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article imageOp-Ed Atheism and Religion: Mirror Images?

By unusualsuspect     Aug 5, 2007 in World
Atheism is big in the media these days, and just as big on the best-seller lists. But the public atheism being wildly attacked, and just as wildly defended is very different from private atheism. Simple non-belief has been transformed into a movement.
There was a time when I naively believed that atheists were relatively immune to the contradictory collective and divisive impulses that afflict believers—whether religious or political. I should have known better. Humans are, by nature, prone to those impulses in all areas of life. There is no topic which can't eventually—and usually sooner rather than later—be broken down into little territories which require defenders.
Over a period of a year or so, atheism has become a movement, a cause, with battle lines drawn, with correct and incorrect stances, with accusations and counter-accusations flying. Watching all this, sometimes with amusement, sometimes with disgust, I keep thinking "How did it come to this?" It's enough to make an atheist turn to ... not religion, of course, but to something more sensible.
Non-believers are being exhorted to wear T-shirts proclaiming their atheism, to lobby their legislators, to attend rallies, set up conferences and start organizations. Forum members debate over appropriate symbols, and bloggers accuse each other of cowardice for not being sufficiently "out." What's next? The "official" Book of Atheism? Trials for apostasy?
Richard Dawkins has unintentionally become both the target of fundamentalists, and the de facto spokesman for atheism. It's hard to know what to think about Dawkins. The scientist who wrote such magnificent books as The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker is now the originator of statements so silly, and so ignorant of human psychology that you have to be (almost literally) one of his disciples to overlook them. Is he becoming senile or is he just carried away by his own rhetoric?
He is obviously in favor of making atheism into a movement. How else can you interpret this? "Our choir is large, but much of it remains in the closet. Our repertoire may include the best tunes, but too many of us are mouthing the words sotto voce with head bowed and eyes lowered. It follows that a major part of our consciousness-raising effort should be aimed, not at converting the religious but at encouraging the non-religious to admit it – to themselves, to their families, and to the world." He is seriously worried about the "herding cats" problem and insists that we stand up and be counted.
At every turn Dawkins makes sweeping generalizations, such as his belief that teaching religion to the young is child abuse. It's true enough that much of what he says is distorted and misinterpreted, whether deliberately or through ignorance. But as a life-long atheist, I find plenty to object to in his writing. He can jump from densely argued scientific and philosophical issues (both of which are completely irrelevant in matters of faith) to outright insults, to gleeful smirking. How can he describe as "delightful" a childish and derivative T-shirt slogan like "Don't pray in our school, and I won't think in your church?" Is it any wonder that even moderate and liberal religionists are offended and feel the need to go on the attack?
Like it or not, and I don't especially like it, faith is as much biological as cultural. Atheism isn't going to be more effective by becoming more like what it opposes. Schisms and "political correctness" have no legitimate part in what has always been a matter of personal belief and conscience. No one, atheist or believer, has to identify themselves as such in order to oppose the breakdown of the line between church and state, or to fight the intrusion of fundamentalist beliefs, whether Christian or Muslim, into education, science and politics.
So sorry, Dawkins, Hitchens, and all the rest who are supposed to be speaking for me, I refuse to have my "consciousness" raised, and like the cats of the world, I refuse to be herded.
More about Atheism, Political correctness, Richard Dawkins