We have been hearing a lot recently about militant atheists. They are described variously as militant, extremist, fundamentalist, aggressive, fanatical or even rabid. Sometimes they are characterized as secularists rather than atheists, but with the same set of vivid adjectives. I assume these terms are being used to describe the same bunch of rationalists, and I am fascinated by the concept of an extremist, aggressive, fundamentalist, fanatical, rabid militant atheist. I started to think about what one must look like. My first guess was that it would be a mirror image of an extremist aggressive religious zealot. Now we all know what aggressive religious zealots look like because there are countless thousands of them, and they are always in the news. Some kill innocent people, often children, in the course of exorcising imaginary evil spirits. Some of them murder medical professionals for performing operations that they do not agree with, and crowds of like-minded believers cheer and applaud such murderers. Some opt to sit and watch their children die of easily treatable medical conditions, believing that God will save them if they pray hard enough. Some work to bring about a third world war, imagining that it will fulfil scripture and herald the end of the world, the “End Times” that they so desire. Some are assassins and suicide bombers. So where are the extremist, aggressive, fundamentalist, fanatical, rabid atheist counterparts that we also hear so much about – let’s just call them extremist aggressive atheists to save space. I worked hard but could not find a single one – no secularist does anything remotely like any of this, driven by his or her secular philosophy. If there were one, I think we could all agree that he or she was insane and not representative of any larger community. The nearest I could find were atheists who support voluntary euthanasia and a woman’s right abortion – but no secularist seems to be campaigning for compulsory euthanasia or compulsory abortion, or intimidating people with different opinions, or murdering people, or killing their own children in pursuance of their secular beliefs – so not really convincing as a mirror image of religious zealotry.
I tried a different tack. These wicked atheists oppose traditional Christian values, so let’s look at traditional Christian values and see why atheists opposed them and what they have to offer instead. Here are just a few of many examples. For the entire period of over 1,500 years while Christian values were the sole arbiters of morality, slavery was permitted, endorsed, and enjoined by reference to scripture. Clergymen of all ranks in all major denominations owned slaves. The movement against slavery was pioneered by secularists and supported by fringe groups such as Quakers and Unitarians. As far as I know, all secularists since Thomas Paine have opposed slavery. Public pressure caused Christians in Parliament to follow them. When slavery was abolished in the UK, Churches and individual churchmen had to be paid compensation for the loss of their slaves. The picture is the same on capital punishment. Christians supported capital punishment well into the twentieth century, again on the grounds that it was permitted, endorsed, and enjoined by scripture. The practice of judicial killings was pared down by secular values from the Renaissance onward as Christians were prevented from using the law to execute proto-scientists, vegetarians, midwives, people who damaged Church property, blasphemers, apostates, critics of clerical abuses, homosexuals, atheists and other Christians who did not agree with the locally approved Christian line of the day. By a very large factor, more Christians have been persecuted and killed by other Christians, than by any other group. Secularists were instrumental in progressively limiting the range of capital crimes in the face of intense Christian hostility. Similarly for branding, mutilation and corporal punishment. As far as I could find there is no group of secularists supporting capital punishment, branding, mutilation or corporal punishment for any crime.
Again, under centuries of Christian hegemony, European legal systems adopted barbarous practices such as trial by ordeal. Even in Church trials that did not rely on supernatural forces there was a presumption of guilt, not of innocence. Accused persons were not given details of charges against them nor of the evidence against them, were not allowed to call defence witnesses, were not permitted to cross examine prosecution witnesses, or even to see them, and were not permitted legal representation as of right. Under Church law, though not the secular common law, accused persons could be tortured to obtain confessions. Judges, jury and prosecution could be the self same clerics. Trickery and threats were standard, officially recommended, techniques. Again I could not find any secularists advocating anything like the mirror image of any of this. No secularist advocates burning all Christians alive. As far as I can tell all secularists support the idea of fair trials for all, as they have since the age of Voltaire. The story of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of belief, freedom of the press, is much the same. Secularists pioneered the idea of using prison to reform people rather than as a form of punishment and revenge. Christians have burned countless thousands of books. As far as I can tell no secularist advocates book burning.
Traditional Christianity featured various kinds of discrimination. Churches discriminated against women (and still do). They discriminated on grounds of sexual orientation (and still do). Churches discriminated against certain races until the mid twentieth century, some of them even later. Churches discriminated in favour of those of noble birth, and against those of humble birth. They discriminated in favour of clerics and against laymen. They discriminated against children born out of wedlock (some still do). They were consistently anti-Semitic for almost two thousand years. They discriminated against the deaf, the injured and the handicapped. Some Churches still do. Are there any secularists advocating discrimination like this? If there are, they’re keeping a very low profile. Apart from reasonable and well-accepted grounds for assigning legal rights and duties (such as age and capacity) I have not been able to find any secularists advocating any form of discrimination comparable to that practised by Christians. They all seem to share the view that the law should be the same for all. There are other examples – warmongering, prison reform, human rights and dozens of others - but this is enough to make the point. There simply are no secularists advocating slavery for Christians. No secularists advocating the death penalty – or any penalty – for Christians. There are no secularists advocating the burning of all bibles, or indeed any bibles, or any books at all. There are no secularists advocating discrimination in favour of themselves, or against religious groups. They all seem to want a completely neutral system where all are treated equally. There are no secularists who want to prohibit the practice of religion – as long as it is subject to the normal laws on murder, child abuse, fraud, animal cruelty, perverting the course of justice, and so on. Sure, some secularists object to preferential treatment for religious groups, but that opinion can hardly be classified as extremist, aggressive, fanatical or rabid. It’s an obvious corollary of equal treatment for all.
