Melanie Phillips: The real intolerance comes from secularism

Here’s a great post by conservative British journalist Melanie Phillips. (I think she is Jewish, by the way)


I have a rather different take on this great division of our age. My view is that while we may be in a post-biblical — and post-moral — age, we have not disposed of belief. Far from it. We have just changed what we believe in. Our society may have junked the Judaeo-Christian foundations of the West for secularism. But this has given rise to a set of other religions. Secular religions. Anti-religion religions.

These are also based on a set of dogmas. They proselytise. They involve faith. But unlike the Judaeo-Christian thinking they usurp, these secular anti-religions suspend truth and reason. What’s more, I would say that it was the Judaic foundations of the West which, far from denying reason, gave the world both reason and science in the first place.

God has been pronounced dead, and in his place have come man-made ideologies — in which people worship not a divine presence but an idea.

These ideas, which brook no dissent, give rise inescapably to intolerance and indeed to tyranny. Indeed, they are far more tyrannical in their effect than the God of the Hebrew Bible who gets such a bad press for being so authoritarian. In fact, he has a truly terrible time getting his way. His people are always complaining, refusing to do what he tells them, blaming him for everything and always, always arguing with him. But ideologies which represent the will of man bend everything to the governing idea, which cannot be gainsaid. There can be no argument with them.

Rather than being rational, I suggest these are irrational; not tolerant at all, but deeply illiberal; not open to other ideas, but as dogmatic as any medieval pope. Indeed, these atheistic ideologies are reminiscent not just of religion but of medieval persecutions, witch-hunts and inquisitions.

Let me illustrate all this with an anecdote. After a debate in which he took part some time ago, I pressed Richard Dawkins on his belief that the origin of all matter was most likely to have been an entirely spontaneous event — which meant he therefore surely believed that something could be created out of nothing. Since this ran counter to the scientific principle of verifiable evidence which he tells us should govern all our thinking, this itself seemed to be precisely the kind of irrationality which he scorns.

In reply, he acknowledged that I had a point but said that the alternative explanation — God — was more incredible. But then he remarked that he was not necessarily averse to the idea that life on Earth had been created by a governing intelligence — provided, however, that such an intelligence had arrived on Earth from another planet. Leaving aside the question of how that extra-terrestrial intelligence had itself been created in the first place, I put it to him that he appeared to be saying that “little green men” provided a more plausible explanation for the origin of life on Earth than God. Strangely, he didn’t react to this well at all.

However, Dawkins is not the first scientist to have suggested this. It is a theory which was put forward by no less than Professor Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA.

A committed atheist, Francis Crick found it impossible to believe that DNA could have been the product of evolution. In 1973, Crick and the chemist Leslie Orgel published a paper in the journal Icarus suggesting that life may have arrived on Earth through “directed panspermia”. According to this theory, micro-organisms were supposed to have travelled in the head of an unmanned spaceship sent to Earth by a higher civilisation which had developed elsewhere some billions of years ago. The spaceship was unmanned so that its range would be as great as possible. Life started here when these organisms were dropped into the primitive ocean and began to multiply. Subsequently, Crick abandoned this theory and returned to the idea of the spontaneous origin of life from purely natural mechanisms.

How can someone so committed to reason be so irrational as to entertain such a fantasy?

What I found great about this article is that even though Melanie Phillips is a popular columnist, she actually deals with evidence when talking about God. So often on Christian blogs, you can read tons of posts that are really just inside baseball for Christians. It’s just pablum or lists of todos. The right way to talk about God is by talking about the evidence. Even Melanie Phillips sees that. Why don’t we?

I think we need to be very forthright when speaking with atheists and call them out for what they are. They are the people who hate astrophysics, and despise the Big Bang cosmology. They are the believers in the unobservable, untestable multiverse. They are the believers in the unobservable, untestable aliens who seed the Earth with life. They are the believers in the as-yet-undiscovered Cambrian precursor fossils. They believe that material processes can somehow produce creatures that have free will and consciousness. They are the ones who think that right and wrong are purely arbitrary – matters of opinion that are decided one way or the other in different times and places. They are the ones who believe that when you die, you are not accountable for anything you’ve done, and nothing that you’ve done has ultimate meaning. Let’s be up front about all of that, and hold them accountable for their anti-science, anti-morality, anti-human views. And let’s hold them accountable for running away from debates with their tails between their legs – like that coward Richard Dawkins did.

9 thoughts on “Melanie Phillips: The real intolerance comes from secularism”

  1. After reading Melanie’s 5274 word post, actually the context of a speech she made recently, and taken largely from her most recent book, ‘The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power’, this piece has led me to peruse via the “LOOK INSIDE” feature at Amazon.

    In the book, she goes into great detail over her analysis and dissection of the current cultural war between religion and atheism, and its political ramifications. She is big on what she (and others) term not just an overt and overly-emphasized materialistic/ reductionist scientific posture [scientism], but on its not just negative, but also damaging effects upon society.

