What Would You Say to the Religion Professor Who’s Had It With ‘Strident,’ ‘Bullying’ New Atheists? November 8, 2013

What Would You Say to the Religion Professor Who’s Had It With ‘Strident,’ ‘Bullying’ New Atheists?

John Carlson loves him some Albert Camus. Carlson is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University; Camus (1913-1960) was the famously godless French novelist and essayist.

On the Huffington Post, Carlson writes fondly about Camus, because the Frenchman

… offers a powerful counter-example to the stridency and animus of the “new atheism” associated with Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others. Indeed Camus makes us long for the days of the “old atheism” when religious people weren’t mocked for their so-called irrational beliefs; bullied by the charge that “religion poisons everything”; and told to step aside while secularism sweeps clean the religious debris from public life.

Nothing new there. When, post-9/11, atheists no longer felt forced to use only their inside voice, people of faith — and the media — were quick, almost gleeful, to attach the adjective “strident” to the noun “atheist,” as if the two are conjoined twins.

Does it get old? Not to Carlson. Hardly a picture of originality, he uses the term repeatedly.

[U]nbelievers [shouldn’t] throw their strident atheism in the face of believers. In this polarizing era of ours, we do well to recall the grace and humility of Albert Camus and model of cooperative engagement he exemplified. The new atheism offers nothing comparable at the very time when moral and political struggles — among them against religious extremism — threaten and implicate believers and unbelievers alike.

A couple of things are missing from his superficial analysis, starting with the fact that he charges, without much regard for historical perspective, that new atheists are “bullies.” The reality is that for fifteen hundred years or more, religious people have been telling infidels they’ll burn in lakes of fire for eternity. Spreading that message wasn’t limited to a few zealots; rather, it was prevailing theology, passed down from the highest echelons of the Church. Talk about bullying!

And for close to a millennium, being found out as an atheist all too often meant persecution, imprisonment, torture, forced conversion, and death — thuggery perpetrated by men of the Church and the state alike, who all claimed to do God’s business. I’d say that kind of actual violence goes a damn sight farther than “bullying,” wouldn’t you? Are we supposed to brush that chapter aside, but believe that when academics like Harris and Dawkins retreat to their studies and tap away at their keyboards in scholarly fashion, they’re the real bullies?

We can forgive, but not forget. Now that most of humanity — minus many Islamic states — has emerged from religion’s blood-drenched reign of terror, surely we, as non-theists, may finally breathe free … and exercise our voice. And when we do, it’s a little much to find John Carlson and his crowd berating us, like arrogant ayatollahs, for not speaking quietly and reverently enough.

The other thing that Carlson conspicuously fails to acknowledge is that there’s a vast difference in religious culture between Camus’ fatherland — France — and the United States.

The U.S. has been, for the past century and maybe longer, by far the more overtly pious society (wearyingly so, to this born-and-bred European). In France, however, secularism is the norm. French public servants, from the President on down, rightly consider it a bit gauche to even mention their God belief or church visits, if any:

Religious considerations are generally considered incompatible with reasoned political debate. Of course, political leaders may openly practice their religion … but they are expected to differentiate their beliefs from their actions.

Wish that it were so in the United States. Here, elected officials are a rare exception if they make it into office without frequently invoking the Almighty, however cursorily (of course, most American politicians are happy to stress their religiosity, and often — gotta shake loose those votes).

It’s perhaps instructive to note that France is officially a secular republic, and has been since before Camus was born. Article 1 of its Constitution states: “La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale” (“laïque” means secular). Try amending the U.S. Constitution with a clause like that. Most of the country will get its proverbial pitchforks and its Bibles ready, the better to ward off the encroaching demons of secularism.

I’ll venture a guess that many French Christians considered Camus plenty strident in his time. But even if, in France, he was truly as sweet as a madeleine and as pliable as caoutchouc, he might well have turned out louder and more vociferous if he’d been an American unbeliever.

Nothing says New Atheists can’t come to an understanding with people of faith. But neither will we walk on eggshells anymore. Au contraire, as Camus might say. Giving offense is not our goal; then again, if our unvarnished arguments make God-believers have to fan themselves in distress, so be it.

Atheists in America haven’t only emerged from the closet; we’ve taken the fucking door off the thing. For people like Carlson to “long for the old atheism,” as he puts it, is wishful thinking — divorced from reality but no doubt soothing. Much like religion itself, come to think of it.

(cartoon via Reddit)

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