So, Roland Barthes started al-Qaeda. Who knew?

07Jan07

The terrorist Roland BarthesTobias Jones writes a vicious little piece in the Saturday Guardian, suggesting that the “secular fundamentalists” (such as Christian Public Enemy #1 Richard Dawkins) are attempting to take advantage of innate British politeness to oppress religious people. Apparently atheists (a term he uses interchangeably with “secularist”, despite making it a central plank of his argument that Christianity invented the secular society further down the article) are bloodthirsty and can’t wait for a Night of the Long Knives against the poor, powerless religious:

They – call them secular fundamentalists – are anti-God, and what they really want is the eradication of religion, and all believers, from the face of the earth.


It is hard to make sense of this muddled, paranoid article. Jones gives very little evidence for his beliefs; not knowing that the play Bezhti was written by someone brought up in the religion it questioned, for example. He claims that since 9/11, “lazy intellectuals have been allowed to get away with repeating the nonsense that terrorism and war are the consequences of belief in God” without any justification. The only quote from Dawkins (and it’s amazing how he’s become the Great Satan to miffed religious people, scrabbling to hold on to their privilege) given in the entire piece is a silly one, hardly engaging with the man’s argument properly and certainly not supporting Jones’ assertions that Dawkins wants the religious wiped from the face of the earth. I searched for the quote and found that it is nestled in a much larger profile from the Sunday Times:

Nadia Ewiedia and her allegedly stupid face[Dawkins] definitely has a temper, though. When he starts talking about Nadia Eweida, the Christian recently denied permission to openly wear a cross by her employer British Airways, his cheeks are positively puce.

“I saw a picture of this woman,” Dawkins says. “She had one of the most stupid faces I’ve ever seen. She actually said, ‘Christians should be allowed to work for British Airways.”‘

He continues, face reddening: “Well, of course, Christians are sodding well allowed to work for British Airways. It’s got nothing to do with it. She is clearly too stupid to see the difference between somebody who wears a cross and somebody who is a Christian.”

Not really Dawkins’ finest hour, but the quote is taken out of context. Besides, who doesn’t love it when Dawkins gets irritated? Why shouldn’t atheists be as passionate and rude in defence of their beliefs as the religious are?

What will probably burn most atheists is the way in which Jones tries to lay the blame for extremism on anything but the religions in whose name terrorists acts are carried out:

The tyranny of orthodoxy has been replaced by the tyranny of relativism. You’re supposed to believe in nothing, and hence nihilists and atheists are suddenly rather chic. Postmodernism has taken tolerance to the extremes, where extremists thrive. It’s a dangerous form of appeasement.

Yes, postmodernism. Damn, and all this time I thought it was al-Qaeda. Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention in those university lectures about postmodernist literary theory – by “death of the author”, was Barthes really suggesting that we round up the religious and slaughter them? And if I’d understood that, maybe I’d have managed a First instead of a 2:1…

Try this for breathtaking cheek:

Christians feel particularly aggrieved because we believe that Jesus invented secularism. Jesus’s teachings desacralised the state: no authority, not even Caesar’s, was comparable to God’s. As Nick Spencer writes in Doing God, “the secular was Christianity’s gift to the world, denoting a public space in which authorities should be respected, but could be legitimately challenged and could never accord to themselves absolute or ultimate significance”. Christianity, far from creating an absolutist state, initiated dissent from state absolutism.

So, Mr Jones, can you explain to me if Christianity created a space in which authorities could “never accord to themselves absolute or ultimate significance”, why the Queen is the Head of the Church of England and why monarchs who acted as authorities believed they had the Divine Right of Kings? Religion only performs the soft-shoe shuffle on this issue when it no longer has the hope of taking power – when power has been there for the taking, religion has reached out its hand for the prize.

Tobias Jones closes with this sentiment:

These new militants, however, believe themselves to be the only arbiters of taste; they want to eradicate the root and cause. They will dictate what you can wear and what you can say. That, after all, is what totalitarians do.

If I were to define “these new militants” as the religious right, fundamentalist Christians or Muslims or other hardline religious believers, that quote might stand. But to say it about secularists or atheists is the Big Lie.

If anything, this article actually shows how religion clothes itself in tolerance and whines about oppression when things don’t go its way. There is definitely a resurgent belief among the power-hungry religious at the moment that now is the time when religion can force its way back into power. If any “fundamentalists saw an opening”, as Jones claims, it was the religious ones.

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2 Responses to “So, Roland Barthes started al-Qaeda. Who knew?”

  1. Hi,
    I found your blog via google by accident and have to admit that youve a really interesting blog 🙂
    Just saved your feed in my reader, have a nice day 🙂

  2. Thanks, Florian!


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