Sunday, August 16, 2009

Call Me Uppity

Once again there is a complaint about "militant atheists". The latest to reach my door step was an opinion piece in today's (August 16, 2009) Dallas Morning News by Rod Dreher. (Note that the on-line version doesn't have the subheading that exists in the print edition Militant atheists think replacing religion with science will solve everything. But the title does talk about atheist fundamentalists)

The article itself is mostly arguing that science and religion don't need to conflict, just as long as each stays within its proper domain. I do not intend to deal with that here. It's something that I've been wanting to write about for a while, but here I want to write about the phrases militant atheism and atheist fundamentalist.

Let's look at what it takes to be a militant for any other cause or belief system. Environmentalists usually have to engage in or actively endorse violence or, at the very least, vandalism to earn the title. Racial supremacists often need to actually try to kill someone before they are called militants. Merely rehearsing race war in the woods with your friends on the weekends doesn't quality. Anti-capitalists have to riot to get called militants. As for religionists, in this country they can withdraw from the public school system, go door to door telling you you are damned to Hell, demand special holidays, prevent the sale of alcohol on their sabbath, disregard parts of the Constitution; and we call this business as usual. To be a militant, they actually need to kill someone. But when they do they are still not called militants religionists unless they are Muslim. They are just called crazy individuals acting alone. When a women kills her child because she believes it is possessed by demons we call her crazy (as she is), even if the belief in demon possession is reinforced in her church. When preachers and politicians talk about placing Jesus and the Bible at the heart of government or suggest that they are on a mission from God to transform the nation, we don't even bat an eye.

But what does it take for an atheist to be called militant? Well, openly declaring that you are an atheist (say wearing a t-shirt) might do the trick. If that doesn't do it then maybe taking the extreme step of encouraging other atheists to come out of the closet must be militant activism.

But the thing that will really get you labelled as a militant is stating that you find many religious beliefs silly. Let's be clear, we are not talking about go door to door ridiculing people's beliefs. We are not talking about putting up billboards making fun of their beliefs. We are talking about writing books and posting blogs. Maybe there is the occasional letter to the editor. The mere fact that we are now feeling free to openly challenge religious beliefs gets us called militant.

I try to respect people. And if their beliefs were private matters, I would have no reason to fuss about them. But we all know that religious beliefs have played a major role in history and are likely to continue to do so. They are influential ideas in the public sphere. Like any beliefs that matter, they must be open to criticism and even ridicule.

This is why we get called militant. People like me no longer bow to the taboo of criticizing religious beliefs. But please face up to what bothers you about that, and use the right word. Call me uppity.