I spent most of my life in a search for God and spiritual enlightenment, until in my 47th year it suddenly struck me that the very reason I was searching is because I saw no evidence for the existence of God(s) at all. I am an atheist and at the most basic level have always been so, without even realising it. During that search, I encountered a great many religions and belief systems. To quote John Lennon’s song I Found Out, “I’ve seen religion from Jesus to Baal”. In that time I have encountered and read about some of the worst excesses of over-zealous religious belief, and can clearly see the dangers of such beliefs. I would argue however, that religious fundamentalism is only part of the story, and that there is today a growing fundamentalist among atheists which has the potential to be every bit as dangerous.
As I have stated from the above, I am indeed an atheist. And what is atheism? The Oxford English Dictionary gives this definition; “atheism: noun; disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” That is it, there is nothing more to it. Yet to listen to some of the more strident atheists today, one would get the impression that, like religions, atheism somehow has its own set dogma and rules.
Undoubtedly one of the main catalysts to this “new atheism”, if not the main one, was the publication in 2006 of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion, along with speeches and quotes from the journalist and author, the late Christopher Hitchens appear to have made up some sort of “atheist bible”, which too many atheists today seem to think they need to adhere to. All too often one hears and reads Dawkins and Hitchens (among others) being quoted by atheists as if these are the only views which count. Worse still, should any atheist disagree with such views, they often lay themselves open to vitriolic attacks and accusations of being “the wrong kind of atheist” or “not an atheist at all”.
The greater danger however comes that from formulating strident views many atheists, sometimes unwittingly, become antitheists, often with views which are openly hostile to religion, seek to attack believers when there is absolutely no reason to do so and actually espouse views which are openly bigoted towards all or one particular religion. Such people are all too prone to see religion as nothing but a force for ill in the world which can only ever hold mankind back, while also claiming that atheism and the removal of all spiritual belief is some great panacea which they seem to believe would cure all the world’s problems.
I have heard and read atheists openly state that if we got rid of all religion, then there would be no more wars or atrocities. Even as a pacifist myself, I find such views to be naive in the extreme. If one looks at warfare and violent atrocities throughout history, it is true that religion has often been the root cause. Indeed, religious fervour was indeed responsible for a great many slaughters and clearly illustrate the dangers of fundamentalist belief, yet in many other cases, had those behind the killing not had religion to fall back upon, they would just as quickly have found another “cause” to justify their actions. It is the religion which is dangerous, not the faith. There are many Christians who understand this and who openly state that they love their faith but hate religion.
Online discourses between atheists and theists have a tendency to enter into “Godwin’s Law”; “that as an online argument grows longer and more heated, it becomes increasingly likely that somebody will bring up Adolf Hitler or the Nazis”. In these exchanges, the theists claim that Hitler, giving quotes of his damning religion, whilst the atheists counter, quoting from Mein Kampf and speeches, to illustrate that Adolf Hilter was a Christian. Having looked at the matter in great detail, I would assert that Hitler was never a serious Christian but rather payed lip-service to his Roman Catholic background to court publicity (probably with coaching from his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels). By equal measure however, Adolf Hitler was by no stretch of the imagination an atheist. He did indeed believe in some sort of God, and held some very outlandish occult beliefs. In more modern times, we saw exactly the same behaviour from the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose Ba’ath regime was officially secular, who lived in opulence, drank alcohol, gambled, and yet was quick to be seen as a devout Sunni Muslim to gain the support of his people. The point being, had neither Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein had religion to fall back upon, that would not for one moment have stopped the worst of their excesses. And the same goes for atheistic regimes. Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot, to use but two examples, did not kill millions on the basis of atheism but rather through their own insanity and megalomania. Even had they been extremely devout believers in God, the chances are the end result would have been no different.
Without a doubt therefore, religion, like any other ideology, in the wrong hands can be extremely dangerous. Atrocities such as 9/11 and the Oslo bombings and shootings by devout Christian Anders Beiring Breivik illustrate that all too well. And there are atheists who all too readily fall into the trap of using such stories, particularly when it is actions carried out by Muslims, off pointing the finger to back up their arguments. In doing so, few actually realise that they are supporting the rampant Islamophobia of the right wing, often Christian backed, bigoted media. I well recall a Christian friend emailing me an anti-Muslim video by one particular atheist. I responeded by sending her an anti-Christian video by the same atheist. I had to make the point that the person in question, in the opinion of myself and a great many others, is a nasty, small-minded, odious bigot, who whilst he is against all religion, appears to be on his own personal crusade against Islam, and who as a result has attracted quite a lot of very unsavoury followers from the neo-nazi extreme-right (which he has done little or nothing to redress). Indeed, if one were to seek and example of a dangerous fundamentalist atheist, this particular person would to my mind be a prime example. Yet other atheists commit no less shameful actions. I have often seen posts by Muslims online which, instead of atheists retorting with intelligent and reasoned debate, make references to bacon and accusations of the Prophet Mohammed being a paedophile. I find such behaviour not only childish, but also disrespectful and actually very ignorant of the Islamic faith.
