I recently read a piece on USA Today’s Religion blog and saw an entry about atheism in the US. There isn’t much new there, in fact, I saw something that is now very commonly said but which is really not true:

The reputation of atheists has not been well-served by the surly attacks on religion by some of atheism’s highest-profile torch carriers. From the best-selling atheist manifestos of recent years to Bill Maher’s new Religulous movie, the loudest voices of non-belief have exhibited much of the same stridency and flair for polemics as the religious fundamentalists they excoriate.

I often hear how horrible it is that there are actually (gasp!) outspoken and candid atheists in the world. Why, these “uppity” people need to be put in their place! How dare they be as open, honest, and uncompromising about their non-belief, as militant theist are about their beliefs!

This entry goes on to talk about one champion of the non-confrontational “positive atheism” and compares her with those evil “militant atheist” types whose ferocity must be stomped out:

[Margaret] Downey does not move in the ways of the late atheist spokesperson Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who was known for her caustic mockery of religion and its followers. And despite Downey’s friendship with the outspoken atheist author Richard Dawkins, of The God Delusion fame (who likens the religious indoctrination of kids to child abuse), Downey is more interested in building bridges than walls.

While it is true that the oft-maligned late Madalyn Murray O’Hair wasn’t known for her tact or diplomacy skills, and Dawkins can be extreme in his commentary, I do not agree that it is necessarily “bad” to have such people speaking out about their atheism. After all, religion has its champions who are hardly very diplomatic themselves — but I never see articles or commentary saying they should keep quiet. Among these militant theists, I would list (click on the links to view their intemperate, ardently pro-religionist comments):

Marion “Pat” Robertson
Jerry Falwell
Fred Phelps

These are just three of religionism’s champions … I could easily have listed 10 times as many more had I wished to. Despite their words — which in most cases are as bad as, or worse than, Dawkins’s infamous “child abuse” remark — I’m aware of no “positive theism” movement to counter them, akin to this “positive atheism” movement.

The fact is that we live in a free society; by definition, this means that many different voices will speak to many different issues in many different ways. Not all of them will be flattering, and it is not reasonable to expect them all to be so. There was a time when atheists like O’Hair or Dawkins would have been ostracized or worse for having said the things they did. (One can argue that O’Hair was, in fact, blackballed, eventually.) For a couple of centuries after they began cropping up in the Enlightenment, non-believers had to be very temperate and artful in their commentary and remain in the shadows, cloaking their non-belief in various labels or stating their opinions carefully so as not to offend the believing masses. Atheists of all stripes — including Margaret Downey and others of the “positive atheism” movement — ought therefore to be glad that the “militant atheists” they so dislike are able to say what they do and still go about their lives.

Finally, the vast majority of atheists and other non-believers generally remain quite reserved about their lack of belief and are in no way “militant.” In the US especially, they cannot — even in the 21st century — afford to offend the majority who still believe and still demand that everyone else believe. It is laughable to presume that all atheists are of the O’Hair/Dawkins sort. This presumption is effectively a “straw man” that theists use against atheists. But as with all other “straw men,” this is a fallacy, one that need not be validated by atheists themselves. That “militant atheists” represent the sum total of all atheism everywhere, is simply mythical, not real.

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