Fanatical atheism is no worse and no better than fanatical religion, though it may be more bitterly ironic. There is something pretty odd, dare I say hypocritical, about a bunch of people who call themselves “freethinkers” and “humanists” not only verbally abusing people of faith, but actually tearing up verses from the Bible as an act of protest, as they did on a pier in Huntington Beach, California Saturday morning. It doesn’t sound terribly humane to me, and I am quite sure that destroying texts, however much one may object to them, is the opposite of free thought.
15 members of a group called “Backyard Skeptics,” proved nothing so much as their own ability to act out in the name of no God, in precisely the same obnoxious ways which they associate, too often accurately, with how they are treated by people of faith. Are we really still at the level of needing to recall that two wrongs don’t make a right? Apparently we are. So let me try.
If atheists/agnostics/freethinkers/humanists object to being insulted and talked down to by people of faith, as well they should, perhaps they should refrain from the same behavior. While they may not draw on traditions such as “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “Love your enemy,” there are plenty of parallel teachings in secular thought which are just as ennobling.
Of course, the issue is not the availability of teachings regarding the dignity of those with whom we disagree. Such teachings can be found in virtually every spiritual and intellectual tradition I know, at least any one publicly claimed by those typically engaged in these public demonstrations, be they “Backyard Skeptics” or Koran-burning Pastors to recall a story from last year.
The issue is making the choice to read as seriously those teachings which dignify the lives and faiths of those with whom we disagree, as we do those teachings which don’t. That we fail to do so, so often, says more about us than about the traditions we follow. It’s about the perennial need, felt by so many people, to undermine the beliefs of others in order to feel good about the beliefs which animate their own lives.
If one really can be “good without God” as the California protestors’ signs proclaimed, then why not be so, and let the proof be in the experience of their living? This was not a case of their rights as atheists being abridged in the name of other people’s faith. If it were, I would likely be on their side even though we disagree about God.
No, this was simply one more time when people fanatically attached to their own view of things felt that their sense of things was so true, it justified trampling on the views and sensitivities of others. More than anything, what these people proved was the old adage that the longer that parties are involved in a conflict, the more alike they become.
Imagine the culture wars if more people of faith actually recovered the kind of humility which all faiths supposedly teach. Now imagine also fanatical atheists who freed themselves of the very fanaticism of which they claim to be free because that is only a problem with religious people.
Oh wait, if that happened, we wouldn’t have culture wars. Difference and disagreement? To be sure. But the kind of ugly street theater that was played out in Huntington Beach, no.