Neal Larson, public intellectual and social philosopher. Slayer of dragons and defender of liberty.
In a recent editorial, Idaho Falls conservative talk show host and thinker of sophisticated thoughts Neal Larson took a moment to stand up to oppression. No, he didn’t argue against exploitative labor practices or in favor of fair wages. No, he didn’t take a stand against police brutality or speak up for marriage equality. Nor did he bother to mention the fact that the United States has become a functional oligarchy. Instead, he targeted something far more insidious: people who don’t share his religious beliefs and dare to express their contrarian opinions in public. Recently, militant atheism has become a blight upon society, as a minority of iron-fisted tyrants have taken it upon themselves to uphold the basic civil liberties expressed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and publicly express thoughtful opinions concerning the value and veracity of religious belief.
For a number of reasons, I hesitate to draw attention to this sort of whiny, myopic drivel. For one thing, it’s far too easy a target. There’s no challenge in lambasting a blubbering fool for putting his flaccid intellect on public display. It’s like a steroid riddled professional football team trouncing the weakest members of a small-town pee-wee league. It also has the unsavory consequence of giving these types of showboating snake-oil salesmen exactly what they’re after: attention. But at the same time, the ridiculous fantasy that is “militant” atheism seems to be gaining traction among folks whose primary hobby seems to revolve around the invention of repressive bogeymen.
I have a confession: I’m guilty of discrimination against militant, activist atheists. I simply don’t like them. If there were an epithet to describe them, I’d probably use it regularly. I would refuse to vote for a proud and vocal atheist for high office, regardless of any offsetting credentials.
I’m not talking about those who struggle with faith, or have simply resigned themselves to not knowing, or those who cannot reconcile the horrors and miseries that life offers at times, with the existence of a loving God. Those are examples of unintrusive atheism. I have good friends who are agnostic, and I enjoy their friendship. I do have a problem, however, with those who proselytize and demand that the rest of us cater to their unbelief, as though that unbelief is itself a virtue worthy of our nurture and respect.
Apparently Larson is sympathetic to the view that it is only okay to disagree with the religious majority if you keep quiet about it. This, of course, is both absurd and directly indicative of real intolerance (rather than the imaginary kind he’s so bravely combating in his editorial). For Larson – and countless others like him – doubt is only permissible if you don’t tell anyone about it. Virtuous, on the other hand, are boisterous expressions of credulous faith.
Query: why is it okay for the religious to travel about the world, trumpeting their beliefs door to door, but not okay for an atheist to do likewise? Proselytizing is a praiseworthy endeavor for the religious, but should an unbeliever even raise concerns that said beliefs – under any basic criteria of rationality or empirical evaluation – are a bit on the dubious side, they are labelled “militant”. Such a dichotomy is patently absurd.
No less so is the very use of the word “militant” to describe a group of people who are nothing of the sort. To quote the esteemed philosopher Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” To characterize a person who raises valid concerns over potential violations of the Establishment Cause of the U.S. Constitution as “militant” is to rob militancy of its basic meaning. That a publicly voiced perspective makes people uncomfortable does not make said perspective militant. By contrast, I might point to the minority of Islamic believers justifiably grouped under the moniker “militant Islam”. There are many contrasts one might draw between the purportedly militant atheist and the objectively militant Islamist, but I’ll stick to the most salient: the militant Islamist has a nasty predilection toward killing people who disagree with him. Where is the consistency in grouping atheists, whose crimes might include objecting to the use of public prayer in certain civic arenas, or wishing someone (hold onto your seats here) “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”, under the same label as people who saw people’s heads off and fly airplanes into buildings packed with civilians?
Among Larson’s exceptionally facile examples of religious persecution on behalf of so-called “militant” atheists, he lists the following:
A professor at the College of Coastal Georgia banned students from using the phrase “bless you” in class, threatening to dock points from an offending student’s final grade.
Let us all recall the quiet, glass-eyed anguish of Mr. Kurtz as we collectively gasp: “The horror! The horror!” Never mind the months of counseling it will take that professor’s students to recover from the trauma they experienced under his brutal tutelage. We’ll also, for convenience sake, ignore the fact that Larson’s telling misrepresents the facts of the story so severely that it’s hard to believe he’s not being deliberately disingenuous (not very Christ-like, Mr. Larson). Let’s instead take Larson’s distorted reporting as a hypothetical example and focus on the fact that, far from being militant, such a professor would have made him something much more nefarious: an asshole. This is a soubriquet that should be familiar to professional alarmists like Larson. When the dark clouds roll in and the Day of Judgment finally arrives, I like to think Jesus will separate not only the sheep from the goats, but the petty, thin-skinned weasels and charlatans (read: manipulative assholes) like Larson from the rest of the pack. There was nothing even vaguely militant about what the hypothetical professor was up to. Tactless and pedantic sure, but to cast such behavior as militant, and said militancy as somehow characteristic of entire demographic, is both crude and inane.
