Friday, November 14, 2008

Militant Atheism

Updated Nov. 14

There's been lots of discusion about "militant atheism" of late. Much of it, of course, is from the sorts of religious fanatics who want to make the world in their narrow-minded image. Others, unfortunately, have a different reason. In an interview promoting his recent book I Don't Believe In Atheists, Chris Hedges said:

In May of 2007 I went to L.A. to debate Sam Harris, and then two days later I went to San Francisco to debate Christopher Hitchens. Up until that point, I hadn't paid much attention to the work of the New Atheists. After reading what they had written and walking away from these debates, I was appalled at how what they had done for the secular left was to embrace the same kind of bigotry and chauvinism and intolerance that marks the radical Christian right. I found that in many ways they were little more than secular fundamentalists.

I Don't Believe In Atheists

I haven't read much of Sam Harris' work. I'm familiar enough with Hitchens to know that the guy is an opinionated jerk. I've read enough of Richard Dawkins, the biologist whom Hedges lumps in with these two, to know that he is not. Hedges' first mistake is simply lumping all these people together, but it's worse than that:

[Salon:] So you think that Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris are just shills for a neocon agenda?

[Hedges:] Well, Dawkins is a little different, because he's British. But looking at our own homegrown version of new atheism, yes. Hitchens and Harris do for the neocon agenda in a secular way what the religious right does in a so-called religious way.

I Don't Believe In Atheists

Dawkins isn't different because he's a scientist or because it's just his way, it's because he's British. Now who's being a bigot?

Ironically, in The God Delusion, Dawkins compared the tenor of his criticism of religion with the tenor of restaurant critics. People who find Dawkins strident need to check out some food columns.

What's worse, neither Hitchens nor Dawkins are actually trying to impose their point of view on their society. What they're trying to do is express theirs, and point out why much of what religious people believe about both their religions and themselves isn't necessarily true. To equate that with the people who insist that this is a "Christian nation", and that anyone who doesn't believe in their religion should sit down and shut up is absurd.

OK, so maybe Hedges isn't such a great spokesman for this great "middle ground" in the struggle between religious fanatics and non-believers. Over at En Tequila Es Verdad, commenter Progressive Conservative gave it a try:

'Liberal atheist blogs' ?

I wasn't aware you were so militant in your atheism that you added it to the description of your blog Dana. If so, that's unfortunate because it's such a waste of time. Why not stick to politics where you might actually be able to make some progress? If you or 'Woozle' got the impression that I care about your atheist leanings, go back and re-read my comments. I'm no defender of Christianity. I'm just someone who dislike evangelism from religious folks AND atheists.

Comment on: Break Out the Bubbly! Barack Did It!

In a way, it's odd that I'm even writing about this, because I've never been an "evangelist" for atheism. To me, it's boring to discuss things I don't believe in, or think are so preposterous that I can't think of a good reason why anyone would believe in them. Nevertheless, I find myself talking and writing about it anyway. Here's why:

[image credit McHenry County Blog]

[image credit: leisamarie]

[image credit: Journeyman at Just Passing Through]

In a country where much of the population seems to insist on telling you about their religion and why you should believe in it, discussion is inevitable. By Hedges' and PC's standards, the folks who put up these signs are "militants". To me, they're just outspoken, at least as long as they limit themselves to friendly persuasion.

Sadly, many folks don't limit themselves to friendly persuasion. There are Christians in this country who genuinely deserve the term "militant". Here's one such individual:

I think they missed the point of the outrage. Losing Labor Day as a holiday was not the issue that infuriated Americans nationwide. It was instead the catering to Muslims.

This is America, a Judeo-Christian nation. Why should any employer accommodate the religious preferences of Muslims? If these Muslims are not content with the American holidays that their employers offer, they are free to go back to whatever Muslim nation they came from. And you know what, we won’t miss them or their whining for Islamic religious rights or all their lawsuits.

Tyson Foods Reinstates Labor Day for Employees

My preference is that there are no religious holidays, but I'm reasonably sure that as long as people enjoy Christmas (and the winter solstice) as much as they do, that's not going to happen. On the other hand, I think that if Muslims are willing to exchange one of the standard holidays for one that they really want to celebrate, then their companies should try to accommodate them somehow. That doesn't seem like too much to ask. Society isn't going to break down if two percent of the population are on holiday for a day while the rest of us are working. Yet this clown takes offense at such a notion to the point where he demands that they go back "where they came from" if they don't like the way Christians are running things.

These aren't just isolated nut cases. The First Amendment Center notes:

Sixty-five percent of Americans believe that the nation's founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation and 55% believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation, according to the “State of the First Amendment 2007” national survey released Sept. 11 by the First Amendment Center.

'07 Survey Shows Americans' Views Mixed On Basic Freedoms

One of the things this poll demonstrates is that the majority of Americans have little or no idea what their Constitution says. The other thing it demonstrates is that the idea that the rest of us are not really full-fledged Americans is a popular one. President George H.W. Bush is on record as having said so about atheists.

Dana Hunter has a good list of reasons why we argue so vociferously at times with some of the Christians around us:

We atheists can't ignore religion and let you go on about your worship for a simple reason: your religion impacts us. It threatens us, and it often harms us. We can't live quietly in a world full of religion because religion won't let us.

