The was a documentary that aired in 2006 on Channel 4 in the UK, presented by the journalist Rod Liddle. The documentary essentially criticised atheism as being ultimately dogmatic and similar to religion, and having no real solution to the problems of violence and hatred in the world. (If you want to check it out before you read any further, have a look here on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=5EEE474F4C7B3B75 or here on google video: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7760032578363901913) Liddle starts the documentary under the premise that atheists are arrogant and intolerant, and finally ends with: “The true scientific position of course; is that there may be a god, and there may not be a god. Why can’t we leave it at that?” Liddle tries to take the (high) middle ground in this documentary. Unsurprisingly he is an agnostic, which is all fine and good, but you can’t help but get a sense of contempt for the scientists, philosophers, the biologists, and the physicists he interviews. He talks as if he has a chip on his shoulder, and it doesn’t make for the best television. But I would like to critique the ideas and arguments put forth in the documentary, rather than it’s merits as good television.
Liddle begins by completely misrepresenting the idea of atheism; he claims that atheism is a religion of it’s own, or that it is a belief system “a belief in disbelief” he says. This makes as much sense as the idea that disbelief in unicorns is “a belief in disbelief”. It completely misses the point. Disbelief is just that, a lack of belief, it is not a belief by definition. The standard definition of Atheists only requires that they lack belief in god/s. Nothing more. He then goes on to quickly label Stalin’s regime as an “atheist regime” to plant that horrible thought in our head that Stalin’s crimes were due to his (or his party’s) atheism. I will address this ignorant attack later.
Next, a rather odd individual by the name of David Bedford is shown picketing outside a Church in New York. Liddle asks him why he is doing this and asks “why can’t you believe what you believe, and let other people believe what they want”, unfortunately, the self proclaimed “atheist messiah” plays right into his hands and answers “because what they believe is wrong”. Whether this is true or not misses the point, this kind of arrogance is exactly the sort that Liddle is rallying against, and fair enough too. I would rally behind him in this instance. I called his response ‘unfortunate‘ because it was the perfect opportunity to establish very early on in the film why atheists feel that it is important to speak up and speak against religious and deistic belief, and why many feel that they cannot stay silent. The simple answer to Liddle’s question is that religious and theistic belief impacts all members of society (religious or not), whether it be through politics, social policy or convention, community inclusion or denigration. After his meeting with David Bedford, Liddle contends that atheism “breeds it’s own loonies“; as if atheism has it’s own comparable doctrine that dictates how it’s followers should act. But atheism isn’t a religion, it doesn’t have dogma, it doesn’t have a doctrine, and it doesn’t have followers. There will be loonies regardless of religion or any ideology. Atheism is unique in that it isn’t a religion or an ideology, it provides no instructions or doctrines on how to live your life, it is not possible to create or “breed” loonies through atheism, the simple fact is that “loonies” exist, and they exist in any and all circles, they are loud, obvious, and easy to spot. And, most importantly; easy to mock.
He then interviews Ellen Johnson; President of American Atheists, and immediately accuses her of being a “true believer”. What that means is unclear, but I gather that it’s a continuation of his theme of putting atheists and the religious into the same fervent, arrogant, and dogmatic group so that he, as the agnostic, can laud over everyone. He believes that it’s odd that atheists want an organisation since their only attribute is that they don’t believe. I think the stupidity of this question would be quite obvious to anyone living in a religious society. If we live in a world where the religious have very powerful organisations at their disposal, who influence everyone in society in a large or a small way; and you have an antagonistic viewpoint to those very powerful people, how else will you provide a counterpoint to the religious conglomerate? An organisation is necessary to have your voice heard. This is quite obvious if you look back through history, the power of the church was immense, and, in many cases, still is.
