Atheists we might see as people like those who deny global warming. You might celebrate their right, and defend their freedom of speech, to deny global warming – but if they’re wrong, and millions of other people have taken their view, then it could end in a terrible, terrible disaster for a lot of people.
This is one conclusion that comedian Frank Skinner has reached, as revealed in a recent conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury. I suppose I’m grateful he at least seems to accept the scientific consensus on climate change, even if he is lamely anti-secularist.
(By the way, I seem to have adopted this habit lately of block-quoting a contentious part of what I’m intending to discuss right at the start of an entry. Is that annoying, or is it a useful way of setting the scene?)
Although it may be a novel comparison, there’s actually nothing new in the point he’s making. It’s essentially Pascal’s Wager: the claim that atheists have more to lose (namely their immortal souls) if they’re wrong about God’s non-existence than believers do.
Of course, this makes a number of assumptions about God which are just as unfounded as the idea that he exists at all – that he’s self-obsessed enough to value uninformed reverence and blind faith over intelligence, for instance, and petty enough to condemn those who fail to adequately lick his boots to an eternity of suffering.
But it also entirely fails to support one particular God-claim over any other. If the God who Frank Skinner believes in will inflict “terrible, terrible disaster” on any atheists who deny his existence, then surely all the Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and followers of every other religion that’s ever existed are equally analogous to the climate change denialists, and arguably dragging greater numbers of souls to Hell than the godless.
“At a time when secularism is a threat to the salvation of millions, believers should get together, find what we have in common, and sell that,” he also said. But what exactly is there which he expects to find in common with those of opposing faiths? Belief in a God who’ll punish you for not believing in him doesn’t really count as a shared value, if you’re all disagreeing on which God it is. (This is a point rather more neatly skewered by the Merseyside Skeptics.)
I’ve seen Frank get a bit of vitriol for this piece, but it hasn’t really dented my perception of him as a largely benevolent, often funny guy. (Far more offensive, in fact, was his argument that science isn’t fun. Seriously. He compared it to “maths in fancy dress”, and didn’t mean that as a compliment. Dick.) He read The God Delusion, and at least pays lip service to the importance of doubt, even if I’m not left entirely convinced by this interview that he understands what intellectually honest doubt actually entails.
Perhaps most interesting is his extended comparison between religion and football. Among its most passionate devotees, football is marked by a love for the game itself, and a tribalistic allegiance to one’s local team. People don’t support sports teams because they’ve decided that one is morally (or in any other way) superior to all the others. They support a team because it’s their team, often because it’s what they’ve grown up with and so this irrational loyalty is all they’ve known.
But he doesn’t note where the analogy falls down. In football, there are empirical measures of which teams play the best in any given season, with leaderboards and so forth; but no distinguishing factor can ever make supporting one team be a “more correct” thing to do than supporting a different one. Religions, on the other hand, do claim to be set apart from their competitors, that the reality of the situation favours them specifically – and there’s no central idea which all the tribes can rally behind in the same way. Football exists, and teams from all over the country, all over the world, are all playing the same game. There’s no similarly centralised and unambiguous deity to unite believers.
Even if I’m not much interested in either one, I’ll believe in sport over God any day.