“There is a war going on for your mind;” a war being fought on battlefields and on billboards, in universities and Sunday schools, in blogs and boardrooms, capitol buildings and city parks. From Wall Street to Main Street, from Kabul to Kansas City, the combined facts of seven thousand years of civilization and seven billion human beings struggling to eat, breathe, live and believe are all coming to a head. It has many names and many forms, running the gamut from Terror to Women to Drugs to Christmas—all inextricably linked by the immense power of ideas and the belief systems that propagate them.
In the United States, as we move unsteadily into the second decade of the new millennium, there are two reigning champions vying for supremacy over the American soul. These sometimes united, sometimes conflicting ideologies are called Christianity and Consumerism—the Pillars of Hercules for the modern age—shakily supporting the fading glory of the last of the global superpowers. As the inevitable signs of old age and decay begin taking their toll more prominently with each passing day, the reactionary forces redouble their efforts to maintain the status quo, embracing the mentality that the best defense is a good offense.
For Consumerism, this takes the form of increasing corporate influence over the political system and daily life, along with ever-more-violent crackdowns against the Occupy protestors and others who stand against total corporate domination. It claims as its victims both the planet’s environment and the civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution, all in the name of “security” and “prosperity.” For Christianity, it takes the form of the Culture Wars, equally trampling upon the Bill of Rights in pursuit of the ultimate objective of its proponents—to turn back the clock and return to that golden age of enforced Jesus worshiping known to history as the Dark Ages.
The first few months of 2012 have born witness to an all-out assault by the Religious Right on all secular notions of what it means to be free. In Tennessee, bills have been passed requiring the teaching of Creationism in science classes, encouraging displays of the Ten Commandments in schools, courthouses, and other public buildings, and promoting the involvement of teachers and administrators in after-hours religious activities on school grounds. In Kansas, a sweeping anti-abortion bill—on top of severely limiting access for women to basic contraception—includes a provision to protect doctors who deliberately withhold vital information from mothers about the health of their fetuses. In North Carolina, voters have struck down the legality of gay marriage and in Mississippi, a prominent lawmaker has gone even further by apologetically calling for gay men to be put to death based solely on a single line from the poisonous rant known as Leviticus. Barring an immediate and diametric change in direction, these and countless other recent examples are likely but a preview of what’s in store for the nation in the years ahead.
The underlying theme here should be obvious. These aren’t merely cases of opposing politics or differing ideas on how best to lead society forward to a brighter future. They’re not about money or safety or accountability or equality. They’re not about taxing and spending, or social vs. individual rights, or any of the other issues that frame the usual progressive/conservative divide. No, every single one of these issues is being driven by an explicit and uncompromising religious agenda. They’re all facets of a larger effort to repeat Joshua’s mythical feat at Jericho with the hopes of flattening once and for all, the wall of separation between church and state.
Latching onto the ancient fables of superstitious nomads from the deserts of the Near East, zealous politicians and the devout citizens they represent are lashing out at what they see as the corrosion of traditional Christian values. Under threat by scientific discoveries and an evolving sense of what constitutes morality in a multicultural society, they seek the comfort of “old time religion” along with the worst of Old Testament tribalism and the bloody vengeance against “the Other” that comes with it.
Faced with this rising tide of ignorance, misogyny, and theocratic yearnings, those who value the Enlightenment principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” struggle with how best to respond; how best to mount an effective defense against it. Ironically, much of this difficulty is self-imposed, for most of the efforts to counteract this deluge of fanaticism remain severely hampered by a basic unwillingness to call the enemy by its true name. Even more ironic is that the only group who seems unafraid to point out the real problem—the ones most ready, able, and eager to attack it at its root—also bear the unwelcome distinction of being America’s most reviled minority, universally despised more than foreigners, gays, and Muslims combined—the atheists.
That word alone is enough to send many Christians clutching for a crucifix or scurrying for the mental shelter of their nearest Bible. For engaging in the simple but unpardonable offense of living life without a belief in God (and daring to mention it out loud) we are made outcasts from our own society. In trying only to achieve a free and open civilization based on facts and on reason, as reward for our efforts we are attacked by those on both the left and the right and smeared with the label “intolerant” or told that sharing our ideas amounts to nothing more than “proselytizing.”
