The actual revelation here is that the fever-swamps of the left are capable of generating unlimited amounts of nonsense and putting it on protest signs. And, that conservatives are still prone to respond with a kind of reflexive bigotry that undermines them even when they have valid points to make.
I’m one of those “militant atheists” Tatler and Publius Forum are ranting about. My position is slightly complicated by the fact that I’m also a neopagan mystic – but the sort of “religion” I practice is nontheistic and fully compatible with philosophical atheism. This is not as unusual as one might think: many neopagans and Buddhists could say the same.
In hopes that some conservatives might actually pay attention, I will now explain how “militant atheists” evaluate different religions and why Islam is actually the least likely of them to attract or seduce atheists. The model I’m about to convey is explicitly shared by one of the major “New Atheist” writers – Sam Harris – and I am in little doubt that the others in that group (notably Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett) would broadly approve of it.
To understand how militant atheists think about religion, you first have to understand that modern atheism is not simply against religion. It is for something; it opposes religion from a set of principles and values. Those principles first found expression in the French Enlightenment of the 1750s and the writings of men like Voltaire and Diderot. In later centuries they were further developed by (among others) Robert Ingersoll and Bertrand Russell.
Modern ‘militant atheists’ (including me) see themselves as the heirs of Voltaire, the children of the Enlightenment. Our rejection of theism is motivated by specific features of theistic religions. Two, in particular, stand out: (a) religious anti-rationality, and (b) religious violence. Not all religions are afflicted by these in equal measure.
To an atheist, religion A is worse than religion B when religion A requires belief in more anti-rational things than religion B does. More miracles, more superstition, more craziness. Religion A can also be worse than religion B by having a stronger tendency to erupt in violence – pogroms, witch-burnings, religious wars, conversion by the sword.
These compound into a sort of religious threat potential, the estimated likelihood that in any given year the believers are going to boil over into an irrationally murderous mob intent on putting unbelievers to the sword.
Atheists tend to broadly agree about the relative threat potential of major religions. Among those that come in very low on the toxicity scale we can include, for example, the more austere Theravada varieties of Buddhism. These are essentially systems of prescriptive psychology with almost no component of belief in a supernatural, and have no history of warfare or conversion by the sword. Threat potential: near zero.
We class other religions as low in toxicity but suspicious because of their historical roots. A good example of this class is the Baha’i Faith, which is a rather nice inoffensive little religion if you ignore that streak of Shi’a Islam in its past. Some of the quieter and more mystical Christian denominations, like Quakers, fall in this category as well – indeed, many Quakers are barely theistic themselves. I know of several atheists who deliberately adopted Quaker ritual for their weddings and didn’t surprise their atheist friends even a bit by doing so. Threat potential: low.
One Christian subgroup also gives us an example of a religion that maxes out the doctrinal-craziness scale while seeming relatively harmless on the violence front. That would be the Mormons. I mean, really – Amerinds as the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel? God lives on the planet Kolob and you get your own world to rule when you die? How do these people even take themselves seriously? Oh well, at least they seem to plan on inheriting the Earth by out-reproducing unbelievers rather than killing them. That’s something, even though it could easily change in the future. Threat potential: low to middling.
There’s also pretty general agreement on which religions are the toxic worst. These would be the religions that combine particularly crazy superstitions with a blood-soaked historical record. We atheists think of these as deadly memetic plagues, occasionally found in relatively well-behaved quiescent phases but prone to bloom into full-fledged insane murderousness whenever the next charismatic nutcase wanders along to remind them what they’re really about.
And which two religions are at the very top of the threat-potential list? No prizes for guessing that they are Christianity and Islam, not necessarily in that order. Both have relatively tolerable minorities (Christianity’s Quakers and Unitarians, Islam’s Sufis) but have extremely dangerous and powerful fundamentalist groups that effectively dominate the discourse inside their communities.
An accident of our time, post-9/11, is that Islam currently appears the more dangerous of the two. This is a case both Christoper Hitchens and myself on this blog have argued, despite our shared detestation of Christianity. And it’s why the notion that Western militant atheists would run en masse to Islam in preference to Christianity is especially absurd. That would be trading from bad to worse.