Why not offending the religious is bullshit

As I mentioned a couple weeks back, there is a debate within the atheist/secular community about the best approach to spreading the message that we exist and care about things. Briefly, the two camps boil down into accommodationists – those who think we should be working with religious groups and believers to find common ground, and confrontationalists – those who think that the preferable approach is to be assertive and not worry about making people feel good. Daniel Schaeller prefers the terms ‘diplomats’ and ‘firebrands’, which I think is an apt (and less unwieldy) characterization.

If it’s not clear from the way I write here (and the title on the top of this post), I ally myself more closely with the firebrands. While I recognize the simultaneous facts that a) both approaches are crucial to advance the secular position, and b) that the diplomats will get all the credit when the dust clears, I have never been one to shy away from controversy in the name of sparing people’s feelings. But there’s another issue in the mix that seemingly goes without comment.

Most of you have probably heard of Richard Dawkins, the British biologist and professor who is the author of books like The God Delusion, The Ancestor’s Tale, Climbing Mount Improbable, and most recently The Greatest Show on Earth. Undoubtedly if you’re not familiar with his work, you’ve simply heard that he’s a militant asshole. In fact, the term ‘militant atheist’ gets thrown around so much that I find myself being accused of being just as bad as those who murder in the name of their religion, as though clearly expressing my thoughts on a blog is the same as killing someone.

Here’s the problem. Richard Dawkins is not a militant asshole. He’s a nerd from England who likes poetry and evolutionary biology – that’s it. What is his major crime that has earned him the appellation of ‘militant’? He wrote some books and has given some speeches. He also refuses to pretend as though the weaksauce apologies for religion are worth more than the air it takes to utter them. But because he’s talking about religion, he’s somehow violent and hateful. Well I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit, and here are some reasons why.

1. Coptic Pope Apologizes for Insulting Islam

Earlier, Bishop Bishoy had said that – contrary to Muslim belief – some verses of the Koran may have been inserted after the death of Prophet Muhammad. Egypt’s al-Azhar Islamic authority said the comments threatened national unity… “Debating religious beliefs are a red line, a deep red line,” Pope Shenouda said in the television interview on Sunday. “The simple fact of bringing up the subject was inappropriate, and escalating the matter is inappropriate,” he added.

This is the religious mindset, when allowed to take root in the public conscience. Not only does a comment made by a member of one religious organization – made about a different organization – threaten national unity, but even talking about beliefs is somehow inappropriate. Can you imagine if someone from the Canadian government made an announcement that debating economic policy or health care or military involvement was “a deep red line” that couldn’t even be discussed? They’d be laughed out of the room, or perhaps chased out with pitchforks. And yet, when a religious person says something so breathtakingly stupid, we’re just supposed to follow along. If we don’t, then we’re somehow militant.

You want militant? I’ve got your militant right here:

2. Austrian temple shooting yields convictions

An Austrian court has convicted six Indian men in connection with a gun attack in a temple in Vienna in which a visiting preacher was killed. Indian preacher Sant Ramanand, 57, was shot dead and more than a dozen others wounded, including another preacher… Prosecutors say the men had planned the attack on the visiting preacher because of a religious dispute. The men went on the rampage wielding a gun and knives during a temple service attended by about 150 people.

That is what a militant position looks like. Ideas that do not conform to your own are not met with skepticism or even outright dismissal, but violence. The lives of those who disagree with your position are forfeit. People who think differently from you deserve to die. Assuming the men in the court case were literate they could have written a book. Even if they weren’t literate they probably could have started a blog (the internet has pretty low standards). They could have protested. They could have said “I am secure enough in my beliefs that I will completely ignore your obvious stupidity.” But that’s not what a militant does. What a militant does is get 5 friends, board a plane to another country, and then try to shoot and stab 150 people. And yet, when firebrand atheists point this out, the immediate response is that we are “no better” than these terrorist fuckbags for being vocally opposed to religion in public life.

The religious shouldn’t be worried about atheists, they should be worrying about each other:

3. Palestinian mosque set on fire

Israel is investigating Palestinian reports that a mosque in the West Bank has been set alight by Jewish settlers. Palestinian officials say settlers set fire to the mosque in Beit Fajjar, near the town of Bethlehem. They blame residents of a nearby settlement because the arsonists reportedly scrawled Hebrew graffiti on one of the mosque’s walls.

I recognize that the conflict between Israel and Palestine is beyond my full understanding. It is a complex issue involving history, geography, foreign political influence, and xenophobia. However, when it asserts itself in the form of the destruction of religious buildings, it’s difficult for anyone to try and say that religion doesn’t play a central role in the problem.

So I challenge those who would use the phrase ‘militant atheist’ to do the following: find me one example of threats of the destruction of national unity, or mass murder, or the destruction of religious buildings, committed by atheists in the name of atheism, and I will make you a batch of delicious cookies.

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