The Big Apple? Yes. I’m new. I call it the Big Apple. I have recently moved to NYC, and I’ve been asked to write up a blog for this great organization, the New York City Atheists. I thought that a newcomer’s perspective would be a nice introduction, ya know, since I’m a newcomer.
It so happens, like many of you, that I’m extremely happy to be atheist. My world view enriches my life in ways that would not be as accessible if I had a supernatural or mystical perspective. That having been said, I would like to write about these Joys in this weekly guest blog. I hope that the enjoyment I find will create some joys for you as well.
Today I’m enjoying the new city. I moved into Chelsea, and I have access to interesting people and events that I have never had before. I’m originally from Ohio, and in my travels, I’ve lived around LA, Texas, Ohio, Boston, and Virginia as well as Germany. A friend told me, “If you ain’t livin’ in NYC, you ain’t livin’.” I came with high expectations.
As my first event in the city, I met with American Atheists and NYC Atheists to protest excess funding of that dignitary of one of the ancient western religions. I was greeted warmly by a lively group of fellow atheists. We stood publicly impeaching the ethics of the current Pope as well as the overwhelming public funding provided to give him a platform. Sometimes it takes an atheist to darken the halo of religious favoritism.
The event was an opportunity to get the word out about atheism and meet new friends. The group provided a warm welcome to me and other newcomers. Media outlets from NYU and other local colleges were eager to hear our story. Several of them got more than the bargained for, learning that asking for the opinion of an atheist can be a long education. There were opportunities to speak to passers-by as well. A creationist stopped by to tell us of the evils of science and was only interrupted by his cell phone, which was I’m sure placed divinely in his pocket to give the appearance of human technological advancement.
One Catholic stopped by to agree with us about the evil of the current Pope. He explained that the Pope’s visits to Synagogues and Mosques were damning Catholics to Hell. I noted that that sort of outreach was a positive rather than negative development. He was appalled by the suggestion, but still concerned for my soul. He offered that we all need only ask the Virgin Mary for salvation twice daily and that would solve our problems. He wasn’t as clear about what might happen if we missed a day. Those of us at the event had a good time determining the theology of salvation requests, the proper method of making up missed requests, and the opportunities for making requests in advance.
The group closed out the event with lunch. I made sure to give generously to thank Ken for the excellent event and a perfect introduction to the city. It will be the first of many great events I’m sure, and atheism made it possible. I’ll be back next week to talk more about the joys of atheism.
THE JOYS OF TAKEOFF
JOYS OF ATHEISM #2
I recently flew out of La Guardia and was struck by the beauty of the view out my small porthole window. We took off smoothly, rising westward over the Bronx into an overcast sky. It was later in the day, and the sun shone low through the clouds, casting thick rays of golden light across Manhattan. I sat in my seat drinking in the scene of sunshine and clouds across the city, the park, and the water. It was breathtaking.
It struck me that someone might be inspired to declare, “God is great” at such a view. Someone might be inspired to quote some trite scripture. The view was worthy of wonder, but there is so much more.
Accompanying the aesthetic beauty of nature was the inspiration of science all around me. My mind raced as I pondered the complex interplay of concepts of physics, astronomy, optics, and meteorology. That sunlight had traveled 93 million miles to meet my eyes. If I were the merest fraction of that distance closer, those same beautiful rays would burn my eyes out. These rays traveled through, among other things, a collection of water and dust particles that were just translucent enough to refract rather than block the light. I took a moment to appreciate that the local atmosphere was buffering the sunlight to present both a beautiful scene and protect me from the instant death that would result if I were directly exposed. Worship of some omnipotent power that may be orchestrating my precarious safety is like praising Michael Jackson for holding but not dropping the baby over the railing.
