Toynbee Strikes Again

I don’t usually write about such things on this blog, but this article by Polly Toynbee has got me quite annoyed. Her article is full of misinformation and slightly odd logic (something she’s been guilty of before, but we’ll leave that for the time being). It baffles me how someone who is so vitriolic can get a regular hearing in a national newspaper – but then, I guess Richard Dawkins has written articles before, so…

Seeing as I don’t have much to do this afternoon, let’s take a quick look at some of the claims and arguments she makes:

Rows over gay marriage and women bishops bewilder most people. With overwhelming popular support for both, how can abstruse theology and unpleasant prejudice cause such agitation at Westminster and in the rightwing press? Politics looks even more out of touch when obscure doctrine holds a disproportionate place in national life.

It’s true that most people are probably in favour of women bishops – although that was more of an internal Church of England thing. Parliament haven’t really had to get involved in that; it wasn’t a political issue in the governmental sense. As for gay marriage, I’d hardly say there was “overwhelming public support” for it: according to the statistics from this article, just over 50% of the responses to the government’s proposals were in favour. This is ignoring the number of responses on both the “Coalition for Marriage” and “Coalition for Equal Marriage” petitions (c. 500,000 vs c. 60,000). Clearly, the world which Polly Toynbee lives in is one where even the government’s own official statistics are only just barely in favour of gay marriage is equal to ‘overwhelming public support’.

With a third of state schools religious in this most secular country, Michael Gove not only swells their number but lets them discriminate as they please in admissions. As he is sending a bible to every English school, the BHA is fundraising to send out its own Young Atheist’s Handbook to school libraries. Government departments are outsourcing more services to faith groups in health, hospice, community and social care.

Not entirely sure what the point of this paragraph is. So… religious schools are increasing in number. They do a good job; they’re usually popular. And each school has to be somewhat discriminatory in its admissions policy. What’s the problem? [See also this on the Church Mouse blog] And the government are ‘outsourcing’ services to faith groups. Because Christian faith groups tend to have a good track record in health, hospice, community and social care work. What’s the atheist record like in those areas? Oh.

But of all the battles Jim Al-Khalili confronts, the most urgent is the right to die. Powerful religious forces block attempts to let the dying end their lives when they choose … The public supports the right to die, but many more will drag themselves off to a bleak Swiss clinic before the religions let us die in peace.

Oh dear oh dear. So the only reason anyone would ever oppose euthanasia is because of religious ideas? Once again, I don’t think this is supported by the evidence. It’s not just the religious who have issues with assisted dying: see, for example, this piece (and, related, this one about the Lords which Toynbee mentioned in the article) – particularly the link through to the Scope website in the quote at the end. It seems that what Toynbee says is just propaganda; the BHA have set out their stall here and I don’t think they’ve considered all the implications.

Sensing the ebbing tide of faith since the last census, the blowback against unbelievers has been remarkably violently expressed. Puzzlingly, we are routinely referred to as “aggressive atheists” as if non-belief itself were an affront. But we are with Voltaire, defending to the death people’s right to believe whatever they choose, but fighting to prevent them imposing their creeds on others.

What Toynbee doesn’t seem to get is that governments, pretty much by definition, have to impose a view or creed on others. The government has to take a position on assisted dying. The government has to take a position on gay marriage. Her beef seems to be that the government don’t take her particular view, or that of the BHA. As I said before, atheistic secularism is NOT neutral ground.

For instance, he might take offence at the charge that without God, unbelievers have no moral compass. Hitler and Stalin were atheists, that’s where it leads. We can ripost with religious atrocities, Godly genocides or the Inquisition, but that’s futile. Wise atheists make no moral claims, seeing good and bad randomly spread among humanity regardless of faith. Humans do have a hardwired moral sense, every child born with an instinct for justice that makes us by nature social animals, not needing revelations from ancient texts. The idea that morality can only be frightened into us artificially, by divine edict, is degrading.

‘Seeing good and bad randomly spread among humanity’ – that’s interesting. Why is ‘good and bad’ randomly spread among humanity? What’s the ‘bad’ doing there? If everyone truly has a hardwired instinct for justice, why is there bad? And what can the BHA do about it? I’m asking a genuine question here. If humans are so brilliant, why is the world in such a mess – especially when much of the world’s current mess is caused by the least-religious West? (i.e., it wasn’t ‘religion’ that caused the problems.)

And the statement about morality being ‘frightened into us artificially, by divine edict’, is ignorant if nothing else.

The new president will confront another common insult: atheists are desiccated rationalists with nothing spiritual in their lives, poor shrivelled souls lacking transcendental joy and wonder. But in awe of the natural world of physics, he’ll have no trouble with that. Earthbound, there is enough wonder in the magical realms of human imagination, thought, dream, memory and fantasy where most people reside for much of their waking lives. There is no emotional or spiritual deficiency in rejecting creeds that stunt and infantalise the imagination.

‘Creeds that stunt and infantalise the imagination’ – all I will say is, [citation needed]. I mean, seriously? Given how much incredible art, music, architecture etc. that religion has inspired? Sounds like the words of someone with a massive chip on their shoulder.

Still, if all members of the BHA are as bitter as Polly Toynbee, with such a massive chip on their shoulders, I can’t see them ever being that popular. Self-worship is never particularly inspiring; and I think essentially that’s what is happening with humanism: we have a ‘can-do’ attitude, we can solve all our own problems. “Hey, look at us! We’re brilliant!” This ties in with something else I’ve been thinking about recently, about atheism being the ultimate form of idolatry, but we’ll leave that particular theological discussion to another day…


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