On the loss of history

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.

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14 Responses to On the loss of history

  1. Rupert says:

    Never mind, Andrew. At least the Swedes are busy making sure that not only will lolcats, b3ta and Wikipedia survive the coming apocalypse, but they will do so in some style.



    (apologies for not embedding the link better, but I can’t remember how/whether URLs should be formatted here and in the absence of preview…)

  2. Roger says:

    You’re lumping together two kinds of atheists: the civilised variety who don’t believe in gods and who probably don’t believe in anything and so don’t kill for their (non)beliefs and the ones who believe in something- such as marxism- and don’t believe in gods as a result. It doesn’t seem to matter much what people believe in, whether it be god or history; if they believe some superior power is on their side- or they’re on its side- they feel justified in doing anything, no matter how vile, to serve it.

  3. I’m in agreement with Roger, there’s a difference between non-believers and believers-in-a-system. A militant Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist seeking to bring about the Promised World is no different from a Fundie seeking to Immanentise the Eschaton. Or as a friend of mine used to say, the difference between a Communist and a Catholic is that they worship the same god but call It (or Him) different names.

  4. acb says:

    Fragano, I think you’re quite wrong, but I have work to do. Briefly, my argument is that the capacity to comprehend systems has diminished, and with it the kind of systems that people believe in.

    Roger: I am specifically talking about one kind of atheist here — the sky pixie types.

  5. JamesP says:

    Have you read Chris Hedges’ I DON’T BELIEVE IN ATHEISTS yet? I’m curious as to your thoughts on it.

  6. tom says:

    Andrew, I think you are quite right. The same ignorance underlies the scienticism that divides all matters into those of fact — which can measured precisely and declared on by science — and those of opinion — about which no truth can be discerned and your say is as good as mine.

  7. Andrew, I understand your point. Fundamentalists of all types live in a shining present (into which the past has been subsumed), and have no way of understanding systems. However, history is one of those things that will turn around and bite you if you are not wary.

  8. Phil says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Historical context and context in general, is vitally important. I find it ironic therefore that you fail to understand the historical contexts used in his own argument.

    I haven’t read the “angry atheists” comments in the Guardian, so I can’t comment as to whether they appreciate context or not. However I was struck by your comment:

    “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?…”

    This is a gross misinterpretation and over simplification of “the basic facts of twentieth century history”. And by taking a purely literal interpretation of the atheist’s statement “atheists never persecute believers” you are, I suspect, making a disingenuous argument.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but your argument goes something like this:

    1. Fundamental Atheist’s claim: “atheists never persecute believers”
    2. Marxist Communists are atheists
    3. Under Communism religious believers were persecuted
    4. Therefore the atheist’s claim in 1 is false.

    However, if the comments could be read in context, I suspect that the atheist’s were actually trying to claim that “non belief” (i.e. atheism) has no propensity to encourage the persecution of people precisely because atheists have no beliefs to try and impose through persecution. Further, a more rigorous examination of the historical context is that it was the need to impose the wider fundamentalist beliefs of Marxism and Socialism that led to the persecution many groups of people; of which believers were but one.

    When looked at in this context your argument is clearly illegitimate.

  9. Phil says:

    Sorry, the second sentence in my comment above should have been:

    “I find it ironic therefore that you fail to understand the historical contexts used in your own argument.”

    Instead of “… his own argument.”

  10. acb says:

    JamesP: I am now £11.95 poorer, thanks to you, having ordered Chris Hedges from Powells.

    Phil: if the claim is that atheists have no beliefs to try and impose through persecution, it is only contingently true.

    There are certainly atheists who do not think that religion matters at all either way and are perfectly happy for it to continue but they don’t tend to show up in the comment sections of the Guardian. Anyone who cares about atheism even enough to get into arguments about it online has a view on whether the world would be better without religion.

    Very damn few atheists take the view that religious belief is false and harmless, especially when it comes to organised religion. On the contrary, they suppose that it is harmful and attempt act on this view.

    As for the point that Stalin killed millions of people who weren’t believers — are you suggesting that this diminishes the murder of believers? We’re in danger of drifting into Godwin territory here, so I will pull back from the obvious examples of mixed genocide.

  11. Pingback: Michael Alan Miller » The eyes change in time

  12. Don says:


    I think you were right to pick up on Andrew’s simplistic argument, but have you not made the same mistake yourself? I was agreeing with you until you tried to play down the role of non-belief in persecution of believers in Marxist societies. Non beleif played it’s role amongst a number of other factors, much as religion has done through various persecutions and conflicts down the ages. The communist and Marxist regimes killed for reasons more than just politics.

    To use an obvious example, the Crusades were not simply about religion; clearly politics, economics, race and social factors played their part. To ignore any of those factors is not to understand the historical context; try and unpick one factor as more important than the next and you’ll have several lifetimes of work and speculation.

    Andrew: I kind of agree with some of your piece though what I would argue is that people have never had any sense of the complexity of the past. People calling themselves Christian 100 years probably had the barest idea what that meant (and many today probably still don’t). The past has always been a simple place as far as people are concerned, and many find this comforting (nationalism, for example).

  13. Tony B says:

    anyone for a sweeping generalisation?

  14. Enrigue says:

    To Phil,
    You said ““non belief” (i.e. atheism) has no propensity to encourage the persecution of people precisely because atheists have no beliefs to try and impose through persecution.”

    Stop preaching about context and go read the news. Please support your ridiculous claim that atheists have no beliefs to try and impose. I have never seen a more zealous group of proselytizers than atheists. They are advertising on buses these days. They sue to stop any mention of God in public. They deface relgious monuments. All in the name of spreading their belief (against great evidence) that there is no higher power.

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