There is a shadow falling over the world today.
Reverberating through every quarter of human society is a steady drumbeat, one that, although it has always been with us, has now grown to near-deafening volume. And regardless of the language, regardless of the medium, regardless of the voice, this drumbeat carries the same message: You must agree with us. You must obey us. You must be like us. Complying with our wishes fifty-one percent of the time, ninety percent of the time, or ninety-nine percent of the time is not enough. You must perfectly reflect our every opinion, support us fully in word, thought and deed, or be branded disloyal and silenced or worse. And behind this message, there are other sounds: the heavy tromp of feet marching in unison, the harsh voices of demagogues barking orders, and, very faintly in the distance, the crash of shattering glass and the roar of the flames.
Although this message has experienced a resurgence of strength in recent years, it is by no means a new phenomenon. On the contrary, it is of very ancient origin; it is an echo from our species’ dark past, one that refuses to die. Nor is it limited to just one time or one culture. In fact, in an instance of grim irony, this same message is preached by different groups that despise each other and whose goals are in other respects diametrically opposite. However, no matter the specific aims of those that advocate it, this message is equally malignant, and its triumph, if it triumphs, equally horrific.
What is the source of this message? At least in its present incarnation, the blame for this dangerous insanity can be laid squarely at the feet of religious extremism. Most religious groups are, by definition, motivated by faith, meaning that their beliefs are held without evidence and cannot be confirmed or disproven by any test. Worse, many such groups firmly believe that God is wholly on their side – a belief which leads inevitably to the conclusion that any compromise or concession is not only unnecessary, but sinful. When two such groups clash, the only possible resolution to the dispute is for one group to impose its will on the other through force or coercion; and this is precisely what we now see being played out all over the world. Though this mentality has always existed, the events of the last several decades – most notably the consolidation of power by the American religious right and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism worldwide – have brought about a highly polarized climate in which it can thrive.
Fortunately, there is an alternative: a worldview that is not based on faith, and for which there is no possibility of its advocates acting under the belief of divine sanction. In the midst of these dark times, we need, now more than ever, the clear voice of atheism as an antidote to the fevered chaos of religion. Through the storm of faith-based hatred and fear, there is a bright light of reason showing the way, if only we have the courage to follow it.
A religious believer’s argument for the truth of their faith is referred to as an apologetic. In that sense, then, this site is an “unapologetic” – an argument for the truth of no faith. There may or may not exist a being we would call a god, somewhere in the vast uncharted reaches of the universe, but so far we have no good reason to believe that there is. Moreover, there are excellent reasons to think that no religion that is or ever has been believed by human beings has it right. They are not accurate descriptions of reality, and we are fully justified in believing this. That is the conclusion this site uncompromisingly defends.
But there is another sense in which this site is an unapologetic. Prevalent in the popular media, both secular and religious, is the notion that being an atheist is, somehow, something to be ashamed of. We are told that we are second-class citizens, justly deserving both of society’s condemnation and God’s wrath. We are told that we are rebellious for rejecting tradition and custom and instead daring to think for ourselves. We are told that we are arrogant and ungrateful for all the good things religion provides. We are told that we are meddling in the affairs of others by enforcing the separation of church and state, complaining about practices that never did anyone any harm. We are advised that we are insensitive for challenging the beliefs that others hold dear. Most of all, we are counseled to keep quiet, keep our heads down, and let the religious majority have its way.
Well, I say, the hell with that! I will never cease to stand up for my convictions, nor will I remain silent rather than speak out for what is right. When people believe things that are foolish, I will laugh. When people believe things that are evil and immoral, I will tell them so, in no uncertain terms. When people’s stubborn, dogmatic irrationality brings them to the brink of disaster and beyond when these problems could so easily be avoided if only they would act reasonably, I will point that out. When people claim their beliefs give them the right to infringe on others’ lives, I will call them the tyrants they are, and fight back as hard as I can. And when people believe things on the basis of absolutely no evidence, I will not shrink from saying so. That some people are offended by what I have to say and would rather not hear such things is a problem of theirs, not a problem of mine. And most of all, I will never, ever apologize for living my life in accordance with what I believe to be true. Being an atheist is not something to be ashamed of – it is something to be proud of.
