Onward Atheist Solders
Those who take this tack seem to hold that for too long they had held their fire. After so much pussy-footing, they have concluded, it is time to take the offensive.
I think that there is another reason. That is the fall of Communism fifteen years ago. Let me explain.
Richard Dawkins, the English scientist, is perhaps the most intense of the new Atheist Soldiers. His book, The God Delusion, is doing well--by definition, of course, among those who still read books. An ad for the book captures the tone. If we didn't have religion, all kinds of noxious things would disappear. There would be "no Crusades, no Inquisition, no pogroms, no 9/11, and no suicide bombings."
Perhaps so. But let me bring up another list. What set of regimes was responsible for the following: suppression of all opinion not in accord with Scientific Socialism; confinement of opponents to mental hospitals; discrimination against individuals because of class origins; prohibition of emigration and foreign travel; and (last but not least) the Gulags? Not so long ago these conditions afflicted some two billion human beings living in officially atheist states, including the Warsaw Pact group in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, North Korea, and Vietnam.
Now that most of these countries have changed, or at least moderated their regimes, it is easy to forget what had happened.
The reality is that there are different types of Christianity and different types of atheism. As far as I know, no Quaker has every participated in a Crusade. The gentle Episcopal clergy I know of are most unlikely to be involved in a pogrom. Most Muslims would be incapable of participating in a suicide bombing.
Of course, there are different kinds of atheists too. Dawkins and Sam Harris are unlikely to seek to have their opponents commmitted to a mental hospital or prevented from prevented from foreign travel. (Though come to think of it, the latter step might be helpful with Mormon missionaries. Just kidding!)
What matters is not the distinction between believers and atheists, but which kinds of these we are speaking of.
It is no help, by the way, to say that Marxists are not "genuine atheists." There are plenty of people to say that the boundaries of "genuine Christianity" do not include the Catholicism of Torquemada and Savonarola. Or as some would say nowadays, Fallwell and Robertson are not really Christians. Oh yes they are, just as Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were genuine atheists.
Moreover, as in Northern Ireland, religion is often a mask for economic differences. By contrast the Basques in Spain are just as troublesome as the IRA, but they are (most of them) Catholics like those they oppose.
Conversion of the world to atheism would not usher in the millennium. At all events it is unlikely to happen. Even in Western Europe, where growing numbers of nominal Christians are neglecting religious observance, these people have not become flaming atheists. Many are probably agnostics--as am I. In my view it is agnosticism that is the best antidote to fanatacism. Kristof is right: the new aggressivness among atheist advocates is a form of preaching to the choir that turns others off. I know that this is my reaction. Stop lecturing us, Dawkins and Harris. Hardly anyone cares about your certainties, however passionately expressed.
Long live indifference!
To be sure, I am mindful of the dangers posed by the Christian-nation folks, who want to establish a theocracy in the United States. But why should this problem push us into atheism? There are plenty of decent Christians, Jews, and Muslims. They form a stronger redoubt than militant atheism, which will never appeal to more than a small educated minority, while raising many hackles.