If there were no religious organisations there would be no atheist organisations. They wouldn’t be necessary, it’s that simple. The difference between the two is that there is a need by the religious to have religious organisations even when there is no opposing viewpoint, or, perhaps it is to stamp out the opposing viewpoint. Liddle then goes into his own little world and accuses Ellen of: “you just said they’ll follow any rubbish you put in front of them.” – that was not said, and was not implied either. What Ellen said was: “they don’t call them followers for nothing” . That doesn’t mean that they’ll follow ”anything“. It was a simple statement to argue the point that critical thinking skills are not part of the teachings/doctrine, that questioning and talking about discrepancies or contradictions are not part of the teachings, that if you are religious you are there to follow, not to think for yourself. Liddle misses Ellen’s point entirely. He then continues on trying to press her to admit that she is unjustifiably arrogant, and to admit that she thinks she’s smarter than the religious, but, thankfully, she doesn’t fall for his trap. She clearly states that her problem is not with the people, but with the beliefs and practices. Liddle ignores this. It’s clear that he has an agenda and a chip on his shoulder.
Queue another agnostic interlude where he again likens atheism to a religion, where he labels prominent atheists as “evangelists”.
Another interlude with Professor Peter Atkins where he goes on to call Professor Atkins arrogant (“terrible arrogance”), and doesn’t even bother to talk about (or rebut) the points that he raises.
He talks to Richard Dawkins, who again raises some excellent points. In the interview LIddle doesn’t bother to question Dawkins further, or to even attempt to rebut him, the film just cuts again to another agnostic interlude where Liddle condescendingly tries to explain the scientific method (but does an ok job of it), and then states that most atheists feel that science is how we should come to understand the world that we live in, and our existence thereof. He again makes some (rather forced) religious comparisons in the application of the scientific method, and says that the use of the scientific method is not dissimilar to the use of religion to explain the world. I think this is obviously an insane notion, but, that’s the theme he’s going with throughout this program.
As if all this has not been insultingly, stupidly, and laughably ignorant enough, he then suggests that Fermilab, the particle accelerator laboratory in Illinois, is the atheists equivalent of a church – it is the scientists church according to Liddle (“A temple of science”). While at Fermilab, he starts describing their work, and some of the theories about the very early universe (a topic he is not well versed in). He then makes the extremely common mistake of focusing on the very murky issue of time around the big bang. He seems to accept the big bang, but focuses on the lack of certainty at the instant of the big bang. He then makes the ignorant (but understandable) mistake of asking about “before” the big bang.
- I think this is where I would like to clear something up, any question about ‘before the big bang‘ doesn’t make any sense according to current scientific theory. There is no ‘before‘ because time was created with the universe, time was actually created at the instant of the big bang (space-time). Imagine you have a stopwatch. When the big bang occurred the stopwatch was started, asking the question, what did the stopwatch read before the big bang makes no sense, it wasn’t running. Time (as we know it) literally did not exist ‘before’ the big bang, there wasn’t actually a ‘before‘(or at least, a before that we currently understand). I hope that clears things up.
“I don’t think fairies are scientifically knowable, otherwise the non-existence of fairies would be scientifically knowable”.
Of course, no one claims the existence of fairies, however, they fall into the same agnostic technicality that god does. No one can disprove the existence of fairies because you cannot prove a negative. If you take Liddles approach to philosophy you simply must be agnostic on fairies because you cannot disprove that they either 1. Exist somewhere in the universe, or 2. Exist somewhere outside of the universe. This is a very dangerous way of thinking, because the list of ideas and concepts you must be agnostic to is near endless. In fact, with this sort of fundamentalist agnosticism, you need to be agnostic on literally everything. Now, there actually is a good philosophical argument for this approach (which would only make sense to philosophers), but in the real world this sort of approach is completely and utterly pointless. Liddle’s push for this world view isn’t out of a desire for the truth, or a care for his fellow man, it’s out of a desire to feel superior to those he feels threatened by.
There is a brief mention of dualism and the problems inherent with that world view. Liddle casually dismisses these problems and naively says “I don’t see a problem”. That’s nice, real professional investigative journalism here.
He also says that you “cannot live by cold logic alone” , he uses the word “cold” to get an emotional response out of his audience, if he simply said ‘you cannot live by logic alone’ you would look at your television and exclaim “what? I can’t live by logic?” so I should live both logically and illogically? That’s like saying I can’t live in reality alone? We should be careful to not mistakenly call some logical things illogical here, many people would call ‘love‘ illogical, I don’t believe it is, I just believe that it’s incredibly complex, and we can’t see the fine detail to see the logic there, but love follows a system of logic, even if we can’t see it every time. I think this is more romantic than saying we are illogically in love, I’d rather have reasons for being in love, than have someone say to me “I don’t know why I’m in love with you”. That seems insulting.