I cast my eyes down on the city that was carved out a small part of our natural ecosystem. The city is full of the buildings, commerce, transportation, and parks that we as a species have established to make ourselves more comfortable in the world. I thought of the recent migration of eastern peoples, the atrocities suffered by natives at the hands of newcomers, and the ongoing revolution of racism and industry through which we continually seek to extract ourselves. I considered the relative utopia that we privileged few enjoy in this city and others like it. This is a utopia especially when compared with the unsheltered and meager life that people around the world and throughout history have suffered. We enjoy this after the vision of real estate developers, media moguls, mob bosses, and politicians were inflicted upon the workers of the city. I marvel at the great gift those visionaries gave us and the great sacrifice offered by those who made vision reality. Standing in awe and reverence of our human accomplishments and the pitfalls we should avoid in the future provided another facet to the powerful scene I flew over.
As atheists, we have the opportunity to see beyond a “gift of the gods” explanation and see the great responsibility we have to nurture, and that we deserve this and all of our great cities. We have the advice of history to help us find comfort, beauty, and harmony with the nature around us. We have the tools of science to hone our understanding of our world and to find a sustainable place for ourselves. As an atheist, I have the opportunity to see beauty in the world as well as to see hope through science and through the rational evolution of my fellow humans.
HOPE & HUMANITY
JOYS OF ATHEISM #3
Today’s blog is inspired by the recent California Supreme Court decision approving same-sex marriage. I have to say that I was absolutely ecstatic. Love between two people is now legitimized in California, as it is in Massachusetts and only a few other places around our world. California domestic partnership laws are very comprehensive, so this decision was specifically about gay marriage (vs civil union). The court decision was specifically related to the principle that gay marriage should be equivalent to straight marriage, and that principle was affirmed. On the other hand, the reality is that the decision is likely to be put to a referendum and could possibly be overturned by popular vote.
One might ask if gay marriage truly is equivalent to straight marriage. Clearly the Christian and Islamic faiths have serious problems with the concept, having condoned the ridicule and murder of homosexuals for centuries. Christian mouthpieces quickly “came out” to decry this “legislation from the bench.” Their opposition is based on very specific scriptural and clerical edicts against homosexuality. And because this opposition to homosexuality carries a divine mandate, theists are beholden to perpetuate the hatred. It seems that religious communities invent convenient lies and distortions regarding gay culture, habits, and influences to society. It is even more unfortunate that this prejudice has found its way onto the platform of one (arguably two) of our two political parties.
It may be the case that one can make a secular argument against homosexuality, or at least homosexual marriage. I’ve heard the “yuck factor” that people just don’t like it, and the slippery slope to polygamy and bestiality, the reference to bathhouse misconduct, the degeneration of marriage into sex, and the problem of no procreation. I find these arguments factually and philosophically dubious, to put it mildly. I also find that these arguments are often presented for no better reason than to try to justify the religious argument. Say what you mean… To the extent those arguments against homosexuality are presented with the advancement of humanity in mind, there is still a glimmer of hope, but I am not convinced.
To be fair, we find many Christian organizations fully in support of the gay community. I stood in Boston beside Christian leaders protesting speeches of Fred Phelps and his gay-bashing Christian church. I was inspired to see several Boston religious leaders come out to oppose Phelps and his crew, despite the aforementioned scriptural and clerical prohibitions. It shows that it is possible to choose right despite religious influences to the contrary.
The joy of atheism in this case is that we are free from the bindings of religious taboo. We are not required by our religious beliefs to hate others. Our rational capacities and commitment to reason requires that we find some way to overcome hate, religiously-motivated or otherwise. By hate, I mean in the functional sense, in which a person systematically brutalizes, ostracizes, and demonizes someone or a group. We need not hide behind some excuse that we are only “hating the sin.” Whether we are talking about homosexuals, shellfish eaters, Sabbath breakers, or short-sleeve wearers, it is the person who feels the effects of “hating the sin,” and the sentiment is still hatred.
As atheists, we rely very strongly on the potential of humanity for good. Yet we must be realistic about our prospects as a species. A cursory review of history, from our barbarous beginnings, to our use of technology to destroy each other and our environment, to, well, daytime television, can be a humbling experience for a humanist. But things like the California decision serve as a ray of hope and give us a guidepost to seek. When we rise above our prejudices, fears, and traditional biases, we take one more step forward in our continuing evolution.
