I’ve often wondered how the term “New Atheism” gained such currency. It is a misnomer. There is nothing new about nonbelief. All of us, without exception, are born knowing nothing of God or gods, and acquire notions of religion solely through interaction with others – or, most often, indoctrination by others, an indoctrination usually commencing well before we can reason. Our primal state is, thus, one of nonbelief. The New Atheists (most prominently Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens) have, in essence, done nothing more than try to bring us back to our senses, to return us to a pure and innate mental clarity. Yet their efforts have generated all manner of controversy. Far outnumbered, and facing a popular mindset according kneejerk respect to men (yes, mostly they are men) of faith — reverends, priests, pastors, rabbis, imams and so on – the New Atheists have by necessity explained their views with zeal, which has often irked the religious, who are accustomed to unconditional deference. Even some nonbelievers who, again thanks to custom, consider religion too touchy a subject to discuss openly have been riled.
We atheists, however, need to buck up, assert our rationality, and change the way we deal with the religious, with everyday affronts delivered (at times unknowingly) by believers, with the casual presumptions that historically have tended to favor the faithful and grant them unmerited respect. A lot is at stake. Religion is a serious matter, reaching far beyond the pale of individual conscience and sometimes translating into violence, sexism, sexual harassment and assault, and sundry legal attempts to restrict a woman’s right to abortion or outlaw it altogether, to say nothing of terrorism and war. Now is the time to act. Polls – see here and here – show the zeitgeist in the United States is turning increasingly godless, that there are more atheists now than ever before (surely thanks in part to the efforts of the New Atheists). Most of Europe entered the post-faith era decades ago. Americans need to catch up.
I propose here a credo for atheists – concrete responses to faith-based affronts, to religious presumption, to what Hitchens called “clerical bullying.” (I’ll deal below with the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions, but what I say applies to other confessions as well.) The faithful are entitled to their beliefs, of course, but have no inherent right to air them without expecting criticism. Religion should be subject to commonsense appraisal and rational review, as openly discussible as, say, politics, art and the weather. The First Amendment, we should recall, forbids Congress both from establishing laws designating a state religion and from abridging freedom of speech. There is no reason why we should shy away from speaking freely about religion, no reason why it should be thought impolite to debate it, especially when, as so often happens, religious folk bring it up on their own and try to impose it on others.
Herewith, some common religious pronouncements and how atheists can respond to them.
Written By: Jeffrey Tayler
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