Although atheists are united by their lack of faith, there are important differences between their attitudes towards religion. Here are some guidelines to help identify some of these variations.
Although one sometimes sees the phrase ‘militant atheists’ bandied around, in practice you are unlikely to be troubled by anyone using violent means to further their godless agenda.
However it is of course the case that regimes have sometimes used violence and intimidation to promote atheism. During the Cultural Revolution in China places of worship were burned down in an attempt to eliminate religion completely. In the Soviet Union, although the degree of repression, varied over the decades, violence was often employed in order to clamp down on religion. In 1937 alone it is thought that 85,000 Orthodox priests were killed by the state.
Happily the atheists you may encounter either in the real or virtual world are unlikely to be quite so bloodthirsty. But there are certainly different atheist schools of thought, and it’s useful to be able to distinguish between some of these.
The most vocal and visible of these is New Atheism. New atheists are intent on actively criticising and countering belief itself, as well as the abuses and injustices which they perceive to be the direct consequence of religion. The best known New Atheist is of course Richard Dawkins. It’s very important to note that he is opposed to all religion and doesn’t, as so many do, just pick on Islam. However as this site is concerned with anti-Muslim bigotry, I’ll focus on his attitude towards Islam here.
This is quite usefully summed up, I think, by two recent tweets. Here’s the first:
“Yes, bigoted prejudice against Muslims exists, and is deplorable. That doesn’t mean all criticism of Islam is bigoted prejudice.”
That seems fair enough. But I’m less sure about this.:
“Only fools think criticism of Islam=”Islamophobia”. But there are enough fools to ensure “Islamophobia” accusation is effective propaganda.”
In my opinion accusations of Islamophobia are sometimes weaponised to silence dissent and smear the motives of those with reasoned concerns about particular people or events. However some charges of Islamophobia seem fully justified – this is most clearly the case when the term ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’ could work just as well, although I don’t think it is possible to completely separate criticism of Muslims from criticism of Islam, even though I don’t think any ideology should be immune from scrutiny or mockery.
The permeability of the boundary between criticism of Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry is perhaps reflected in the fact Richard Dawkins chose to retweet this.
“RT @J_P_70: @RichardDawkins I was going to the Maldives, but cancelled trip. Going to Cancun instead. No muslims there I hope! #maldives #fuckyou #islam …)”
Now, he did apologise and I genuinely don’t think the tweet accurately reflects his own views, but I can’t blame Muslims, and others, for taking offence. And to take offence certainly does not (necessarily) equate to wanting to silence or censor his views. He and others like him are legitimate, if abrasive, voices in this complex debate. However he certainly doesn’t speak for me.
What other atheists might you encounter? Probably, for the most part, people who never think it necessary to refer to their lack of faith online, even when discussing a topic connected to religion. Moving over this phlegmatic middle ground – and a lot of atheists belong here – you eventually arrive at those atheists whom Newer atheists like to call accommodationists.
Chris Stedman is typical of this increasingly vocal group. He is the author of a book called Faitheism which charts his own loss of (Christian) faith, and his continuing efforts to find common ground with people from all religions. Recently he co-wrote this article with Qasim Rashid, making a case for atheists to come together with Muslims to campaign for human rights and freedom of conscience and expression:
“Civility also builds trust. By engaging in respectful discourse, we ensure two things. First, that even the most sensitive questions about the other’s beliefs can be asked—as they should be—without censorship. Thus, we do not avoid important or difficult questions out of fear of “offending” the other. Second, regardless of whether we agree on an issue, we emerge with significantly more appreciation for one another and significantly less ignorance. In the end, that knowledge is of priceless benefit.”
There is incivility on both sides of the divide – whether it’s dehumanising anti-kuffar bigotry or sneers at sky fairies, and disparaging comments about theists’ intelligence. Sometimes context may affect how you respond to sharp words. I can quite see why an ex-Muslim, who may have faced abuse, threats or ostracism, would not be greatly enamoured of Islam and would want to express that view pretty forcibly. Conversely, a Muslim, after dealing with a string of abusive EDL comments on Twitter, may not be ideally placed to spot that the snarky secularist who has just appeared in her time line actually has a very different agenda.
I’m a fervent secularist, but (despite sharing Kenan Malik’s concerns about multiculturalism as political process) I don’t favour the kind of secularism that shades into state atheism and seeks to impose illiberal restrictions on religion in the public sphere. Intolerant, hateful or extreme groups, individuals and ideas should be challenged without regard for religious sensibilities, yet as far as I’m concerned religion is only a problem – when it’s a problem. On a pragmatic note, I don’t think either atheists or theists are going to disappear any time soon, except via repressive or violent means, so, like Chris Stedman, I think it’s well worth us all trying to find some common ground.