Some atheists would have you believe that religion serves no useful purpose whatsoever. And whilst on face value, this would appear to be true, I think there is a huge danger of missing the bigger picture. Charitable actions carried out by the faithful, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever, indeed have their place, and there are many people around the world and in your own home town whose lives would be a lot harder without them. Consider the Salvation Army alone, without whose hard work, a great many homeless would suffer all around the world. Other charities hand out food, furniture, and other resources to the needy. And these are not all Christian charities. It may surprise many readers to learn that there are Muslims who are just as deeply involved, as giving charity is a fundamental cornerstone of the Islamic faith. In developing countries, contrary to what some would have you believe, missions do not just preach their faith and hand out holy books but are actively involved in the distribution of food, medicines and other resources, establishing schools, helping and teaching with farming and many other actions which daily campaign to help some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, and which see them achieve their own successes. Doctor David Livingstone (1813-1873), a Congregationalist medical missionary, had such an enormous effect in his works that in Malawi today he is revered to the point that the Malawian capital is named Blantyre, after his hometown in Scotland, and his legacy is that to this day Scotland maintains strong charitable ties with Malawi.
And it is not just abroad that the faiths help people. Contrary to the claims of some not all clergy, particularly those of the Roman Catholic Church, are merely perverts out to prey upon little children. The vast majority are integral and central figures of support to and champion for their local communities, whom they work hard for in return for very little in the way of reward. They are trusted and respected people whom anyone can turn to at any time, always ready with words of advice, guidance, support, or even just a shoulder to cry on, which they bear readily with a patience and dignity many would do well to learn. And even if they are purveying a message of faith which we atheists may find absurd or even distasteful, if it gives comfort to those in need who share that faith, as long as it is not hurting us, what right do we have to ever question that? And let me answer that question for you; none at all.
And among all this, where are the atheists? Where are the atheist charities, soup kitchens, homeless hostels, clothing and furniture distributors and various other resources? How many atheists are in developing countries helping the poorest of the poor? I see a Red Cross and a Red Crescent, where is the Red A? Where are the atheists people can turn to and give support and comfort in times of need and their darkest hours? Certainly some atheist versions of the above do exist, but compared to those from a religious background, they are but a drop in the ocean. It seems to me therefore that until the vast majority of atheists are prepared to get off their bums and get their hands dirty, they should put up or shut up.
As has so often been said, and I count myself in this, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. And those who have allowed themselves to become fundamentalist atheists and antitheists would do well to consider that and much else of the above before deliberately going fighting online with theists in their warm homes, in their comfortable, little first world lives.
Whether we atheists like it or not, faith in God(s) is with us and does not show any sign of going away any time soon. The 2012 discovery of the Bosonic Field, far from destroying the faith of millions, has done nothing to lessen it. As long as this is true, there shall always be disagreements between theists and atheists. And make no mistake, if someone tries to push their faith down my throat, or impose what I consider to be mythology as fact onto children or vulnerable adults, I shall always fight that, as all atheists should. But if people wish to believe in a particular faith without bothering others, then that should be of no consequence to any atheist. It has always been my experience that one need not go looking for trouble; it will find you soon enough.
Religion shall always be with us and that is not always a bad thing. Whether we agree with it or not, faith in God(s) remains a huge positive in the lives of billions of people. Far from conflict therefore, it seems to me that both atheists and theists need to find a middle ground and reach some degree of accommodation with each other. Only the most fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, or any other theist would disagree with that, as I am sure so would only the most fundamentalist atheist.
In the final instance, as each and every atheist is a freethinker, it is impossible to tie any one of us down to any particular set dogma which states “this is what atheism is” – because it is many things, and nothing at the same time. If I do not bow before the altar of the God of Abraham, of Allah, Vishnu, or any other deity, then do not for one moment expect me to bow before those of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or any other “celebrity” atheist. If anyone does, then I for one do not see how they can call themselves a freethinker at all.