Bonus quote for last-week’s post: “We are as gods, so we might as well get good at it.” – Stewart Brand in the Whole Earth Catalog
Coming Out In Droves
JOYS OF ATHEISM #4
I sit writing today reveling in what is, I believe, a good problem to have. There is just too much awesome stuff going on with atheism. I work; I spend time with family; I relax in the city; I attend local events just like anyone. Besides all that, there are an abundance of national and international events available to combine travel with interesting speakers and nontheist fellowship.
June 4-8 begins the American Humanist Association (http://www.americanhumanist.org) annual convention in DC. It will be a full weekend of top speakers in the spring in DC with Beautiful weather and great programs. And what makes the event even more interesting is that it is an international conference. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (http://www.iheu.org) is hosting their World Congress there in conjunction with the AHA conference. There is also age diversity with the Secular Student Alliance (http://www.secularstudents.org) and Camp Quest (http://www.camp-quest.org) are holding concurrent programs for the younger crowd. On the Monday following, secularists will lobby congress with the Secular Coalition for America (http://www.secular.org). It is a weekend where nontheist organizations coming together as one to support our community.
Secular Seasons (http://www.secularseasons.org) is an entire website dedicated to secular events and celebrations. This site can fill nearly any weekend you have available.
Even with all these events, I constantly meet people that despair about the “meager” atheist community. There is often no knowledge of these large external events and the exciting programs involved during these events. Even we ourselves buy into the misconception that atheists are fractured, un-diverse, or small. That is definitely not the experience I have had.
I see people’s eyes light up when I tell of the large community that waits. That is to say nothing of the enjoyment I see in people who actually attend these events. Being surrounded not 10 or 20, but hundreds or thousands of free thinkers is a liberating feeling. One of the first events I attended was Lake Hypatia (http://ffrf.org/lakehypatia/) annual Fourth of July retreat in Alabama hosted by FFRF. It was relaxing and refreshing to be amongst friends. Although we atheists are individualistic by nature, there is still something comforting about looking around and seeing others like ourselves. These events can be an important respite from what is often a disdainful or openly oppressive society.
There is both a social and practical benefit to attending these events. At these events, we can provide intellectual, ethical, and family support. We discuss bioethics, science, life events, and questions of tolerance to name but a few topics. Although we don’t value so- called scripture, prophets, or clergy to direct our ethics, we can not leave the issue to chance.
It’s true we don’t have a church on ever street corner, nor do we gather in masses of tens of thousands to sway at the preaching of a charismatic. We also don’t send our money in by the millions to atheist televangelists. If we did, maybe we would all be richer and more influential in the public. I am not inclined to push that agenda because 1) our world view and way of life do not lend themselves to con games, and 2) our leaders are similarly disinclined to fraud. I also do not want to equate the joy of numbers in atheism to mass hysteria or mob mentality. It is important to attend and advertise these events to pass on the benefit of being around those who actually accept you as you are. If nothing else, we simply don’t have to be on the defensive, on the attack, or shy about the things that you say. It’s a rare feeling for atheists.
Reaching for the Stars
THE JOYS OF ATHEISM #5
The recent Mars mission (http://marsrover.nasa.gov/home/index.html) has had me thinking more about space and the intrigue of the vast and deadly universe outside our small planet. It is very exciting to imagine that one day, we may travel far from our planet to other planets either like this one or unlike this one. Because we atheists see nature and the world around us as puzzles to be solved rather than mysteries to be feared, the boundaries of atmosphere or solar system need not be boundaries. The sky isn’t the limit.
