In an article in the Herald Sun Newspaper, in Melbourne, Australia on 17 December 2012 self proclaimed atheist Rita Panahi complains that atheism as a "movement" is being over run by zealots.
(The online version of the newspaper article doesn't allow non-subscribers access. However, you can read the full article published earlier on 16 December 2012 here.) [Though no author is attributed it is the same article]
Panahi makes so many nonsensical claims in this article that can I hardly accept she is an atheist let alone one capable of "critical thinking". She describes atheism as a "system of belief", because she does not quite grasp that atheism is not a belief system, but a rejection of any belief system. It is as if she is saying that science should allow belief and reject empiricism. I am in fact unsure why Panahi thinks she is an atheist at all and it is almost as if she is confusing her politics with her position as, what appears to me to be, that of a tentative or confused quasi agnostic-atheist.
She describes Atheism as being formerly "a quiet celebration of reason". How quaint. She describes several contemporary robust critics of religion, including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as, "aggressive"with the "aim to drive religion out of public life", for their consistent subjection of religious belief to logical argument and their rejection for the necessity of religion to form any part of our educational, political and public life. Yes? And, what is the problem you have with this? I'd ask Panahi. These aims are completely consistent with atheist theory, old or new. With a church, mosque, temple or place of worship of some sort on the street corners, hills and thoroughfares of our towns and cities religion obviously has a presence, if not an overbearing one, in our societies. Where it strictly does not belong is in our schools, government or official media; after-all, if religion belongs in any of these arenas, then which religion is it? and what becomes of those not of the chosen religion? And, yet our politicians declare their religious convictions as a means for gaining voter approval amongst other reasons and open our parliament with "The Lord's Prayer", some of our official and popular media place emphasis on religion holding a position of only good and exempt from examination or criticism, and religious groups press for a presence of their particular faith in the official curriculum. Its all harmless isn't it?
Atheists have the odd conference or two to allow for discussions of contemporary thinking and provide a forum for discourse and this is seen as controversial if not down right inflammatory towards religious groups. In the image below Muslim protestors turned up to the 2012 Atheist Convention in Melbourne. "Atheism is the cancer, Islam is the answer" reads one placard another declares "ISLAM The only monotheistic Religion" another references "Hell Fire". Amused atheist delegates began to chant in response "Where are the women? Where are the women?" Highlighting the distinct absence of females in this group and of course the poor position this religion holds on gender equality issues. To contrast if a bunch of atheists were to do a Pussy Riot protest in front of a mosque, synagogue, church or temple in Australia they'd risk being labelled racist, and inciters of hate against religion. Particularly if they did so in front of a mosque. I wonder if chanting might be all they'd receive in response to their protest should one occur.
|Main Placard reads - "Atheism is the Cancer Islam is the Answer"|
Panahi by her argument would have us accept there need be no quiet reflection for the religions of the world whilst requiring a respectful silence in response from atheists. Panahi should realise is that she is complaining that atheists are no longer obscure but that they should remain respectfully uncritical of religions and avoid committing any offence to them by resisting testing the faithful with valid critical analysis and questioning. This is a call to censorship and the protective exemption of a particular section of society from critical analysis. It is a position which whether or not she realises favours current disturbing moves to implement blasphemy laws (via the UN). Under such laws simply declaring you are atheist can be considered offensive to a religious person or group because your atheism is a denial of their faith which holds the existence of a higher being sacred. A sacred being responsible for the presence of chosen peoples on planet earth. To allow criticism robust or not is apparently disrespectful of the "prophets of any religion".
In fact the call is for no cartoons, no jokes, no movies, no logic, no disbelief. To criticise Islam is to be guilty of Islamophobia and a crime against humanity according to the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.
Panahi has one point. The quiet atheist is invisible. In societies where to be openly atheist is to be labelled an "anti-Christ", a "blasphemer", a "heretic", or an "apostate" so it makes sense be "quiet" in your so claimed "celebration of reason"as it can mean self-preservation over persecution. In some Muslim jurisdictions we know apostasy is a crime punishable by death. Indeed Islam does not recognise atheism as the absence of belief but as another form of apostasy because for Islam one is born into their faith, as one is born with their skin or eye colour. Christianity believes atheism is a sin. Being atheist has not been and still may not be popular or safe. It has been challenging for people past and present to be openly atheist within their communities. As a young atheist from the late 1970s - 1990s I felt the flexibility to explore religion if I wished to do so but atheism was still shunned if not feared as something utterly sinister. Young friends asked me in horror "...aren't you afraid of the Devil?" As if I'd already been somehow possessed by the nastiest of fallen deities. If I'd been born elsewhere I may not have been so lucky in my youthful explorations and coming out an atheist.
Religions are and can be no more exempted from analysis and criticism than any other group or area of society. The argument that criticism of religion is harmful is a dangerous one because it is an unacceptable limitation on free speech, thought and expression.
Why are we now seeing, hearing, reading more atheist views, ideas and literature? A number of possibilities come to mind. Not just through the horror of the attack on the USA. Islamic terror was alive and well before September the 11th 2001 though a defining point in history on a number of levels it arguably is. It became a last straw for well known critics such as the, in later life and post his death, much maligned Hitchens. He bluntly informed particularly the socialist left and those with leftist political bona fides of necessary home truths, you've been duped and you continue to declare your support for the intolerance you claim you fight against. He saw the hypocrisy and pointed it out without fear or favour to friend or foe. Tough love was required. The zealots, I'd argue in agreement with Hitchens, reside in the left, in denial and blinkered by their fantasy that religion is not to blame but the terrorist distorters of religion. That is similar to the argument of gun lobbyists who trot out the guns don't kill people kill argument following the latest mass murder spree. More guns it is argued is the answer. More religion is the same argument of the religious. Problem for both form of zealot is they've already demonstrated the redundancy of such a push because more religion or more guns has created the problem in the first place. Do the religious have the right to harm others in the name of their religion? Does the gun crazy US citizen have a right to hold onto his semi-automatic firearms in a country so awash with guns any person, good, evil or mad can obtain and use a weapon to kill to make their point.
As I see it these are the main conditions conducive to the existence of more atheists in our midst:
- The existence and gradual strengthening of the secular state - still way too infiltrated by religious symbolism and observance as discussed above.
- The rise of education and an educated middle class
- The rise of democracy contributing to prosperity allowing for better education, time for cultural pursuits and the exploration in and freedom of the arts.
- The rise of human rights advocacy and its application in democratic society's laws and legislation world wide. (of the type not hijacked by quazi-religious agenda)
- Recognition of the equality and human rights of women
- The WWW and the Internet where unimpeded by government control.
What can and will threaten this self-aware state of mind held by free thinking individuals is the push by human rights organisations, and their successful infiltration by religiously motivated political organisations such as the OIC (The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) to pursue internationally binding blasphemy laws to enforce upon all, which would make atheism illegal. Making it a criminal offence to offend religion is an enormously backward step for all humanity. Panahi and friends do need to consider carefully what it is they are proposing when they ask atheists to quietly pursue a gentler(?) kinder(?) atheism in a manner that will not hurt the feelings of the religious. Or, what? Should be the next question by atheists from now on. "Or, what?" To be atheist may soon be enough to be deemed "offensive". What helps threaten our freedoms and rights and helps to instil and normalise the concept of a religious world at all cost are addled quasi-atheist commentators such as Panahi, and an anti-atheist media such as The Herald Sun. Both obviously find the person who constitutes more of a threat to be the one with an absence of belief rather than the one with a blind adherence to a faith.