theism is ridiculous and often dangerous.

Deism is merely unparsimonious (i.e. fails lex parsimoniae).


Perhaps a reread of "The Age of Reason" is in order. A small extract:

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

But, lest it should be supposed that I believe many other things in addition to these, I shall, in the progress of this work, declare the things I do not believe, and my reasons for not believing them.

I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself.

That is a well considered ideology, tolerant of others while rejecting all organized faiths. It would require mental toughness and a robust personality to live by.

Trooper Thompson

It's the Christians in places like Nigeria and Egypt who have it tough (and it ain't the atheists responsible). The Christians over here would probably benefit from a bit of persecution - gold tried in the fire, so to speak, and most likely counter-productive from the point of view of Dawkins and co. It might also help them see the state for what it is - the enemy of all things good!

Suboptimal Planet

"There is no more need for a special "freedom of religion" than there is for "gay rights". Human freedoms and rights are for all or for none. Freedom of thought and expression will suffice for all sensible purposes"

Very well said.

My position is that religions are just ideologies with supernatural features, and everyone should treat them as such. Someone who truly believes that The Old Testament or The Koran offers good advice for moral living should be treated with the same contempt and suspicion as someone who believes the same of Mein Kampf.

For day-to-day relations with people who don't take their holy books too seriously, I take the same view as Mencken:

"We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

As for religion meeting a basic human need, I'd recommend Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett. It has quite a different tone from Dawkins's The God Delusion (which I also enjoyed, though I can see why some people find it distasteful).

The Church of England is relatively benign, but it should still be disestablished. And I'd say that even if its upper echelons weren't overrun by nasty socialists.

"Right now, the religious seem to pose little threat to either and the attacks on them seem - at best - disproportionate."

I think that's true in the case of British Christians, though I'm interested to know what particular attacks you have in mind.

The comments to this entry are closed.