Brought up in North London and raised Catholic by Irish Catholic parents, atheist-libertarian-Marxist Brendan O’Neill has found himself in the strange position of being a public defender of Catholics, and the traditional view of marriage.
“I’ve become quite concerned about the rise of a new atheism which is just intolerant of religion,” he said in an interview with The Catholic Weekly at the home stretch of a series of talks given in Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne on ‘Making the Case for Freedom: Free Speech and Hate Speech – The Future of Free Expression’, hosted by the Australian Christian Lobby.
“So I guess the reason I have become known as the atheist who defends Catholicism and Christians is because I find the new atheism to be a negative illiberal phenomenon, and I want to kick back against that.”
Readers may remember Brendan from ABC’s Q&A on 17 August, 2015, where he was given a full two minutes airtime to expose the “ugly, intolerant streak” he saw in same-sex marriage campaigns. “It presents itself as this civil rights issue,” he said “but same sex marriage advocates cannot tolerate dissent.”
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One year on, and the editor of Spiked is again speaking against the muscular “thought policing” around the same-sex marriage issue.
“We have seen French riot police spraying pepper spray in the faces of those who oppose gay marriage, and we have seen people thrown out of their jobs for criticising gay marriage.”
One such person was Brendan Eich, co-founder and CEO of Mozilla Foundation, who resigned in April 2014 amid cries from LGBT activists for privately donating $1,000 to Proposition 8, a traditional marriage campaign in California. Not without irony, Eich has since become CEO of a company named Brave Software.
“I think the most terrifying case was in Ireland where a man, who transitioned into a woman, had his sex changed not only on his passport, but also on his birth certificate,” Brendan said.
“I found this extremely Orwellian, because when he was a boy, those who said, “This is a boy” were telling the truth, and it was publically recorded on a public document.
Now it is being rewritten to say that was something that was not true … That is the essence of [Orwell’s novel] 1984, where a publically recorded truth statement is erased from history, shoved down the memory hole if you like.”
Behind the civil rights rhetoric, Brendan sees a totalitarian streak, where the state is allowed to “interfere more and more into family life”.
“Gay marriage not only allows the state to broker marriage, which it has been doing for hundreds of years, but to redefine its very meaning, to interfere at a very organic, DNA level, to redefine words like ‘mother’ and ‘father’.”
“One of the key anchors of human life is the sex divide,” he continued, “but it is being completely ripped apart and we no longer know where we stand. And I think lots of people find it disorientating and uncomfortable.”
If he keeps talking like this, Brendan may have to look for a job at Brave Software. At this point, it would be easy to sanitise Brendan (I would say “baptise”, but he assures me he is Baptised, Confirmed and once upon a time served as an altar boy), and hold him up as a sort of “poster boy” for marriage orthodoxy. At this point, it felt like being at session of Love and Responsibility. His insights were so “Catholic” you could almost forget he penned an article for Penthouse that same day. Almost.
But the fact is that his worldview is far removed from the Christian one.
Brendan sees himself as continuing the work of the Enlightenment, an intellectual revolution that hoped to replace what it characterised as a religion of superstitious Faith with the religion of Reason – supposedly unencumbered by belief.
A secular-humanist to the core, he sees himself “coming from a very Enlightenment kind of radical humanist tradition, so we’re huge fans of Kant, Spinoza … All those great progressive ideas, the idea of equality, racial equality, sexual equality and moral autonomy.”
However, Brendan’s narrative of the merry band of humanists has some “memory holes” of its own; kulturkampf, gulags and Planned Parenthood are just some words associated with the lived experience of “those great progressive ideas”. And his notion of a kind of Marxism-before-it-was-cool, airily waves aside the fact that Marx’s thought – practically lived – led to arguably the most illiberal, bloodthirsty and totalitarian regimes in every country it was ever seriously tried.
A far more honest explanation of the “radical humanist tradition” was given by French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre (famous for his statement, “Hell is other people”) 60 years ago:
“If God does not exist [everything is permitted], and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself.” (Existentialism as Humanism, 1946)
Although perhaps not forlorn, Brendan’s crusade for freedom of speech has taken him to places he would rather not go. From defending the rights of Anjem Choudray (who advocated Sharia law in Britain) to members of the British Labour Party, whose policies have grated his every moral fibre since he was a “Trotsky-loving teen”, Brendan finds his campaign “morally exhausting”.
Yet he sees his work defending these “scoundrels” as a necessary evil in the libertarian dream.
“If you don’t defend the freedom of these outliers, these unpopular, strange, racist, eccentric creatures … we will soon find ourselves outside the acceptable parameters, Christians for example, who are critical of gay marriage,” he said.
The Christian soul may fidget as it watches Brendan twist the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) into a Kantian Rule (if you want to say something, logic demands that everyone else should be allowed to say something too).
And well it might. While they sound similar, their directions are opposite. The first is about freedom in the Classical, interior sense (in the sense that “the Truth will set you free”). Anyone who has overcome an addiction will know about this freedom. This freedom looks a lot like love. The second is freedom in the strict or “narrow” sense, and it looks a lot like the lack of restraint.
Despite this, it is a treat to watch Brendan go were others fear to tread in our marketplace of ideas. It’s hard not to rejoice at lines like, “Fundamentally, I support the freedom of speech of Bruce Jenner to say, ‘my name is Caitlin’, but the right of everyone else to say, ‘I’m not calling you Caitlin.’”
Bravo! But this author cannot get past the feeling that fighting for “freedom of speech” with the same Marxist-Enlightenment combo gave the world gulags and secularism is a lot like fighting a fire with dry wood and hot air.
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