We should be proud that we are atheists. We should be proud that we make our moral decisions guided by conscience and the common good, rather than living our lives in slavish conformity to a set of bizarre and arbitrarily contrived ancient rules. We should be proud that we have the courage and the strength of character to make up our own minds and to stand firm against threats of divine wrath, eternal torment, and the disapproving roar of the majority. We should be proud that we recognize and reject absurd superstitious fantasies and do not clutter up our minds with muddled and uncritical thinking. We should be proud that we do not attempt to excuse hate and bigotry by claiming a divine mandate. We should be proud that we are willing to ask questions and to doubt, rather than follow blindly or remain in passive and fearful obedience to what we have always been taught. We should be proud that we walk by the clear light of reason rather than stumbling along in the fog of faith. For too long, many societies have maintained the ridiculous notion that all these positive and praiseworthy traits are something to be embarrassed about. It is long past time that we confronted this sentiment and exposed it for the falsehood that it is. Instead of making excuses, we should be encouraging everyone to live this way.
The anti-atheist sentiment widespread in society is an obvious consequence of the dominance of theism, and the fact that religious groups that see atheism as a competitor have done their utmost to suppress it. Many of their leaders have not hesitated to spread the most vicious and absurd lies about atheism, and the majority of lay believers, who have been brought up since birth to believe without questioning, have accepted them without making even the most cursory effort to investigate the atheist viewpoint for themselves. Far too many people think it is acceptable to decide a controversial issue after listening to only one side.
However, we atheists must also shoulder some of the blame for this state of affairs. We have not done nearly as much as we could be doing to organize and to make our voices heard. Between 10 and 15% of the American population identifies as atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious, with proportions similar or even more favorable in many other First World nations, and our numbers are growing. If nonbelievers were a unified political constituency, we would be a power to be reckoned with, with clout equal to that of any religious group and a strong voice to counter misrepresentations about us. Instead, in the current state of affairs religious leaders can spew venom at us, unchallenged, from the pulpit, and politicians assert their patriotism by casually insulting us, or passing bills that discriminate against us, with virtual certainty that they will pay no political price for doing so. No doubt this lamentable lack of organization stems partly from the fact that atheists and other freethinkers are by definition individualists, resistant to joining up with any larger group. However, that should not relieve us of the responsibility, not only to make our voices heard, but to seek out those who believe likewise and join with them. An organized group of people, speaking in unison, is far more effective and influential than those same people each speaking as individuals – and when that group has the truth on its side, as we do, the strength and clarity of its message is increased tenfold.
When defending atheism, facts and rational argument are the necessary foundation, but can only go so far. In many places around the world, but especially in the United States of America, our rights and even our lives are increasingly threatened by militant religionists – both foreign terrorists, and our own homegrown fanatics and would-be theocrats who will brook absolutely no dissent in their crusade to impose their own beliefs on everyone else. Now more than ever, a strong, clear voice of reason is needed to counteract this madness. We nonbelievers can no longer afford to stay silent on matters of practical importance – too much is at stake.
While I acknowledge I have been uncharitable in my characterization of the groups that oppose us, I will not admit that it is undeserved. On the contrary: many religious groups have adopted truly insidious ends, and in order to counter their harmful ambitions, it is necessary to shine a light on them and name them for what they are. The growing intolerance of dissent is a trend that must be reversed. In order to show just how bad it has become, witness some recent examples from what is popularly dubbed the “culture war”:
In the 2004 American presidential election, the Catholicism of Democratic candidate John Kerry became a major political issue. Several American bishops ordered priests in their dioceses to deny the sacrament of communion to any Catholic politician that supported euthanasia or a woman’s right to choose. (Catholic belief holds that partaking in this rite is necessary for salvation.) Although a meeting of Catholic bishops in June of that year declined to make that a formal policy of the church, it was later found that a letter sent to that meeting by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now the newest pope – strongly advocated such a policy, advising that any Catholic that failed to vote in lockstep with church officials’ pronouncements would be “guilty of formal cooperation in evil” and thus “unworthy” to present themselves for communion. Strangely, although the Catholic church also opposes the death penalty and the war on Iraq, no candidate’s support for those policies was ever cited as a potential reason to deny them communion.
