A Memo to Fence-Sitting Agnostics

A Memo to Fence-Sitting Agnostics June 2, 2008

In the Guardian last week, Tracy Quan had a column titled Agnostic about atheism. It strikes a note we’ve heard before: Quan, though a nonbeliever herself (she describes herself as a “‘cafeteria’ atheist and secular Catholic”), is embarrassed and uncomfortable to hear atheists speaking out forthrightly and wishes we would stop.

Some of my fellow atheists are to non-belief what being nouveau riche is to the traditionally rich. It’s as though they’ve just discovered God doesn’t exist, and they can’t wait to tell you all about it. I cringe each time one of these noisy non-believers gets on their soap box.

…Some of us are too delicate for evangelical excess. Whether it’s atheistic or religious, we find it embarrassing.

Apparently, Quan finds it a radical notion that some atheists, in a world where millions of people are still being killed and oppressed in the name of religion, aren’t content to keep their convictions quietly to themselves and would rather speak out in defense of reason. In her own words, she is “too delicate” for that.

Let’s contrast that position against some relevant facts. Religious ideologies are still causing untold harm to millions of innocent people. (Personally, I’m far more embarrassed to share a species with monsters like this than I ever have been by anything Richard Dawkins has said.) Theocrats the world over hold the explicit goal of conquering the planet and forcing everyone to think like them (although some would settle for a compromise solution of suicidally annihilating themselves and their enemies in a blaze of glory). Religious groups in America, in Europe and elsewhere openly lobby against human rights and express their fond wishes of returning women, gays and atheists to second-class status. This is a battle of ideas that needs to be fought. If Quan doesn’t wish to join the effort, she has every right to excuse herself and opt out. But to cast aspersions on people who do want to fight back? That’s rather like a snobby member of the nouveau riche who ridicules the idea of donating to charity, because why would anyone with good taste ever want to help those nasty, smelly poor people?

Quan’s next point is that atheists who oppose religion must deny its cultural fruits:

If you champion the splendors and benefits of Western culture, while claiming to oppose religion entirely, you are, metaphorically speaking, tone deaf.

…Run from religion, if you must, but you can’t hide from song, sculpture, poetry, architecture, painting, tourism or food…. Religion has given us some rather fabulous architecture, a lot of excellent paintings, a variety of head coverings – from yarmulkes through wimples, veils and turbans – which I, for one, find fascinating.

I’m sure the wonderful diversity of religious head coverings makes up for all the blood that has been shed through the ages, but never mind that. So, according to Quan, if we don’t believe that religion is true, we can’t appreciate anything that has been created by religious people? This is just silly. That claim appears to be more a straw man of her invention than something actually advocated by the outspoken atheists she finds so uncouth and embarrassing.

We do not have to throw Michaelangelo’s David or the sheet music of Mozart’s Requiem on the scrap heap just because we’re atheists. In like manner, we don’t have to consider the Parthenon or the Pyramids to be worthless rubble just because the gods believed in by their builders are long dead. As I’ve said many times, atheists can and do admire the human ingenuity and craftsmanship that went into creating great works of religious art and literature. We just don’t share the beliefs that lie behind them. These are not inconsistent positions! In fact, they are fully in accord with our stance that the credit for humanity’s achievements should go where it belongs – to human beings.

Einstein found religion “childish” but described atheists as creatures who, harboring a grudge, were resistant to “the music of the spheres.” In other words, resentful puritans.

I don’t know who in particular Einstein was referring to, but I find it absurd to claim that today’s atheists lack proper reverence for the majesty and mystery of the cosmos. I’ve written about the topic many times myself, as have others. Again, Quan indulges in the fallacy so often used by religious apologists – to link religion with the good things of life such as art, music and science – and then assert that to throw out one is to discard all the others. In reality, these things are not the property of religion. Though atheists lack belief in God, we can and do share all the other aspects of human cultural and scientific history.

Quan does give glancing acknowledgement to the reason why atheists often feel compelled to speak out:

Yes, religion can be abusive, and we’re often told that religion causes war. When people kill each other in the name of religious identity, it’s sickening. If I thought evangelical atheism could end violence, I would be happy to tolerate the embarrassment factor. But I’m not convinced it can.

Why is she not convinced it can? This is really the central claim of Quan’s entire essay – that the “excesses” of evangelical atheism serve no good purpose – which makes it all the more astonishing that she does not even attempt to defend it.

For that matter, it’s not even clear exactly what Quan is asserting. What precisely is the claim here? Is she saying that religious people are going to keep killing each other over differences in belief forever, so we might as well just accept that the violence will continue and stop trying to do anything about it? That would be an astonishingly bleak and fatalist position. Or is she saying that we could stop the violence, but only through a different strategy? If so, she doesn’t even hint at what that other strategy might be. What purpose does it serve to complain if you don’t have an alternative to offer?

Let’s now look at the real consequences if all atheists were to be as mild and passive as Tracy Quan would like. Here’s some words on that topic from someone who ought to know – Taslima Nasrin, the courageous Bangladeshi freethinker and feminist who’s been hounded out of her home country by violent fanatics calling for her death. On one occasion, she was physically attacked by elected legislators belonging to a Muslim political party. Now India is stalling her request for asylum because the government, though majority Hindu, is fearful of a backlash from Islamists. Here’s what Ms. Nasrin had to say about this:

“I told the truth. I cannot resist from telling the truth. Freedom of expression means the freedom to offend people. If you can’t offend others, how can you change society?

…When the so-called secular people, only because of votes, bow their head in front of fundamentalists and appease them, then they destroy the country. That is the most dangerous thing.”

Personally, I will never be embarrassed by a brave woman like Taslima Nasrin, who has faced more bigotry and danger than most Western atheists ever will. I hope she continues to speak out, and I hope many other atheists join her.

I understand that some people dislike confrontation. And I grant that the work of confronting comfortable prejudices is uncomfortable, risky, sometimes even dangerous. But that is no reason to abstain, because the alternative – letting the loudest-voiced religious bigots have their way – is not an option. We will fight back, and we should fight back. Anyone who’s too delicate for confrontation does not have to participate; but if so, I politely suggest to these people that they get out of our way, and who do care enough to risk discomfort in the name of standing up for free thought and human rights.

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