However, there are some interesting considerations. We humans are about 6ft. tall, and that scale is much smaller than the scale of universal distances. In addition, we have a certain inherent mobility (10-20 miles per hour) and strength (leaping and lifting ability within 1 -3 times our weight). These physical limitations we have begun to overcome through engineering prowess, physics, and ingenuity. We can lift ourselves off of our planet and have found it beneficial in many cases to simply “magical” pictures and experimental results back to us rather than making a personal trip. The Hayden Planetarium (http://haydenplanetarium.org/) has a focus on explaining scale from human-sized to universal scale down to subatomic scale. It’s just plain hard to grasp.
Physical conditions aside, we now must consider psychological considerations. Those planning space exploration are now http://edition.cnn.com/2008/TECH/space/06/02/space.ps ych/index.html”>concerned about the mental health of explorers. Imagining the enormity of distances in interstellar travel is enough. To look back on Earth must certainly be an event of deep psychological significance. Not only that, but no matter how much we consider ourselves to be loners, even us atheists, humans are social animals. The company of just a few of the same people for long periods of time has been the topic of several reality shows, and it tends not to be pleasant. Combining isolation, the scale of distances traveled, and the historic nature of future travel, psychologists have some realistic concerns.
There is another concern often raised “what about the aliens?” One can find reports of aliens and vast government conspiracies to hide them all over the internet. Note that some aliens were recently caught peeping in a window just down the street. Apparently they’ve developed space travel, but not yet online porn.
Carl Sagan gave the impression that he was almost certain of the existence of alien life, statistically speaking. That having been said, he just as vehemently asserted that there was no good evidence of any interaction of aliens on Earth. He spent a significant portion of The Demon-Haunted World panning various claims of extra-terrestrial interaction.
All that having been said, what if the President today in a press conference introduces an alien named Bibble and his technologically- advanced race. What then for Humanism? I hope we won’t get bogged down too much with terminology. I hope we will agree that humanity, in its greatness, will extend compassion and support to non-human life here on Earth as well as any potential aliens. Then again, what if Bibble is a lone alien who traveled here allegedly as a refuge, claiming his own race is abarbaric and cutthroat one and that we should arm against these aliens?
Of course, maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse, or maybe the rocket boosters before the rocket? There are no aliens to address and we can’t seem even to be nice to our local neighbors. All I know is we humans are reaching outside our own planet and our historical misconceptions about the scope of the universe. As we see exciting advances in science and our own extra-terrestrial travel, the very real possibility of alien contact should spur us on to get a little perspective and find ethics and peace here on our small piece of universal real estate.
Conferencing With The American Humanist Association (AHA)
Joys of Atheism #6Conferencing With The American Humanist Association (AHA)
I’m writing to recap Joys 4 in which I was planning all of the great events nontheistic events coming up. I did get to attend the American Humanist Association conference. It was an inspiring event full of famous participants. As an attendee, I even got to meet a few.
The first celebrity I had a chance to meet for the first time was Lou Appignani. He is the namesake of AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. This is such a major investment into Humanism that I was filled with gratitude just to be in his vicinity. I took a moment to thank him for his contributions in the past. He is not done by any means. At the event, he gave AHA a check for $250,000 as a down payment on a potential $1M matching grant. It was gratifying to know that donors are willing to step up with this support. And remember, this was a matching donation, so that means there were others that donated at least that much so far this year.
Pete Stark, the highest-ranking nontheistic public official, also spoke at the event. He talked about his time in office as well as what he is doing to advance science and secularism. In particular, he stressed the importance of separation of church and state and the daily struggle he has to identify and suppress blatantly sectarian initiatives like House Resolution 888 which attempts to declare the US to be a Christian nation. Representative Stark showed us that there is hope for our government, eventually.
I found myself a bit out of control at one point. I was talking to a friend at the conference and looked over. I saw a name I thought I recognized. Phil Pullman? It took a moment to dawn on me, but it was the author of the Golden Compass. I got a chance to talk to him about the book and the movie. It was fascinating. And by the way, we both agreed that the Golden Compass isn’t really a wildly anti-religious book. Without giving anything away (really it doesn’t give anything away), the “God” in the book is just a nice old guy and really doesn’t qualify as a Creator in any case. It’s a secular classic and full of interesting and inspiring ideas, but it?s hard to understand what the theists are all worked up about. Also, as a last point, some of you may know that the ending of the movie doesn’t match the ending of the first book. In case anyone was wondering, the producers “chickened out.” (I don’t think I was entrusted with any confidential secrets when he told me this.)