Some people may wonder why I have chosen to begin my examples with this one. After all, as an atheist it is obviously none of my concern whether a person has received communion or not, and the Catholic church certainly has the right to grant or deny it to whomever they wish. If an ordinary Catholic resents having church authorities dictate their political preferences to them, they can always leave and join another church. I do not contest any of that. However, the church’s use of communion as spiritual blackmail is an exemplar of a dangerous trend: the willingness and even eagerness to attempt to translate religious influence into political power. The end result of trying to merge church with state is always terrible, as hundreds of years of bloody religious warfare in Europe demonstrated all too well. The founders of America hoped to create a republic free of this conflict, where the constitutionally enshrined separation of church and state would be to the benefit of both, and so far no attempts to circumvent the principles they laid down have succeeded in the long run; but today the assault on their vision is more violent and determined than ever.
Consider next a more ominous example: religious fundamentalists attempting to force their worldview not on other members of the same religion, but on the population in general. Contrary to what some people seem to think, marriage is not an exclusively religious rite but confers many civil benefits as well: the right to visit a sick partner in the hospital; the right not to have to testify against one’s partner in court; and the right to share health insurance and Social Security benefits, to name a few. For people in long-term, committed relationships, there is absolutely no valid reason to deny them these benefits, regardless of their gender. Yet eleven American states have so far voted to outlaw gay marriage, even to unconditionally deny gay couples these civil benefits under arrangements of any other name. Some have carried anti-gay hysteria even farther by enacting into law bans on gay people adopting children, regardless of their qualifications or their ability to provide a loving and stable home environment.
These campaigns have invariably been led by Christian conservatives who have garnered support for such measures by unsubtly appealing to prejudice and homophobia dressed up in the guise of “protecting marriage”. The question is inevitably never asked – protecting marriage from what, exactly? Would allowing gay men and women to marry harm heterosexuals somehow? Would it negatively affect existing marriages in any way? Of course not – a moment’s clearheaded thought should make that obvious enough. But religious conservatives have so far very effectively prevented that moment of clarity by clouding their followers’ minds, inciting paranoia and hysteria and whipping up the flames of hatred. Their rhetoric is very similar, both in tone and in content, to the pre-civil rights era opposition to interracial marriage, and the comparison is apt in other ways as well, although so far that has not seemed to trouble them.
There are still more examples of religious intrusion into people’s lives. Consider the growing issue of religious pharmacists who refuse to fill certain prescriptions because they disapprove of the use of the specific drug being prescribed. For example, there have been a rash of recent cases of Roman Catholic pharmacists refusing to dispense birth control pills – even to people who are not Catholic – because Catholic church dogma forbids the use of contraception. In at least one of these cases, not only did the pharmacist refuse to fill the prescription, he refused to return it to the patient in an attempt to prevent her from having it filled at a different pharmacy. And in many states, legislatures are now considering laws that would explicitly permit such actions.
