How fundamentalists helped revive militant atheism in the West.
The Washington Post has an article on the rise of the vocal atheist. It starts out with the story of a man who was a life long Anglican and who one day just decided he no longer believed. I’ve seen the same thing happen to other people. There is a clear increase in the number of individuals who identify as atheists. In recent years, among young people, the number of self-identified atheists has doubled.
Of course we don’t know the true number of atheists. Many atheists are aware of friends who put on the pretence of religion but privately admit to being atheists. Even some clergy fall into this category. What percentage of pews or pulpits are occupied by atheists is anyone’s guess.
In recent years polls in the US have shown that religious Americans are more likely to vote for a Muslim, in spite of the 9/11 attacks, than for an atheist regardless of their qualifications. The same sort of disdain for atheists carries into their private lives. All of this reduces the likelihood of an atheist speaking out. Many remain closeted but that doesn’t alter the fact that are atheists.
Yet in spite of this, the number of self-identified atheists is increasing rather rapidly. But that is only part of the phenomenon. The number of atheists who are being open about their atheism is increasing as well. And the number of atheists who are becoming vocal is also increasing. So, not only are the number of non-believers increasing, but those who do exist are becoming more militant and vocal.
The article discusses the rise of the Council of Ex-Muslims in Europe, which was founded in Germany a few months ago with several hundred members. It has created chapters in England and Holland as well. Maryam Namazie, the head of the English chapter said: “We are all atheists and non-believers, and our goal is not to eradicate Islam from the face of the earth.” Instead they are trying to make religion entirely private and strip it of the power to control the lives of non-believers.
The article quotes an academic who has studied the rise of atheism. Phil Zuckerman says: “Anytime we see an outspoken movement against religion, it tells us that religion has power there.” And one atheist is quoted saying: “There is a feeling that religion is being forced on an unwilling public, and now people are beginning to speak out against what they see as rising Islamic and Christian militancy.”
Strictly speaking, an atheist merely lacks a belief in a deity of any kind. It is not a rallying point, nor a particularly reason for social cohesion. Not being something is not something around which a common identity can be forged. The natural tendency, in my opinion, is for atheists to be a relatively unorganized because of this. Atheist organizations will generally contain only a very small percentage of non-believers. Atheists have no more in common with each other than do people who don’t believe in Santa Claus.
But recent world events has forced a rethink. Two things have happened. One is the 9/11 attacks, along with the rise of militant Islamists conducting other terrorist attacks. The second is that religious extremists -- Muslims in Europe and Christians in America -- have been demanding that more and more state power, meaning coercion, be used to further their agenda.
In both cases these militant fundamentalists are actively trying to impose their stilted world view on the rest of society. Witness the fits they go into over the gay marriage issue. Now if marriage equality is passed no fundamentalists will be forced to marry a same sex partner. They are free to shun the arrangement completely. They don’t want to be left alone, they want the law to prevent others from having the same relationships they can enjoy.
Fundamentalists complain if they are censored. But they are not against censorship. They favor it, provided they get to decide who shall be censored. Nor are they advocates of government leaving people alone. They want government to leave the religious alone and to actively harass others. And they have become increasingly vocal about such demands.
But the worst part for them was that they, and George Bush, entered in some sort of uncivil union. We saw the merger of church and state, the creation of the Theopublican movement. George Bush became their most visible representative. And for that, atheists should thank God.
The Theopublican agenda has been so closely linked to the Bush agenda that the dishonesty, viciousness and ineptness of the Bush administration now tarnishes Christianity itself. Whether that should be case is another question. Bush has been a PR disaster for the two things he is most closely tied to: the Republican Party and God.
On the other side of the world religious fanatics have unleashed their Dark Ages philosophy wherever they can. Islamists have killed thousands and thousands of people. Islamist governments kill people by the hundreds. And they do so in the most barbaric ways. The world is disgusted with Islam as a result. Even many Muslims have become disgusted with Islam.
The fundamentalists of the world, mainly Christian and Muslim, have breathed life into the atheist movement. In many ways they are creating a new, vocal atheist movement.