This reaction is to be expected, as surely as the sun will rise again tomorrow, for it’s deeply ingrained in human nature to fear the unfamiliar and abhor the unknown. The question is whether it’s fair, whether it’s reasonable, and whether it’s a useful response to the pressing problems facing modern humans. With that in mind, let’s then examine these charges for possible merit or validity, beginning with intolerance.
Part of this dismissive name-calling stems from what seems to be a widespread confusion over the difference between the concepts of “tolerance” and “acceptance.” The dictionary defines tolerance as, “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own; interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one’s own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.” The key words here are fair, objective, and undogmatic.
Atheist opposition to religion doesn’t stem from some deep-seated bias or unconsidered opinion. It’s not derived from some ancient book immune to rational criticism. Modern atheism is built upon critical thinking and knowledge of objective scientific facts about the workings of the universe coupled with an unblinking awareness of the countless, clearly documented instances—both in the news and throughout history—in which religious believers have repeatedly sought to impose their own narrow ideology in ways that restrict other people’s rights and limit their freedoms.
Atheists are not ignorant of the religious viewpoint; far from it. Many are actually former theists (“apostates,” as they’re referred to by the faithful) who have experienced the process of indoctrination firsthand. As for the remainder – those of us lucky enough to be born into an environment of free inquiry—if you scratch beneath the surface of the derogatory stereotypes, you’ll find we are often extremely knowledgeable about religious creeds and practices as we have usually studied them extensively in order to consolidate and refine our arguments against them. In fact, many atheists find religion fascinating for the very reason that it is so foreign and different from their own way of seeing the world. It would seem quite clear then that whatever else atheists may be (if such a broad generalization is even meaningful or fair to make), intolerant is not the right word.
Acceptance, on the other hand, is a far different beast. Acceptance means, “favorable reception, approval, favor; the act of assenting or believing.” If that’s the criteria by which we’re being judged then fine, call us “unaccepting.” Atheists (by definition) certainly do not assent to or believe in religious ideas nor do we approve of many religious actions and behaviors. And why should we? Why should we accept something that all of the available evidence indicates is false and for which example after example readily show as causing much more harm than good?
The idea that putting forth honest criticism is somehow a form of intolerance is not only patently absurd but also provides an excuse for every human rights abuse, every form of tyranny and oppression, every lie and betrayal and misdeed ever conceived of or carried out in the history of humankind. Do we as a society “tolerate” murderers? Do we “tolerate” rapists and child molesters? Do we tolerate wife beaters or drunk drivers or bank robbers (as we might an incessantly barking dog)? No, we most certainly do not, because we have decided as civilized human beings that certain behaviors simply cannot be tolerated. Certain actions are so harmful and disruptive to peaceful coexistence that we will not stand for them.
It’s the true believers who are truly intolerant. It is they who condemn all who fail to share their religious opinions to suffer eternity undergoing unspeakable torment, and when their threats of divine punishment ring hollow, they all too often take matters into their own hands. As for everyone else, by not just tolerating but instead actively honoring and respecting the theists’ fantastical worldview, it serves only to give them free reign to continue to oppress generation after generation of innocent young minds, dragging along all of society as their unwitting accomplices.
Former-Muslim-turned-freethought activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali puts it clearly in perspective with the statement, “Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” Or in the words of the philosopher of science, Karl Popper:
Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant … then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them … We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.
When you think about it, this charge of intolerance against atheists is itself a form of intolerance, for if atheists are not allowed to expressly dispute the claims made by religion—if we are required to just sit there politely with our mouths shut while twiddling our thumbs—then essentially we are not allowed to exist. As it turns out, this existential threat is much more than just a hypothetical concern.
After the controversy that erupted over the publishing of the Mohammed cartoons in Denmark a few years ago, Muslims all over Europe were clamoring for new laws to make it illegal to criticize or otherwise offend religion. This would in essence, criminalize disbelief. Since that time, imams, lay believers, and fanatics alike haven’t let up in calling for an end to free expression, and the shield they cower behind while promoting their favored brand of censorship is that of “religious tolerance.” Thankfully, thus far, the liberal democracies of the world have continued to value freedom of speech above almost any other right and so for the moment, these “blasphemy” measures being pushed in the UN have yet to gain any real traction. How much longer this will last remains uncertain.
