How many times have you watched a debate between an atheist and a theist, and heard this line in response to the atheist’s logical and rational criticism of the theist’s argument?
“Why can’t you atheists just respect our beliefs and stop criticising?”
Aside from being a cop-out to wriggle out of having to answer to the criticism, it’s a double standard – when a theist asks an atheist a question that we don’t know the answer to, and won’t make up a feel-good answer to because we’re honest enough to admit that we don’t have all the answers, the theist’s usual response goes something like this:
“Ha! You can’t answer that, can you? You lose!”
Theists like to assume that atheists think they have all the answers, and when atheists admit they don’t because, well, we can’t know everything theists will claim victory. Yet when they are given a criticism that they can’t answer, they tell atheists to “respect their beliefs” and to “stop criticising their belief”. Well I’m sorry, but it’s not our fault you have holes in your argument that you can’t answer for. Don’t want your beliefs criticised? Don’t have irrational beliefs. At the very least, keep your beliefs personal.
There is of course a dangerous side to the line “respect my beliefs”. It is particularly prominent today in the case of Islam, where any rational criticism of its claims is labelled “islamophobia” and in Muslim theocratic states such criticism can be punishable by death. Just this year, four atheists in Bangladesh have been hacked to death for the “crime” of blogging. In Saudi Arabia, Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes after writing about free speech in his blog. His lawyer was also imprisoned. There was the Charlie Hebdo massacre. And the list goes on.
The notion that religion is above criticism has been around for thousands of years. Back in the days of Christian theocracy, declaring a state of unbelief in God would be a death sentence. We cannot be sure of the true beliefs of the likes of Thomas Jefferson, who was openly critical of Christianity and supported the separation of church and state while claiming a deistic belief in a higher power, as coming out as an atheist (which he may or may not have been) would have been a fatal mistake.
Wonder why the time where Christians ruled was called the Dark Ages?
Imagine what the world would be like now if it had not been for the secularists opposing religious rule, often at the cost of their lives. Imagine a world where we were still performing exorcisms to treat mental illness, where instead of hospitals there were faith healers praying on you to treat your cancer, where you would have to agree with everything the state religion claims or face a death penalty, where slavery was still permitted “because the Bible says so”, where women were still treated as property, where human and animal sacrifice still took place to bring back the sun after it has set.
Do you still want to say that religious law should trump state law in order to “respect your beliefs”?
Strangely enough, 57% of Americans are in favour of making Christianity the state religion and making the USA a theocratic country. So what happens if you are an American citizen and you are Muslim? Hindu? Any other faith? Atheist? The “wrong” denomination of Christianity? If you want a glimpse of what it might be like, look no further than Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia. Even if you are Muslim, you are still in trouble if you are the “wrong kind” of Muslim. For someone of another faith or no faith at all, it is much, much, worse. You certainly cannot make your views known. There is no such thing as “freedom of religion” or “freedom of speech” in such a society. Is that really what you want for America, the “land of the free”?
If you want your right to believe whatever you choose to be protected, it has been proven time and time again that keeping religion out of government is the best solution. Separation of church and state is as much about protecting your freedom to believe as it is about protecting people of other religions to believe what they want, and nonbelievers to lack religious belief. If you still don’t support separation of religion and government, go spend a bit of time in Iran.
Quite regularly, especially on the internet, atheists are faced with the accusation that they are being “militant” or “extremist” with their atheism by religious people and religious groups. The term “New Atheists” is used as an insult towards atheists to describe what religious folk often call a “militant atheist movement”, in an attempt to discredit our position.
Of course, what the religious crowd fail to realise is that there is no fundamental difference between the atheists of BC to the atheists of today. The definition of an atheist, a person who has a lack of belief in a god or gods (Note: NOT the belief that there is no god!), has not changed. The only thing that separates the “old” atheists from the “new” atheists is that we no longer put up with being silenced. In a democratic society we cannot be burned at the stake simply for being atheists anymore.
Religious groups discriminate against women, homosexuals, transgenders, rival religions, atheists, and just about anyone that doesn’t adhere to their worldview, and it’s “religious freedom”. But if anyone dares to object to this, the religious claim “persecution”.
So what do the religious people mean by “militant” atheism?
Here are the behaviours that get atheists labelled as “militant”:
Saying “I’m an atheist”
Debunking beliefs on the internet
Posting on an atheist page on Facebook
Thinking the state should not favour one religion over another
Writing a book about how illogical religion is
Thinking what is proven should be taught in schools, not an archaic belief system
In contrast, here are some examples of “militant” religious behaviour in the 21st Century:
Going door to door at an ungodly hour bothering people with your beliefs
Threatening people of other religions or denominations
Killing people of other religions or denominations
Outlawing the practice of other faiths
Outlawing freedom of speech
Using taxpayers’s money to distribute your holy book in public schools
Demanding that what you believe should be taught in schools, not what is proven
Believing your personal beliefs entitle you to deny others the same rights
And yet, atheists who decide to speak out against things like the killing of gays and other militant behaviour of religious people are the ones who are labelled extremist.
