“your beliefs are your choice, so take your place in the queue.”

I’m reluctant to get involved in what appears to be a disagreement between Malachi and Humanism Ireland, or at least between Malachi and some Humanists.. but as someone who is an atheist and a secularist [and a prat? – Ed] and who has described supernatural beliefs as supernatural, but declines the humanist label and certainly wouldn’t join a Humanist Association, I’ll just point to A. C. Grayling’s latest CommentisFree post.

I wonder whether, in the dialogue of the deaf that this quarrel has become, a few reminders might be in order. Secularism is the view that religious outlooks, though perfectly entitled to exist and have their say, are not entitled to a bigger slice of the public pie than any other self-constituted, self-appointed, self-selected and self-serving civil society organisation. Yet the religious persistently ask for special treatment: public money for their “faith-based” schools, seats in the House of Lords, exemption from laws inconvenient to their prejudices, and so endlessly on. They even have the cheek to ask for “respect” for their silly and antiquated beliefs; and in Geneva at the Human Rights Council the Islamic countries are trying to subvert the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because it is inconvenient to their medieval, sexist, intolerant outlook.

I’ll add though, that the term supernatural is not dismissive of believers in the supernatural nor is it “sneering at religion”. It is merely descriptive of those beliefs. That believers in the supernatural might be offended at that description is, frankly, of no relevance to me.

That’s the starting point for any examination of the history of those beliefs, how they evolved, the influence of the organisations responsible for promoting them, etc.

Remember, “Knowledge is power”.

Back to a previous A C Grayling post

In debates that crucially affect the wellbeing of the world, ideas and beliefs should be open to tough challenge and hard discussion. Let someone state a view, and let the view be subjected to rigorous scrutiny, no holds barred, and no pleas of offence, hurt feelings, self-proclaimed sensitivities, “sacredness” or any other excuse allowed to stand in the way. But with a strictly governed exception, namely, an office-holder speaking ex-officio, let no individual be the target of attack, and even then neither abuse nor ad hominem attack.

There is no excuse for ill manners and insults, though of course there is an explanation: usually, the impotence and weakness of the insulter and his or her case. Insult an idea or an institution, by all means, if you have serious grounds to do so; but not individuals: that is the bottom line.

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  • Alternativevoice

    The Hijab should be banned from the workplace at least as its a religous symbol and far more offensive than a sah or an easter lilly. Its banned in some Isalmic countries as it only encourages radical Islam and terrorism so why should we have it here?

  • Driftwood

    Sam Harris is a scientist who can often write eloquently on this subject:

    And he has been especially critical of Islam on his website. Maybe Malachi should read some of his articles before spouting off about how everybody is really nice, and we shouldn’t argue with each other, I’d like to teach the world to sing etc etc.

  • I endorse both those quotes from Grayling. I have no problem with them. Religious beliefs, like any other,must compete in the marketplace, and unlike many others, are disadvantaged by mythological baggage.

    As science advances it sheds the nonsense it once held to be true. Religion needs to find some way of doing that too but instead prefers, often, to elevate ideas higher, the older they are.

  • Driftwood

    Yes Malachi, I realise you have a book to promote, and referring to an eminent Oxford professor as a ‘prat’ works on the ‘all publicity is good’ principle. On that note, I take it your own academic CV is much more elevated.
    Maybe you could engineer a public debate between yourself and Richard, I’ll wager a good deal of money on who wins that one.

  • Oilifear

    “…the term supernatural is not dismissive of believers in the supernatural…”


    supernatural: attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature

    I would suggest the issue is not the words you use, but the tone you adapt. I would point you to another definition.

    “That believers in the supernatural might be offended at that description is, frankly, of no relevance to me.”

    Feel free to argue (even sneer) that religion is inferior to science for being the belief in the the supernatural – a foundationless and irrational argument, see science – but do not sneer at that those that believe in religion, as I feel you do when you insist on calling them “supernaturalists”. As Grayling put it, “Insult an idea or an institution, by all means, if you have serious grounds to do so; but not individuals: that is the bottom line.”

