An Atheist and “The Public God”

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Panellists and Michael as the forum gets underway

Guest post by Spencer Lucas

Spencer Lucas was in the audience for the taping of CBC’s Radio One The Sunday Edition show “The Public God – A Forum on the Role of Religion in Public Policy.”

Michael Enright, of CBC radio’s Sunday Edition, hosted a talk called “The Public God,” on April 8. The format was an hour of Enright’s questions followed by an hour of questions from the audience. The show will air on The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio One on April 13th.

I was immediately disheartened by a few things. Before Enright even introduced the panel of six, it appeared that there would be no non-believer represented on the panel. I originally wondered if this was related to Enright’s comments made only months ago in an attempt to silence atheists. “The problem to me is that [atheists] won’t shut up about it!” Enright also described atheists as whiny, whinging, self-pitting, and narcissistic.

I was wrong about there not being a non-believer/atheist in the group, but I could be excused for the assumption because the only self-declared atheist had the title Reverend before her name. However, it was Greta Vosper who made one of the most poignant comments of the night. She first premised her important point with a “this may be controversial,” but declared that ideas are not deserving of respect de facto, a notion that was largely lost on this particular panel.

But as much as Rev. Vosper voiced some atheistic and reasonable sounding ideas, it was forever couched in cringing apologies and deference. Perhaps this is the curse of spending so much time in inter-faith discussions as she does, but it sets this atheist’s blood a-boiling. Probably three times she answered a question with something like, “I don’t want to sound like a whiny atheist. . . ” I found it ironic that she seemed to request forgiveness for what may be interrupted by some as having a little bit of tone, when the good Father De Sousa didn’t break a sweat when responding to a question of child rape in his Church. As an aside, he seemed to have no problem asserting things he clearly didn’t know as if he knew them, but that is a whole different issue.

I have no time for one atheist apologizing for other atheists. Don’t apologize for me; I’m fine thank you very much. We have enough apologetics coming from theists; we don’t need them coming from atheistic Reverends as well.

Professor Richard Dawkins was held up by Rev. Vosper and Father De Sousa as a bit of a whipping boy. He must be sore from being almost the sole focus for anything remotely approaching atheism. And he gets criticism from both sides. I could hardly believe my ears when I heard, what is becoming an old canard now, that he, and many others are fundamentalists. I won’t bore you with a defense of this, but suffice it to say that theists love using it (even fundamentalist theists ironically) and so do their accomodationist comrades.

Enright, came back to one question a couple of times: “what’s with all this God talk?” He highlighted what many on the panel seemed to agree on: there is more public conversation about religion now than ever before. I also agree with this assertion and, as one of the panelists, Moustafa Bayoumi, suggested: there are many reasons this is so. Out of all the reasons given, one, the idea that religion used to be off limits in polite conversation, touched on an important development in the atheist movement that was missed in the 2 hour show. Indeed it was missed because to give it voice would be to credit the very atheists Enright, De Sousa and Vosper were calling to task. It was the unapologetic nature of Dawkins and the so-called New Atheists that helped break down those barriers, to break the spell, as philosopher Daniel Dennett puts it, and allow not just atheists a place at the table but allow a full and public conversation about God and his place in our society.

Perhaps the most heartening part of the evening was the engagement by the audience. If the rare and few applauses were any barometer, there was a strong non-religious and/or secular public in attendance. Indeed the nature of the questions during the second half was almost exclusively secular/atheist in nature. Perhaps the audience was the seventh uninvited panelist that made the panel close to representative of the Canadian public where about 30% identify with no religion.

So despite a meandering and unfocused conversation on an ill-defined public god, and a peppering of untruths, and a reverend atheist, eventually, atheists did speak out in the form of an engaged public. And perhaps this annoyed Mr. Enright as I hear the words he spoke last September from his CBC ‘pulpit’, “It’s just that instead of shouting their assertions and beliefs, in booming voice, [atheists] could maybe whisper as though they were in a library or a – church.

The fastest growing ‘religious’ demographic isn’t whispering anymore despite religious privilege, prejudice and the ridiculous accusations and protestations.

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You can listen to hour 1 and 2 of the Public God Forum on CBC Radio One now.

9 thoughts on “An Atheist and “The Public God”

  1. I listened (though not always closely) to the whole thing. De Sousa was particularly annoying — apparently, everything good was originally invented by the Catholic Church! He may have even been the one (I frequently couldn’t tell who was speaking) who claimed religion is responsible for the idea of limited government that stays out of people’s religion. Seriously? “Limited” only in the sense that, for about 1000 years European governments kowtowed to the Church, until its monopoly was wrestled away by the Reformation. And only after a few more centuries of multi-way persecution did we get the idea of keeping government and religion separate, not because of any wisdom coming from the religious side, but because religion uniformly behaves so badly whenever it gets its paws on the reins of secular power.

