Sunday, December 16, 2012

New atheists adopt the zealot's garb (Opinion)

atheist illustrationTHOSE on the lunatic fringe who live in fear of a Muslim invasion have a new threat to keep them up at night. 
 
And this one is real.

There's a new "religion" on the rise whose band of non-believers is becomingly increasingly bold, some would say militant, in not only pushing its own belief system but actively trying to shut down dissenting views.

Atheism is no longer just a quiet and personal celebration of reason, it has grown into a movement that is employing some of the tactics used by traditional religion to increase its following and influence.

This new brand of aggressive atheism has been inspired by people such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, and its aim is to drive religion out of public life.

Figures released last week revealed that a quarter of England and Wales's population identified themselves as having no religion, a figure that has doubled in the past 10 years.

The Census data also shows a significant decrease in the number of Christians, lending weight to a study conducted by the British Parliament this year that concluded that atheism could overtake Christianity within 20 years.

The increasing secularisation of England has resulted in bans on prayers at council meetings and even court cases over people's right to wear a cross at work.

The English data mirrors the Australian results with last year's Census showing 22.3 per cent of the population declaring themselves godless, an increase from 18.7 per cent in 2006.

The 2012 Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism confirms that this repudiation of religion is a worldwide trend, with even Ireland and the United States recording sharp declines in the number of people who consider themselves religious.

The global decline in faith is evident in countries as diverse as Vietnam, Ecuador, Switzerland and South Africa.

As an atheist, I can only celebrate this trend as a triumph of logic and critical thinking over centuries of irrational propaganda. It is instructive that the most religious corners of the world are the most impoverished with the lowest levels of education.

However, one cannot ignore the fact that the rise of atheism has come at a cost. The new breed of fundamentalist atheist has claimed an intellectual high ground where believers are ridiculed and their religion mocked.

The irony that such intolerance is normally displayed by religious zealots is lost on militant atheists.

Comedian Ricky Gervais sums up this attitude succinctly in a tweet he sent earlier this year: "We shouldn't even need the word 'atheism'. If people didn't invent ridiculous imaginary gods, rational people wouldn't have to deny them."

As much as I adore Gervais's comedy and identify with his atheism, there is something distasteful about an arrogance that fails to recognise any virtue in belief systems that provide comfort to millions.

I know a woman, a highly accomplished and intelligent woman, who lost her child in a car accident two years ago.

If it were not for her faith and an unshakeable belief that she'll see her boy again, I don't know if she would have survived.

Atheists might call that false hope or a reluctance to face reality, but what is gained by questioning a faith that helps a grieving mother cope with her loss?

Atheists are particularly keen at showing their disdain for Christianity, particularly the Catholic Church.

It's easy to be critical of the sexual abuse scandals and the sheer absurdity of a Pope who has embraced social media but condemns the use of condoms in African countries riddled with AIDS.

What is not so easy is to be consistent with that criticism when considering other religions.

With a few notable exceptions, such as Harris and the courageous Ayaan Hirsi Ali, most atheists shy away from any real criticism of Islam.

We can't even be sure about the level of atheism in the Muslim world, given that non-belief is punishable by death in some Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and Sudan.

One would hope that fact alone will eventually earn the contempt of fatwa-dodging atheists.

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