  • Oilifear

    The link that somehow got garbled out of the above: http://www.askoxford.com:80/concise_oed/science?view=uk

  • An interesting principle employed by Driftwood there, according to which you may not call another person a prat unless you are in possession of comparable academic qualifications. Therefore, for instance, one needs a PhD in physics in order to call Brian May a prat: it would not be enough to point to his curly mane billowing in the wind as he cranks out God Save The Queen on his axe from atop Buckingham Palace.

  • While the talk is about respect for religion I wonder who has taken the time to reflect on the nature of that respect. I, for one, cannot respect religions with falacious historical provenance. The so-called ‘good books’ cannot be verified historically, let alone the claims within or by their followers. The religious factions, of which there are many and they can’t all be right, are notable in that each and every one refuses to countenance a different view. After years of being told I was damned, destined to purgatory, bound for hell, a sinner because of my musical tastes…I damn well believe the respect I had for certain religious people is damn well wearing thin. Though after reading that after Joseph Ratzinger has praised Galileo some, at least have a sense of humour after all those years of slagging science off 🙂

  • Pete Baker


    Both uses [supernatural/supernaturalists] are descriptive. Provocatively so. But not insulting.

    And if you accept the first, I’m not sure how you can complain about the second.

  • Oilifear

    The description “supernatural” is accurate without being a provocation. The fact that you intend it as a provocation is the issue. I feel you are sneering. And here’s another word for your benefit.

    It’s fair (and accurate) to describe religion as belief in the supernatural, but, as it is often encouraged on this site, “play the ball, not the man”. If you need to argue ad hominem (not only against the individual but also against the mass), like Grayling writes, it is “usually [explained by] the impotence and weakness of the insulter and his or her case.”

  • Pete Baker


    “I feel you are sneering.”

    Mind-reading doesn’t work.

    I was recognising that it could/would be seen as being provocative [synonym: challenging], whilst pointing out that it was an accurate description of both the belief and the believers.

    But if, as you accept, “It’s fair (and accurate) to describe religion as belief in the supernatural” how is it insulting to describe those with religious beliefs as supernaturalists?

    [NB No individual was injured in the composing of this comment]

  • With definitions being banded about the word supernatural should at least be considered – seems to me that if a supernatural event occurred (i.e. one that breached the so far known laws of nature [Newton, Einstein, etc] then the whole religion thing would be up for reconsideration. But, so far, no such supernatural occurences have been recoreded reliably (and no, the psychic TV channels don’t count) and thus one may feel the odd snide comment. I recommend Christopher Brookmyre’s ‘Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’ to maintain perspective and gain the odd laugh

  • RepublicanStones

    Hugh Green @ 7.50, post of the week !

  • bollix

    I read Grayling’s article, and i did get a bit annoyed at it i have to confess.
    He must go to a different church to me. At my church, we have an english conversation class once a week. Many of the students are refugees or perhaps just jobless and poor. The teachers give of their time freely. We don’t ask the religion of the students, but i think i am safe in assuming that the bangladeshi women with various types of decorous clothing aren’t christian, likewise the french algerians and the sri lankans. Who knows – the purpose is to teach english, not to convert. I don’t recall ever threatening any of the students with hell, or burning them.
    My point is this, many churches and religious people just quietly get on with the work of helping people out. Having a bit of the gospels running around in the back of their minds may help encourage them – “whatsoever you do to these, the least of my brethren, you do unto me”. I / they / we will continue to do this kind of work, regardless of whether Grayling calls us “big fat liars” or others accuse of us child abuse in teaching religion. We aren’t all evil fanfasists hell bent on destruction.

  • Comrade Stalin

    My point is this, many churches and religious people just quietly get on with the work of helping people out.

    I’ve no problem agreeing that sometimes religious organizations can provide help to people in need without any hope of any return (other than in a spiritual way). Scientology does this too.

    With respect to Grayling’s article .. do churches in the UK (or Ireland) have to register themselves or otherwise report their accounts in the way that charities do ?

