The Real Enemies of Free Speech

Liberty magazine, a publication of the Seventh-Day Adventist church, has recently published “Faith Attack“, a polemic by Clifford Goldstein against the New Atheists. The entire article is little more than repetition of the modern equivalent of the medieval blood libel: that atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett want to take over the world and outlaw religion.

I’ll offer some more specific criticisms, but what should be noted is that Goldstein presents no evidence whatsoever that this is in fact what atheists want. He tries to gloss over this point by calling such tyranny the “logical outgrowth” of our views – as if criticizing a belief was equivalent to wanting to ban that belief – but offers nothing more in the way of substantiation.

In The New Republic, author Damon Linker expressed concern about what he called the “illiberal” and “brutally intolerant” proselytism of the new atheists. Among them are ideas that, if taken to their logical conclusion, would wreak havoc on the free exercise of religion.

Since, again, no examples are presented to demonstrate the point, there’s nothing of substance to refute here. Again, we merely see Goldstein insinuate that this is the “logical conclusion” of atheist activism, which is like saying that the logical conclusion of pro-literacy efforts is the rounding up and mass slaughter of everyone who doesn’t know how to read. The new atheists want to defeat and eradicate beliefs, not people!

As far as Linker’s criticism, this snippet doesn’t explain what he finds so troubling about atheist broadsides, so it serves little purpose other than as an echo. I’ll note only that, for many religious believers, “tolerance” and “respect” are code words for submission, and attack labels like “intolerant” are used against anyone who does not genuflect to their beliefs and treat them with deference they have not earned.

The comparison with [Madalyn Murray] O’Hair — for decades the ultra-nasty den mother of American atheism — isn’t, however, limited merely to the intellectual paucity of their apologetics. O’Hair didn’t just attack religion as religion; she went after practice and expression as well.

Whatever one can say about the tone O’Hair chose to take, there’s one thing that needs to be remembered, and that this article tries hard to forget. The way Goldstein depicts it, O’Hair was the oppressor and religious believers the oppressed, when in fact the reverse was true. The case at issue in her most famous lawsuit, Murray v. Curlett, was whether school officials and lawmakers could institute mandatory Bible readings and prayers in public school. One would think a magazine purportedly founded to defend religious liberty would be on O’Hair’s side in this. Perhaps they only support the fight for religious liberty when it’s being waged by the right people.

Next, some predictable inanities about Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins:

But Harris is promoting an assault not just on action, not just on speech, but on belief itself. Who would have thought that Orwellian “Thoughtcrime” would be taken out of the realm of political satire and promoted by someone deemed liberal, or progressive?

Apparently Liberty‘s editors hold the bizarre notion that people’s thoughts are sacrosanct and no one can ever be justly punished for what they merely believe. In the real world, we routinely punish people who hold and intend to act on certain thoughts; this is the crime called “conspiracy”. Intent to do harm and violence is a crime, and it is an actual crime, not a thought crime. In context, this is clearly Sam Harris’ point.

Certain bizarre views can, at times, get special protection under the principles of free exercise jurisprudence, but that’s part of what religious freedom costs. That Dr. Dawkins — who is opposed to all religious belief — finds that too costly proves only the shallowness of his worldview.

Despite their insulting rhetoric, in this passage Liberty has completely conceded our point: that religious beliefs get not equal protection, but “special protection” – additional privileges not available to other groups or belief systems. And I agree: this is too costly. Religious believers and churches should have the same rights as every other individual or organization; no more, no less. They should not be exempt from any generally applicable law. They should not have any freedom or privilege that is not also available to nonbelievers. When the laws are written to accommodate irrationality, it is all the rest of society that pays the price.

Next, Liberty adopts the language used by the atheists which they decried as “brutally intolerant” a few paragraphs above;

The new atheists, then, would teach their children — what? That we’re created by chance, with no ultimate purpose or destiny, and that more conscious thought went into someone spray painting graffiti on a wall than went into our existence?… Child abuse, Dr. Dawkins, can come in myriad forms.

This is the same article that, in its introduction, fearfully fretted that “parents could be charged with ‘child abuse’ for giving their offspring a religious education”. Since they appear to have an identical proposal with regard to atheism, should we conclude that the author is actually engaging in projection and accusing atheists of what he himself wants to do? Why could one not conclude, after reading this passage, that Liberty‘s editors want to ban atheism and then berate them for their advocacy of oppression and thoughtcrime?

And finally:

Their most damaging impact might be, instead, the fertile fodder they provide the Christian Right, long trying to convince the flock that their religion is under attack by secular elites and that the only way to protect themselves is for Christians to gain the reins of political power.

Dominionist Christians have been trying to seize the reins of political power for a long time, and they needed no atheists to help them. They were around, and had the same goals, long before there was ever an atheist movement to speak of. What’s different is that now there is an opposition to them – a forceful and effective opposition, one that doesn’t stop at tepid platitudes but goes further to attack dangerous, irrational faith at its root.

The religious right does not want compromise. In fact, they violently spurn compromise. They have said so themselves, many times, and they are still saying so. Their goal is a world run by them and ruled according to their specific conception of God’s will, and they are not going to shake hands and settle for something less if only we approach them in respect and good faith. On the contrary, they view any retreat or concession as simply an invitation to push for more.

I have a message for Clifford Goldstein and Liberty magazine: If you’re truly concerned about freedom of expression, why do you obsess on the entirely hypothetical scenario of atheists taking away your right to speak, when large, militant religious groups are right now attempting to stifle and outlaw criticism?

At the U.N., 56 Islamic nations are pushing through resolutions to combat “defamation” of religion. In Russia, Christian evangelical groups, with assistance from state prosecutors, are pressing to ban TV shows that “insult the feelings” of believers. Even in the U.K., Christian complainers are trying to bring back blasphemy prosecutions.

These are the real enemies of free speech – not atheists, but crusading religious believers. They, not we, are the ones who want to outlaw criticism and satire and take away the right of dissenters to speak their minds. They, not we, are the ones waging war against the liberties we hold dear.

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About Adam Lee

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


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