What Would the World Look Like if the New Atheists Won the Day?
On Christmas I had to run into the office briefly and discovered two new atheist books I'd ordered had arrived: Sean Faircloth's Attack of the Theocrats and Penn Jillette's God, No!. Nice Christmas present to myself! I've since read enough to report that they provide quite a contrast: The former suggests that religious people everywhere are trying to create "theocracy" and encourages atheists to hide their anti-religious goals, while the latter unashamedly shows that the real threat to religious freedom comes from new atheists themselves.
There's not a whole lot to say about Faircloth's book. Faircloth, formerly a member of the State Legislature in Maine who now serves as Director of Strategy and Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, operates under the paranoid assumption that most religious people (and certainly all religious leaders) are hell-bent on establishing theocracy in the United States. If you respect faith, then you're part of the dangerous "religious right."
While I'm sure that Faircloth's tried-and-tested brand of fear-mongering is great for fundraising appeals to his fellow atheists, whether it conforms to reality is a different question.
The book's cover (see image at right), just below the words Attack of the Theocrats, portrays a three-headed monster -- with Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney represented. A nice-looking family is depicted running away from them in terror. Whatever you may think of these politicians, the ultra-moderate Mitt Romney (who formerly served as governor of the left-leaning state Massachusetts) isn't exactly a poster-child for those in the "religious right" wishing to impose theocracy. In Faircloth's world, any hint of a publicly espoused faith apparently means you're unfit for government. So I suppose Faircloth wants us all to run in fear when he quotes Mitt Romney stating, "Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our Constitution rests." (p. 42) Respecting faith? The horror!
The foreword to Faircloth's book was written by, of course, Richard Dawkins. Dawkins take the occasion to argue that the real intent of the Founders was that "the United States was to be kept free of religion's suffocating foot" and to say he hopes to "return America to its secular roots." (p. 13) Faircloth follows Dawkins by claiming he wants to establish a "Secular Decade" as they implement the "Secular Decade strategic plan." (p. 131)
Part of that plan is that atheists should hide the more radical aspects of their agenda, the ones that don't win them any goodwill from the public, and instead focus on "marketing" concerns that get them good PR. Don't believe me? It's right here in his book:
[A]mong secularists, the tone sometimes seems a bit...retrograde. Attend one of our conventions and witness the many arcane debates about the names to call ourselves, the arcane debates about how to counter creationism, or intelligent design (or whatever the latest marketing name is for biblical creation myths); the discussions of how offensive it is that the postal service printed a Mother Teresa stamp, or that "In God We Trust" is engraved on coins. Don't get me wrong: I long ago concluded that Darwin was right, and it takes an eighth-grade history class to know that religious symbols on public land is the result of politics, not strict adherence to our Constitution. That said, none of these ideas -- none of these symbolic issues -- constitute a sufficient marketing tactic necessary to appeal to, and to attract, the broader general public.In other words, atheists shouldn't let on that what they care about most is Mother Teresa on a postage stamp and removing any semblance of religion from public life. Rather, they wish to take a more incremental, positive approach to removing religion from society. The whole "boiling a frog" strategy, you know.
(Sean Faircloth, Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms us All -- And What We Can Do About It, p. 130 (Pitchstone, 2012).)
Faircloth thus maintains the pretense of caring deeply about religious liberties for everyone, as he writes, "We must protect the religious liberties guaranteed in the Constitution, including the rights of the so-called Moral Majority and their allies to express their ideas with absolute freedom." (p. 139) But what would really happen if the Secular Decade took place? Would religious persons really have "absolute freedom"? To find out, let's look at what rank and file atheists think. For example, consider Penn Jillette's new book God, No!
Penn Jillette, for those who don't know, is one half of the famous "Penn & Teller" magic team. Jillette lays out in plain terms what a Secular Decade might truly look like. Consider the closing argument from his book:
The respect for faith, the celebration of faith, is dangerous. It's faith itself that's wrong. I deny terrorists the moral right to have faith in a god that will reward them for killing people with airplanes. That means I have to deny Christians the moral right to a faith that Jesus Christ died for their sins. That means I have to deny the warm, fuzzy faith that there's some positive conscious energy guiding the universe. That means I have to get pissed off when Luke Skywalker trusts "the force." ...
(Penn Jillette, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, p. 229 (Simon & Schuster, 2011).)
Amazingly, in this same paragraph, Jillette says about atheists, "We have love."
In any event, did you catch his general drift? Jillette thinks that if atheists gain power, they should "deny Christians the moral right to a faith that Jesus Christ died for their sins" -- and "deny" everyone else any legitimacy to have any faith at all in some higher power.
Now I personally really do think that Penn Jillette should have every right to believe (or not believe) whatever he wants. But Jillette's vision for society sure doesn't sound much like the "absolute" religious freedom that Faircloth assures us would come with a "Secular Decade."
Of course the premise behind Jillette's argument is based upon a fallacy that, tragically, has become a mainstay of new atheistic logic. The fallacy is this: if some religions (say, radical Islam) preach violence then all religions (including, say, orthodox Christianity or Judaism) must also be dangerous. For most of us, it doesn't take long to realize what's wrong with that argument. But for some new atheists, apparently more explanation is required. So here goes:
Not all religions teach the same thing. Sure, there are some religions that preach violence. That does not mean that all religions teach violence. In fact, many religions teach peace and love to all people -- including your enemies.
See -- wasn't that simple? Sadly, many new atheists seem unwilling to make the obvious distinctions entailed by this argument.
Back to the Secular Decade. If there's one thing to admire about Penn Jillette, it's that he's transparent about what he really thinks. If only more "new atheists" were so transparent, then the public might get a more realistic picture of what Faircloth's "Secular Decade" would really look like.
Looks like Sean Faircloth better get more of his fellow-atheists on message if the "Secular Decade" is going to sneak its agenda upon us.