In the interest of illustration, let’s turn this cherry-picking game of cavalier generalizations on its head. One might (in a very generous estimation) waste a day listing the people who have done physical harm in the name of atheism. On the other hand, enumerating all the violence and misery that has been wrought in the name of just one religion – let’s say Christianity – would consume a lifetime. Which worldview is the more savage, the more militant? To the rational and fair-minded, the answer is clear.
Of course, not being a slobbering knuckle-dragger possessed of a worldview informed primarily by the fictional works of Ayn Rand and the mystical hokum produced by the inhabitants of the Iron & Bronze Age Levant, I’m reluctant to characterize an entire belief system in this way. Religion has, without a doubt, been the direct cause of absolutely gigantic amounts of human suffering. This point is beyond argument. Atheism, on the other hand, has not (no, the regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot were not motivated by atheism). Millions of lives have been sacrificed in the name of piety. Few, if any, have been sacrificed in the name of unbelief. Nevertheless, it would still be unfair for me to paint all of Christianity as militant.
Let’s be clear: religious belief is absolutely untenable for anyone who accepts the proposition that justifiable knowledge is rooted exclusively in the rational analysis of empirical evidence. Faith and reason are mutually exclusive worldviews. One can have one and employ the other (cognitive dissonance, after all, is not a rare phenomenon), but the standards of reason are not commensurable with the standards of faith. The application of one stimulates social, technological, and intellectual progress, the other virtually ensures stagnation. Am I being militant is expressing this opinion? Absolutely not. If you disagree, might I humbly suggest that you take a few days (weeks, months – however long it takes) and grow a fucking backbone.
It shouldn’t escape notice how vastly undemocratic and hypocritical Larson’s ideas of discrimination and persecution are. Larson argues that atheists have “created out of thin air a right to not be offended. If everyone asserts this manufactured right, we have created hell on earth.” This is utter nonsense. His very argument explicitly expresses the notion that religious belief deserves a privileged station in the arena of social discourse. By expressing his offense in the face of atheist criticism, he is implicitly endorsing the position that the religious have their own special right not to be offended, not the other way around. Criticism and debate are hallmarks of a healthy, democratic society. The idea that any belief is sacred is anathema in a free society. By arguing that people who disagree with him are somehow usurping his rights, Larson and like minded individuals beckon ridicule, both of themselves and the beliefs they purport to defend. This, however, is unsurprising. The conservative definition of liberty has always been perilously circumscribed: that everyone, everywhere, has an inalienable right to think and behave in manner corresponding to whatever wobbly and inconsistent interpretation of the teachings of the Bible, Atlas Shrugged, and – to a lesser extent – An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nation is in vogue at the time.
The fundamental point is that no belief system should be sheltered from the scrutiny – however harsh – of competing perspectives. In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson said “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” Larson is wrong on nearly every point he makes, and comes off as petty and ignorant in the process. But he has a right to express his stupid opinions, just as much as I have a right to eviscerate them. John Stuart Mills’ metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas” is widely held as a core principle in judging the success or failure of the American Experiment. When organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation issue a challenge, it is in service of protecting – not subverting – that ideal. Prayer and religious doctrine have no place at a public high school football game or in the classroom of public schools, not because they bother atheists, but because they serve to silence inquiry and debate and implicitly reference the sort of exclusionary worldview many conservatives champion. A Christian Nation for a Christian People. Atheists have a right to challenge Christianity’s political hegemony in the United States. Exercising that right isn’t any more militant than the behavior of a Christian evangelist who tells people that disagreeing with their beliefs will buy you a one way ticket to eternal suffering. Both behaviors are defined and protected as rights in the United States. This is a point I can’t stress enough. Those who feel offended when someone takes them to task on the absurdity of their beliefs might do well to find less absurd beliefs. Barring that, they might take the time to cultivate a less childish perspective on civil discourse in the marketplace of ideas.