"Those Fanatical Atheists"
(May 7, 2007)
A rant against "militant atheists" written by an Op-Ed page editor of
the Ottawa Citizen earlier this month prompted a counter-article by a
regular columnist for the Citizen, along with a Letter to the Editor,
both of which are part of a sign that we may finally be seeing a
of the tide against the privileged status of religious belief.
May 5, 2007
"Those Fanatical Atheists"
By Dan Gardiner
was one major religion's holy day. Today is another's. Tomorrow is a
third's. So I thought this is an opportune moment to say I think all
three of these faiths -- these mighty institutions, these esteemed
philosophies, these ancient and honoured traditions -- are ridiculous
quackery. Parted seas. Walking corpses. Nocturnal visits to Heaven. For
goodness sake, people, the talking wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is
In the past, I've
tried to avoid talking about religion in such sharp terms. It's not
that I fear giving offence (which would be something of a limitation in
my line of work). Rather, I know, as all humans do, that it's scary
knowing you're going to die. And if belief in angels on high eases the
existential fears of some, I won't begrudge them. Whatever gets you
through the night, as a long-haired prophet once said.
But a series of
books doing quite well on bestseller lists -- by Richard Dawkins, Sam
Harris and, soon, Christopher Hitchens -- argues it's time to be a lot
less deferential to faith, and I have to say I find it hard to
disagree. After all, we live in a time when blowing children to bits is
an increasingly popular form of worship, the most powerful man on earth
thinks he's got a hotline to God, and much of the electorate who gave
that man his power would never consider replacing him with someone who
does not believe the son of a carpenter who died 2,000 years ago sits
in heaven advising presidents, fixing football games, and waiting for
the day he will return to the Earth to brutally murder all unbelievers
and erect a worldwide dictatorship.
faith is one thing. But when the guy holding the launch codes believes
the end of the world could come any day and that's a good thing, those
who believe lives are limited to one per customer have a problem.
Those making this
case have been dubbed the "new atheists." They have also been called
fanatics who are dogmatic, zealous and intolerant of other views -- the
mirror image of religious extremists. As one English university dean
said in the Guardian, Richard Dawkins is "just as fundamentalist as the
people setting off bombs in the Tube."
thinkers have portrayed strident atheists as hacking away at the bonds
of morality, which must inevitably lead to various forms of depravity
ranging from the sexual to the genocidal.
Don't you know
Stalin was an atheist? That's the way it goes. First you read Richard
Dawkins. Then you have an abortion. Then you're putting a fresh coat of
paint on the Gulag.
This frames the
debate in a pleasingly symmetrical way. Over on that side are the
insane religious fanatics who fly jets into skyscrapers and march
around with signs saying "God Hates Fags." Over there are fanatical
atheists. Between the two extremes are sensible moderates who take the
Goldilocks approach to faith and reason. Not too hot. Not too cold.
Lukewarm, please, keep it lukewarm.
The appeal is
obvious. "All things to moderation," the Greeks sensibly advised, and
this looks perfectly moderate. Whether it can withstand a little
scrutiny is another matter.
The first problem
for the moderate believer comes from those who like their faith hot.
You've agreed God exists and that He mucks about in the world. You've
agreed this book contains His holy commandments. So how do you respond
when the mad religious zealot says, "hey, here on page 23, it says we
should slice open unbelievers and use their guts for garters. And over
here on page 75, it says we should bury homosexuals up to their necks
and stuff olives up their noses. If God exists and these are his holy
commandments, then shouldn't we get serious about the gutting and
One response is to
make like a Philadelphia lawyer and spin plain words ("and yea, the
Lord saith, the nose of the sodomite shall be stuffed with olives ...")
until they don't say what they plainly say. But the more common
response is to simply pretend the garters-and-olives passages don't
exist and prattle on about how God is merciful and loving.
This is neither
faithful nor reasonable. Still, as a practical matter, it will do in
times of religious quiescence. But with religious zealotry in the
ascendant, this non-answer is not going to keep the ranks of the
nutters from swelling. And that's dangerous to us all.
Then there's the
problem on the other side -- among the atheists such as Richard Dawkins
who have been labelled "fanatics." Now, it is absolutely true that
Dawkins' tone is often as charming as fingernails dragged slowly down a
chalkboard. But just what is the core of Dawkins' radical message?
Well, it goes
something like this: If you claim that something is true, I will
examine the evidence which supports your claim; if you have no
evidence, I will not accept that what you say is true and I will think
you a foolish and gullible person for believing it so.
That's it. That's
the whole, crazy, fanatical package.
When the Pope says
that a few words and some hand-waving causes a cracker to transform
into the flesh of a 2,000-year-old man, Dawkins and his fellow
travellers say, well, prove it. It should be simple. Swab the Host and
do a DNA analysis. If you don't, we will give your claim no more
respect than we give to those who say they see the future in crystal
balls or bend spoons with their minds or become werewolves at each full
And for this, it is
Dawkins, not the Pope, who is labelled the unreasonable fanatic on par
with faith-saturated madmen who sacrifice children to an invisible
This is completely
contrary to how we live the rest of our lives. We demand proof of even
trivial claims ("John was the main creative force behind Sergeant
Pepper") and we dismiss those who make such claims without proof. We
are still more demanding when claims are made on matters that are at
least temporarily important ("Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass
destruction" being a notorious example).
So isn't it odd
that when claims are made about matters as important as the nature of
existence and our place in it we suddenly drop all expectation of proof
and we respect those who make and believe claims without the slightest
evidence? Why is it perfectly reasonable to roll my eyes when someone
makes the bald assertion that Ringo was the greatest Beatle but it is
"fundamentalist" and "fanatical" to say that, absent evidence, it is
absurd to believe Muhammad was not lying or hallucinating when he
claimed to have long chats with God?
Of course I realize
that by asking this question I may be contributing to mass depravity
and a crisis of civilization. But I thought I'd risk it. That's just
the kind of fanatic I am.
It should also be
obvious from this that the supposed link between Dawkinsian atheism and
Stalinist butchery is pure nonsense. Yes, Stalin did not believe in
God. But he believed in History, Marxism, Leninism and all sorts of
Hegelian mumbo-jumbo for which he had not the slightest evidence.
He was not a religious man, but he most
certainly was a man of faith.
May 2, 2007
Letter to the Editor
By D. Guilmette
Re: The dangers of militant atheism, April 28.
Militant atheism? Do atheists fly planes into buildings? No.
Do atheists strap on bombs and blow themselves up in crowded
Do atheists refuse to fund charitable organizations in Africa that
promote condom use to prevent HIV/AIDS? Again, no.
So what exactly are atheists doing that gets them labeled militants?
Expressing an opinion. Wow, I guess that makes me a militant
When our children are young, we tell them fantastic stories about a fat
man in red who hands out presents, about a fairy who gives you money
for your baby teeth, and about a magical rabbit that hides chocolates
-- stories that make childhood magical. But children soon realize these
stories to be false and they move on to view the world in all its glory
(and with the chocolates and presents) but without the supernatural
But many parents insist on telling stories about an imaginary person
who created everything; loves everything it created; but will send us
to a fiery hell for all eternity if we don't grovel at its feet and
live our lives in the manner dictated by that religion. This also
includes many of the various prejudices and intolerances inherent in
their religion. Is this a problem? Look at the world today and try to
tell me it isn't.
Atheists see our lives and the world we live in as the most important
thing we have. There is no afterlife; there is no "great reward." This
is our life and the greatest reward we can get is to make this world a
better place for everyone and for our children; that is what these
"militant" atheists are trying to achieve.
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