Is the 'militant' atheist's proselytising compatible with a tolerant, pluralistic society?

It looks as though some of the 'militant’ atheists won’t rest while there are people around who disagree with their views. Even if there’s no recourse to violence, isn’t this attitude at odds with a tolerant, pluralistic society?

Posted: June 17th 2007

SmartLX www

I hate “militant”, but I’ve been over that.

I also prefer “deconverting” to “proselytising”, which means to convert to another faith or religion. Atheism is neither.

The more civil religious advocates learned long ago that it’s possible to work towards converting people while at the same time respecting their right to have other beliefs (if not respecting the beliefs themselves). Pluralism doesn’t mean nobody tries to bring others round, it just means all sides recognise and respect the others’ right to exist and to speak out.

Atheist campaigns have not sought to deprive believers of any rights or privileges which atheists have themselves. They have attacked rights and privileges enjoyed only by religions. Each campaign is a bid for equality, not superiority. Compare that to any religion or claimed religion’s campaigns for government funds, tax exemptions, special consideration in legal matters because of beliefs, etc.

I don’t think many people “rest” in the sense you mean as long as people around them disagree on such important issues. We can be tolerant and pluralistic and still argue like heck. I honestly don’t see a conflict.

Posted: November 18th 2007

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brian thomson www

I would start by questioning the word “militant”. It’s not a word many atheists use to describe themselves at all. Quite the opposite: it’s used primarily by anti-atheist writers and preachers, and is designed to portray atheism as a threat to you.

Dawkins, for example, has made statements such as the following from The God Delusion:

If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down. What presumptuous optimism!

The book is full of such “presumption”, but the passion he expresses for his topic should not be mistaken for aggression.

He has even used the word “militant”, in a talk from a few years ago, here (30 minute video). It’s a bit ill-advised, but it is in the context of increasing awareness of how evolutionary theory is “corrosive to religion”, and that we have no reason to be so respectful towards religion.

Be very clear on the following point: at no time, from any modern atheist, do you ever hear any talk of coercing people into abandoning their faith (see footnote). We are sometimes portrayed in that light, by preachers intent on making atheism look irrational and vindictive, but that is a false assertion.

Compare that with “jihad”, or the teaching of a single “creationist” view in schools. The obvious example is the question of prayer in US schools. Forcing people to pray, as part of a school routine, is a violation of the First Amendment, and atheists are against it. So, the next thing you hear, from preachers such as Jerry Falwell, is “they’re attacking our right to pray!” “Schools are becoming godless!”

Can you spot the difference that Falwell & co. missed? Of those opposing forced prayer, did anyone say anything about banning voluntary prayer? What people do of their own accord, without trying to force it on others or violate the Bill Of Rights, is not something that atheists get concerned about.

Understanding how atheists are against any form of coercion, can you see the problem with the word “militant”? It implies force or violence, things that we are very much against – regardless of who the aggressor is.

All we have to offer are ideas. We’re not nihilists who go around burning churches, setting off bombs, or hurting people in any way.

  • Sometimes you hear Stalin’s crimes against humanity used as an argument against atheism, but this is a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. He was an atheist, and did terrible things, but did he do the terrible things because he was an atheist? His assault on the Orthodox Church is no guide: they were the main opposition to the kind of Communism he worked to impose. If Khruschev (in his Secret Speech) is to be believed, Stalin did believe in a god: himself!

Posted: June 18th 2007

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Russell Blackford www

In what sense do you think that they “won’t rest”? If you mean that they will go on arguing for the truth of what they believe, using logic and evidence and … well … words, that is exactly what people do in a tolerant, pluralist society. In such a society, people also try to persuade others to live in certain ways and not to do certain things. This involves using the techniques of argument and exhortation, personal practice and example, and so on.

What you don’t do in a tolerant, pluralist society, at least if you are committed to tolerance and pluralism, is try to enforce your beliefs and your preferred way of life by the use of force, whether it be by acts of terrorist violence or by trying to get laws enacted to suppress the views you reject or the practices and ways of life you dislike. But the so-called “New Atheists” are not trying to do any such thing (and I for one would speak up loudly in opposition if they did).

Richard Dawkins, for example, has made it clear that he is trying to raise people’s consciousness, not control their lives.

It is religious believers who are always far more likely to attempt to impose their particular views of right and wrong, e.g. by trying to ban abortion and certain kinds of medical research.

Posted: June 18th 2007

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