For centuries the religious majority demanded that atheists keep quiet and imposed their beliefs on us. If we dissented, we were punished – usually by a death penalty. In countries where their society is more theocratic, for example Saudi Arabia, this is still the case.
Now when atheists say that we want no more of that, suddenly we are the ones forcing things down people’s throats. Religious groups discriminate against women, homosexuals, transgenders, rival religions, atheists, and just about anyone that doesn’t adhere to their worldview, and it’s “religious freedom”. But if anyone dares to object to this, the religious claim “persecution”.
Can anyone imagine going to war over which sports team was the best? And yet more people have been killed in the name of one religion or another in history than any other cause.
They whine that paying for birth control goes against their religious beliefs while expecting atheists’ taxes to pay for their churches. They want to have as many billboards as they like plastered all over, but as soon as an atheist group puts up just one they complain that they are “offended” and demand that it gets taken down. They go into courts and attempt to push their version of creationism under the smuggled-through-customs (Thanks Hitch) name of Intelligent Design into science classrooms, but if atheists ask that facts (Yes, evolution is a fact) be taught in schools it is “imposing” something on them. And that’s barely scratching the surface of religious hypocrisy.
But if you dare to question it, you are the militant one. Right.
Imagine if the situation was reversed. No-one can deny that the religious would be all over the atheists if it was us doing it. If a political party was to behave this way, or fans of a particular football team, you can guarantee that any reasonable person would think it was wrong. Oh, but if it’s in the name of religion, then it’s okay? Really?
Why does religion get a free pass where any other discourse would be criticised? Can anyone imagine going to war over which sports team was the best? And yet more people have been killed in the name of one religion or another in history than any other cause.
Murdering people who offend me? Fine. But drawing a cartoon? How extremist! Oh, the horror!
After the Charlie Hebdo incident, where an “offensive” cartoon depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed caused Muslim gunmen to open fire and kill 12 people including the magazine’s editor and several cartoonists, “moderate” Muslims, even those who claimed to be “against terrorism”, condemned the cartoons of Mohammed, and not the gunmen who killed 12 people.
A month later, where a similar event happened in Copenhagen, guess what the Muslims condemned? That’s right. Yet again, they condemned the cartoons.
Murdering people who offend me? Fine. But drawing a cartoon? How extremist! Oh, the horror!
“Moderate” indeed. And from a so-called “religion of peace”, to boot.
When you as a religious person demand that people who follow a different religion to yours, or no religion at all, must follow the rules of your belief system whether or not they agree with you, that is the kind of society you are trying to create for them.
And they have the nerve to call atheists “militant” simply for stating their opinion that religion is illogical on the internet or that all religions, and the absence of religion, should be treated equally by the government?
If you are religious, imagine waking up one morning to find that your country was being ruled by religion- but not your religion. So if you are a Christian, suppose your country’s laws are based on Islamic scripture. “In [insert a god’s name other than your god] We Trust is printed on every banknote you use. In science classrooms a version of creationism that doesn’t agree with what you believe is taught in schools. If you have children, they must take part in compulsory prayers to a god they don’t believe in, every day in school. You cannot commute to work/college/school without passing numerous billboards telling you that you and your children (present or future) will be going to Hell if you don’t repent and join this different religion. You cannot freely express your belief in public without facing severe punishment. You must comply with all the rules of the religious government, even if they conflict with your personal beliefs. If you dare to disobey, you will likely face a death penalty.
Would you want to live in a society like this?
When you as a religious person demand that people who follow a different religion to yours, or no religion at all, must follow the rules of your belief system whether or not they agree with you, that is the kind of society you are trying to create for them. You wouldn’t put up with it yourself, so is it really that surprising that people are going to complain when you try to force it on others?
The wall that is the separation of church and state is extremely important, and serves to protect the religious just as much as it serves to protect the non-religious. The legislations that have allowed atheists to finally speak up are the same legislations that have allowed you as a religious person to openly express your beliefs even if you are not the majority (for example if you are a Hindu in the US). There is no separation of religion and government in Saudi Arabia, a country ruled by Islam. Would you as a Christian feel comfortable living there? Heck, even a lot of the Muslims don’t like it.
So before you accuse atheists of being “militant” for asking that religion stays out of government and vice versa, remember that the separation is to protect you as well and it should be in your best interest to keep religion and government well away from each other. Just as your right to swing your arm ends where someone’s face is, your right to express your beliefs ends where you begin to impose them on other people.
And if you still think it is “militant” for me to say “I’m an atheist and I think that no group, whether it is a religion, gender, sexual orientation, class or otherwise, should be favoured over another by the government”, then I shall wear that label with pride.