    To the other points raise here, I’d personally generally take some care not to go out of my way to offend people with religious beliefs by using words like “supernatural”, in the same way that I avoid using words like “bigot” or “terrorist” when in the company of people with differing political views, unless they were annoying me. People are entitled to their beliefs and they’re entitled to believe them without constantly feeling as if they are under attack.

    On the other hand, there are problems with the extent to which religious beliefs can be left alone. There are very clear limitations to the idea, for example, that parents should be permitted to bring their children up under whatever religion they choose; bringing a child up under Scientology or one of the nutty Mormon-derived sects almost certainly qualifies as abuse. In which case, where do you draw the line ?

  • Oilifear

    “…how is it insulting to describe those with religious beliefs as supernaturalists?”

    It is not insulting to describe religion as belief in the the supernatural. What I have always got from your use of the word “supernaturalists”, however, is that you use the term in a snide and sneering manner rather than as a rational description. It is your tone, not the word, that is provocative (synonym: insulting … along with confrontational, inflammatory, offensive, incendiary, rabble-rousing, aggressive, annoying, aggravating and vexing).

    And no, I don’t need to be a mind-reader to pick-up on these things. It’s merely a fundamental of written communication.

    “But, so far, no such supernatural occurences have been recoreded reliably …”

    Such is their nature. I could remind you that much of what is accepted as science – quantom mechanics, evolution, consciousness, even love (for the anthropologist in all of us) – has never been recorded reliably either. This presents a greater problem to science than it does to religion – reliability is a necessary for the scientist – but the scientist should no more be put off his work of enlightenment by a lack of reliable measurement than would the religious. If everything was dismissed simply because it had never before been reliably measured, nothing would ever be discovered or learnt, never mind reliably measured, would it?

  • Pete Baker


    Still telling me what I meant?

    Why don’t you tell us why you feel insulted, rather than speaking hypothetically on behalf of others?

    They are, after all, either supernaturalists – believers in supernatural beliefs – or they’re not.


    I see no need to be sensitive towards believers in supernatural beliefs.

    The only reason to do so, that I can see, is that they might not accept that their beliefs are, indeed, fundamentally supernatural.

    But maybe that’s the problem..

  • Oilifear

    Pete, do you really think that I will explain the butt of your joke? Do think that I will explain how you use the term “supernaturalists” to associate belief in religion with belief in the paranormal (in its common sense). How you draw on the association of such words and mix their common and strict meanings to undermine and ridicule those with religious beliefs. How you set up of false dichotomy of “supernaturalist” and “naturalist” and associate the religious with the irrational and superstitious.

    I would prefer to explain how such an approach to discussion is anti-enlightenment. How it distorts the dialectic and obfuscates the emergence of truth. How it is an argument ad hominem. How it represents a triumph of rhetoric over logic and dialectic.

    I won’t, however, do either of these. Because you are a troll.

  • Anna-Marie

    I was brought up a devote Catholic but the more I study the bible the more I believe it’s a racist and sectarian book.

    I was reading Jonah chapter 3v8 tonight ‘But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that [is] in their hands.’

    …but then I realised I had been brought up to learn ‘beasts’ in the bible were dumb animals and they couldn’t ‘cry mightily’ unto God and turn from their evil ways.

  • Anna-Marie

    I really don’t want to get into all this rascist stuff which is doing the rounds at the moment. Is there a possibility that the bible called non-Chistians or non-believers ‘beasts’ in the early days of the bible?

  • Driftwood
  • Anna Marie

    Your link never answered any of my questions Driftwood. I doubt if any religious intuition would answer them.

  • Anna Marie

    Exodus 19v13:

    ‘There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether [it be] beast or man, it shall not live:’

    According to Exodus the beast has hands.

  • Anna Marie

    Jer 31v27:

    ‘Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man, and with the seed of beast.’


    ‘But every one shall die for his own iniquity:’

  • Robert

    Anna Marie,

    How do you explain “I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man, and with the seed of beast”??

  • Anna Maria

    you waste your time Robert. there’s no need for you to make things good