Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Dangers of Neo-Atheism

I love atheists. That might seem to be a strange thing for a Christian pastor to say, but that is the way I feel. I have read many of the best selling books by the New Atheists. They force me to examine my deepest convictions and assumptions in a way that religious books do not. They make me a better Christian. I read the eSkeptic newsletter published weekly by Skeptic magazine. I love atheism’s attitude of “prove it to me” and their unwillingness to accept things simply on tradition.
Religious people can learn a lot from atheists. Too often we religious folks are too gullible and accepting of ideas that ought to be rejected outright as foolishness. Perhaps it is my scientific education in college that bends me in this direction. I was a geology major before I was a religion major. I dated rocks in terms of millions of years while I was still a teenager. Young earth creationism never made much sense to me. For me religion always needs to be held in the context of scientific fact. 

Therefore it was with distress that I followed the news coverage of the Reason Rally that took place recently in Washington, DC. On April 2, twenty thousand representatives of twenty atheist, secular and humanist organizations gathered in our nation’s capital, purportedly to celebrate reason. 

But it didn’t seem like reason. It seemed more like an unreasonable attack on religion. The rally host Paul Provenza said in his opening announcement: “We're not here today to bash anyone's religion… but, hey, if it happens it happens.” There were placards proclaiming animosity toward religious people. One placard read, “Obama isn’t trying to destroy religion... I am!” Another read, “So many Christians, so few lions.”

In his address to the crowd, atheist writer Richard Dawkins said that religious beliefs “should be challenged and ridiculed with contempt.” He singled out Roman Catholicism and its doctrines for special scorn, saying, "Mock them, ridicule them in public." 

This type of attitude doesn’t sound like reason to me. It sounds more like the French Revolution, which used a guillotine to fill the streets with the blood of tens of thousands of people in the name of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” The French Revolution established a Cult of Reason which advocated anti-clerical violence in the name of Enlightenment rationalism. Although I do not expect a similar Reign of Terror to sweep America, the rhetoric is too similar to ignore. 

The New Atheism movement seems to have become an Anti-theism movement. Their books bear such titles as “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” and “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.“ Other titles include “God Hates You. Hate Him Back” and “The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture.” 

These writers and groups are not content with presenting atheism as a viable alternative to religious worldviews. They publicly disparage religion and openly proclaim their desire to eliminate it. It is not too strong to say that this is anti-religious bigotry. Do you think I am exaggerating or over-reacting? Just substitute the names of other maligned groups in the titles of their books and judge for yourself.

Imagine if there were bestsellers with titles like “Israel is Not Great: How Jews Poison Everything” or “Blacks Hate You. Hate Them Back” or “The Gay Virus: How Homosexuality Infects Our Lives and Our Culture.” What if there was a rally where placards read, “So many blacks, so few lynchings?” What if the organizer of a rally proclaimed, “We're not here today to bash anyone's race but, hey, if it happens it happens.”

If such racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic books were to hit the bestseller lists, or such remarks were made at a rally in Washington, there would be public outrage. But these Neo-Atheist books are reviewed respectfully in America's newspapers. There is a growing anti-religious sentiment in this country which utilizes uncivil rhetoric.

Religion is so widespread and so strong in this country that there is no real threat from nonbelievers - at least not at the present time. But it is disheartening to hear the democratic values of religious freedom and tolerance attacked. Sure, atheists should have the right to gather in public and present their views. But they must remember that in the First Amendment the right to religious freedom is listed before freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. 

Religious liberty is among the most precious values that we have in this nation. But for it to persist, it needs to be defended in the streets and in the pulpits and not just in our country’s founding documents. This value used to be the special concern of the early Baptists and Quakers. Where are their voices now? 

Confronting anti-religious prejudice in the American atheist movement is not without its price. Those who question the motives of the Reason Rally are labeled as “anti-atheist bigots” and Nazis, as evidenced in one  blog entitled “Media Distortions of the Reason Rally.” This atheist blogger goes on to say that one should not judge the whole rally by the “bottom 10%” who voice hateful comments. But that argument is hard to swallow when the “bottom 10%” are the leaders!

America has fought hard for its civil liberties, and they must not be compromised by coddling groups that espouse intolerance. Philosophical atheism is an honorable school of thought and needs to be respected as such. But when it degenerates into anti-religious bigotry, then it needs to be challenged as forcefully as one would challenge any other form of prejudice. 

It is clear that politicians, journalists and academics have no stomach for advocating this particular human right, so let the churches once again be the champions of religious liberty, tolerance, and civility in public discourse..

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