There are some atheists who, in their desire to co-exist with irrational people, allow themselves to fall into the trap of attempting to co-exist with irrationality itself. We are told that we can all have our beliefs and get along.
Of course, I think that’s ridiculous. Religion does not survive by co-existing – it survives by being in charge, and by using that position to survive by fear. In America it lives by fear of hell and fear of social consequences such as ostracism from one’s family, getting kicked out of the house if you’re a teen, or loss of job if you’re an adult, should the people in charge discover that you think ill of their religion. As I have always said, look at the billboards on the highway: tons promising hell for skepticism, none inviting you to a church to hear the evidence.
And there are parts of the world where it’s even worse. Most of us know about Alexander Aan….
Alexander is something of a rarity in Indonesia—a non-believer. While the Indonesian constitution does guarantee freedom of religion, the government only recognizes six official religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism), and Indonesian law requires that every citizen hold an ID card that identifies that person with one of the six official religions. Almost every Indonesian identifies with some faith, with 87% of Indonesians identifying themselves as Muslim, 7% as Protestant, 3% as Catholic, 2% as Hindu, and 0.8% as Buddhist.
Unfortunately, Indonesia does not recognize agnosticism or atheism, and blasphemy is illegal, often carrying at least a 5-year jail sentence for offenders. Alexander, who works as a civil servant in Indonesia, found this out the hard way when he posted “God does not exist” on his Facebook page.
When Alexander arrived at work at the Dharmasraya Development Planning Board the next day a group of men, many of them also civil servants, attacked and beat him before police arrived and took him into protective custody. Police are now holding him until his trial for blasphemy is completed, although authorities moved Alexander from his local prison after he was badly beaten by a group of inmates who knew about his case.
But his potential jail sentence is not the only punishment Alexander faces. He is likely to lose his job, and Muslim extremists have called for Aan to be beheaded. Alexander’s is the first case in which an atheist is being tried in relation to the first pillar of Indonesia’s state philosophy – pancasila, which requires religious belief of Indonesia’s citizens.
But there are more popping up all the time. In Pakistan, a Christian woman is seeking asylum in Spain to escape charges of blasphemy.
Asia Bibi was sentenced in November 2010 to death by hanging after a conviction for blasphemy based on accusations by Muslim neighbors that she had contaminated their drinking water by touching the vessel with her “impure” Christian hands.
The sentence remains on appeal and no date has been set for her execution.
Asked about the conditions of his wife’s imprisonment, Mashi said authorities “see themselves obliged” to treat her well because of the international attention the case has drawn.
In Egypt, blogger Alber Saber has been convicted of Blasphemy and will face three years in prison. And let’s be clear about what being in prison on blasphemy charges means in a country drowning in religious faith.
In a case similar to that of Indonesia’s imprisoned Alexander Aan, Saber was discovered to have been an admin of an atheist Facebook page. An angry mob surrounded his house, and he was soon arrested and charged with blasphemy. While awaiting his verdict, Saber was attacked by fellow inmates who cut his throat with a razor blade after finding out that he had “insulted” their religion.
Co-existence means the ability to disagree and to explain why without penalty. This is anathema to religion, as the free exchange of ideas, and the presence of all the contradictory evidence, is the surest way for religion to die. Religions are aware of this, and throughout the centuries they have taken precautions to avoid criticism.
When people are afraid, they often do stupid things. The people in those cells, who took a razor to the atheist’s throat, are all likely afraid of the same things many Americans are afraid of: what will happen when their religion is challenged or loses its privilege; of the children who may be doomed to hell if they find people friendly to their doubts or to their unbelief. And religion, as it has done for ages, made them and other people the world over afraid. Fear can turn people into monsters.
Sure, bad ideas like religion can turn people into good samaritans as well, but reason can do that more reliably, and without the sacrifice of our critical thinking faculties that all religions, including the monstrous denominations, need in order to survive.
This is how religion corrupts humanity’s potential. It is not that places like Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, and even the United States (think gay rights) necessarily have worse people who are less concerned with morality. They have people similar to every other place in the world, the difference is religion.