- guardian.co.uk, Friday 6 November 2009 10.30 GMT
The question: Is there an atheist schism?
Religious teachings promise us much — eternal life, spiritual salvation, moral direction, and a deeper understanding of reality. It all sounds good, but these teachings are also onerous in their demands. If they can't deliver on what they promise, it would be well to clear that up. Put bluntly, are the teachings of any religion actually true or not? Do they have any rational support? It's hard to see what questions could be more important. Surely the claims of religion — of all religions — merit scrutiny from every angle, whether historical, philosophical, scientific, or any other.
Contrary to many expectations in the 1970s, or even the 1990s, religion has not faded away, even in the Western democracies, and we still see intense activism from religious lobbies. Even now, one religion or another opposes abortion rights, most contraceptive technologies, and therapeutic cloning research. Various churches and sects condemn many harmless, pleasurable sexual activities that adults can reasonably enjoy. As a result, these are frowned upon, if not prohibited outright, in many parts of the world, indeed people lose their lives because of them. Most religious organisations reject dying patients' requests to end their lives as they see fit. Even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK, Canada, and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian moral concerns as the protection of religiously motivated refusals to provide medical professional services demonstrates.
In a different world, the merits, or otherwise, of religious teachings might be discussed more dispassionately. In that world, some of us who criticise religion itself might be content to argue that the church (and the mosque, and all the other religious architecture that sprouts across the landscape) should be kept separate from the state. Unfortunately, however, we don't live in that world.
When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising — and totally justifiable — that atheists and skeptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be translated into law?
In many situations, it is better to be civil, as Paul Kurtz has pointed out, but satire and mockery have traditionally had a legitimate place whenever absurd ideas are joined to power and privilege. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire often used mockery to show the absurdity of ideological stances — including religious ones — that were considered sacrosanct. Mockery is one way of saying that a view does not deserve to be taken seriously. Religious views are fair game if one can also show, on a more serious level, why the view in question does indeed not deserve serious respect.
Perhaps some rationalist or humanist organisations, such as Kurtz's venerable Center for Inquiry, do have good reason to maintain a scholarly and dignified brand image. But there is also room for the younger, brasher atheists whom Kurtz inaccurately brands as "fundamentalists", and, in any event, there is a world of difference between appropriate civility and keeping quiet.
In the US, unfortunately, some atheists appear to have concluded that even civil and thoughtful criticism of supposedly "moderate" religion (i.e., almost anything that does not dispute evolutionary theory) should be discouraged.
These "accommodationist" atheists tend to be focused on science advocacy, particularly the teaching of evolution in public schools. In seeking public support for their positions, they think it prudent to take the various American demographics as they are. Since they want to sell evolutionary science to very large numbers of pious Americans, the last thing they want is to see it linked with atheism.
Once you think in that way, from a kind of marketing perspective, it can take over your approach to what you think you ought to say. Sincerity goes out the window, and everything must be "framed" to please the audience. We doubt that this strategy can work.Religion cannot be eradicated — that is not a realistic goal — but the many problems with religious dogma can and should be highlighted. As atheists, we should state clearly that no religion has any rational warrant, and that many churches and sects promote cruelty, ignorance, and civil rights abuses.
There are harmful consequences to real people in the real world if the views of churches and sects are enshrined in law or given undue social deference - the acceptance even in liberal secular societies of conscientious objection as a legitimate reason for health care professionals and even civil servants to refuse to provide professional services to certain citizens is a case in point. For these reasons it is important that we should speak out and publicly contest the special authority that is accorded, all too often, to pontiffs, imams, priests, and presbyters. Religious leaders are not our moral leaders, much as they clamour to be, and however much the politicians flatter them. These spiritual emperors have no clothes, and we shouldn't flinch from saying so.