The Passion of the New Atheists?
This Easter, some atheists would have us believe that, like the early Christians, they are hated and persecuted by the mob. Don’t buy it.
I know Easter is traditionally a time when Christians give praise for the rising again of Jesus after his flagellation and crucifixion by the Romans. But this year, in the midst of your Easter egg-eating and possible Mass-attending, try to spare a thought for the modern-day equivalent of whipped, weeping Jesuses – that is, the New Atheists, the non-believers, who would have us believe that it is they who face persecution in the twenty-first century. Playing what we might call the Crucifixion Card, the atheist lobby now argues that its members suffer the slings and arrows and jibes of the heartless hordes in a similar way that Christians did 2,000 years ago.
Perhaps keen to shake off the tag of ‘Darwin’s pitbulls’, atheist campaigners now play the role of put-upon pups. They’re all about the victimology. Over the past two weeks, there have been public gatherings of atheists in which they have, self-consciously and shamelessly, plundered from the language of old oppressed groups to try to describe their alleged plight. So at the Rally for Reason in Washington DC on 24 March, a gathering of 10,000 atheists modelled on the famous black civil-rights march of 1963, campaigners used the gay-liberation term ‘coming out’ to describe what allegedly cowed atheists must now do. Like homosexuals who kicked against repression and moralism, atheists must ‘come out of the closet’, said Mark D Hatcher, founder of America’s Secular Student Alliance, even though they risk being ‘labelled pariahs’.
Others took this ostentatious oppression-mongering even further, comparing themselves to one-time repressed blacks and downtrodden women. The journalist Jamila Bey said of modern atheists’ fight for respect that ‘these are battles that homosexuals have won, people of colour have won, women have won’. ‘We can’t stay silent anymore’, she cried. Yes, atheists might not be denied the right to vote or attacked with water cannons whenever they gather in public, they might not be forced to sit at the back of the bus or to eat in Atheists Only restaurants, but they feel oppressed, okay? ‘We’re here, we’re godless, get used to it!’ cried the crowd, echoing the old rallying cry of gay liberationists.
Then, on 31 March, atheists in the US military had their first-ever get-together on a military base, under the banner ‘Rock Beyond Belief’. ‘All of us want to come out of the closet and demand equality’, said one sergeant, no doubt pissing off gay military servicemen who, not unreasonably, probably think that such phrases are best used by them rather than by their godless colleagues. Weirdly, and strangely tellingly, one of the demands of the non-Bible-bashing soldiers was for the right to use military chapels. ‘We won’t burn them down. We just want to be inside’, said one sergeant. What for? He didn’t say. But it is surely a sign of the terrible repression suffered by modern atheists that, er, they feel excluded from religious buildings.
Something about this atheist victimology doesn’t add up. Actually, a lot about it doesn’t add up, not least the fact that, although there is certainly cultural hostility towards atheists in parts of America, elsewhere, particularly in academia, publishing and throughout the political and media worlds of Western Europe, they enjoy untouchable ‘darling’ status these days, being fawned over like never before. There are no legislative restrictions on atheists’ rights or apartheid systems that separate them from the God-fearing, which means their claims to be following in the footsteps of protesting blacks are not only unfounded, but also pretty depraved. But one thing in particular about these atheist shindigs is weird: if these gatherings really are about challenging persecution, then why do they promote persecution – of Christians?
At the Rally for Reason, British atheist Richard Dawkins, the Mel Gibson of the New Atheist movement, got the crowd going not with demands for freedom or ‘I Have A Dream’ speeches, but by appealing to them to ridicule religious people. ‘Mock them, ridicule them in public’, he said. Their beliefs are insane and therefore they should be ‘ridiculed with contempt’, said Dawkins. Meanwhile, messy-haired pianist Tim Minchin thrilled the audience by singing a song with the line ‘fuck the motherfucking pope’. Attendees carried placards saying ‘Only sheep need a shepherd’ and ‘So many Christians, so few lions’. In short, the religious are brainwashed, and wasn’t it a hoot back in the day when we used them as feed for wild beasts?
Now, of course, atheists, like everyone else, must be free to say whatever they please, wherever they want to say it – whether it’s in million-selling books (for an oppressed ideology, atheism is mighty popular) or on The Mall in Washington. The right to defile God and mock his followers was fought for long and hard by secularists over the centuries. But their jeering and laughing at stupid religious folk rather takes the gloss off all their libertarian claims, off the idea that modern atheists are struggling against repression and for liberty and decency. Instead, what is happening here, in a meta development that would give even the most postmodern academic a headache, is that New Atheists are dressing up their own urge to heap contempt on the religious as a rally against the alleged contempt heaped on atheists by the mob. The reason they have raided the linguistic larders of old struggles for equality is because they desperately need some progressive-sounding garb with which to doll up their regressive and intolerant outlook.
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The central problem with the New Atheist movement is that it is based entirely on a lack of belief rather than on a belief. It is built on an absence, on a negative, on the fact that these people share a non-belief in God, rather than on any shared vision of the future. Some atheists now even wear t-shirts branded with what they call, in another nod to history, the ‘scarlet letter’ – that is, a big red ‘A’ for Atheist.
This is a very new development. Of course, there have been non-believers for centuries, particularly following the Enlightenment. But they did not club together on the basis of their non-belief; they clubbed together on the basis of what they did believe in, whether it was liberalism, communism, fascism or whatever. Today’s cultivation of a movement that is merely atheistic, whose members are tied together only by what they lack, is pretty unprecedented. And it speaks profoundly to the emptying out of the big ideas and shared ideologies that once galvanised the intellectual classes – particularly liberalism and socialism – so that now all that these people can rally around is what they don’t have (faith in God) rather than what they do have (faith in man or the future).
It is their creation of a movement based on negatives rather than positives which explains why the New Atheists are so screechy. Because bereft of anything substantial or ideological to cohere themselves around, they instead spend the whole time attacking their opposite number – those who do believe in what New Atheists do not: religious people, the thick, the unenlightened. Like electrons in an atom, the ‘negatives’ of the New Atheist clique are forever whizzing around the ‘positives’ of the God lobby. The hole at the heart of modern atheism was best summed up in what Time magazine last month described as ‘The Rise of the Nones’ – that is, the speedily growing group of Americans who now list their religious affiliation as ‘none’. That is fine, of course, but then to cultivate an entire identity, a whole life’s outlook, on the basis of that ‘none’? That is sad. Who wants to be a ‘none’? I’d rather be a nun. At least they still believe in something.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.