Atheists “Versus” Believers?

Why the New Militant Atheists Are Fighting the Wrong Battle

by Kai MacTane

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All across the Internet, the rationalists are fighting back against the tide of religion and superstition that’s been on the rise since the election of G.W. Bush in 2000. On YouTube, unbelievers by the score post videos of themselves denying the Holy Spirit. Links to Richard Dawkins’ blog and videos are a consistent fixture on social news sites like Digg and Reddit, and even the US Congress is getting in on the action by investigating bias in the Bush administration’s “faith-based initiatives” program. But in their welcome and overdue counterattack against religious interference in public life, the new atheists are drawing the wrong battle lines.

Until recently, the usual equation in Western societies (and particularly the United States) has been “believers good, unbelievers bad” — and “believers” very specifically meant “Christians” until after World War II, when anti-Semitism became unfashionable and references to our country’s “Christian heritage” suddenly got “Judeo-” tacked onto the front of them. But — perhaps partly as a reaction to recent surveys showing that Americans trust and respect atheists even less than homosexuals — the rationalists and Brights are trying to reverse that. Their new rallying cry is that belief — by which they mean any type of religion, or superstition, or mysticism — is bad, and only science and rationalism are good.

It’s not hard to have at least a little bit of sympathy for such overreaction, especially when you look at the rationalists’ core argument for this position: that “Moderates give a power base to extremists.” In the words of Glen Slade, a London Bright: “A lot of Catholics use condoms, a lot of Catholics are divorced, and a lot don’t have a particular opinion about whether you are homosexual. But when the Pope stands up and says, ‘This is what Catholics believe,’ he still gets credit for speaking for more than a billion people.” And beyond the rational concept of moderates acting as “enablers” for the extremists, it’s awfully easy to understand why American atheists are sick to death of being considered “unpatriotic” and even “immoral” by people who actively violate the Constitution to try to make the government promote their religion, and who commit murder in support of their “pro-life” beliefs.

The important thing isn’t how many gods you worship. It’s what you think should happen to those who worship differently. It’s whether you’d support the power of government being used to compel people to believe what you do.

But it’s also surprising that people who call themselves “Brights” are falling into the fairly elementary logical error of simply inverting the prevailing orthodoxy, without first thinking about whether that basic criterion actually makes any sense to begin with.

To be honest, it doesn’t. While it’s fairly undeniable that religion has no monopoly on good behavior, it’s just as obvious that it has no monopoly on bad behavior, either. It’s very easy to point out cases where religion has motivated people to perform deeds we consider abhorrent, from Tomas de Torquemada to Osama bin Laden to Eric Rudolph.

But it’s just as easy to find cases where religion has motivated people to some of the greater and nobler actions our species has seen. Martin Luther King, Jr. might have fought against injustice even without religion, but the power of faith gave his oratory a weight and a passion that would never have been matched by some abstract appeal to justice. On the other side of the world, Mohandas Gandhi was likewise sustained and motivated by his religious belief. Johann Sebastian Bach produced some of the world’s most stunning and soaring music, and much of it was explicitly dedicated to the greater glory of God.

And Johannes Kepler, whose formulation of the laws of planetary motion laid the groundwork for Newton’s seminal work on gravity: Kepler not only did his work in order to glorify God by understanding His creation, but Kepler’s faith also kept him honest when it would have been easier to believe in circular orbits. It was Kepler’s religious faith that inspired him to discover that orbits are not circular, but elliptical.

Believing the atheist proselytizers’ new argument that even moderate religious faith is evil would require us to ignore mountains of evidence that religion can inspire noble works, from the humanitarianism of Albert Schweitzer to Florence Nightingale’s healing works. But more, it would divide two groups that are currently standing against the fundamentalist, anti-science forces that are trying to take over the United States.

On one side of the freak community, we have the geeks, the science-fiction fans, and even the outright scientists, who naturally despise attempts to inject “Intelligent Design” into high school science classes, or to put Ten Commandments monuments on every courthouse lawn. And on the other side, we have Neopagans, shamans, and other sorts of mystics, who resent the attempts of one religion to take over a country that was founded on religious freedom. (In between, we also have a variety of moderate-to-liberal religious persuasions like the Unitarians and the United Church of Christ — they’re just not as vocal a part of the freak community.)

All of these groups naturally work together to keep the fundamentalists from making too much headway. The forces of science take on ID proponents and young-Earth creationists in forums ranging from blogs and Web sites all the way to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. In the meantime, the religiously-motivated freaks make it clear that if the Religious Right ever does manage to make prayer in schools legal, we’ll be ready and waiting to make sure that prayers to Cernunnos and Hecate are on the menu — a prospect which probably startles and terrifies them even more than prayers to Allah would.

And, while there may be both some good-natured joshing between the two sides — or even, to be honest, some real, serious acrimony between those of us who believe in no gods at all and those of us who believe in a whole bunch — there’s one thing we can all agree on:

The important thing isn’t how many gods you worship. It’s what you think should happen to those who worship differently. It’s whether you’d support the power of government being used to compel people to believe what you do.

There are a fair number of Pagans who, if we somehow, suddenly became the majority religion in the United States, would have no problem passing laws to mandate a prayer to the Great Mother at the beginning of every school day. (Or a prayer to Odhinn, or Isis, or...) There are, I’m quite sure, some Thelemites who would be perfectly happy to see Congress start every session by saying “Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law”, and then finish up every session by solemnly repeating “Love is the Law, love under Will”. When it really comes down to it, these people don’t actually believe in religious freedom. They just want their own faith protected, and that's all that matters to them.

But there are also a hell of a lot of us who’d fight tooth and nail against any government effort to promote any religion — even our own. For some of us, it’s because we know that one size does not fit all. And for some of us, it’s because we actually rely on science to keep us honest: We know that no matter how deeply and personally we may cherish some point of unverified personal gnosis, there’s a huge gap between that and the sorts of things that are true for everyone. It’s far too easy for a believer in any religion to wander off into La-La Land. Having a testable, objective reality to come back to makes a nice anchor to keep us from going too far off into the astral.

In short, many of us who believe very firmly in a variety of religious and mystical ideas also remember the words of Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” Science, rationality, and skepticism are some of a mystic’s best tools. The new breed of militant atheists need to learn (or remember) that not all believers are berserk fanatics bent on imposing our beliefs on everyone else. And the freak community needs to remember that there’s room enough for both the rationalists and the mystics within our nation.

Kai MacTane is the Freak Nation’s webmaster, and has been running this site now for over 20 years. In addition to having spent at least a little while in every major tribe of the Freak Nation, he’s been a fire-dancer, copyeditor, college dropout, and pizza delivery driver. He now makes his home in San Francisco, where he does web development during the day and spends his evenings learning about ninjas.