Because our movement is meshing firmly together, I can also say that leaders or senior representatives of nearly every nontheistic organization were in attendance. Several were honoring each other, including an award by the Secular Student Alliance to Lori Lipman Brown, our Secular Coalition for America lobbyist. I decline to name drop any more than I already have. Suffice it to say that it was a good time.
It wasn’t all celebrities of course. I saw a bunch of friends from places I’ve lived before and friends from previous conferences. Between lunches, night life, and the DC area, there was plenty of opportunity to socialize. I defrayed some of the cost by couchsurfing rather than paying for a hotel. It worked out great and I got to meet a new friend that way as well. I also heard several talks in addition to Pete and Lou. They covered bioethics and secularization of religion, but there were others. The conventions have star power, old friends, new friends, and tons of exciting and interesting learning events. What a good time!
IGNORANCE IS BLISS
JOYS OF ATHEISM #8
“Atheists love to not know. Nothin makes an atheist happier than not knowin’ the answer to yo question.”–Chris Rock
Now I may have paraphrased that quote a bit. I might have totally missed the point. But whatever. Close enough, right?
The point is that we atheists are in no hurry whatsoever to jump to conclusions or rush to some solid, unassailable answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Truth, with the capital T and its legions of armed combatants, is the bailiwick of dogmatic religion. We are happier to side with the preponderance of evidence until such time as better evidence comes along: Gravity for example. I’m pretty sure, based on my experience and some college physics, that if I drop the pen I’m holding, it will fall rather than rise. Maybe not. I’ll do a quick test. Ok. It fell. That’s one more piece of experimental evidence in favor of Gravity.
Even with Gravity, we are only waiting for better information. Newton initially presented his theory in way way back in 1687. Scientists saw the theory, were compelled to accept that pending better information, and they had to wait nearly 250 years until Einstein presented general relativity. That theory and several of its implications took years and sometimes decades to fully accept. A consolidated theory of quantum gravity along with many others (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unsolved_problems_in_physics) remain unsolved in physics.
Because, in the end, we just love to not know.
Let’s contrast this world view with what have been called the “Supers.” Some people prefer to insert into these points of uncertainty supernatural forces. Lightning is caused by Zeus; the light people see in near death is an other-worldly heavenly plane of existence; my stomach hurts because of a misalignment of my aura; the secret to love is the position of Kaus Australis and nearby stars at the time of a person’s birth. Where did the Universe come from? “God did it!” This is the core philosophy behind the “God of the Gaps” mentality.
Another option has been referred to as “Mystics.” This approach involves exaggerating uncertainty or minimizing existing knowledge. If a child dies, we might say that we can’t understand “God’s plan.” We might say that somehow all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing would lead to infanticide on a large scale. And at the same time say that a lesser mind carrying out the same actions would be simply a psychopathic killer. At the same time, if the child were in a car accident, and then through the civil infrastructure of 911, ambulances, medical research, education, universal healthcare, and the attention of a doctor, the child’s life were saved, (I think we have all that in the US, right?), a mystic might say, “Praise be! It’s a miracle! ” We atheists would likely say, “Thanks, Doc,” and pay our taxes. Others have the core philosophy that “We just have to trust God’s plan.”
We atheists, or Brights, just love to not know. We don’t insert mysticism where science and mundane answers fit very well. We don’t seek supernatural answers where scientific methods of research and experimentation have not provided at least reasonable confirmation of accuracy. This approach is not simply a point of personal comfort, it allows for a consistent, evolving body of knowledge (any resemblance to modern science is intended) rather than disparate, disjointed bundles of contradictions (any resemblance to traditional religions coincidental).
