Letters: Atheism

Defining the true atheist. Or not

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The Independent Online

Patrick Tansey and Tim Matthews (letters, 22 and 23 December), use the word atheist in different shades of meaning. One shade is not believing in God, the other is firmly believing that there is no God.

The word agnostic is also used with different meanings. Though often used to refer to someone who is sceptical about something or other, there is a more precise meaning. This is suggested by its derivation: from the word "gnosis", the knowledge of spiritual mysteries.

Agnosticism is the denial of such knowledge. Spiritual mysteries is a very broad field, relating not only to knowledge of God, but to other mystical beliefs such as reincarnation and astrology.

I describe myself as an agnostic. Far from shying from the more forthright "atheist", I acknowledge that my own perceptions and thought processes are limited and error-prone, too much so for me to claim infallible knowledge. This invites flak from all "true believers", theists, and some atheists, included.

Alan Keslian

Isleworth, Middlesex

What drives an atheist to tell religious believers what it is that they believe? ("Is that blue teapot still out in space?", 22 December). The Christians I know are singularly unconcerned about trying to define their concept of God or hell or heaven.

They are concerned about what sort of fist they are making of putting the imperatives of their faith, "Bear ye one another's burdens", into practical action. As a rational, cause-and-effect guide to action the Golden Rule is patently not valid. As a "commandment" by a greater than human authority it works to the benefit of society, regardless of any evident lack of benefit it produces for the well-doer.

Atheists are refuting intellectual concepts that don't exercise the mind of the generality of believers, who can recognise symbols and parables and allegories when they see and hear them, just as they can "judge a man by his fruits".

Maurice Vassie


Your correspondent, Tim Matthews, dichotomises agnosticism and atheism. This is misleading and unnecessary. Agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive, for they describe different things. Atheism is the lack of belief in a God, whilst agnosticism means that one isn't sure that there is a God.

One can be an agnostic atheist, and I think most atheists would also be agnostic. One can also be an agnostic theist, gnostic theist or gnostic atheist.

The "atheist" described by Mr Matthews would better be described as a "gnostic atheist" whilst his "agnostic" would be better described as an "agnostic atheist". A gnostic atheist would say "I know there is no God", and an agnostic atheist would say "I have no reason to believe in God, but I cannot say for sure".

David French


The more I learn from some atheists how they understand religion, the better I understand why they are atheists.

Rev Bernard O'Connor OSA

St Mary's Priory, Birmingham

Drones are killing the innocent in Afghanistan

David Cameron dismissed the disruption, by a dust storm, of his recent visit to Afghanistan as something that "people ... out here experience all the time" ("Storm disrupts David Cameron's Afghanistan plans", 20 December). He was fortunate not to have been caught up in a US or British airstrike or drone attack, an all-too-common experience for many Afghans.

Indeed, in a poll for the BBC in early 2009, one in six Afghans reported NATO bombing in their area within the past year, a figure that soared to nearly half in the south-west and almost 40 per cent in the east.

Last year, during his annual Christmas visit to Afghanistan, Mr Cameron let slip that British drones had killed at least 124 "insurgents" over the previous 29 months. During my own brief visit here, I have met a 19-year-old whose brother-in-law, a trainee police officer with a wife and one-year-old son, was killed in a drone strike. There was no investigation. Perhaps this victim even found himself folded into Cameron's list of alleged "insurgents".

Noting that "the spirit of Herod is still at work", a group of 450 chapels has used its Christmas message to condemn the testing of unmanned aircraft over parts of Wales. The rest of us should follow their lead by taking action to put an end to this new form of remote-control murder.

Maya Evans

Kabul, Afghanistan

Socialism leads to more misery

Contrary to what TS Brailli believes (letters, 23 December), it is inevitable that socialism leads to increasing misery, with a drift to totalitarianism highly likely. To avoid the "evils of the free market", economic, political and military power has to be centralised, rendering serious errors in decision-making much more likely, for instance Khrushchev's well-meant but disastrous switch to maize which led to a famine. It is also all too easy for a well-organised, ruthless person such as Stalin to take over as a dictator.

Under free market capitalism, economic power is decentralised. If one part of an industry makes a disastrous decision, its effects will be mitigated by other parts of the industry. If our maize crop fails we can import or use other foodstuffs.

