The Dangerous Problem With Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher’s Militant Atheism

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If nothing else, history should teach us to be wary of those who think they’ve found The Answer. The world today is full of such people — and disappointingly, two of the most obnoxious examples come from the world of secularism. Step forward, Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, both in the news this week for making stupid comments about Ahmed Mohamed and his clock, and for whom The Answer is the sort of thing that appeals greatly to tenth graders just discovering Nietszche and/or The Cure: it’s RELIGION that’s responsible for the world’s ills! If you’ve been an anti-authoritarian adolescent, you’ve been there: the revelation that it’s ALL A SCAM, that every conflict that’s been fought over religion has involved ULTERIOR MOTIVES, that maybe we’d all be better off if religion was just ABOLISHED!

I’m an atheist, so I tend to agree with most of the ideas that Dawkins and Maher and their ilk are promoting. But boy, do they ever go about it the wrong way. Look at the T-shirt Dawkins is sporting so proudly in his Twitter picture: “RELIGION,” it proclaims, “Together we can find the cure.” That’s… uncomfortable, to say the least. If you replace “religion” with pretty much any other descriptor of difference — “homosexuality,” “blackness,” “feminism,” etc. — then the slogan starts to take on some pretty nasty aspects. And even with “RELIGION” in the firing line, there’s something obnoxious and dehumanizing about characterizing your ideological foes as suffering from some sort of mental affliction.

Dawkins might argue that this is a pithy slogan, and that religiosity is aptly characterized as a disease in that it involves causing active damage to the people and communities that it “infects.” But if he’s going to sum up his beliefs in a one-word slogan, it should be this: “INTOLERANCE.” There are moderates in every religion; they are habitually drowned out by their extremist brethren, but that process is aided by the people outside of that religion identifying the religion as a whole with its most extremist advocates.

You might argue, “OK, but why is it that those extremists always come to the fore?” Despite what the “Islam is violent” crew will have you believe, this is not a problem with any one religion — at some point, any of the most prominent human religions have been the religion of the sword (and yes, that includes Buddhism, which has been the pretext for religious repression and continues to be so to this day). But is it a problem with religion as a whole?

The obvious and easy answer is “yes,” and the world would be better off without religion. Of course, it’s impossible to know how world history would have played out if we could wave a magic wand and banish the concept of religion from ever forming in the minds of humanity. But — and, of course, we’re moving entirely into the realm of the hypothetical here — I suspect that it mightn’t be as different as radical atheists like to think. When we look at the underlying reasons behind pretty much any conflict, we can reduce them to two things: land and resources. They have this, we want it. Those reasons aren’t mitigated by simply removing a holy book from the equation.

But, OK, let’s hypothetically subtract religion from some of the world’s most persistent conflicts. Without Islam and Judaism, Israel and Palestine remains a mess: you’ve got two ethnically discrete groups claiming historical rights to the same land, with millennia worth of bad blood augmented by the 1948 settlement, whereby Israel was carved with a jagged knife out of what used to be Palestine. Even without the Reformationist schism between the Catholic Church and the Lutherans, and Henry VIII’s subsequent divorce-driven opportunism, the conflict in Northern Ireland would involve a colonial power refusing to relinquish control of a geographically separate land occupied by a separate ethnocultural group. And so on.

Religion in and of itself isn’t the problem; it’s when that religion is leveraged as a way of portraying those who do not share it as somehow less than human or worthy of contempt. You might argue that history shows us that religion is inevitably fated to be used in this way, and you’d probably be right. But if it wasn’t religion, it’d most likely be something else. Sure, their choice of supreme being is something that people tend to feel strongly about, and thus it’s a great way of getting the poor and disenfranchised to fight for you. But so is race, and class, and any number of other social constructs.

And let’s not pretend that atheism is any different: for all its claims to being founded in cold rationality, atheism underpinned some of the most repressive and unpleasant regimes of the 20th century, and militant secularism isn’t really any different from militant theocracy if you’re the one getting ground beneath its boot heel. Again, this ultimately comes back to intolerance: the first step in instigating any sort of conflict is to find ways of dehumanizing the people on the other side of the fence. This is why the likes of Dawkins and Maher are so frustrating — they like to think that their ideas are founded in cold rationality, but they entirely miss the deeper point, the one that requires actual thought instead of sloganeering and bloviating rhetoric.

People can believe that the universe was created by God or Allah or a giant purple cheese monster, so long as those beliefs don’t end up hurting anyone else. If those beliefs are used a pretext for oppression, then the people doing the oppression are certainly worthy of condemnation. But if they’re not, then the people holding them should be treated with the same compassion and tolerance we extend to everyone else.

Some of our greatest scientists have been religious, and some others have been secular. Galileo, perhaps the most famous victim of Catholic persecution, remained a devout Christian throughout his life. The Church in the Middle Ages was undoubtedly a repressive institution, and remains so, but the politics and scheming that underpinned its machinations would most likely have expressed themselves in a similar way had Christianity never been a thing.

The repression of science in the Middle Ages occurred because concepts like Copernicanism challenged the idea of a static universe founded on a strict and immutable hierarchy — which, of course, was a model of the universe that preserved the privilege and power of those who already had it. That’s a political construct as much as anything else, and if it hadn’t been religion deployed as a way of preserving that construct, it’s hard to believe that monarchs and princelings wouldn’t have found something else to do the same job. (And, of course, it was ultimately the threat of being at the wrong end of a sword that ultimately preserved that idea, not the threat of eternal damnation.)

The point I’m making here is that religion is no more inherently oppressive than any other human idea — which is not to say I’m defending religion; I’m just making the point that humans, being what we are, will find a million things to fight about, and until we deal with that tendency, then all our finger-pointing will be in vain. Maher and Dawkins’ grandstanding reflects the sort of absolutism that’s great for building a personal brand, because throughout history, we’ve seen that those who shout loudest are those who tend to get heard. But that kind of rhetoric is about as much use as a square wheel in actually solving anything. Religious conflict is a symptom of much deeper causes, causes that are generally founded in, yes, land and resources. And you don’t solve those conflicts with a pithy slogan on a T-shirt.