I’m sorry Rod, but there is nothing beyond reality (or at least, nothing that we know of and nothing that ever interacts with us), even our thoughts and our dreams are grounded in reality, all our fantasy and imagination is grounded in reality. It is all grounded in the electrical and chemical impulses in our brains. Even seemingly illogical choices that we make throughout our lives are not truly illogical, they follow a logical path if you can see the big picture. And that’s the thing, we mustn’t mistake incredible complexity for the supernatural, or the magical. Yes, the universe is amazingly complex, but it is ultimately understandable, it’s just going to take time and effort.
Thankfully at this point, Richard Dawkins gets a rational word in: “I don’t think you can disprove god, as you can’t disprove fairies and unicorns, and so, I suppose it is right that it’s a kind of scientific purism that makes me say I can’t disprove god, therefore I can’t be a absolute 100% atheist, I mean, I treat god the same as I treat fairies and unicorns.” Liddle arrogantly insists: “Except you are 100% really aren’t you?” Luckily, Dawkins takes it in his stride and says “I’m the same as I am with fairies” . Liddle doesn’t bother to respond or address this in any way (which is not surprising as it completely destroys his fundamentalist agnostic point of view).
The documentary moves on to the cosmological or ‘fine-tuning’ argument. Essentially this argument states that the laws of the universe, and the constants of the universe are so finely tuned that if any of them were different the universe as we know it could not exist. Liddle really focuses on this fine-tuning, which I personally have never really seen the attraction of. If you truly believe that the universe is finely tuned, what exactly do you believe it is finely tuned for? To me, it is obvious that it is not finely tuned for human life. Why is 99.999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999% (earth vs the observable universe) of the universe completely inhospitable to humans (and almost any kind of life for that matter)? Why is there so much in the universe that will kill us instantly? And why can’t we see it coming? Cosmic rays? Gamma rays? Asteroids? Black holes? Supernova? Poisonous metals?
If the universe is finely-tuned, it isn’t finely tuned for humans. You might argue that the universe is finely tuned just to create the earth, and that the earth is for humans – since we aren’t meant to travel elsewhere it doesn’t matter if elsewhere is dangerous. If that is the case, how can the proponent of the fine-tuning argument reconcile:
- Deadly electromagnetic radiation in the form of UV rays? Why can’t our perfectly ‘designed‘ eyes see this horrible danger? We suffer from skin cancer and likely other cancers because of this deficiency.
- What about natural disasters? Floods? Earthquakes? Volcanoes?
There are plenty of things on earth that want to, and do kill us on a regular time frame. Prior to modern medicine and scientific understanding these horrors killed a very large proportion of us indiscriminately with alarming regularity. What sort of terrible fine tuning is that? If the universe is fine tuned by a creator, why couldn’t the creator be more benevolent and make the universe (and the earth) more hospitable for humans? Why create an earth that for 99.99889% of it’s existence there were arguably no sentient creatures on it?
If there was any tuning involved in the creation of the universe the tuning would be comparable to a blind monkey working a sound mixer.
Liddle then brings up the current mainstream physics explanation for the constants and laws in our universe; he arrogantly states that ”the notion of a multiverse stretches the imagination to a far greater degree than the notion of a divine creator“. I really don’t see where he’s coming from in this case. Maybe that’s just me, perhaps, for the average Joe having being raised and living in a religious world, this may be an understandable sentiment.
