Is Atheism just as Bad as Religion?

Posted on Jul 7 2010 at 06:43:40 PM in Religion & Spirituality

This argument contains a familiar allegation: "Atheism is a new-age religion, which just happens to be on the opposite end of the spectrum of 'how to follow'; in other words, science vs faith." 

The usual go-to rejoinder for such foolishness is to unleash the quip that atheism is a religion like not collecting pogs is a hobby. Because atheism after all is not as bad as religion. Not being wrong counts for something. But there is--under the pretense of fairness that characterizes the shoot-from-the-center style argument against atheism on display here--a valid complaint: many atheists are concerned more with denigrating religion than they are with legitimating their beliefs.

It seems there are two ideological camps among atheists.

The first is driven by a compulsive need to denounce religion and to tell religious people that they're wrong as often as possible and usually in as condescending a manner as possible. Religious belief is regarded as a delusion and its adherents imbecilic. Being right is all that matters.

The second works to repel the efforts of those with a theocratic agenda, those who wish to enact laws informed by Levitical tribal rites, those who would dissolve the separation of church and state, those who want to prevent students from learning science in public schools, those who spew hatred and bigotry under the guise of Christian piety, and those who like to pretend that this nation's founders were a group of evangelical Christians; this kind of atheist works to ensure the freedom of religion for all.

The first group seems to accomplish little more than making atheists unpopular in American society. This does not prosper the goal of a more secular inclusive society. In contrast, the second group emphasizes progress, asserts its ideology in a pragmatically viable way, and knows that making people hate you is bad politics.

I admit that nothing infuriates me more than the religious right and its delusion that God personally appointed the founding fathers to inaugurate a Christian nation on Christian principles; these are the lies it uses to justify its bigotry and discrimination. But--to the extent that atheists engage in what amounts to proselytization--it is simply not efficacious to proclaim that people in general who hold religious beliefs are morons. Comparing a Christian's religion to a belief in Santa Clause might be a logically valid analogy, but it's not going to make that person want to be on your team.

Atheists are running the risk of cultivating a reputation that is not only not engendering good will, but one that could be politically ruinous. Atheists are already the least-electable demographic in America--by far. So my comments, which might come across as an ecumenical turn-the-other-cheek kind of masochism, are simply meant to emphasize the need for pragmatically viable ways to counter the theocracy-driven political ideology of Sarah Palin and her ilk.

Telling a person that his beliefs are stupid and ridiculing his religion is tantamount to ridiculing the person. A person's beliefs are very important to him; after all, they constitute much of a person's sense of identity. He will be hurt, and your rudeness will confirm what he probably already thought about atheists.

And what exactly is the point of ridiculing the religious? It only serves to polarize and rigidly commit them to their beliefs. It won't convert them to or make them more sympathetic to our beliefs; it will only serve to engender their antipathy toward atheism. If there is a purpose to the "atheist agenda" I would hope it would entail something loftier than the formation of an insular tribe of snobs devoted to mockery and incivility. If atheists want political legitimacy, separation of church and state, and American law congruous with the secular ideology of the founding fathers, they couldn't do worse than to adopt a posture of bitter and contemptuous disdain for eighty-percent of the country. If we are actually committed to creating a society in which a non-believer is as electable as a Mormon lesbian, we need to forfeit the self-congratulatory condescension and strident ridicule shown to the religious.

This is not meant to dissuade people from opposing the theocratic propaganda and unconstitutional legislation by the religious, nor is it an attempt to mute the laudatory expressions of free-speech which promote and defend the cause of atheism and encourage religious freedom. All of this can be done without the smugness and polemical vitriol that has diluted the message. I never discourage disputation, but we'll never get anywhere without discretion and human kindness--that's how you win friends and influence people.

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Created: Jul 7 2010 at 06:43:40 PM
Updated: Jul 7 2010 at 06:43:40 PM
Language: English