Monday, March 2, 2009

What Drives Atheists to Militantism?

In a nutshell:
Atheism is basically a philosophical stance. Why would holders of a philosophical stance become militant toward their opponents? ,

Photo source: Telegraph

As an atheist, I looked forward to reading Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion. I have read most of the philosophical books written about atheism, which are relatively scarce; but an atheist book for the broad public is even a rarer occasion.

While reading, I couldn't understand why Dawkins was dedicating most of his book to the attempt to prove atheism is true. Why would he be so keen on convincing his opponents that he's right? Why should he care about other people having delusions, if these delusions do not hurt either him or them?

The answer, of course, has to do with the fact that some of these delusions ARE harmful, to theists and to atheists alike. We all know that religious fanaticism is capable of leading people to do terrible things. However, we also know that atheists may just as well be capable of doing terrible things. I don't accept the accusation that religion is to be blamed for most of the human-inflicted evil in the world.

When I say that religion causes "harm", therefore, I have something else in mind. I am thinking about the prejudice against atheists, which causes many non-atheists to have wrong ideas about what atheism is and what it implies. I am also thinking, on the other hand, on many religious – but not fanatic – people, who have to follow a very strict code of behaviour determined by their fanatic leaders. I also have in mind a specific incident I just witnessed in LinkedIn, when a discussion I brought up about atheism quickly deteriorated, to my horror, to reciprocal personal insults between an atheist and a Muslim.

Why this hatred? Why are there so many prejudiced ideas held by each party about members of the other(s)? I do believe the root of this evil has to do with the fact that theism – all strands included – is a prescription, while atheism is a description. Atheism tries to explain the world; it is about facts. It doesn't necessarily affect the way the atheist chooses to lead his or her life. Theism, on the other hand, usually requires following a whole set of commands. The worst part is that these commands usually affect also people who don't wish to have any part in it; specifically, atheists.

Many theists sincerely don't understand this last claim. How do atheists suffer from the existence of theism? Does it really hurt them that others see the world differently?! The answer, of course, is quite different, and even changes from country to country. In some, like Iran, the question is irrelevant: it is quite obvious that over atheists simply cannot survive there. In others, like the United States and Israel, the question definitely arises, and the answer is that atheists DO have inferior rights in these places. In the United States, for instance, abortion is considered a religious issue; in Israel, marriage is, and the same is true for many other central issues in these and other countries.

How can this entanglement be unraveled? Surely, not easily; but I believe the first step would be for each side to realize that:

a. People who think differently from oneself are still unique. Theists do not form a homogenous group, nor do atheists, agnostics, or holders of any other theory.

b. Whatever is right for me, may not be right for others.

c. This is mainly relevant to religious parties: the less religion intervenes in the lives of people who don't wish it to, the less antagonism they would feel towards it. Reducing militantism on the part of atheists (those who exhibit it in the first place, and those who may do so in the future) is dependent on minimizing religion's foothold in their lives. In other words: the freedom FROM religion is just as crucial as the freedom OF religion. ,



Ginger B. (Barbara) Collins said...


I think there are two basic problems. First, the thought that if you are right it means I'm wrong. If you can't agree to disagree, it means you must choose one or the other. Some see that as loyalty to their beliefs, but I see it as walking with blinders on, never seeing the many things we all have in common.

Second is the fact that most children are never thought to think things through. . . just to feel and act. They grow up into adults who run their lives on emotion without ever thinking things through logically. Once intrenched in this way of living, habits are hard to break.

Adva Shaviv said...

Hi Ginger,

Thanks for dropping by! :-)

I completely agree with your second point. It affects all areas of life, of course, this question included, and I see this as no less than a real danger.

As for the first point, it's true of course, if one side is right, that means the other is wrong. But it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with holding one belief, rather than agnosticism. We are not agnostics in relation to most of the things in life; why be agnostic about God, if we think there are good reasons for accepting one belief or the other? To the contrary: I see this as a practical implementation of rationally thinking things through, which we just agreed is necessary and not practiced enough.