However, to be fair, let’s imagine if you could create a controlled experiment, where you had a person who had no idea about religion or current scientific theory. You then explained both concepts in detail (taking however long it takes to get through the math and physics), and the reasons and evidence behind the ideas that there is a multiverse or a creator. When you look at it from this perspective, I don’t believe that the creator myth would seem more plausible than the math and physics based multiverse theory. There are concrete reasons for believing in the multiverse theory, ones that any person in the world can test and study for themselves. There is real maths and real physics to back up the idea. Of course, the theory needs empirical testing, and I’m sure testing will be done in the near future (more than can ever be said for the god hypothesis), but there is still a greater weight behind the idea of a multiverse rather than the completely fanciful idea of a creator. The idea of a creator is simply a way of saying: “It’s too hard, I’ll never figure it out, this god explanation will do”. Thankfully, most physicists say: “No! I’ve got a theory, let’s try this… let’s test it… didn’t work? That’s okay, I’ve got another idea, let’s try it again”. And this goes on until we do learn the how, and the why. It has worked every single time it’s been applied in the past, why do we think it will reach a brick wall at this point? As an aside, this kind of opposition to new and as-yet untested scientific theory isn’t new. We don’t have to go far back in history to see a religious claim and a scientific claim at odds. In the end though, the scientific claim can be tested, once it is tested, and found to be empirically true, religion can only crumble or adapt in the face of overwhelming evidence. If we as a species took the creator idea as the true and never to be questioned answer we might still believe that Zeus was the cause of all lightning and that it wasn’t a build up of unbalanced electric charge in the atmosphere resulting in an electrostatic discharge.
Continuing on, Liddle again displays his scientific ignorance and says that ideas such as the multiverse “are about as provable as god”. Again, not true, there are experiments being designed to test these multiverse hypotheses. There are no experiments designed to test the god hypothesis. There never can be.
A couple of last quick points; The anthropic principle doesn’t even rate a mention in Liddle’s documentary. And a good read on the idea of the multiverse can be found here: http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2011/10/28/why-we-think-theres-a-multiver/
The documentary then goes on a quick tangent to target Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’. Liddle makes a baffling comparison to the New Testament, and unjustifiably in my opinion links the theory of evolution to atheism.
I think we need to be clear, atheism is simply a lack of belief in god. Atheism doesn’t talk about evolutionary theory, it doesn’t prescribe any rules, or morals, it doesn’t have anything other than a lack of belief in god. That’s it. There is a fair point to be made, however, in that evolutionary theory was one of the first ideas that truly challenged the religious position and made atheism a scientifically justifiable position for the first time in history. I will agree that this is an important note to make, but not for the same reasons as Liddle. I believe it’s important because it was one of the first times that science truly, truly challenged religion, and even undermined it. This was one of the first times that atheism had true widespread scientific justification, rather than merely philosophical justification.
The film really goes downhill at this point; Liddle says that atheism’s “strongest tenant is under threat” and asking “how long do you think it’ll take before darwin is actually comprehensively re-written?”. This is actually getting rather pitiful. Darwinism was simply an excellent piece of evidence used to justify the atheistic viewpoint. The great thing about atheism is that it isn’t a religion, it’s more or less a scientific viewpoint. You could ask any atheist: ‘If the christian god appeared to you and provided evidence for his existence, without any cause for doubt (or reason to believe you were suffering a mental illness), would you still be an atheist?‘ The answer would of course be no. Atheists simply lack belief, they do not believe in disbelief, they are not in the state of denial or the state of ignorance that a believer is in.
Another tangent goes into Richard Dawkin’s idea of ‘memes’. Liddle dismisses another interesting idea without any justification (again), he completely ignores Dawkin’s ideas and points, and rephrases the idea (very poorly) when speaking to an immunologist (“is religion is a virus?“) who quickly refutes the idea that religion is a virus (nevermind the fact that Dawkin’s never said or promoted the literal comparison to a virus). The immunologist bizarrely states “it’s certainly nothing like how a virus gets into a cell”. I can only imagine this is due to Liddle’s mis-communication of the idea. I don’t believe that anyone, ever, thought that religion got into the minds of people in the same way a virus gets into a cell. This is a baffling straw man that Liddle has concocted. The entire exchange between the two is just truly bizarre, especially in the context of the previous interview with Dawkins.
The documentary moves to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pennsylvania, where Liddle states bluntly that there are a number of supposed “holes” being found in “darwinian theory“. He then states that the fossil collection at the museum is somehow challenging evolutionary theory, and that it’s “turning darwinism on it’s head” . If it is, it’s certainly not making it into any respectable scientific journals, newspapers, popular magazines, or making any ripples through the internet. Perhaps it’s only being talked about in the circles that Rod Liddle and Professor Jeffrey Schwartz (the evolutionary anthropologist interviewed) frequent. Some truly perplexing claims are then made about “intermediate being in the eye of the beholder”. Where the professor claims that some people (who?) think that species just ‘popped into existence’.
