Thinking about the ignorant, angry atheists who infest the Guardian’s comment pages I realised one thing they have in common with scriptural fundamentalists: they have no idea of history. They live in an eternally dazzling present and they can’t imagine that there is anything outside it. Oh, sure, they have legends — the inquisition, the crusades, the middle ages — but within these legends the actors move, as they do in renaissance paintings, entirely in contemporary dress. There is no sense of the strangeness and difficulty of the past; no sense that many things have been tried and failed; no sense that words once meant things entirely different and possibly inexpressible now.
This is how the British intelligentsia used smugly to describe Americans as distinct from Europeans. But it is now a general vaseline across the lens of British thought.
So when our readers claim that atheists never persecute believers, this is in part an absolute ignorance of some of the basic facts of twentieth century history — what did they think was happening in Poland up until 1989? — an in part a simple reluctance to believe that history is about other people. I haven’t shot any priests, and nor has anyone I know. Ergo, atheists never persecute.
It reminds me horribly of the fundies I talked to at the Lambeth Conference in 1998, for whom the miracles of the Bible could have happened just down the road. They, too, had no sense of the intervening history, nor of any growth of knowledge in the last 2000 years. The modern atheists know, of course that there has been such a growth. But they couldn’t — outside science — give any examples at all. And even when I write “science” I may be overstating the case. How many know any chemistry or geology?
And to complete the breakdown of western civilisation, the autofocus on my camera has bust, while the manual focus has not recovered from my replacement of the focussing screen. I suppose I had better do some work instead.