We Gnu Atheists, and atheists of all kinds, are often accused of following “just another religion.” Â I’m not particularly fond of the usual riposte — something along the lines of sarcastically pointing out that atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby — because I think we sell ourselves short when we pretend atheism is an absence of values rather than a positive and powerful collection of strong modern beliefs, but also because there are distinct differences in the way atheists should think, relative to theists. I say “should” because, often, where I see the starkest contrast is in atheist apologists for religion, who sometimes seem to be unbelievers still trapped in old modes of thought.
Jaques Berlinerbau is one such infidel locked in a medieval mind; he links approvingly to a long-winded, plodding essay by R. Joseph Hoffmann, who reminds me of nothing so much as a pompous clergyman, who has little too say but will puff it up into a good solid tendentious drone ands mercilessly slaughter all of his critics with ennui. They have another old criticism of the Gnu Atheists: we have a shocking deficiency of martyrs.
Say what? We’re supposed to build our movement on corded stacks of dead atheists, preferably ones murdered by torture, or Hoffmann and Berlinerbau will not take us seriously? I can’t think of a better example of the blinkered brains of our critics. Religion, especially Catholicism, loves to dwell on torment and death and finds validation, even, in the agonies of the faithful; why, God must be really, really important if his followers will throw their lives away for him. Hoffmann seems to be impressed with this line of thought, and tries to argue that atheists should grant more credit to the distinguished line of martyrs, often believers, who died to advance the cause of freethought. He thinks we ought to be more appreciative of Bruno and Servetus and Hus and Aikenhead for their deaths in the name of a cause.
Personally, I recoil in disgust at the thought. We should celebrate the lives of good people, not their deaths. Their deaths do not contribute to a cause, they only stand as testimonials to the bloody oppressive nature of our enemies; all would have served humanity better had they lived. We should no more find vindication in the execution of heretics than doctors would revel in the glory of millions of miserable deaths to typhoid and cholera and smallpox and childbed fever — we should want to simply end these horrors. A trail of tears is not a victory parade.
Atheists should not want martyrs, and neither should we desire the deaths of our opponents. Death is an end and a loss and not any kind of virtue, and that Berlinerbau and Hoffmann have these antique fantasies of good godless corpses piling up to lend gravitas to the movement, or that the vocal Gnu Atheists even imagine such a story would be desirable, says quite a bit about their inability to think beyond their obedience to a theological mindset. While they reject the notion of a god, they continue to pay homage at the altar of religious morality.
It’s god to see I’m not alone in rejecting their entire premise. Both Â Jerry Coyne and Ophelia BensonÂ express similar sentiments. There really is a coherent and consistentÂ Gnu Atheist consensus that is very different from the horrid old modes of religious thought, and it takes an unimaginative and narrow mind to think otherwise.