What can be said about the incredible arrogance of this behavior? A pharmacist is a person whose job is simply to dispense prescriptions which a doctor feels and which a patient agrees are necessary for that patient’s health and well-being. They have no right to barge into a situation that is none of their business, pass judgment on how other people should best run their own lives and attempt to override those people’s own decisions. If we allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions on religious grounds, what is next? Will we soon see pharmacists refusing to dispense antiviral medicines to people with AIDS because they believe HIV is God’s justified punishment for homosexuals and people who have extramarital sex? (Christian conservatives are already on record as opposing the newly developed vaccine for human papillomavirus, a common sexually transmitted disease that is not stopped by condoms and that causes thousands of cases of deadly cancer each year, because they see it as tantamount to a license for young people to have sex.) Will Christian Scientists, who believe in the healing power of prayer and shun modern medicine as a rule, become pharmacists and then refuse to do anything at all? Will we soon see medical professionals blackmailing people by demanding that those people convert to their religion or attend their church before they will treat them? Once we allow people to refuse to do their jobs on religious grounds, where will it end?
Against this argument, conservative religious pharmacists bemoan the fact that their religious freedom is being trampled upon when they are forced to dispense drugs whose use they cannot condone. I have a suggestion for these poor, beleaguered souls: If you disapprove of the use of certain medications and feel strongly that you could not in good conscience approve of their use, then do not become a pharmacist. Having religious freedom in this context means that, if a person has objections to performing the duties of a pharmacist, then they are free not to become a pharmacist. It does not mean that they are free to take the job and then refuse to do it while still expecting to be paid.
As bad as these incidents are, there are even more frightening signs on the horizon of what the religious right would like to do to those who show anything less than total obedience to their hate-based agenda. In the past few months, prominent religious right leaders have taken turns calling for the impeachment and removal from office of all judges who make decisions that they dislike. Others, such as Pat Robertson, have openly stated their belief that federal judges who rule in favor of the separation of church and state are more dangerous than the terrorists who attacked America on September 11, and have refused to apologize for or retract these remarks. Their preferred model of judge, of course, is a self-righteous theocratic despot such as Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the state of Alabama, who was removed from office for defying a higher court’s order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building and has spent most of his subsequent time unceasingly trumpeting his own martyrdom.
I will not return Robertson’s compliment: I do not believe that Christian fundamentalists are a greater threat to society than Islamic terrorists. However, while their methods differ, I do believe that the motives of both groups are ultimately the same: to force all people to conform to their narrow image of how society should be, to intrude into other people’s lives and require those people’s decisions to obtain their seal of approval. Regardless of the specific religious tradition in which this idea arises, though, it is equally tyrannical and equally evil.
The outrages described above by no means represent a comprehensive listing of all the evils the religious right has wreaked. Much more could be written on, for example, their efforts to ban abortion – for many desperate, frightened young women, the best way out of a situation with no good options – while at the same time they battle furiously against effective sex education and access to contraception that would keep abortion as rare as possible, apparently preferring that people be kept ignorant of the information they need to make responsible decisions. Much could be written on their dictatorial attempts to outlaw euthanasia that would allow people suffering from incurable diseases to end their pain and die with dignity in a time and manner of their choosing, or on their selfish and irrational animus against stem-cell research that holds out the promise of curing paralysis, blindness, Alzheimer’s disease, and a thousand other dread ailments, but that must be opposed because they value a microscopic clump of cells more highly than a real human being who is suffering and dying. Much could be written on their hatred for social welfare programs because they believe that poverty is a deserved punishment from God on the poor, or on their attempts to infiltrate real science education with false religious dogma. Much could be written on their disregard for the environment on the grounds that the promised apocalypse makes protecting the planet superfluous, or on the way they have focused on issues that are nowhere mentioned in their own sacred texts while at the same time disregarding every injunction those texts contain about compassion and social justice, or on their support for militarism and constant war so long as it is fought and died for by the children of people less privileged than they.
