Atheists Meek and Mild

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.

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New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God’s Existence
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Christopher M

    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.

    I love this post, apart from this little ‘burb’ right here. Just like there will be theists that aren’t ‘pushy’ to convert (and sometimes ‘reconvert’) atheists, there are atheists that wouldn’t be happy with ‘letting other people live by their own beliefs’ there are the militant atheists that are strongly anti-theist, bordering on a type of bigotry. It just so happens that the militant atheists get the spotlights, and the fundamentalist theists and showy ‘television pastors’ get the spotlight on the theist side of things.

    You don’t hear about the Islamic denizens that remain stagnant and pray to their God. You hear about the militant guys that fly planes into buildings in protest and strap bombs to themselves to blow up shopping malls.

    It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.

  • Ebonmuse

    I’ve never heard any atheist say that religious people should not be permitted to guide their own lives according to their beliefs. If you have any examples of atheists who feel otherwise, please present them.

  • The Ridger

    Isn’t it funny that “militant atheists” and “militant guys (Muslims) who fly planes into buildings” are so similar? I mean, so militant and all?

    Anyway, even the most “militant” of atheists is willing to let adults live their lives according to their ridiculous beliefs – as long as they don’t infringe on us. I can’t see how any theist is damaged by my my unbelief – if he doesn’t want to do something, he doesn’t have to; but his religiously based law infringes on my freedom.

  • writerdd

    If I might indulge in a little juvenile whining of my own, “They started it!” I miss the days of the 70s when Christians were meek and mild, minded their own business, and worshipped in private.

    I don’t want to fight religion or religious people. I never have. But they have picked the fight. And sometimes you just have to stand up to bullies. Don’t believe me? Check this out:

    CNN’s upcoming Christiane Amanpour documentary on religious extremism in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, “God’s Warriors,” airs starting on Tuesday. Right here in the U.S. we have an example of one of those warriors, Ron Luce, whose call to action to retake America from the “virtue terrorists” (gays, pro-choice supporters, etc.) is “Battle Cry,” a youth crusade that Amanpour visits at its stop in San Francisco.

    This preview’s about Ron Luce and his militarized Christian group “Battle Cry”—”Armed with faith and prepared for battle” …” against the evils of secular society and pop culture,” Battle Cry’s members are taught by their leader Ron Luce that they must retake America from those he ironically refers to as the “virtue terrorists that are destroying our kids” … “raping virgin teenage America on the sidewalk.”

    Luce screams intolerance cloaked in nifty pyrotechnics, Christian rock music, and big-screen graphics to the teen-packed venue. The evils of secular society and pop culture have forced him to tell his young charges to be ready and “armed with faith, prepared for battle.”

  • Andreas

    Thank you for an encouraging post!

  • Alex Weaver

    I’ve never heard any atheist say that religious people should not be permitted to guide their own lives according to their beliefs. If you have any examples of atheists who feel otherwise, please present them.

    Pointing out the inconsistencies, absurdities, and disturbing implications of religious beliefs is apparently enough to qualify as “not letting religious people guide their own lives.” Why this is held to be so, I’ve never been able to figure out (are the religious so weak-minded that merely hearing a view vehemently stated will force them to accept it?), nor have the crybabies–the most dignified term I can justify applying–who advocate this position ever explained it coherently.

  • Jeff T.

    I am often amazed at the ego and pride of Christians.

    According to their own faith, this pride and ego is what led to Satan being cast out from heaven. Yet I see time and time again where Christians feel compelled to go convert those of other faiths. A good example of this is the recent Korean group that was taken hostage in Afghanistan. I feel for them and their plight. If I actually believed there was a god in heaven, I would ask him to step in and stop this idiotic religious bickering because his followers on every side have lost the big picture.

    Whether the religious call him Elohim, Yahweh, Allah, or Jesus… they have nothing but power and material acquisition in mind. Hence the prosyletizing. Hence the suicide bombings. Hence the death squad executions. Hence the abortion clinic bombings. Ad infinitum.

    Why did this Korean group feel compelled to go out to another religious country and convert them? It is because they are taught that this is what they must do from their own holy bible. They have no choice but to prosyletize and convert. They are brainwashed by religious teachings to gather more and more followers.

    I can not help but wonder how come others do not put 2 and 2 together. If I was the Pope, I would be happy to see my ‘flock’ growing and giving me 10% of their checks every week. It is ironic that for money now, religious people are promised a bigger home in the after life. I consider this act the buying of the afterlife. I guess someone has to pay for those streets of gold.

