In an article he authored for BBC.com, John Gray seems to wistfully look upon those happier times when atheists were content with ignoring religion and just happily going about their lives.
So, does atheism have to be anti-religious?
The short answer: No.
An atheist is someone who does not hold a belief that a deity of any kind exists. There is nothing else about atheism that applies. There are no tenets, edicts, scriptures, dogmas, or decrees. It is a single stance on a single issue. Full stop. Being an atheist does not require or demand that you be anti-religious or, more appropriately, anti-theist. In fact, it doesn’t require you to be anything other than a non-believer in gods. John Gray admits this in his own article, at least.
Plenty of atheists are perfectly content with spending their time away from the debates and discussions involving religious ideologies. I’m sure that you’ve heard people label themselves “agnostic“. These are atheists who wish to signal to everyone around them that, while they don’t believe in the existence of any gods, they don’t want to discuss the subject. John Gray seems to be a subscriber of this mindset.
Go to any chat room or message board where atheists congregate and I am certain you will find at least a handful of these agnostics bitching about how anti-theists are mean bullies who need to leave theists alone. “They’re not hurting anyone“, they’ll cry. This, of course, is a statement that is so detached from the reality that we live in that it would be laughable, if it weren’t so dangerous.
Every time I hear an agnostic say something to that effect, I immediately ask them how old they are. I do so because I cannot imagine anyone who is old enough to remember September 11, 2001 being able to say that religion is harmless and expect to be taken seriously. Going around and pretending that there are not theists around you who are actively trying to force you into living in accordance with their religious beliefs either by the rule of law or by acts of terrorism is one of the most egregious examples of denialism I can think of.
22 men orchestrated an attack of that fateful day that killed somewhere in the vicinity of 2,000 people. Men, women, and children – who did nothing to any of those men – lost their lives in a horrible fashion and all because those men believed that they had their god on their side. They believed that not only did their god want them to kill, but that their god would reward them handsomely for killing. So that is precisely what they did.
Since then, we have seen numerous attacks being carried out by Jihadists all over the world. All due to their religious ideology that their interpretation of Islam is the one, true religion of this world and that Allah demands that every single human being on this planet either converts to it or dies. How do you stick your fingers in your ears and pretend that this is not happening?
But Islam is certainly not the only game in town. Christianity also has its own totalitarian zealots. While they are less inclined to carry out acts of violence – except when it comes to abortion clinics or doctors – they have decided to go another route. They’ve decided to try and take a page out of the Islamist playbook and use democracy against itself.
Here, in the United States, many Christians continuously try to legislate their mythology on both the state and the federal levels. Whether it’s trying to control women’s reproductive systems, marriage, what’s taught in public schools, or erecting Christian monuments on public property, the Christian Taliban of the U.S. is working tirelessly to implement a Christian form of Sharia law known as Dominion Theory – where Christian mythology becomes the rule of law and the separation of church and state is abolished.
Gray mentions two men from history as examples of his preferred atheist: Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) and Llewelyn Powys (1884-1939). Leopardi, as Gray point out in his article, held the position that religion was beneficial for people because if they didn’t subscribe to religion, then they would eventually subscribe to some other ideology that was more harmful. Powys, on the other hand, viewed religion in a poetic way. It would seem that neither one of these men were concerned about religious extremists. Why, it’s almost as if both of these men lived during time periods where the real danger posed by religious fanaticism was virtually non-existent.
And there is the rub.
Mr. Gray chooses two men who benefited from the Age of Enlightenment – the period that proceeded the time period of the Reformation, which culminated in the bloody religious battle between Catholics and Protestants known as the Thirty Years War. Leopardi and Powys got to live during a time when the brutal torture and execution of atheists for heresy was no longer an acceptable practice. Had they lived prior to the Reformation, I would be willing to bet that they would have a differing opinion. Of course, we could always look to people like Galileo Galilei, Giordano Bruno, or Michael Servetus to see how “beneficial” religion was when it was permitted to have power.
What Mr. Gray does is create this fantasy world where everyone who wants to adhere to a religion does so peacefully, without forcing their beliefs onto others, and who remain not only respectful of the separation between church and state, but also respectful of the fact that not everyone believes in their religious ideology. Unfortunately for Mr. Gray, and the rest of the religious apologists that make up the meat and potatoes of this faction of the atheist community – wishing for something to be true does not make it so.
The reason why anti-theists, or “New Atheists” as we are sometimes called, openly criticize and ridicule religion is because there religious fanatics don’t leave us much of a choice. Religion is certainly not the only nonsensical belief a person can hold. There are people who believe in such foolishness as Bigfoot, Alien abductions, the Loch Ness monster, and the Abominable Snowman, just to name a few. Notice, however, that there isn’t a concerted effort by people who don’t believe in these things to vocalize an opposition to these believers. Why is that?
It is because those who believe in these things do not pose a tangible threat to the life and liberty of those around them. No one is going around killing people because they believe that Bigfoot wants them to. No one is going around trying to legislate the Book of Nessie. So long as religious ideologues attempt to kill or control people in the name of their religion, then someone needs to counter that. If agnostics and religious apologists aren’t going to step up to the plate, then somebody else has to.
So, don’t worry, Mr. Gray. People like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the rest of the mean old “New Atheists” will continue to do the heavy lifting and people like you can sit back, relax, and point your fingers at us and say, “That’s the bad guys.”