Deeply devout Christians believe they have a mandate from God to tell me what I can do with my body. They believe they should be able to control my reproductive choices. Not only do they believe their morality dictates whether I can or cannot have an abortion if such becomes necessary, but they believe they have the right to deny me access to birth control. They believe they can tell me whom I can and cannot marry. They believe I must believe the way they do in matters of sexuality, and if I disagree, they believe they have the right to force my compliance. They are trying to get laws passed that will limit my access to birth control, abortion, and marriage. Religion threatens me as a woman, and it is a real and immediate threat.

Deeply devout Christians believe God has told them all they ever need to know about science. They are actively trying to introduce creationism into science class under a number of guises - Intelligent Design and "teach the controversy" are great favorites just now, and when those are defeated, they'll come up with other euphemisms. I have no children, and I graduated from school a long time ago, so you might think this isn't my battle to fight. But it is. All of modern medicine is based on the proven theory of evolution. Without a thorough understanding of evolution, students can't go on to become medical researchers who will find breakthrough cures for the diseases that will destroy my mind and body. And it's not just that. Science underpins everything in our lives: the energy that powers my appliances, the computer I'm writing on, the phone I call my mother with, and endless other examples. If Americans allow religion to water down science, we will no longer be on the cutting edge of science. Our economy and quality of life will suffer the consequences. Religion threatens me as a beneficiary of science, and it is a real and immediate threat.

Deeply devout Christians believe they know what is morally pleasing to God. They believe God tells them what music is appropriate to listen to, what books are appropriate to read, movies to watch, and themes to explore in art. They launch crusades to censor things they find morally offensive. They constantly try to craft legislation that will defeat the First Amendment in order that things offensive to them cannot be created. Religion threatens me as an artist, and it is a real and immediate threat.

Progress Report: Ooouuuucccchhhh

People who tell us that they know how we should live our lives, and can't offer more than a 2,000-plus year-old religious text as justification ought to expect hostility. Of course, just about anyone stupid enough to try probably isn't smart enough to know that, either.

It's not intolerance to tell people who think of you as a second-class citizen to shove their attitudes. It's refusing to be marginalized.

It's not bigotry to point out that the only two places the Constitution mentions religion is to say that there will be no requirement to belong to a particular religion, and that Congress can't make laws establishing a religion or limiting peoples' choices regarding religion. It's calling stupidity and ignorance for what it is.

So, if you don't like how "militant" atheists sound when we talk to you, it probably means you need to learn what you're talking about, or consider how it would feel if you were in the minority.

UPDATE: Added the longish quote from Dana Hunter, because it fits in so well here. She's listed many of the reasons we sound hostile when discussing religion.


One Fly said...

Well done Cujo. What bothers me the most is how they attempt to implement their dogma by law. That alone makes them dangerous.

Dana Hunter said...

Permission to roll up this post and use it to smack anyone who comes at me with that tired old "evangelical atheists are just as bad as evangelical Christians" schtick? ;-)

(And, in reply to your comment on my post: you never have to ask permission nor seek forgiveness for quoting me at length. I'll gladly allow you to shovel whole posts o' mine in with yours if you feel the need.)

Cujo359 said...

Thanks, One Fly. Yes, imposing their dogma on law, science, or us is where they step over the line. They do that with disturbing regularity.

Permission granted, Dana. Oh, and I usually try to avoid quoting more than a quarter of an article, but in your case, it worked out to be about half. Thanks for the permission to shovel, and it's certainly mutual.

pissed off patricia said...

I try to respect the belief religious people have and I wish they would do the same for me and my non-beliefs.

Cujo359 said...

It would be a much better world if they could, POP.

Paul said...

Hi Cujo! Just wanted you to know your post has been included in the Carnival of Elitist Bastards. The Carnival is up at my blog. Thank you for your article!

Teacherninja said...

Yes, yes, yes. Thank you for that!

L said...

Well done. Thanks for the ammo.

Funny that Hedges walked away from his debates without realizing Hitchens was a little different (British) too.

Cujo359 said...

Thanks for hosting COTEB, Paul.

I'd wondered about that also, L. Apparently, Hitchens has spent too much time in the colonies and gone native.

You guys and Teacherninja are welcome, BTW. Thanks for commenting.

Maleficent said...

Thanks for a terrific post. I fell out of my chair laughing upon reading this: "People who find Dawkins strident need to check out some food columns." So true!

Oh, and Hitchens became a US citizen in April of 2007. So, apparently he really has gone native!

george.w said...

Right on, brother!

I work in a college with a wide diversity of religion among the faculty. One guy has a little Vishnu statue on his computer; another's office looks like a Christian bookstore. One professor has a poster on their file cabinet lamenting how pointless (in light of 9/11) life would be if one did not believe in doG.

All perfectly fine with me. It's what happens in the statehouse, and in the schoolroom, that matters to me. Whenever religions get the upper hand in a society they want to start running people's lives. I am unaware of any exceptions.

Cujo359 said...

Hi Maleficent,

Becoming a citizen is about as gone native as it gets, that's for sure.

Hi George W,

That's really all I want out of our society - to be left to find one's own path. While I think the world would be a better place without religion, I'm be no means positive of that. In many ways, the major religions are like a Rorschach test - what people see in them says a lot more about them than it does about the religions themselves.