Do you, readers, remember the golden age of American secularism, where freethinkers stood on every corner preaching that they believed one thing and Christians believed another, and that we should all ignore these differences and do our best to get along without attacking each other’s beliefs?
I don’t either. But convicted Watergate felon and current prison evangelist Charles Colson does, and in a recent column, he bemoans the aggressive stance today’s most prominent atheists have taken when it comes to debunking superstitious beliefs:
The old-guard secular humanists are questioning this new trend, and rightly so. Most traditional atheists simply had their own belief system, and if we wanted our belief system that was okay.
I don’t know what “traditional atheists” Colson thinks he’s referring to. For the record, here are some remarks made by the peaceful, non-combative freethinkers of days of yore:
“Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.”
—Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1795)
“You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded woman… Now I ask you if our religion teaches the dignity of woman? It teaches us the abominable idea of the sixth century—Augustine’s idea—that motherhood is a curse; that woman is the author of sin, and is most corrupt. Can we ever cultivate any proper sense of self-respect as long as women take such sentiments from the mouths of the priesthood?”
—Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1885), quoted in Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers
“There are many millions of people who believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God… They forget its ignorance and savagery, its hatred of liberty, its religious persecution; they remember heaven, but they forget the dungeon of eternal pain. They forget that it imprisons the brain and corrupts the heart. They forget that it is the enemy of intellectual freedom.”
—Robert Ingersoll, “About the Holy Bible” (1894)
“The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.”
—H.L. Mencken, “Aftermath”, The Baltimore Evening Sun (1925)
“But the most heinous crime of the Church has been perpetrated not against churchmen but against churchgoers. With its poisonous concepts of sin and divine punishment, it’s warped and brainwashed countless millions. It would be impossible to calculate the psychic damage this has inflicted on generations of children who might have grown up into healthy, happy, productive, zestful human beings but for the burden of antisexual fear and guilt ingrained in them by the Church. This alone is enough to condemn religion.”
—Madalyn Murray O’Hair, interviewed in Playboy magazine (1965)
I think there’s a more identifiable explanation for Colson’s seeming longing for the days when atheists were peaceful and quiet and didn’t make any trouble. The days he fondly looks back to were the days when he and his ilk controlled society and the media, when bigotry against atheism was encouraged and unquestioned and when they could threaten and intimidate most nonbelievers into silence. That de facto McCarthyite theocracy is the state of affairs Colson wishes to see return. Today, religious groups still wield far more power than they should; but the atheist movement is finding its voice, and religious leaders can no longer shut us out or expect to go unchallenged. What has happened is not that atheists have become more combative or more outspoken, but that we have become more numerous and more successful. The era of “atheists meek and mild” is, like much else, an apologist’s fantasy of the past. And we are only going to grow stronger and more impassioned in the years to come. If they don’t like it… well, tough. We’re not going anywhere, as much as defenders of orthodoxy might wish otherwise.
Colson supports his argument by invoking Gary Wolf, whose scornful article attacking atheists for speaking out I covered last October, in “The New Atheists Fight Back“. Wolf, like some others, is a fencesitter who’d rather not take sides in the atheism-theism debate because he wants to be popular, and Colson holds him forth as some sort of exemplar of how atheists should be acting. (Then again, Wolf does call some Christian beliefs “absurd” – something Colson passes over, for obvious reasons.)
Most of the rest of Colson’s article is too deceitful and dishonest to even merit a reply. (Atheists are the ones who “simply ignore evidence and arguments they don’t like”?) However, there are two other comments of his I can’t permit to go unremarked:
The Star of David and the cross have been scandalous to every totalitarian leader.
Except, of course, for the many, many totalitarian leaders throughout history who used those symbols themselves – who wrapped themselves in the iconography of religion to justify inequality and win the allegiance of the masses, often successfully. More tyrants and theocrats than I can name have proclaimed themselves to stand for God and country. Far from being an enemy of tyrants, as Colson deceptively claims, religion has very often been their tool and servant.
And one more:
When you think about it this way, you have to wonder if the anti-theists, in their heart of hearts, are a little uncomfortable with their own beliefs. After all, if you really believe that truth will win out—and to Hitchens and company, their idea of truth is so obvious that it cannot fail to win—you can let other people make their own claims and live by their own beliefs without feeling the need to destroy everything they stand for.
So evangelizing is evidence of insecurity? This, from a person who runs his own ministry whose sole purpose is to convert others, writing to others whose beliefs teach them to do the same? Does Colson really not see the hypocrisy here, or is he certain that his audience will not notice it?
If anything, these words reflect more on theists than on atheists. Religious people who truly believe that God is in control should not see any need to preach and harass others. If God wishes them to come to faith, then they will. On the other hand, atheists have an excellent reason for making our views known: we do not believe in a supernatural overseer ensuring that all goes according to plan. No atheist I have heard of ever believed that the truth will win regardless of what we do – as if “truth” were a supernatural entity with a will of its own. On the contrary, if the truth is to win out and the human race is to be delivered from delusion, that will only happen because of the efforts of human beings. As humanists, we know that we must take part in shaping the outcome we wish to see.
As I’ve said before, atheists are not opposed to letting other people live by their own beliefs, if only they would grant us the same courtesy. Instead, religious fundamentalists are on the march worldwide in an effort to strip others of their rights and impose their chosen version of theocracy on humankind. Of course we will fight back; of course we will seek to aggressively debunk these pernicious superstitions that threaten human life and liberty. No moral person would respond any other way. Charles Colson may pine for an era when religious prejudices could go unquestioned, but we have brought that era to an end, and humanity is better off for it.