If Stalin had been born in the west he would most likely have ended up running a big industrial or retail complex. His staff and competitors might have been treated badly, but there would have been nothing like the evil he perpetrated in the Soviet Union.

Free market capitalism will evolve and there is the opportunity for politics to mitigate its shortcomings. But, because it is run by humans, with all their strengths and weaknesses, there will always be aspects which will be unsatisfactory or evil. But Christina Patterson is right (21 December); the alternatives are utterly dreadful.

Ray Wilkes

Shipley, West Yorkshire

Thank goodness for supermarkets

Well done to your Simon English for bringing some common sense rather than sentiment to the Mary Portas/high street debate (letters, 16 December). Shoppers no longer want a draughty, noisy, dangerous high street, in which they have to drag their shopping from one ill-equipped shop to another. What they do want is what supermarkets give them: all their requirements under one roof in the warm and the dry, and a free car park.

They cheerfully (and expensively) drive miles for these conveniences. Goods are relatively cheap, plentiful and guaranteed. Tesco et al are highly successful and profitable.

There is a place in the high street for certain specialist shops, though probably not for much longer, and we have to accept the old-fashioned high street is no longer viable.

Peter Ashley


In the middle of history

Exactly 20 years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) heralding what Francis Fukuyama was to famously call "the End of History". According to Fukuyama's thesis the moment marked the triumph of Western liberal democracy as the "final form of human government" and the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution".

Two decades, later the remarkable events of 2011 – where populations have risen up to demand alternatives – give the lie to Fukuyama's neo-liberal endism. The Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, the growth of political Islam in the Middle East and the decline of America's global economic dominance demonstrate that, rather than living at the beginning or end of history, we all exist in interesting times somewhere in the middle.

Stefan Simanowitz

London NW3

Unions have let the workers down

How to compare the recent TUC sell-out on pensions? You could start with the 1926 General Strike. Reports flooded in from the regions, "Strike Solid", "Unpreced-ented solidarity", and the TUC chose that moment to capitulate and failed to even secure reinstatement for strikers. This act condemned thousands of trade unionists to exist for years on the dole. The more "militant" miners were left to fight on their own.

The paltry "concessions" on pensions for the low-paid and phased increases for contributions are meaningless, it is still work until 68, pay 3 per cent more and lower payments because they will be based on the Consumer Price Index.

Compliant unions have signed the death warrant for public-sector pensions. In the face of a four-year pay freeze, after the increased pension contributions come through, millions of workers will be forced to abandon their pension payments.

I'm getting deja vu, a Tory government privatising the NHS and education, while destroying union rights. If the TUC had to design a tank it would have five gears, four reverse gears and one forward gear, in case they got attacked from behind.

Richard Knights


Even Bill Sykes tried it on

Boyd Tonkin's article on Dickens was most interesting (Art & Books, 23 December), and clearly Dickens ably captured the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed in a capitalist society. This was brought home to me recently when watching Oliver Twist on TV. Just as Bill Sykes realises all is up with his way of life, he turns to Fagan's band of wretched pickpockets and assorted minor criminals, and snarls, "We are all in this together".

Morag Morrell


Second opinion

Andrew Piatt (letters, 23 December) is prepared to attest to the provision of first-class care at Alder Hey Hospital. I am a consultant anaesthetist in the same institution. I can say with complete sincerity that I would entrust the care of my own children to the surgeons there without hesitation, and indeed have done so. I can think of no greater vote of confidence.

Dr Colin Dryden

Alder Hey, Liverpool

No nuclear option

I question whether the development of the MRI scanner had any connection with atom splitting or sub-atomic physics, as suggested in your report (22 December). MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is based on a phenomenon called nuclear magnetic resonance, in which the nuclei of hydrogen atoms resonate when subjected to a strong and rapidly varying magnetic field. No atom splitting or use of sub-atomic particles is involved. The word "nuclear" was dropped from the name, I believe, because the medical profession thought it would scare patients who were being offered scans.

JA Steadman


Bolton's act

John Kampfner's article, "How did Obama end up appeasing the neocons?" (23 December), is one of a long line of articles that "mis-describes" John Bolton's career history. Bolton's nomination as US ambassador was not supported by the Senate. Bush then appointed him as "acting ambassador", because he did not have the power to override the Senate. I believe that Bolton acted in this capacity for only one year.

Dr Allan McNaught

London SE9