Atheism has a problem. Our loudest voices (I refuse to call them leaders, and many would deny that title, and a few of those even believe it when they do so) have been behaving in a disgusting fashion. From holding one theistic belief system as inherently worse than others despite plenty of evidence within and without otherwise to engaging in at best sleazy and at worst oppressive and criminal behavior, but that is not the problem. No our problem is a smug dismissal of what we know to be the reasons people cling to religion. We poke fun, attempting to paint the faithful as stupid for holding out hope for the next world when so much needs fixing right here. I think my friend, Jay Branscomb (the fellow who started the ball rolling on those hilarious Steven Speilberg-Triceratops memes) put it best.
Religion is the hope of the hopeless. When a man has no sense of destiny control or a reasonable hope for improvement, the 12 virgins in Paradise start to seem like a pretty good deal. Are you going to reason with him? Will you be quoting Hitchens, Dawkins, or Harris in your efforts to dissuade?
Perhaps, instead, you will choose to stand for things that will ameliorate his sense of desperation? Isn’t that the conversation we should be having if we want to extinguish superstition?
We talk the talk about making the world a better place and the extreme among us claim extinguishing religion is the way to go about doing it (though I am very frightened about just how you think you are going to do that) but what do we really offer? Too many of our ranks side with the likes of Penn Jillette, “rationalists” that quite irrationally put forth the idea somehow being asked to contribute to a civil society is the same as blackmailing them or worse. We count among our more prominent public faces the likes of the horribly racist Sam Harris and the casually sexist Richard Dawkins (and late the less than casual about it Christopher Hitchens.) Too many of our “best and brightest” adhere to utterly illogical traditions, ideas that oppress most of humanity, yet, because they put a pseudoscientific window dressing on it, we actually consider it legitimate debate.
We want the “sheep” to stop letting themselves be herded yet we offer them no greener pastures to graze. If we want to lessen the grip of religion on peoples lives (which I am not sure is a worthy goal but more on that another time) why not offer them some hope before the beyond? Yes organized religion has contributed to the ills of the world, but so has racism, class oppression, sexism. Making religion less of a factor in our world, and certainly our public policy means attacking all of those problems, not laying them at the feet of one aspect of our societies.
I have often said religion is a “crutch, cudgel, and get out of jail free card all in one,” and to a degree I still see things that way. I still see religion, all religion, especially those that get a pass from liberal movements, as complacency doctrine, promising a better world after so we do not work for a better one now. That said I wonder how much of the motivation among atheist thinkers is just a fun house mirror image of the same, convincing those among us that would defend the defenseless to stand aside because it is hopeless in the face of their “delusion.” Cruel indifference to suffering is not a strictly conservative Christian, Republican thing. One need only read or listen to Ayn Rand, Penn Jillette, or Sam Harris to know that. My challenge to my fellow atheists is to truly examine all the issues facing humanity and to stand up and do the hard work to fix them. Maybe if children were no longer starving, if men and women were not butchered for the color of their skin, if the young of the poor were not economically blackmailed into killing and dying for the benefit of their “betters” people would not be so ready to see an unknowable reward as the only way to make it through a chaotic and frightening universe. At the very least that is a more productive plan than pointing, laughing, and patting ourselves on the back.