It seems that danger, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. St James Ethics Centre in Sydney has announced a Festival of Dangerous Ideas for the first weekend of October. The key speaker is the controversialist and prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens.
He will deliver the opening address on Religion poisons everything, which no doubt will rework the thesis in his 2007 book God Is Not Great.
The suggestion that bagging religious belief is dangerous is fanciful. Certainly Hitchens’s support for the invasion of Iraq was unfashionable, but believing religion is the root of all, or at least most, evil is common among the Western intelligentsia.
The people with dangerous meaning challenging ideas in this area are not atheists such as Hitchens but believers such as the former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin. If Palin was to open the festival it might be a lively affair. But Hitchens spruiking for atheism is somewhat predictable.
These days, evoking God creates controversy in the West, not proclaiming secularism. This became evident in June with Anna Crabb’s article, Invoking religion in Australian politics, published in The Australian Journal of Political Science.
Crabb, a recent Melbourne University graduate, expressed concern about the increasing use of Judaeo-Christian terminology and ideas in Australian political discourse in the five years after the terrorist attacks of September 2001.
Crabb conceded that acknowledging the role of the Christian and Jewish faiths in Australia did no harm. But she maintained that the frequency of such references by politicians weakened the Australian commitment to pluralism.
Her essay warned: Politicians should exercise caution when invoking religion in Australian politics. There was no similar advice to atheist politicians to refrain from proclaiming secularism.
Soon the NSW Greens MP Lee Rhiannon was urging her parliamentary colleagues to read the Crabb tract, which gained much media attention. During an interview on ABC radio’s The World Today, Crabb named her targets, declaring that Kevin Rudd, Peter Costello and John Howard had all referred to Australia’s Judaeo-Christian heritage in speeches about Australia and Australia’s way of life.
Crabb asserted this was all about gaining the Christian vote. She did not concede that the likes of Rudd and Costello might believe in what they say. Clearly to her Rudd and Costello exhibit dangerous ideas in this area.
Crabb reflects the prevailing view about Judaeo-Christian values found in many humanities departments at Australia’s universities and colleges. A similar attitude prevails in sections of the media, not surprising since many journalists are social science graduates. Many regard religious believers as bizarre.
Witness the reaction to Tony Abbott’s book, Battlelines. In the pre-release publicity, Lyndall Curtis, on ABC radio’s PM, introduced a story on Abbott’s attitude to an emissions trading scheme by referring to him as a staunch Catholic who began training for the priesthood and believes in conversions. This was ridicule presented as analysis.
In his News Limited column on Saturday, Laurie Oakes referred to Abbott as the Mad Monk. Abbott is certainly eccentric at times, but he is in no sense mad.
Some younger commentators have little understanding of theology or religious history. Leigh Sales, one of the ABC’s better journalists, was out of her depth in her essay “On Doubt”, in which she said Martin Luther, the doctrinaire founder of the German Protestant Reformation, was into self-doubt.
Likewise with Julian Morrow, who in The Chaser’s War on Everything last week, declared: The more you read about America, it is an amazingly religious place. Not really. The US remains what it always was essentially religious. It is Western Europe that has changed by embracing a popular culture set by what the historian Michael Burleigh in Sacred Causes has identified as the sneering secularists.
The Age columnist Catherine Deveny mocks Christianity without an attempt at scholarship or analysis. She cannot concede that some of the finest minds in Western civilisation were followers of Christ. Nor can she demonstrate how it is that able politicians such as Rudd or Costello are mere fools when it comes to their religious beliefs.
As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge document in their book God is Back, interest in faith is reviving in many areas of the world, no bad thing given that the most murderous regimes in modern times were secular Nazism and communism.
Yet, it is the atheists who dominate in most Western nations other than the US. That is why it is a fallacy to suggest that atheists such as Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are bold, challenging thinkers. They’re not. The God is dead school is rather old hat.