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Beware the aggressive extremist within

16 May 2007

Mark Vernon finds a critique of militant atheism in George Orwell, and a warning against the same faults in everyone

The rise of militant atheism — the sort that does not just think that belief in God is silly, but campaigns as if religion were as abusive as a tyranny — has puzzled me. Otherwise intelligent, cultured, and charming minds see red when discussing faith. In ferocity of tone and subtlety of argument, they become indistinguishable from the religious extremism they so loathe.

Then I read George Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism”, an essay published in 1945. Orwell writes that nationalism is not the ideal word for what he seeks to describe, and he does not mean it in its usual sense of passionate attachment to a nation. Rather, his “nationalists” are those who habitually identify themselves with a group of people who think as they do, and place that single-minded collective beyond good and evil. They see it as a kind of duty to advance their tribe’s interests. Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, anti-Semitism, Trotskyism, and pacifism are among his examples.

The nationalist “persuades himself that [his side] IS the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.”

Nationalists are obsessed: the slightest slur against their side enrages them; they seize the smallest opportunity to attack their perceived enemies. They are also myopic in their grasp on reality. Nationalists will, for example, fail to see atrocities committed by their own side as atrocities, while they constantly rehearse those committed by others as unforgivable and as contemporary today as when they were carried out.

Orwell also argues that nationalists peddle their opinions with all the sophistication of a debating society. This is partly because they like to ride rough-shod over complexities in order to generate point-scoring simplicities, and partly because they do not actually want to engage with others, but rather to satisfy their fantasies of rightness and conquest.

A sub-division of nationalism, Negative Nationalism, is notable for taking pleasure in the pains of its enemy, and interpreting them as signs of its triumphs. It is also prone to intellectualism, anger, sentimentality, absurdities (which are systematically overlooked), and mistaken good faith (that is, some of these nationalists originally adopted the position for non-nationalistic reasons — like a lawyer who, while originally defending a killer in the name of justice, ends up so close to him that he actually condones his client).

Orwell’s description finds an almost perfect reflection in militant atheism. Think about it: the militant atheists exhibit the characteristics of nationalism that he describes — if not simultaneously, then regularly. They identify themselves with the side that is marching through history under a banner of death-of-God progress. They have a task: to rid the world of theological superstition. They are committed to this with evangelical zeal, though they do not see it as a task — a word that might suggest the possibility of failure — but as a mission, underwritten not by a deity, but by a steely force with equally irresistible power.

They lift a pen, and, directly or indirectly, consciously or not, the things they write promote their side. They are unshakeably certain; they believe as gospel that truth will out. They overlook or reinterpret the atrocities of atheists such as Stalin or Mao, while constantly playing on the violence of the crusades or religious persecutions.

They cannot really acknowledge that the secular day is no longer lengthening. They refuse to engage with belief in any deep way, preferring to pick up the familiar sticks of their arguments — God is a delusion; faith is at an end; religion poisons everything — with which to beat it. They are sentimental about the power of reason, and angry about totemic issues, such as faith-based education.

Yet Orwell concludes with a warning: “As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a MORAL effort.”

So, to avoid the excesses that militant atheistic nationalism indulges, reasonable minds — be they believing, agnostic, or even atheistically inclined — must be alive to the possibility that nationalism is part of their make-up, too.

Paradoxically, this is particularly necessary when accusing others of nationalism, since nationalism is itself an accusation that can wipe out nuanced understanding in favour of straightforward condemnation. If you come to regard militant atheism as a surprising but powerful nationalism, then you need to be sure that this is not because of any blind adherence to your own perceived tribe.

The moral effort that Orwell identifies to avoid this danger is to understand where you are coming from, and how you justify the nationalist charge. Ask yourself why you find militant atheism so offensive. There are good reasons for doing so — such as the atheistic assertion that faith in God has all the sophistication of believing in fairies.

This is the derogatory rhetoric of a nationalist mindset. Atheists, however, also make accusations that stick, such as the terrible things that are done in religion’s name. To dismiss these as merely the bombast of the extremist is to sidestep the moral struggle that Orwell called for.

  Of course, being so dispassionate may not always be easy, especially as the temperature of the debate rises. It will; for nationalists see their struggle as a fight to the death.

Mark Vernon is the author of Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); www.markvernon.com.

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