However, the fact that some idea is wrong, in the eyes of some, doesn't make it illegitimate. Perhaps this is what you meant, and here I completely agree: I see theism as a totally legitimate (though wrong, to my judgement) position. What's illegitimate is the attempt to force religious imperatives on those who aren't religious, but this has nothing to do with the legitimacy of theism itself.

Anonymous said...

You complain about atheism arguing against theism and then turn around and complain about theism yourself.

And seriously, calling billboards and debate militantism? You've got to get out more.

Adva Shaviv said...

Is "complaining", on the one hand, and "arguing", on the other, equal to "being militant"?! Of course, there is no resemblance.

Arguments and debates are always welcomed. The problem is (as would anyone who has ever "gone out" and met actual people know) that most people DON'T use proper argumentation and DON'T debate (actually, you didn't quite do this either); they just argue and fight. The result is not "complaining", but hatred and a real political war.

Atheists should definitely speak up for themselves and defend their rights, but that has nothing necessarily to do with being militant, hateful and prejudiced. In fact, I think atheists can team up with theists who are opposed to the political offensiveness of religion towards non-religious; such theists definitely exist. Militant atheists, however, don't even see them.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post (I found it via google) but I really enjoyed your entry and wanted to ask a question. Its with regards to your statement about militant atheists depending on religious peoples to relinquish their purported foothold. What do you mean by this? I don't think you are implying that theists have so much control over atheists that the latter then becomes not accountable for their attitudes! The reason I ask is I am not an atheist, have encountered too many of the militant type, and like to think I'm one of the "team up" kind of theists you mentioned. Thank you. -Sarah P.

Adva Shaviv said...

Hi Sarah,

thanks for your comment!

This post was indeed written a while ago, but I think it will still be relevant for quite a while.

I re-read the part you asked about, and realized that the matter was so obvious to me, I actually neglected to explain what I mean... So here I go:

Theists, as individuals, have usually no power over atheists as individuals (and vice versa). However, theists are sometimes a part of organized religion - a thing which has no counterpart for atheists. Organized religion is a very powerful being, politically speaking, whilst the political power of atheism is zero.

You can meet missionaries here and there - theists and atheists alike - but none can actually affect you, if you so choose (brainwashing methods aside). Organized religion, however, affects you (in certain countries) whether you want to or not (and this applies also to theists, who may happen to disagree with their church or other religious organization). For instance, in matters of abortions, civil marriages (as opposed to religious marriages), having all kids pray in school, even when the parents oppose to religion - these are examples of religion having a foothold in the civic life of its supporters and opponents alike. This is what I am totally against, while remaining well aware that not all theists support that kind of interference, too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response, sorry if I am being a little slow! That makes sense, I suppose: militant atheism, in your opinion, comes from the imbalanced influence religion has on public life in many places. While there may not be an atheist organization comparable to churches or temples or what have you, are you sure there are no efforts to gain an atheist "foothold?" It is fine to think about a government where no one group has any more say than another, but I wonder if that is possible. I know you are likely busy with other (newer) posts but thought I'd throw that out there anyway. Thank you for your time. -Sarah P.

Adva Shaviv said...

Quite the contrary, Sarah! - I see this as a very important issue, and it is always interesting to hear what other people have to say. Otherwise, why blog?... :-)

I agree that having balanced governments is an ideal, which is probably rarely actually achieve. But - a. Still, it's worth trying...; b. In this particular case, I think there are many cases in which religious parties have a political weight far beyond their actual size in society, and there are cases where there is some balance; but I can't think of a single case in which atheists have more say than theists. If you know of such a case, I would be very interested to hear about it. I think the reason for this asymmetry is that sometimes, religious groups claim that it is not possible for them to bend or show flexibility, because their rules are holy. The same cannot hold true for atheists.

Incidentally, I have just been approached by a forming group of atheist activists with the request to cooperate. I now think that perhaps the most needed approach should not be atheistic, properly speaking, but freedom-oriented - as in freedom from religion, as well as freedom of religion. I'm interested in hearing what you think about this (and perhaps this should be my next post...) :-)

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