Having failed again, I tried a third tack. Let’s be as generous as possible. Let’s accept that the first group, large as it is, is not representative of most ordinary militant aggressive Christians. We cannot deny that the second group represented the overwhelming position of Christians for many centuries, but that was in the past. Most Christians now generally share secular ideas. So for our third attempt let’s look not at the extreme wing of modern Christianity, but at the part of the mainstream nearest that extreme. Who occupies this part of the belief spectrum – still within the mainstream remember? One group of candidates might be the Christians telling people that condoms do not protect from AIDS, but actually cause AIDS – so causing thousands, perhaps millions, of unnecessary deaths. Another might be those who indoctrinate children and tell them lies, for example that the bible is literally true and that the world no more than six thousand years old. Another is the large number of Christian leaders practicing faith healing through prayer in preference to genuine medical intervention for treatable conditions. Another might be Christian missionaries systematically destroying local cultures around the world. Another might be the fundamentalists funding campaigns to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality in a number of African countries, or church leaders in the UK “fanning the flames of homophobia” as one government minister recently put it. Are there secularists who are the mirror image of these believers? I could not find any secularists telling deliberate lies about condoms, science, faith healing, homosexuality or anything else, or trying to get minorities executed, or destroying local communities. As far as I can tell they all value the truth, whatever it might be. They all favour open mindedness, factual evidence and rational deduction. So once again, even with this liberal definition, I could find no extremist aggressive atheists, not a single one. This method of looking for mirror images of unlovable religious groups does not seem to work – there simply are no atheists at the extreme non-belief end of the spectrum to provide a mirror image to believers at the other end.
One more go. Let’s try a different tack. We know the names of specific philosophers, scientists and writers who have frequently been named as extremist aggressive atheists – people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet, and Stephen Pinker. What do they and people like them believe. Fortunately, they do seem to share many opinions, so we do seem to have a chance here. They all reject supernatural beings and supernatural explanations. They all value truth and learning. They all advocate identical rights and duties for all. They all agree on basic freedoms and dislike censorship. They oppose cruelty of all kinds. You might think that they would not want religious topics to be taught in schools – but none of them say they want that. They all want aspects of religion to be taught, for example comparative religion, the history of religion, the sociology of religion, and traditional philosophical arguments for and against different religions. What they object to is religion dressed up as science and opinion presented as fact. They all criticise indoctrination of all kinds along with deliberate fraud, cruelty and hypocrisy. Again, they all recognize that some good things have come out of religious endeavours – they appreciate great religious art, great religious architecture, great religious poetry, and so on. They recognize the numinous. Most, perhaps all, love the beauty of the language of the Authorized Version of the bible. They know a lot more about Christian history and theology than most Christians. They turn out to enjoy Christmas and have no objection to calling it Christmas rather than the absurd modern term Winter Festival.
So this is it. Now I know who these wicked people are. They are people just like me. It turns out that I am one of these extremist aggressive atheists. I don’t believe in fairies, demons, pixies, angels or gods – and I even have doubts about Santa Claus. I am one of those wicked fanatics determined to destroy our great Christian heritage by siding with truth and reason, promoting equality, supporting a wide range of characteristically secular freedoms, and advocating equality before the law with no exemptions or preferential treatment for any religion or any other group. I love the language of the Authorized Version. I am a student of Church architecture. I have an interest in Church history. I listen to Bells on Sunday every week. My favourite poem is the Rime of The Ancient Mariner, a distinctly Christian poem. One particular Christmas Carol brings tears to my eyes every year. Yet, I’ve been an extremist, aggressive, militant, fundamentalist, fanatical, rabid atheist for years and never realized it. Wow. Come to think about it, there must be hundreds of millions of people like me. How about you? You could be one too. With this definition of an extremist, aggressive, militant, fundamentalist, fanatical, rabid atheist, we might already be in the majority in Western Europe. We certainly are in Northern Europe.
Using the normal sense of the words these atheists are not really extremist, aggressive, militant, fanatical, or rabid. At most you could describe them as critical. In fact that is what seems to provoke all these hostile terms – the fact that there are prepared to voice their criticism. One might almost be tempted to question the motives of anyone talking about extremist, aggressive, militant, fanatical, or rabid atheists – it’s just a way of reacting to criticism without having to face it.