Should Atheists Slam Religion or Show Respect?
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As a social cause, rather than just a life stance, atheism was catapulted forward by 9-11 and the ascendancy of the Religious Right. Cognitive scientist Sam Harris says that he began writing The End of Faith the morning after seeing the trade towers bombed with jet fuel and airline passengers. Biologist Richard Dawkins, who had previously hosted a gracious series of televised interviews exploring faith and non-faith, shifted tone and became a patriarch of anti-theistic activism. Journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote his scathing indictment, God is not Great. Doubters started coming out of the closet. I, myself, began publically challengingEvangelical Christian teachings when George Bush pointed to heaven to indicate where he had sought advice before invading Iraq.
It takes energy and guts to buck taboos and norms as strong as those surrounding religion, and so the first out the door were anti-theists who felt so strongly that they were willing to throw themselves into the fray, do or die. The “New Atheists” attracted a preponderance of young males who largely fit godless stereotypes: some defiant, some nerdy, many hyper-intellectual. All were, for one reason or another, either impervious to rules protecting faith from criticism or willing to pay a price for breaking those rules.
Some of these firebrands can be counted among today’s leaders, and many have kept an edge that is honed by the seemingly relentless assaults on science and civil rights perpetrated by Christian and Muslim fundamentalists. They remain fiercely defiant, unapologetic about their scorn for religion, willing to use shock tactics if that’s what it takes to break what they see as a terminal religious stranglehold on society. Several years back, a group called the Rational Response Squad promoted a “ blasphemy challenge” urging people to videotape themselves denying the Holy Spirit because one Bible writer calls such blasphemy an unforgiveable sin. In 2010, a Seattle cartoonist launched “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” after learning about death threats against Trey Parker and Matt Stone for depicting Mohammed in Southpark . This winter American Atheists provoked quite an outcry with a billboard that quoted a Bible verse: “Slaves Submit to Your Masters – Colossians 3:22.”
The organizers of these irreverent events see them as advancing values that they cherish deeply --perhaps one could say values they hold sacred: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom from cruelty grounded in dogma or superstition. And yet, criticism of such in-your-face attacks on religion has often come from people who share their goals. As the atheist visibility movement has expanded, quieter, more diplomatic leaders have emerged. Many of them insist that aggressive confrontation does more harm than good –that atheists need to be changing stereotypes, not reinforcing them, and that there is such a thing as bad publicity.
Biologist P. Z. Meyers and Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein have staked out two very different positions in the naughty-or-nice controversy. Meyers writes a popular blog, Pharyngula, which evolved from a primary focus on biology and politics to include broad-based uncensored anti-religious news and commentary. Meyers doesn’t suffer fools lightly and makes no bones about letting people know that he finds most religion not only destructive but also stupid. Epstein, by contrast, seeks to build ethical and spiritual community that builds bridges between faith and non-faith. His Humanist Community Project encourages humanists to develop the traditional virtues of religion: communities built around shared values and social service. Where Meyers might rail against “faith in faith,” Epstein’s colleagues find common ground with open, inclusive religious groups like the Interfaith Youth Corps.
Blogger Greta Christina has said that atheists should “ let firebrands be firebrands and diplomats be diplomats.” She argues that both confrontational and collaborative tactics made the gay rights movement stronger and will do the same for non-theism. But what kind of confrontation? Ugly partisanship can backfire. For example, Fred Phelps and Sean Harris give homophobia such a vile face that they trigger disgust, pushing people in the opposite direction. Some atheist activism may do the same.