Some readers may have detected a tone of anger in the preceding passages. If you are one of them, then you are correct: I am angry. It is, however, important to make the target of that anger clear. Am I “angry at God”? No – that is a ridiculous false claim perpetrated by religious apologists. A person self-evidently cannot be angry at what they do not believe to exist. Rather, I am angry at those human beings who think they have the exclusive right to decide what beliefs are and are not acceptable, and whose senseless, relentless bigotry is causing untold suffering for millions of others. I am angry at those who believe that it is acceptable to wage war or to kill in the name of God. I am angry at those who believe that any other human beings are less than fully equal, either because of what they believe or because of any immutable characteristic. I am angry at those who want to write their religious beliefs into law and treat others as second-class citizens or worse. I am angry at those who want to stifle dissent and independent voices. I am angry at those who enrich themselves at others’ expense with sanctimonious talk, empty promises, and naked appeals to prejudice.
All the wrongs described above spring from religious absolutism – the belief that dissent equals disloyalty and that to disagree with the holder of such a belief is to disagree with God. That conviction is at the root of this evil tree. And while it might seem a contradiction to be passionate in defense of moderation, to take a strong stand for compromise, or to raise the banner high in favor of dissent, that is precisely what I intend to do. These modern-day crusaders need to be taught that they cannot have everything their own way.
What all these events have in common is fear. The religious right uses fear as a weapon, as a means of control – it attempts to compel people’s obedience by making them afraid. The Catholic churches denying communion to pro-choice voters wanted those voters to be afraid of losing their salvation. The bigots attempting to ban gay marriage derive their support from the irrational fear that recognizing other types of unions would somehow harm heterosexual marriage. The obstructionist pharmacists, like the opponents of the HPV vaccine, try to force people to obey their rigid idea of sexual morality by making them afraid of the consequences – unintended pregnancy, disease, death – and want to deny others the means to prevent these conditions because it means they have one less thing to make people afraid of. Pat Robertson, Roy Moore and other Christian hatemongers want people to be afraid that God will exact vengeance on them if they do not do as those hatemongers say. Islamic terrorists, of course, threaten dreadful punishment and suffering on those who reject their rigid, theocratic view of the world. And, let us not forget, the intrusive preachers who take glee in describing the hellish torments reserved for nonbelievers. The reader should be able to come up with similar examples with little difficulty. Almost every goal of the religious right is predicated on the tactic of making people afraid, because fearful people are more easily led and more easily persuaded not to think.
But it follows as an immediate consequence that, as broad as the religious right’s power base, at its core it is fragile. Their strategy is not founded on rational persuasion that produces a lasting commitment, but on spreading fear and misinformation, keeping their followers pliant and easily controlled by keeping them from thinking. If they cannot blind otherwise ordinary, reasonable people with prejudice and paranoia – if they cannot keep people afraid – then they cannot win. That is why it is so important for atheists to openly identify themselves as such and speak out against them. Fear and paranoia are bandwagon strategies: the more people that are seen to be going along with them, the more persuasive they will be to everyone else. Conversely, when people stand up and resist – when there are individuals who denounce irrational fear- and hatemongering in no uncertain terms – it will provide a beacon of strength and prevent many others from being swept along. A few strong voices can turn back the tide of religious tyranny, if only there are atheists who are willing to step up and provide the leadership and the message.
In light of these facts, it is vital for atheists to get their message straight. If we wish to speak out effectively, we must present a unified front. This will magnify the strength of our message and prevent confusion among those who hear it. My suggestion for such a message is as follows. When we are asked, “What is it that atheists want?”, our answer should be a simple one: what we assert is the right to make our own decisions. We want to live our lives as we see fit, harming no one, without undue interference from others. We assert the right to love whomever we want, without some sanctimonious conservative telling us that he will not allow society to recognize our relationship because he disapproves of it. We assert the right to medical privacy, to make whatever decisions we and our doctors deem best for our health without unasked-for and unappreciated interference from religious zealots. We assert the right to a government that represents all its citizens fairly and impartially, without any theocratic officials seeking to impose their religious opinions on us. We assert the right to have our children taught science in science classes and not other people’s religious beliefs, and we assert the right not to be taxed to support churches that will not pay their own way. In short, we assert the right to live in peace, free of coercion, under a democratic government that does not give special privileges to specific religious beliefs or religion in general. Although no one speaks for all atheists, I am confident that the vast majority of them share these goals.
