Neo-atheism, as it is increasingly called, tends to be loud, militant and, one could argue, even dogmatic. I have struggled with this version of atheism and with how my own beliefs and value fit within the community. When I first left the Catholic church (an act that required me to just stop going, as opposed to say, the Mormon Church which requires a letter and a formal resignation) and became an atheist I was more militant than I am now. I was quicker to dismiss believers, quicker to challenge people and their ideas. Now I am more willing to let things go and avoid the debate because I know that the likelihood of me actually changing any one’s mind is near zero. Having said that, I completely understand how angry and frustrated people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens must feel. When you see things around you that are completely wrong or immoral and the people doing them are using religion as a defense, it is hard to stomach. (While both Dawkins and Hitchens take issue with all religion, they share a particular dislike of fanatical religions and admit that some believers are neutral, even benevolent, in their approach to religion.) As a preeminent evolutionary biologist, Dawkins must want to rip his own hair out when the very existence of evolution and its principles are challenged by some grade 5 science teacher. It would be like someone coming to me and saying “I don’t believe in diabetes.” What do you mean you don’t believe in diabetes? It’s a fact. I have it. Would you like to see my blood tests, blood-sugar readings, and doctors reports? “That stuff doesn’t matter. I don’t believe in it.” The only thing worse would be if hundreds of thousands of other people didn’t believe in my diabetes and were teaching their kids not to believe in it either.
Anyway, back to my point. I sympathize with the way these atheists feel and with the vigour with which they attack religion. I do not believe that religion is a positive thing. I think it has been, and continues to be, bad for the world and for people’s individual lives. I think it limits creativity, kindness, cooperation and growth. I think it stifles individualism and feminism and dampens the human spirit. I would love my daughter to grow up in a world without religion, where science and reason are valued above superstition and faith. But I also want her to grow up in a world where people are free to believe what they want. Therein lies the rub.
Dogmatic atheism, while understandable, risks falling into the same category as the religions it vilifies. If people are to accept atheism as a morally sound and enticing way of life, it will come by honey, not by vinegar. The acceptance we are looking for will come from gentle conversations, respect and people seeing that there is another viable option. I suppose both approaches serve a purpose and perhaps there is room for both in the atheism movement. We want the same thing and I have to credit both Dawkins and Hitchens for bringing the debate into the public and selling SO MANY books. I love both of them and think they are incredibly intelligent, persuasive, comical and convincing, even if they are a little condescending. I guess if your job title includes the word “intellectual” or “thinker” you’re probably entitled to be a little condescending.
I am still struggling with how to approach this in my own life. I do not want to be silent when I hear people say stupid things (“We’re fasting for rain this week” for example. I mean, there’s a test you can’t fail. Only one thing will end a drought: rain. You’ll get it eventually…) but I don’t want to be rude either. I recognize how hated atheists are and I know the only way to change that is to speak out and be proud, and like the gay movement, ensure that everyone I know knows they know an atheist. (Did you like that sentence?) I don’t want to stand by and condone faulty ideas with my silence but I also don’t want to be confrontational. Although it is perfectly socially acceptable to talk about Jesus or angels or church, it is not yet acceptable to deny Jesus existed or balk at the idea of your little girl being called an angel on the grounds that she clearly exists. But we’ll never get there if someone doesn’t start doing these things. When you feel so strongly about something it is hard to be quiet and just be. I suppose that’s what got religion going in the first place. The question that remains to be answered is, with the neo-atheists leading the next Crusades, whether I’ll be taking up arms or locking my door.