Reasonable confirmation doesn’t mean that I personally have a really strong feeling of certainty about something. That is called a sample size of one. It also doesn’t mean that one billion people believe something. A billion Hindus couldn’t be wrong, right?
It also doesn’t mean that something has been around for a long time either. It is often convenient to support the status quo in the absence of contrary information. I may in the Middle Ages have been comfortable with the idea that the Sun revolved around the Earth. It certainly appears that way. But at the same time, despite eons of that ‘truth’, we no know that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Time heals all, but it doesn’t make anything the truth.
Religion is often defended because people need it. Root for a sports team. Get a therapist. If necessary, take some (legal, prescribed) drugs (in moderation). This is no assertion of truth, it’s an admission of self-brainwashing.
Enough. You get the point. If you don’t get it or just want to strengthen your own logic, feel free to read more (http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/). All this together is a freethinker’s philosophy of truth without regard for tradition or authority.
One of the key joys of atheism is the ability to adhere to reality as it is and to be comfortable with truth as far as truth is known. Also, we have the ability to embrace uncertainty and to suspend judgment in the absence of compelling evidence. The alternative is to lie to ourselves either by omission of contradictory evidence or by inserting hope in place of evidence. In a practical sense, a straightforward and firm grasp of reality allows us to improve our surroundings. It has been said that if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. The world needs a lot of work, and step one is to see the world as it is and take action to make the world a better place.
Joys of Atheism 9
It’s been said, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” It’s maybe the opposite of “joy,” but in order to be happy, we have to have a little perspective. It’s important that we, especially in NYC, not retreat into a bubble and forget that the world is certainly imperfect. We have a natural, undirected world to deal with and the only way to be truly happy is to participate in the continuous improvement of our world and our species.
That having been said, let’s parse some of the many major issues about which we might be outraged. Disenfranchisement by politicians and corporations of the will of the public; what are our choices in November, really? Corporate immunity for a variety of environmental and social atrocities, at home and abroad; I’m an MBA and a free marketeer, and even I can see that corporate officers get away with murder. Unchecked war throughout the world, including of course Iraq; whatever side you’re on, it’s a tragedy. Environmental deterioration; c’mon, is anyone denying this with a straight face these days? These are of common interest, not necessarily only for atheists.
As if we needed more to be outraged about, let’s focus these issues through the lens of atheism. We have the constant pandering by politicians of the religious right, even if it serves our interests (see the recent Obama faith-based funding “expansion”). On the war front, I learned yesterday that Blackwater is founded by and for the religious right (http://nyc.indymedia.org/en/2008/06/98393.html). We have the ongoing campaign by religious NGOs and church organizations to muzzle science and medicine; this continues to handicap Latin American and African populations with superstition, unplanned families, and disease. There is also the clear and continuing war on free speech that causes fair and open criticism of religion to be censored, even now at the UN (see UN resolution to avoid religious discussions).
Now what should we all do about this? This is where the interesting strategy comes into play. As a local organization, as members of larger national nontheist organizations, as members of various political campaigns and other special interest groups, and as individual citizens (of the US), we are presented with myriad modes of recourse. Voting, picketing, letter-writing, personal visits, lobbying to our organizations, organizing activism and education events… Then there are the less-utilized (in the US) modes of recourse… we’ll just say the violent ones. And there’s also the option to just not pay so much attention.
Even then, at what do we direct our rage, conversations, or positive action? Do we attempt a grassroots uprising through local speeches and events? Is it better to seek corrective legislation from our state and national representatives? Maybe it’s best to give money to our favorite charities? Maybe it’s best to volunteer our own time and effort to a weekend project or maybe a year abroad in a civil development NGO. Might that solve the ills of the world?
The atheist perspective contrasts with the theistic (at least monotheistic) perspective in two important ways. First, we have only one life to live and no afterlife “mulligan” to hold out hope for. If we screw this one up, that’s it. The second related point is that there is no higher plan, no magic policeman to summon to fix our mistakes, and no divine justification for atrocity, murder, or genocide. It is we who must take action to forge the world in a way that makes us, at the least, less outraged. We know that whatever the problem is and whatever the approach is, change always starts with us.