Schwartz’s bold claim proposes that recessive genes make up the majority of evolutionary change, and that once the gene has propagated throughout a population, two creatures with the recessive gene breed, and the trait appears in the population. This doesn’t in any way conflict with modern evolutionary theory, Liddle, however, while looking at archeopterix as an intermediate example seems to have the idea in his head that in one instance you’ll have a dinosaur type creature, who has recessive genes for wings, and in one generation the recessive genes will create a new winged and feathered dinosaur that just “pops up”. This is so ludicrous it would be funny if it wasn’t being used as a serious point. It’s even more troubling when you realise that he’s presenting this to try and discredit Darwin and evolutionary theory. Liddle speaks to the camera in his typical smug and condescending tone, again, making a fool of himself and getting it completely wrong:
“Professor Schwartz’s theory’s of course do not imply the existence of a divine creator but they do rip at the heart of those evolutionists who use darwinist theory to explain everything very simply as a gradual procession with a purpose”
Liddle couldn’t be more wrong if he tried. As is said in scientific circles he is ‘not even wrong’. (Just quickly, the theory of recessive genes allowing the propagation of a new mutation/trait, does nothing but strengthen the case against a creator). No atheists, or evolutionists (what is an evolutionist anyway?), believe that evolution or darwinist theory has a “purpose”. That’s the point, there is no purpose, no purpose other than survival and propagation.
Liddle tries to use the concept of a paradigm shift in to scientific theory to justify agnosticism. He essentially rests on the premise that because science can never be 100% (truly 100%) certain it is always up for revision. Therefore, you should never take a side in these things and you should always be a fence sitter like he is. Again, this is a display of true fundamentalist agnosticism. With regard to scientific theory, there are usually minor revisions throughout the life of a theory when new information comes to light and new experimental methods are invented, but every now and again a huge unexpected result occurs and theories need to be completely re-written, this is becoming rarer in the modern world due to more stringent scientific practice, however, it is still a very real occurrence. Now, in the case of evolutionary theory, Liddle ignores the fact that there is utterly no evidence to suggest that evolutionary theory would be subject to a paradigm shift and the best that Liddle could ever hope for in his lifetime would be a slight technical re-wording or expansion of some of the more intricate ideas. The basic theory, however, will not be superseded.
The final part of the documentary talks about the tools of the scientific method and how the application of logic, reason, and evidence doesn’t always lead to a better world. Which is a fair point, however, I would argue that the failure lies within the application and the perspective, not the underlying principles. I will skip quickly over the absurd mentions of eugenics, marxism, communism, and supposed “atheistic regimes”. Mainly because these proposals by Liddle are completely wrong. I believe the question: “is there is a direct line from Darwin… and Hitler” demonstrates pretty clearly Liddle’s agenda. He’s trying to demonise evolution/darwinism and by extension; atheism. Ignoring the fact that this is absurd and asking the question ‘why?’ is much more revealing. I believe that Liddle simply cannot commit to the idea of atheism and is afraid of coming down on one side or the other. If he does that, he is making himself (in his mind) vulnerable. I believe that Liddle enjoys the feeling of perceived superiority he gains from fundamentalist agnosticism. I hope that this piece shows that agnosticism isn’t the safe haven many people believe it is.
Speaking about eugenics Liddle gives the impression he cannot find any strictly scientific problems with it. This is quite frightening to me, and shows a true short-sightedness and lack of perspective by Liddle. I can certainly see many scientific, and evolutionary problems with the theory of eugenics. The true blindness that Liddle has is that he lacks a wide perspective. It is very common to look at evolutionary theory from an individualistic standpoint. To approach and find the problems of eugenics from a scientific/evolutionary point of view, all we need to do is gain some community perspective. If we look at the collective health of a species/society (but still in a completely material and naturalistic approach), rather than just the health of the individual, a much farther reaching impact is observed we can clearly and easily see the issues with eugenics theory. Liddle’s scientific ignorance in this case is not an excuse, he is an investigative journalist, and most evolutionary biologists would be able to put forward a unstoppable case against eugenics. Why couldn’t Liddle find one of those scientists?
