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Feb 24 2011

Thou shalt NOT believe

One of the more tedious and bizarrely inaccurate straw men that anti-secularists like to pin on secular advocates is that we want to take people’s religion away from them. Having established this completely untrue assertion, they trot out the shopworn examples of people like Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Adolph Hitler. While atheists often counter that Hitler was a Catholic, that Stalin created a new religion based on worship of the state, and that Pol Pot created a cult of personality centred on himself – hardly non-religious actions – I think that this response grants far too much credence to the complete lack of merit present in the assertion.

There is a world of difference between the kind of mandatory atheism that were attempted in Cambodia, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany and the kind of state atheism that is proposed by secularists. The first is an attempt at thought control – criminalizing certain types of beliefs as being non-harmonious with the interest of the state and punishing any kind of expression of those beliefs. The second is the prescription of a stance toward religion by the state – a refusal to recognize the supremacy of any supernatural belief as worthy of state sanction. The difference between these two positions is akin to the difference between eating at a vegetarian restaurant and murdering anyone who’s ever had a hamburger (albeit inverted – and I’m not likely to do either).

As a committed secularist (not to mention a decent, feeling person) I am an ardent supporter of the principle of freedom of conscience and belief. The punishment of thoughtcrime was, for me, one of the most chilling aspects of Orwell’s masterpiece 1984 – one did not even have to do something to merit punishment; one only had to betray a thought that didn’t meet official approval and one was subject to torture. Hand in hand with the idea of freedom of conscience must be freedom of expression – to me, the most important and least negotiable of the fundamental human freedoms. Every human person has the right to be sovereign in her/his own head, and should be allowed to civilly discuss and disagree with even our most closely-held ideals – it is the only path toward freedom and progress.

If this wasn’t a compelling enough reason to oppose the caricature of secularism that is mandatory state-sponsored atheism, there’s also the fact that it doesn’t work:

One of the last great efforts at state-sponsored atheism is a failure. And not just any kind of failure. China has enforced its anti-religion policy through decades of repression, coercion and persecution, but the lack of success is spectacular, according to a major new study. No more than 15 percent of adults in the world’s most populous country are “real atheists;” 85 percent of the Chinese either hold some religious beliefs or practice some kind of religion, according to the Chinese Spiritual Life Survey.

Members of the Chinese Communist Party and Youth League are required to be atheists, yet 17 percent of them self-identified with a religion, and 65 percent indicated they had engaged in religious practices in the last year, reported sociologist Fenggang Yang of Purdue University, a lead researcher in the project.

What’s interesting is that a place like China, which has been officially anti-theist for more than a generation, has much higher rates of religious belief than places like Denmark or Sweden (or even my homeland of Vancouver), with their strictly secular attitudes toward religion. It somewhat reminds me of a poem I read on a bus in Toronto about two dogs who strain at the leash, yearning for freedom, until the leash is removed. The dogs, newly freed, are content to stay where they were. Of course, in this example, religion is closer to a leash than it is to freedom, but mandatory atheism is not much preferable to state religion.

Defenders of the faith will be quick to seize upon results like the ones found in the study as evidence to support the conjecture that faith is an organic part of being human – that our brains are “wired” to believe in some kind of god. These results do not show any such thing. I’m more inclined to believe that if there is any connection between brains and faith, it is that we have a tendency to invent explanations for strange phenomena, irrespective of how plausible those explanations are (bump in the night? must be a ghost). What they do suggest is that religion cannot be abolished by simply making it illegal.

Personally I am relieved to know that mandatory atheism in China isn’t working. Compelling people to hold a certain belief is an immensely evil act, whether that belief is religious or anti-religious. While it’s disappointing that people are turning toward religion, China is a place that places great value in ancient wisdom and tradition as opposed to science and reason. Atheism is the result of a refusal to accept antiquity and authority as legitimate paths to truth – once those props are gone, religious and other supernatural beliefs are left without anything to hold them up. This is not a process that can be forced on someone; only encouraged.

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