  • Eddie Rios


    To be perfectly honest, I am glad there atheists speaking out in there own defense. Furthermore, I am glad the are organisations such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The U.S.A. needs to “put her money where her mouth is!”

    In this country people are always saying that they believe religious freedom but not the freedom to not have any religious (read supernatural) beliefs. This is wrong. No one has the right compel me to conform to a religious system that I find repugnant to my way of looking at the world. And as long as the effectuation of my belief system does not pick another’s pocked or break his leg, I have a perfect right to my beliefs.

    In other words, I, a practicioner of a non-Abrahamic religion, have a vested interest in society being scrupulously secular. Furthermore, I would submit that those trying to destroy the secular state are in the process of cuting their own throats. And the degree to which they trample others’ rights will generate the abrogation of their own.


  • javaman

    We atheists have found our voices and we are only getting warmed up! Historically I believe this generation will mark the new enlightment that frees us from religous dogma. I believe that the christian right is running scared behind the scene and is trying to kill the neo-atheist baby in its crib. We are not going away. The genie is out of the bottle. We will not be silenced.

    The Ron Luce video reminds me of the Hilter youth movement which indocrinated docile youth to obey though group conformity. Can you image a world in which atheist youth went door to door asking people to convert to freethought, or if atheists held giant rallies against religious mind control specifically aimed at teenagers’ emerging belief systems? Now I know how the Jews felt when they were demonized as the enemy who needed to be eradicated in Nazi Germany.

    I propose that Ebonmusings be elected our new atheist Pope. :) But of course, we’ll have to design a funny-looking hat that he will have to wear. :)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Regarding your point about evangelizing, I’ve always carried this idea into debate, and it rarely suffers: If the truth you have is really universal, why are your services required to spread it? In a similar manner, the separation of church and state may be maintained: Is your god so weak he needs the support of the laws of mortals?

  • Greta Christina

    “…without feeling the need to destroy everything they stand for.”

    Right. That’s what we’re doing, me and every other atheist I know. Trying to destroy.

    By, you know, arguing. By trying to convince people that religion is mistaken. By writing books, and blogging, and going on TV, and such.

    A recent visitor to my blog told me that I was trying to force my atheism down everyone’s throat. When I challenged him to find one place — one — on my blog where I advocated forcing atheism on anyone, he said I was “trying to cow others into your restrictive view” and “forcing a materialistic, Godless view onto others by claiming that you know there is no God.”

    Right. Claiming my beliefs in a public forum is the same as forcing those beliefs onto others.

    This is what happens when the free ride ends. People who have become entitled to having their beliefs go unquestioned really do seem to think that “arguing strenuously against a position” somehow equals “trying to destroy all opposition.”

    And the thing is… in a weird way, they’re right. Subjected to a completely fair evaluation in the marketplace of ideas, religion doesn’t stand a chance. The only way it can survive is by the free ride of letting it go unquestioned. They’re right to be scared. They’re just not right to be morally outraged.

  • Greta Christina

    P.S. The commenter on my blog who said that I was “forcing a materialistic, Godless view onto others by claiming that you know there is no God” later tried to defend biblical atrocities by arguing that genocide and the infanticide of one’s enemies was, in some cases, morally defensible. Just thought you’d like to know.

  • Tommykey

    And the funny thing about that Greta is that we are just posting our opinions on blogs that only a tiny portion of the population will ever see, but just the fact that we are doing so gets them all in a tizzy.

  • Greta Christina

    I’ve thought about that, Tommykey. It’s actually pretty funny. I am cowing people into submission by the awesome power of my blog! Which is read by hundreds of people! HUNDREDS, I tell you! Flee before me, puny earthlings! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

  • andrea

    I find it quite telling that “Christopher M” has vanished from the conversation. I don’t know whether to say that he and people like Colson are intentional liars or simply delusional. I would go with liars since they usually disappear when called on their claims.

  • OMGF

    P.S. The commenter on my blog who said that I was “forcing a materialistic, Godless view onto others by claiming that you know there is no God” later tried to defend biblical atrocities by arguing that genocide and the infanticide of one’s enemies was, in some cases, morally defensible. Just thought you’d like to know.

    Any theist that holds that god is good and is confronted with the attrocities of the Bible is forced to somehow justify mass murder. Other responses I’ve seen have been, “It was judgement by god, so therefore just,” “I don’t know why god did it, but he had to have a good reason because he is good and just,” “That’s not genocide because god doesn’t do that,” etc.