We really start scraping the bottom of the barrel when Liddle calls morality “unscientific”. Perhaps on the surface you might agree, but in my opinion nothing could be further from the truth. Morality is derived from our very existence, an accumulation of all our struggles and changes throughout our evolutionary history.
I do not believe for a second that morality is a problem for atheists. Liddle asks the audience: “If you rely on science to tell you how to live your life, where do you look for moral guidance?”. Well, quite simply Mr Liddle, you look to the history of human experience, you look inside yourself for empathy towards others, and you look to the traits, emotions, instincts, and behaviours that have evolved over millions of years naturally. That is exactly where we get our morals from! They certainly do not come from a magical immaterial place. I believe this is plainly obvious (though, I do concede, incredibly complex), Liddle seems incapable of grasping this notion however, and really has problems with the idea of relative morality.
By the end, I didn’t really understand why Liddle even bothered to carry out interviews, (I sometimes got the feeling he was forced to by the series producer). He never has anything to say in response to any of the experts, scientists, or great thinkers he interviews (at least, not in person), and never takes any of their ideas on board. He goes into the documentary set like concrete in his world view, and never once throughout it looks like he’s given a moments thought to a counter-point presented.
The final 5 minutes of the documentary are the worst, as Liddle compares atheists to historical horrors such as the Jacobins, the Soviet Union, the Nazis. Liddle inaccurately states that “atheism was an integral part” of all communist societies. This makes little sense, as atheism has no dogma, no doctrines, no instructions, no guidelines on how to live. All atheism has is a lack of belief in god. Thankfully, Peter Atkins and Richard Dawkins make the point very clear that atheism had nothing to do with those horrors of history, and was simply incidental. Christopher Hitchens made the extremely relevant point that these societies and regimes were, and still are cults of personality. The leaders of these societies took the place of god for themselves. Just look at North Korea today to see the full effect. This is not a problem with atheism, far from it, this is a problem with human nature.
In any case, religion is not the answer. Fascism and communism are considered secular because they require vast control over the population, if the leaders do not control the religion of the people, then they lack control over the population. This truly has nothing to do with atheism and much more to do with control.
Liddle rightly sums up with: “When you take god out of the equation, you still have the problem of human nature”. I can only answer this with: “EXACTLY!”. Why then, would you want to keep religion? If we keep the idea of god/religion then we have two problems rather than one.
Liddle’s final words are: “History has shown us that it’s not religion that’s the problem, but any system of thought which insists that one group of people are inviolably in the right, whereas the others are in the wrong and thus must somehow be punished. The true scientific position of course is that there may be a god, and there may not be a god, why can’t we leave it at that.”
Thankfully, atheism does not prescribe that anyone should be punished for dissent, that’s religions domain. So, really, Rod, you’re wrong. Again. What history has shown us that it is not atheism that’s the problem, but ideologies similar to religion. No matter how much you misconstrue the truth, atheism is not an ideology, it is not a religion, and it isn’t in any way similar to a religion.
The funny thing is that by the end of the film Liddle is criticising the perceived arrogance of atheists (almost as if he has a persecution complex), but that’s not important, because he’s made his point and has found a way to feel superior to everyone. This style of arrogant fundamentalist agnosticism reminds me of the episode of South Park – Go god Go, a very funny, but poorly conceived and misleading episode, full of agnostic arrogance.
‘Why can’t we leave it at that’, Rod? I’ll give you a short list: Jihad, exploitation of the poor, ignorant, and desperate, influence on society, influence on culture, influence on politics, influence on education, influence on health care issues, retardation of scientific research, religious laws, religious exemptions from laws, religious power and influence over communities small and large, historical religious power, money and land ownership, violent religious ideology, violent religious teachings and preaching, misogynistic religious texts and teachings, homophobic religious texts and teachings, genital mutilation of children, the indoctrination of children, opposition to critical thinking, opposition to skepticism, opposition to scientific teaching and the scientific method. Why can’t we leave it at blind, arrogant, fundamentalist agnosticism like you Rod? Because we care. Because we care about humanity, because we care about our fellow man. Because we care about the future of the human race.