IT'S hardly a new charge against atheists, but it has come up again several times recently in the blogosphere: that today's secularists, atheists, anti-theists and whatnot, including the publicly active ones, are "just as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists". It appears again and again in reader e-mails sent to Andrew Sullivan's blog (currently in the hands of guest-bloggers). This trope needs to be laughed out of existence, immediately.
Laughed out of existence? A smear? The evidence for this kind of talk . . .
First and most salient, as Oxford's Tim Garton Ash writes, "there are no al-Darwinia brigades making bombs in secret laboratories in north Oxford." Yes, sigh, many atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennet are just as convinced that there is no God as Osama bin Laden is convinced that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger. On one hand you have faith that makes people fly planes into buildings, genitally mutilate young girls, murder abortion doctors (in church), stone adultresses, outlaw certain forms of consensual sex or even just make it impossible to buy beer on Sunday in some states. On the other hand there is the atheist "faith" that makes people write smug op-eds, put ads on buses (see photo), file frivolous lawsuits against nativity scenes on public property, and the like. Show me what harm in the world a prominent atheist intellectual has done.
Ah, but Stalin and Hitler and Mao! Give me a break. Sure, they were atheists. But they did not kill because they were atheists. Hitler was a fanatical racist and Mao and Stalin fanatical communists, and they killed in the name of those fundamentalist philosophies.
This last paragraph is just factually inaccurate. Writing off the mass death in the name of atheist political ideologies by laying it at the feet of the personal psychoses of the political leaders is to diminish their crimes, and to ignore the reality that, at least in the case of the communist criminals, they were either actively murdered or passively allowed to die in the name of something called "scientific socialism". Not just atheism, but the rational reconstruction of the social order. In the case of Hitler, the issue becomes more than confused due to the fact that the Nazi movement was beginning to move in an officially pagan direction even as the Second World War began to go badly. Be that as it may - replacing one religion with another hardly matters in this case precisely because at a deeper level, contempt for human life was part and parcel of the Nazi ideology - to dismiss the reality that millions of human beings died in the 20th century in the name of atheist ideology as hardly worth mentioning in the same breath as Islamic terrorism or Christianist violence here in the United States, in my opinion, makes an interlocutor hardly serious.
It is also good that the author mentions Christopher Hitchens. In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Hitchens, effectively, switched ideological sides. Viewing the issue as not as a complex mix of history, religion, anti-imperialism, and even racim, but rather as a simple war of civilization confronted by barbarian hordes, Hitchens ceased writing for The Nation, and began to vocally support George W. Bush and his Administration, going so far as to endorse Bush for a second term in 2004. This put Hitchens in the odd (for him at any rate) position of defending an Administration dedicated to the same irrational principles that he claimed to abhor in Americas adversaries. A vocal proponent of the American invasion of Iraq, and a supporter of our continued presence, while perhaps not a trigger-man, he has nonetheless pimped a destructive, illegal war, and in the process supported a gang of fundamentalist know-nothings and crooks, perhaps the single worst eight year term of any President in American history. As far as I am concerned, his refusal to acknowledge the Iraq invasion as a horrid error that should never even have been offered as a possibility, and his unflagging cheerleading for Pres. Bush have left blood on his hands no less than on far more well-known Bush-pimps like Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol.
That he's an atheist is neither here nor there. His moral myopia is not a result of his atheism. Yet, he is no different than a fundamentalist Christian who refuses to condemn a murderer of an abortion doctor.
To say that atheists are somehow morally superior to religious believers because some of our current troubles are rooted in religious belief is to celebrate a bit prematurely. In reality, human beings are quite willing and able to kill, either individually or collectively, then make up the reasons afterward, religion being only part of the mix. It is not a "silly smear" to note that some of the most vocal opponents of "religion" are moral lepers who nevertheless are celebrated by some as enlightened leaders against a benighted few who still cling to medieval myths and ancient writings rather than the greatness and power of modern science and rationality. Rather, that's just pointing out some sad facts.
There are some serious issues concerning the role of religion in our public life, and its deleterious effects. To casually dismiss as "silly" the reality that this discussion is not helped by ethically-challenged neo-Nazis who actually believe it possible to eradicate "religion" when they show no understanding of religion not only doesn't help. It shows as much ignorance as we religious folk are supposed to practice.