  • G Riggs

    “I’ve never heard any atheist say that religious people should not be permitted to guide their own lives according to their beliefs. If you have any examples of atheists who feel otherwise, please present them.”

    So far, Ebonmuse, I’m only aware of one, and one doth not a mob make: Stalin. Not sure, BTW, if one should trust a strictly anecdotal account, but on another forum, I found this autobiographical account of a family member with vivid memories of Stalin:

    “But here’s the thing…… parents are ex-patriots of this time and place. My father tells the story of how all the people in all regions being summoned to their local town halls, having to publicly deny the existence of god, and to state publicly that Stalin was god. My father, amongst others, said don’t be bloody rediculous, and knew that at that moment, his days were numbered. So he got out of the country, so as not to be one of the 20 million murdered by Stalin.”


    G Riggs

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Mr Riggs –

    It’s not at all certain that Stlain was an atheist. According to Solzhenitsyn in Gulag archipelago (admittedly not a neutral source) Stalin was in his youth a seminary student. And while many, myself included, had a religious youth and atheist adulthood, many too have hidden their [lack of] belief in god for the sake of temporary benefit. And in a totalitarian state, which officially espoused atheism, with an efficient camp system, even Stalin may’ve trembled at the thought of admitting faith. Not all the faithful are St. Stephen.

  • G Riggs

    So your point would still confirm that there was a coercive quality to the atheism in Stalin’s Russia, regardless of Stalin’s own genuine or pretended lack of belief. The initial question here was whether or not there has ever been a case in which atheist beliefs have been compelled from the general populace in the same way that theist beliefs have been frequently compelled in culture after culture. Since there is at least a possibility that even Stalin may have trembled before the atheism of mid-20th-century Russia, that would confirm, regardless of Stalin’s own beliefs, that mid-20th-century Russia was unequivocally a place where atheism was compelled/coerced by the state. Clearly, mid-20th-century Russia remains a bizarre exception to the coerced theism of other historic cultures. But it is an exception that definitely existed anyway — I suppose the exception that proves the rule.

    G Riggs

  • OMGF

    FWIW, I’d say Stalin believed in something, and that was the subversive power that religion holds over people. Being a megalomaniac, he could not countenance sharing his power with the church, so he pragmatically (to him at least) outlawed the church and eliminated the competition. It’s similar to the same reason why Saddam never got along with Al Qaeda and fundamentalist Islam.

  • Brock

    A more compelling reason to deny Stalin access to the honored ranks of atheists is his commitment to the millenial belief of Communism, which shares most of the earmarks of religious belief, except of course the existence of God. Communism has its prophet(Marx), its apostles (Lenin, Mao) and its ritualistic demand on the individual to live her life in accordance with its precepts for the sake of a future life of bliss, i.e., the worker’s paradise.

  • G Riggs

    Putting Stalin himself aside, is that possibly an argument against Marx being an atheist as well? Are we saying that he too is amillennialist and therefore not really an atheist?

    FWIW, I suppose I view Marx as far less threatening a figure, ethically, than Stalin. This is why (I guess) I’m somewhat more intrigued by any apparent attempt to segregate Marx from “the honored ranks of atheists”. Marx strikes me as simply a (relatively) cerebral thinker separate and apart from the abuses of Stalinist Russia. And I’d guess there are any number of historians of skepticism today who are

    1) comfortable with the point of view reflected on most of this board, and

    2) accepting of Marx as not just an atheist but a leading atheist of his time.

    Wouldn’t lots of atheists have to be removed from the ranks of atheists if we remove Marx?


    G Riggs

  • G Riggs


    [FIRST PARAGRAPH CORRECTED] Putting Stalin himself aside, is that possibly an argument against Marx being an atheist as well? Are we saying that he too is a millennialist and therefore not really an atheist?

  • OMGF

    I don’t know if Stalin was an atheist or not. He was certainly irrational is some regards and simply cold and calculating in others. He was also rather immoral.

    Marx was an atheist and there’s no reason to think he wasn’t a “True Atheist.” Saying that Stalin (if he was an atheist) was not a true atheist is too close to the no true Scotsman fallacy for my tastes.

  • G Riggs

    All of which sounds eminently plausible to me too. Thanks.

    Just to be fair, I suppose I would still want to hear from Brock on this as well.


    G Riggs