I certainly don’t have a perfect answer for this. I think the only correct answer is that more is better. Some heroes dedicate their lives to positive change, taking smaller nonprofit salaries to effect change full time. Some volunteer for no salary at all, organizing at a local level. Some of us just show up occasionally, serving as the backbone of a growing progressive, atheist community. Even that matters. And some give money rather than time to help support full and part time volunteers.
Find a cause and do what you can to make the world a better place. It may not be every day, and it may not involve a vow of poverty or a leave of absence from your job, but every little bit helps. Take responsibility for your role in the world, and to the extent it’s warranted, take joy from your contribution to human flourishing. We have only ourselves to improve the world, and there is a lot of room for improvement.
WHAT LEVEL OF INTOLERANCE
Joys of Atheism #10
Continuing from my last post about overcoming outrage, it makes sense to review some of the methods. One of the qualities of atheists is the ability to rationally assess a situation and take appropriate action. We never see headlines reading, “atheist blows up anti- abortion clinic,” or “agnostics band together to stone school children on the way to Catholic school.” These things just don’t happen. Phil Paulson directed litigation for 17 years to protest a Christian Easter monument on public land in San Diego. He didn’t set charges at the base and blow it up, even though he was a Vietnam veteran and would certainly have the know-how to do so. When Christian fundamentalists slapped a plaque on the 30-foot tall cross and called it a “Korean war memorial,” we atheist veterans may have been excused for razing to the ground such a disgraceful abuse of the memory of Korean veterans.
We don’t have fatwas (fatawa) or holy wars. There are no death threats from atheist leaders or from the godless masses. We don’t have tele-atheists leaching money from viewers by promising the world or preaching doom. We don’t break into and threaten the attendees of religious gatherings.
It’s fair to ask why we don’t resort to these extreme tactics. Is it because we lack conviction? Is it possibly because religious ideas or actions aren’t so bad? Would it be better if we pushed the envelope and rattled some cages?
“New Atheists” is a term for atheists that point out ignorance, gullibility, and wickedness in religion. They point an accusing finger at those that subordinate reason and ethics to religious authority. They are vilified in the public at large, sometimes within the atheist community, and certainly within the religious community. On the other hand, they have brought previously unheard-of visibility and even respect to the atheist world view. The “Four Horsemen,” Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens, atheists with a Biblically-derived moniker, are well known for their belligerent attitudes. Other pioneers of this approach include Robert Ingersoll in the 19th century, Madalyn Murray O’Hair in the 60s, and our recently departed George Carlin.
Yet no atheist has suggested a military approach to eradicate religion as a whole. We don’t have the equivalent of an Ayatollah of the Shi’ites, or a Cromwell of the Anglicans, or a Pope (list of examples too long to present). Efforts to eradicate religion have invariably been 1) efforts by one religion to eradicate all but their own religion or 2) efforts by power-hungry individuals to eradicate all threats including religious ones. These can hardly be seen as violence against religion on the principle that religion itself is bad.
So where does that leave us? We have the option of interfaith efforts to communicate and coexist with religious people, despite our deep differences of conscience. We have the option of building the atheist community internally and through litigation and regulation for our own benefit. These are long-tested by hardly visible efforts. We have the intermediate step of “New Atheism,” a verbally aggressive effort to shed light on the factual and ethical failings of religious beliefs and practices. This effort has yielded great visibility to the movement and increased confidence among its members. Yet some feel it creates a rift and puts atheism in a negative light, i.e., it is bad publicity.
Finally, we have the example of religion – violent reaction. For some reason, we atheists continue, as a whole, to totally opt against violent uprising. While we may as nontheists one day be obligated to meet force with force, it is my hope that we continue to pursue non- violent but active advancement of our ideals. We deserve to be candid about our ideals. Maybe one day 300,000 Americans can gather together for the sake of secular government as they did in Turkey.