Often a charge made about Dawkins and supporters of his position is that we are militant atheists. As if being atheist was not bad enough we are militant to boot, which makes it even worse!
This accusation is probably set to increase with the recent OUT campaign that RichardDawkins.net has started. Suffice to say, this is about atheists being public in their non belief – whether it be bumper stickers on cars or T shirts, which co incidentally the store has in stock with the friendly scarlet “A” letter re-branded in a less painful way.
But what is militant about sharing ideas and opinions? People do seem to be sensitive about taking on people’s belief in supernatural entities. Political opinions about the economy, whether the Iraq war was justified or necessary, arguing with political opponents is fair game. But religious opinions devoutly held, no. Why not? Because you just cannot! Leave that elephant in the room alone – we feel better knowing it is there for other people.
That narrow-mindedness has been challenged, and very few people should be expected to be treated seriously producing this “red card” type argument. Many people have been stepping on Dawkins coattails, from fellow Musketeers (Hitchens et al) to the affectionately called “Parasites” (McGrath, with two books featuring Dawkins’ name in the title) that queue up to discredit his ideas.
Yet people still seem to be queasy about people being hard atheists – this extends to people who are non believers themselves, but do not want to rock the boat, nor politically see secularism as important if democracy ends up with people wanting faith based public policy. I would call this the “respectful pluralist tendency” – which states people should just be left to get on with it, that when it comes to faith there should be no challenge to views because of the passions it arises, and majority opinion is right.
Yet we are talking about how the world is and how people choose to live this life. What could be more important to talk about, discuss and to share information? Why should people of faith not be prepared to have their firmly held beliefs questioned, scrutinised – any more than ideology?
Dennett makes the remark in “Breaking the Spell” that it is no guarantee that disbelief in god will necessary benefit the human race. Quite possibly having made the case that religion is a natural phenomena (the evidence in the human mammal seems overwhelming on that score) the question of whether the human race would be better off exposing religion to the light of scrutiny and inquiry seems to some to herald the end of civilisation. Yet empirical inquiry marks the modern age!
People make similar claims about concepts such as free will. That fiction through false notions of how things are may be more beneficial than knowing the truth, or more closely the truth, of how things are. In short people seem scared that we hang on the precipice of knowledge that we could get to a point when we will fall into an abyss.
Which is one of the most credulous responses I could ever hope to hear. That knowing how something came about will lead us astray? Are we really going to fall for the line that evolution leads to communism and devil worship (look at certain Christian websites if you think I made that bit up) and that knowing more about the natural world and ourselves will lead to anarchy, civil breakdown and the end of running water?
Ideas can be powerful. People do fear the unknown. The fear of death is often cited as the single strongest reason for people to believe there is more to this life than the human form we have. The way our minds work that “dualism” is a belief that seems true (read Pinker’s The Blank Slate if you think that yourself). It is possible to have wonder as a materialist, without the trappings of belief in ghosts.
Many people are secularists, atheists and humanists (even all three). Yet there is no breakdown in moral behaviour. The street lamps shine on. The water flows. People still smile and say hello.
Fear is the mind killer. What would you do if you were not afraid? Wearing a T shirt seems like a small ripple – but people should not be afraid to express their views.