    In the piece, she highlights what she considers to be misguided defenses of this posture, leveling her attack on Richard Dawkins, both in the article, and in her published work [a search of ‘Dawkins’ in the book brings up 27 hits, all generally reproachful].

    In essence, she feels that reason derives more from a faith-based position than a reductionist view, and gives the term “knuckle-dragging ignorance and prejudice” a 180 degree twist.

    I personally give it a 270 degree turn, and say that to have ‘faith’, whether in scientific presumptions, religious views, or both, is simply the human condition, that of not knowing the unknowable. If “ignorance” is truly an operative, it resides within any encampment that holds to absolutes which are plainly unknowable. And for that, I give Melanie five stars, *****. OK, perhaps four, ****.

    Bottom line: Faith in a concept is a reasonable position to entertain, IF that concept is factually supported, and that would include inferential data, the primary support of theistic belief.


  2. My college Evolutionary Biology course and text book never mentioned Directed Panspermia. I wonder why… It sounds absurd.

    I wonder if we could ask the following in turn: if little green men are responsible for life on Earth, then what brought about the little green men on their planet? Little red men from elsewhere?


  3. Melanie Phillips writes about the dangers of “man-made ideologies.” Who would disagree? But let’s not forget – to a nonbeliever, Christianity and Judaism ARE man-made ideologies.

    I read this blog with great interest hoping to encounter some explanation or argument of how secularism is intolerant. Instead, there’s the general proposition that ideas can be dogmatic and run amok in the hands of men(well of course they can) and then there’s the usual criticisms of Richard Dawkins as if he is somehow representative of secular thought or emblematic of secular society.

    The problems here are twofold. First, the article equates “secularism” with “atheism.” This strikes me as a category error. Of course words can have multiple definitions but properly understood, “secularism” speaks not to the existence or nonexistence of God, but to the role of the State and the distinction between the religious sphere and the civil sphere.

    Also, the attack on Dawkins seems more than a bit gratuitous. Dawkins is not a proponent of panspermia. To be sure, Dawkins DOES raise the directed panspermia hypothesis as an example of an “intelligent design” hypothesis that would fit within a naturalistic framework. He’s absolutely correct. If supported, it would. He does not ever say there’s any evidence to support it or that he thinks it is likely to be true.

    And let’s suppose Dawkins DID advocate some seemingly wacky idea like panspermia. How would that be an example of secular intolerance?

    It’s easy to get carried away when it comes to battling the godless icons of atheism. But it seems to me that if apologetics really is to be grounded in reason, you are much better served by criticisms that are properly focussed and, most importantly, honest.


  4. “Professor Francis Crick …”found it impossible to believe that DNA could have been the product of evolution.”

    Professor Crick found nothing of the kind.


    1. Do you have any proof for your assertion? I have to warn you that we do insist on evidence on this blog, so don’t be surprised if future comments do not show up.

      Regarding Expositorium’s comment, she is no doubt referring to this comment by Crick in which he attributes life to the work of aliens:


      In 1973, he and the chemist Leslie Orgel published a paper in the journal Icarus suggesting that life may have arrived on Earth through a process called ‘Directed Panspermia.’

      The Panspermia hypothesis suggests that the seeds of life are common in the universe and can be spread between worlds. This idea originated with the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, and was later promoted by the Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius and the British astronomer Fred Hoyle.

      Versions of this hypothesis have survived to the present day, with the discovery of proposed ‘fossil structures’ in the martian meteorite ALH84001.

      ‘Directed Panspermia’ suggests that life may be distributed by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Crick and Orgel argued that DNA encapsulated within small grains could be fired in all directions by such a civilization in order to spread life within the universe.


      Note that attributing life to aliens, which he has no evidence of, is really just saying that the cause of life is intelligent design – that’s what he’s saying. He’s saying no natural process could create life on Earth, it requires a intelligent causes.


    1. I think that William Wilberforce was certain that slavery was wrong when he freed the slaves. I’ve noticed that a lot of people on the secular left has this horror of “certainty” as if that was responsible for the holocaust. But certainty is irrelevant, it’s the view in question which counts. If the view in question is child sacrifice or widow-burning then certainty is BAD. If the view in question is pro-life or abolition of slavery, then certainty is GOOD. People on the secular left are just not very good thinkers, that’s all.

      Also, is this guy CERTAIN that CERTAINTY is wrong? It’s self-refuting.


      1. The article took a surprising twist, at least for me, in its support for the argument against certainty and for tolerance and for relativism.

        The author cited two scientists – Bronkowski and Heisenberg – to make the case for tolerance and uncertainty!

        He wasn’t citing some post-modernist like Derrida or Sartre or Camus.

        But genuine, respected scientists to affirm the Left’s claim to intolerant tolerance!

        What a clever hi-jack of science!


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