It is nothing more than this fundamental freedom of speech that atheists exercise in speaking out. Does this amount to proselytizing? Are atheists just missionaries of a different stripe? It hardly seems a valid comparison. How often has an atheist come knocking at your door on a Saturday morning bearing pamphlets and dire prophecies? How many times have you opened the drawer of a hotel nightstand and found a book by Richard Dawkins? Frankly, if we could just be left alone, unencumbered by the trappings of regressive medieval thought imposing itself over our laws and our politics, it would be the last anyone would hear from us (on the issue of religion).
To proselytize means “to convert or attempt to convert as a proselyte” and a proselyte is “a person who has changed from one opinion, religious belief, sect, or the like, to another.” So unless you wish to denigrate believers and unbelievers alike by considering atheism a religion (which is like calling baldness a hair color or abstinence a sex position) then the term doesn’t really seem applicable. Atheists simply present our ideas; we don’t force anyone to listen or threaten terrible consequences if they don’t believe us. This is a crucial distinction. As the philosopher John Stuart Mill—perhaps the most passionate advocate of liberty ever to put pen to paper—phrased it:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise… Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
This is what both Christians and infamous godless dictators like Stalin and Mao have repeatedly and continually failed to grasp. You can’t force people at gunpoint to accept your ideas or your opinions—and threatening eternal damnation is the exact moral equivalent. All you can do is try to persuade using evidence and rational arguments to support your points. Failing that, there’s always the less respectable fallback of appealing to emotion (the preferred tactic of preachers, politicians, and advertisers) but actual or implied violence is categorically unacceptable. Anyway, what’s so fundamentally wrong with sharing ideas so long as it’s done without coercion? Isn’t that precisely what every scientist, philosopher, journalist, or teacher does? Aren’t they equally accountable to this charge of proselytizing?
Now, I fully realize that for many people, the thought of criticizing someone else’s most cherished beliefs is severely distasteful, and that’s fine. As Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi remarked, “I am careful to never talk about religion. Who am I to kick other people’s crutches?” What he fails to mention however, is that such polite non-interference makes no sense when people are using those crutches, not as supports, but as clubs with which to bash everyone else over the head.
This is precisely why atheists are becoming increasingly vocal. It’s not some deep-seated misanthropy or general desire to offend or provoke. It’s not a product of immaturity or confusion or a lack of knowledge. We are every bit as passionate and committed as any oppressed minority, and being the last group in America who even presidents feel they can freely disparage without a twinge of conscience makes us all the more committed to keep fighting for positive change.
I’ve seem commenters claim that they’re “sick of” this constant back and forth between atheists and theists. Well, guess what? After almost two thousand years of Christian domination over Western culture—of near-total control over all aspects of morality, psychology, and ontology—we’re sick of the endless and ridiculous oppression and violence that continues to take place in the name of religion. Telling people what to do based on what you’ve arbitrary decided to be true and then condemning any efforts to determine objective truth based on the workings of the universe is the very epitome of tyranny, and that is what we oppose.
The world has simply become far too crowded and our technology far too powerful to allow policy decisions to continue to be guided by ancient superstitions. That said, atheists will continue to tolerate the foolishness of others’ faith-based beliefs and irrational fancies for however long such vestiges remain a curse on the species. No one is going to die by our swords; but nor shall they remain forever sheltered from our words. We’ll respect everyone’s right to believe what they wish but the beliefs themselves are fair game.
Theists might as well get used to our presence. We’re not going away, we’re not shutting up, and our numbers are only growing larger. Every time Rick Santorum or Pat Robertson open their mouths, more atheists emerge from the shadows. Every time a suicide bomber blows up a crowded market or an imam issues a fatwa against an infidel, more freethinkers rally to the cause. Every time Congress gathers on the capitol steps to sing “God Bless America,” resistance grows. So look out; as more and more minds become emancipated, it begets a snowball effect, and with an avalanche steadily building, the days of religious despotism on this planet are numbered.
Colby Hess is a freelance writer and photographer living near Seattle, WA. He is currently writing a book about science, philosophy, and freethought. Follow him on Twitter @ColbyTHess.