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Attack and Defense

Imagine No Religion - FFRF BillboardOne annoyingly common accusation levelled against atheists is that they “preach” atheism with evangelical fervor and promote atheism in an attempt to rid the world of religion. There are various versions of this claim, but a common thread is an implication that atheists have suddenly decided to make their lack of belief known by attacking the poor persecuted Christians (or Muslims or Jews, etc).

A couple days ago, I read this opinion piece by Reverend Eric Strachan which makes a similar accusation with special emphasis on the recent bus ad campaigns in London, Calgary, and Toronto. He mentions “the Christian era,” referring to something that was in the past.

In the Christian era there was a bit of a stigma associated with not believing in the existence of God, but in this postmodern era, with the focus on individual autonomy, and a move away from institutional religion, atheists by the score have come out of the closet, and they’re “preaching it, brother,” with evangelical fervour!

He seems to imply that we no longer live in “the Christian era.” It seems an absurd statement in a country where 85% of citizens are still admittedly some type of Christian… where Christians are continually making attempts to create legislation based on their 2,000-year-old holy book… where sham science organizations like the Discovery Institute continue to push their agenda to destroy science education in this country in favor of the supernatural.

As for the “stigma” involved, there is no minority group with a more negative stigma than atheists. In repeated surveys, atheists rank significantly below African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, and homosexuals in public acceptance. So Reverend Strachan’s statement seems to indicate a bit of ignorance regarding the current social stigma associated with atheism.

He states that there’s a “brash, strident boldness” about current atheists. I agree, for the most part. However, the insinuation is that atheists are just spreading their wings, as it were… growing bold just for the sake of promoting godlessness. That is where we disagree. Atheists, such as Reverend Strachan’s targeted Richard Dawkins, are speaking out more than ever in self defense; defense against the continued bombardment by religion, most prominently fundamentalist Christianity. That is the motivation that seems to remain unacknowledged by atheists’ accusers.

Fundamentalist religion has been insidiously working its way into every aspect of our lives including our schools and our government. It’s nothing new, but it’s increased drastically in the past eight years, no doubt due in part to George W. Bush’s administration, and it’s reached a point that is beyond unacceptable to people who don’t subscribe to superstition and magic.

After quoting Dawkins about the God of the Old Testament, Reverned Strachan continues…

[…] don’t be surprised if you’re walking through the mall some day and you run smack into it – as I say, atheism is out of the closet, preaching their gospel with a fierce pitbull militancy we’ve never before seen here in the Western world.

I’m somewhat amused by that statement, because if you replace “atheism” with “Christianity,” you’ll describe the situation that atheists have had to put up with for decades. Currently, not only do we see fundamentalists preaching on street corners, television, radio, and billboards, but we also have them knocking on the doors of our homes. Those minor aggravations, however, are acceptable uses of free speech and I’ll fight for the right for religious believers to do all of them.

The place where preaching has no place is in our government. However, it’s become more and more common to see politicians invoking God and Christianity in the House and Senate, attempting to create laws that have no basis other than biblical passages, and making statements about our country that probably would have made our founding fathers’ shoulders slump in dismay.

Public schools, as an extension of government, should also be religion-free zones when it comes to education and official school events. If “believers” want to throw science out the window and teach their kids that the Earth is 6,000 years old and the universe was created in 7 days, they can do it at home or in private schools. It’s irresponsible and reprehensible, but it’s their right. It is not their right, however, to try to pass off that kind of superstition as science to my child, or any child, in the public education system.

About midway through his article, Reverend Strachan and I meet quite nicely in agreement with regard to the bus advertisements.

“Let them be on,” I say. They’ll stimulate public interest, and encourage debate.

As Christians, we ought not to be saying, “Keep ads like that off the buses,” for fear they might influence people. Instead we ought to welcome them and see them as an opportunity to enter into the public arena with the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.

I think that’s commendable. I would say the same of religious bus advertisements, and would add as a side note that the “atheist” bus ads started as a direct response to religious “believe or go to Hell” bus ads in Britain. The idea of scaring children with the threat of eternal torment aside, it’s a matter of free speech and I’m all for that. Like Reverend Strachan, I also welcome the public interest, discussion, and debate. As long as it remains civil, it’s healthy and in my experience, can also be pleasant.

Sadly, we then diverge in opinion again as Reverend Strachan goes into a bit of preaching, including a rather ironic line about Christian apostolic ancestors having “died at the stake defending the faith.” I seem to recall, in my somewhat limited knowledge of history, a lot of people having been burned at the stake by Christians.

In the final bit, Reverend Strachan has good intentions and I agree with him in spirit if not in execution.

I like to ask atheists, “What kind of atheist are you?

Because ‘you’ don’t believe, are you saying that the God and Father of Jesus Christ can’t exist for anyone else?”

I then like to ask every atheist,” What percentage of the total knowledge that one could possibly acquire do you think you have?”

Interestingly, most answer around five per cent or thereabout. “Think again,” I say. “It’s more likely to be around .05 per cent!”

I then like to ask every atheist, “Do you think in the 99.95 per cent of knowledge that you don’t have, there could exist the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ?”

That’s a starting point for dialogue.

The questions and suppositions are silly and the percentages given as answers have no basis in reality. However, the effort is to create a starting point for dialogue and despite the silliness of the question, it probably does work quite well… as a starting point. Where it goes from there is what’s important and regardless of what side of the argument you’re on, dialogue is good.

I think that, overall, Reverend Strachan and I agree more than we disagree on this topic, at least in principle. Free speech that promotes dialogue is good… such as his opinion piece. The implication that atheists are not stigmatized or that we are just preaching our “gospel with a fierce pitbull militancy” to spread atheism is where we disagree.

Well… that and the whole “God” thing.

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