As I noted, there is no common ground for atheists. You can’t build a movement around a non-belief. But the fastest way to build a movement is to find a threat that intimidates people. Environmentalists know this, which is why they have an endless series of scare stories and have had then for decades now. H.L. Mencken noticed that political movements often succeed by “menacing” people “with an endless string of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” When people face a common threat, or enemy, they tend to unify. Republicans know this. That’s why they pushed the antigay campaign for several years. They wanted to build a fear campaign around homosexuals to unify the Religions Right. Now they are doing the same over immigrants.
If imaginary hobgoblins work well in creating a movement then real hobgoblins are even better. And rational people have felt threatened by Islamism and Theopublicanism. There it is -- the reason for the rise of vocal, militant atheism. People are becoming atheists in larger numbers, or becoming more vocal and active atheists, precisely because the religious extremists have, or are trying, to seize power in order to inflict their agenda on the rest of society.
The moral majoritarians don’t merely want to avoid erotica. They want to force you to avoid it as well -- regardless of your personal preferences. They want to burn the magazines, and some no doubt, the publishers as well. The Islamists don’t want the right to worship Allah. They want to deny you the right to not worship him. It’s not that these people want to lead lives abstaining from what they see as sin but that they want the state to punish you if you sin according to their religion.
I became an atheist over two decades ago. I remember sitting in my apartment one morning looking into the garden while reading a book on the logic of theism. I had been a Christian, attended Christian schools, was active in the church, and even attended Bible college. I had no doubts about a deity but then I never gave the matter much thought -- something which is always conducive to faith. But that day I did give it some thought and concluded that a deity was a highly irrational assumption on my part and that the evidence was not there to support the belief I adopted. So at that point I abandoned it and haven’t looked back since.
But I was a quiet atheist for years. I did condemn the Moral Majoritarians and the like but pretty much ignored the religious impulses behind this new authoritarianism. But as time went by the nascent movement of theocrats in the 70s and 80s became increasingly shrill and illiberal and powerful. Their movement got uglier and more vicious. They were voracious for power. And then comes 9/11 with the praying fanatics who managed to kill 3,000 people in one day. I watched the second plane hit that tower as it happened on television. And I can’t escape the images of people leaping out of the burning building 100 floors above the ground, to their deaths. Watching these living human beings plummeting to their death was more than I could stomach.
And then I ran into some “orthodox Christians” who were pushing the theocratic agenda. And they felt I was an obstacle to them. So they engaged in a concerted hate campaign that turned my life into a living hell. And they enjoyed it. They relished it. They even bragged about it.
When I added all these things up in my head I concluded that I was obligated to not only reject the faith statements of theism, but that I ought to be more vocal about the threats and dangers as well. I was pushed into the position of being a “militant atheist” much against my own inclination. I’ve always been an adherent of the “live and let live” view of the world. But I realized that some people simply refuse to let you live and you have no recourse but to resist. So I went from quiet non belief to vocal atheism.
Apparently the same thing is happening in the educated nations of the world. Atheism is on the rise. The numbers of non-believers are escalating as people reconsider religion based on the results that they see around them. And those who, like me, were quiet atheists, have decided to put an end to their silence.
The massive sales of atheist books in the last year, works by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, are the result of millions of people rethinking religion because of the actions of the religious. People are not buying these books because of Dennett, Dawkins and Harris. They are more likely to be doing so because of the Bushs and bin Ladens of the world. The real salesmen of atheism have been the theists not the atheists.
And when these theists started grabbing political power they gave millions of people the incentive to organize in opposition. If there were an Academy Award for atheism the recipients would have to get up and give a speech along these lines:
I want to thank all those people who made this possible. In particular George Bush and Osama bin Laden. Without you guys this just wouldn’t have been possible. Of course there are so many to thank. I should mention Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell as well but it was really the little people who deserve the thanks. All those people bashing on gays, bombing abortion clinics, closing down adult shops. And we can’t forget the guys who arrest people for selling dildos, or cut off the heads of infidels or slit the throats of sinners. And all those parents who murder their own children in ‘honor’ killings or let them die without medical care because medicine indicates a lack of faith. Your campaigns in the Shiavo case, to promote ‘faith based’ initiatives and to eradicate the separation of church and state, or mosque and state helped. All of you made this possible. Without your help we wouldn’t be where we are today. Thanks for making this possible.