In exchange for this, we should offer the same right: the right for religious people to believe and worship as they see fit, without outside interference, so long as they do not attempt to force those beliefs on others. This is a gift of great value, if only they would realize that. Unfortunately, there are still many religious leaders who view the ability to force their own beliefs on other people as a sacred right and who cannot tolerate the idea of not having everything their own way. These people will probably never accept such a deal, and so there is no alternative but to fight against them and defeat them. However, there are more than enough fair-minded, reasonable people to triumph over the fanatics, if only we can bring them to our side by dispelling the fear and disinformation and making it clear what atheists really stand for.
I do not mean to trivialize the magnitude of the task before us. Though it is conceptually simple, the actual realization of that concept will be a dauntingly enormous endeavor. The leaders of the religious right have amassed enormous wealth and influence and are strongly entrenched in the corridors of power, and command the unquestioning allegiance of hordes of followers who will do their utmost to shut down any opposing viewpoint. Even some atheists may be unable to resist the fear that our efforts are hopeless, that the religious extremists cannot be defeated. To these people, my message is as follows: have courage. Do not surrender, do not give up, do not retreat, and most of all, do not remain silent. However dark the road ahead appears, there is light at the end. The tyrants of the religious right are not invincible, and if we unite, we can defeat them. Though they have money, power and influence, they do not have the one vital thing that we possess: the truth. Though it may seem a small thing, and though it may seem all too easy for it to be silenced or shouted down, in the right hands it can move mountains.
If I have achieved the goal I had in mind while writing this essay, you may be wondering what you can do to join the fight. The answer is to get informed and involved. The religious right thrives on fear and ignorance – they cannot persist when light is shined on their actions and people cannot be made afraid. Joining or donating money to one or more church-state separation or civil liberties groups is a very important first step which I would recommend to all atheists, but more can be done. Monitor the news for issues and legislation that impact civil liberties, and speak out: call and write letters to your elected officials to urge them to take action and to media organizations to encourage them to provide appropriate and sympathetic coverage. And do not be afraid to promote and defend atheism when the opportunity arises – to family and friends; to streetcorner and door-to-door preachers and other religious apologists; on Internet forums and discussion boards; on college campuses and at other local venues; even on TV and other media if the chance arises. Do not be afraid to write to newspapers and magazines offering to author an editorial, or to ask to appear on TV or radio shows as a guest or to take part in a debate. And lastly, I recommend that all atheists create a personal website explaining why they hold the position they do. The Internet is a wonderful invention – a diverse and truly global platform for speech – and we should take full advantage of it. If all nonbelievers, or even just a small percentage of them, did these things, we would be a powerful force for reason, and certainly more than strong enough to effectively combat the religious right.
The task that awaits us is vast; we must not lose sight of that fact. Every generation has a chance to reshape the world as it sees fit, and by our actions we will collectively decide whether the world our descendants inherit will be one of greater freedom and peace, or one of repression, dogmatism and fear. At this moment in time, those two possibilities hang very much in the balance. A huge amount is at stake, and the consequences if we fail to act could be terrible. But the best way to avoid becoming discouraged, I find, is to keep a sense of historical perspective. The forces of religious absolutism are not on the winning side of history. They have been steadily declining in power for millennia, and so long as people of conscience and principle are willing to stand against them, they will continue to do so. That we are fighting not just for the present day but for the future as well makes our battle more important, but it also makes our eventual victory all the sweeter. But the most important lesson to take away is that, regardless of history, regardless of who wins any given battle, we should never, ever be ashamed to be atheists. The values we stand for are the right ones, and we should never apologize for holding them. If anything, society should be grateful to us for persevering and for speaking a viewpoint that deserves to be heard, and we should be proud – yes, proud – of who and what we are. The day will come, long after the hate-filled words of the extremists have faded away, when all humanity will be grateful that we would not be silenced.