    And of course, “secular fundamentalism”. “Fundamentalism” started out meaning a particular movement in Protestantism, which held itself to be restoring an (allegedly) original doctrinal tradition which was being eroded. As such, the term can probably be meaningfully extended to similar reactionary movements in other religions. But now it’s become a term of abuse for anyone who forthrightly expresses views the speaker disagrees with.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections on the panel. It was a challenge to keep up with the discussion from our side of the table and there are many places that I felt we – myself in particular since the thoughts were in my head – didn’t hit the marks we could have shot for. The public funding of Catholic education in Ontario, for instance. I simply have no idea how we talked for two hours and no one brought that up.
    I do want to note that I had asked Michael not to use the title Rev, explaining to him, as I am often required to do when I ask not to have it used, that I dislike titles that attempt to set certain people in a privileged position. So he said that he wouldn’t but then, there it was when we went out to the table. An unfortunate logistic that I hadn’t foreseen.
    I do want to note, simply, and in defense of the whiny atheist comments, that I was not trying to be dismissive of atheists at all – quite the contrary. I was making reference to Michael’s very inappropriate remarks and the hostility he has displayed toward atheists. I regret that this did not come across.
    About Richard Dawkins and secular fundamentalism, I think we’d differ on our interpretation of that and not only because public definition results not only from argument but from perception. If we’re simply parsing the word fundamentalist, the argument is only laborious and will take us nowhere. I am perfectly aware of the original meaning of the word fundamentalist. But I’m happy to call myself a fundamentalist in regard to other issues that have nothing to do with six principles lifted up by a bunch of evangelicals in the late 19th century. I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to access to education and I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to the right to free assembly. I’m a fundamentalist about a access to the political process. I’m a fundamentalist about a lot of things. The term has moved beyond the technical definition it once had and arguing that definition holds now is like saying that the word “believe” in the creeds means “to give one’s heart to” because that’s what it meant in the fourth century so we can all say the creeds now and not at all mean that we “mean” what we’re saying. Which may be true in a scholarly sense, but it is hogwash in 21st century public discourse. Richard is a secular fundamentalist in the best sense of that word. I’m not as fundamentalist as he only because I still believe that there are good elements in religious community (none of which have anything to do with doctrine) that we have yet had the opportunity to excise in a way that will preserve them for the development and well-being of human community and the individuals within it. Defending him from the label is not as helpful as it may seem. I think he should own it.
    Again, thanks for the reflection on the panel. Some excellent points.

    • FWIW: Unlike the original poster, I heard your use of “whiny atheist” as being a riposte to Enright.

      As for “fundamentalist”: in my experience, when it is not a technical term in theology, it is invariably a pejorative, and I’m not convinced it is worth trying to reclaim.

      • Thanks to Greta for the clarification. Unlike Eamon, I did not catch the reference/jibe live at the event. It reads perhaps as an inside joke to a general audience.

        As for the fundy label, I completely agree Eamon. It’s almost exclusively used as a pejorative and we need to not to fall into the trap of associating ourselves with it. And as such, Dawkins is not a dogmatic extremist.

    • Greta, Dawkins has acknowledged many, many times the benefits found in a religious community. He just wants people to understand that those benefits can be and are found without a god.

  3. It sounds as insufferable as the last time across Country Check-up (IIRC) hosted a talk about god in the public. The discussion was Luke warm, the atheist voice was meek and it all culminated in Dawkins bashing. It is as if once you run out of things to say, you just bash Dawkins.

    I agree that The so-called New Atheists have made it okay to call out religion. To me, this is one of their most important contributions to atheism. I think religion is discussed more because more of us are not letting it get away with things so easily anymore and religionists feel they must respond.

  4. ‘The public God’ implies that there is only one god. The conquest to establish which story is factually correct rages on.
    The improbable gods of scientific speculation have no finality and new gods will be born periodically along the continuum of fantasy literatures.
    God talk should be taken away from the historians and the philosophers and returned to the fertile imaginations of the story creators.
    All religionists feel comfortable talking about an anonymous, generic, creator God. What they hate is talking about a specific, ludicrous, vengeful and downright evil, particular, god.
    Religionist are those public intellectuals who openly declare that all religions are equally good. Such indiscriminate praise clearly reveals their inability to grasp any particular religion of any kind. They are not necessarily stupid people, but they certainly are obviously totally corrupt, politically motivated, individuals.

  5. I just got it to listen to now. You can get the MP3 directly here:

    http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/podcasts/sundayedition_20140404_89932.mp3

    Sunday Edition is also on Stitcher and probably also on Itunes.

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