I’ve been an atheist literally just about as long as I can remember — since sometime when I was 6 or 7. My family was neither particularly religious nor particularly irreligious, and I remember concluding at a very young age that God was just one of those stories like Santa Claus that people passed on because it made them feel better even if it wasn’t true.
At the same time I’ve never particularly felt the need to evangelize for atheism. When I see people pray or ascribe some natural phenomena or another to God or a miracle I think it’s kind of silly, but certainly the world is filled with all sorts of irrational beliefs and no one has time to stamp them all at. I, for example, have an extremely irrational fear of heights, and I wouldn’t be particularly welcoming if people got in my face challenging me to overcome that fear. Similarly, I assume haranguing people over their superstitions would be similarly ineffective. So, in general, I just don’t talk to people about their religious beliefs or mine, and everyone gets along.
Neoatheism is a term that has been used to describe the approach to atheism advanced by folks such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Broadly speaking, the claim is that religious ways of thinking are a net negative to society and atheists need to more openly affirm their atheism and point out the problems that religion creates. Note that although the fundamentalists and evangelicals are frequently the targets of the neoatheists, their critique is much deeper — it is the form of any religious doctrine rather than the specific contents of said doctrine that Dawkins and others attack.
For the most part, I’ve thought the neoatheists have been on the right track. For example, I think Dawkins is absolutely right in attacking the commonly held middle ground position that science and religion are compatible. As Dawkins rightly notes, it is rather the case that science has completely undercut religion and why so few scientists are believers — the more you know about the naturalistic workings of the universe, the more absurd religious myths become.
But just how far should atheists go. I think PZ Myers offers us a good example of crossing the line in, of all things, a controversy about crackers.
A University of Central Florida student started a bizarre scandal when he attended a Catholic Mass held in June on the UCF campus. To make a long story short, the student received The Eucharist from a priest but rather than swallow it, took it with him when he left the church. Somebody spotted him and tried to stop him from leaving. At that point, the incident became a minor story in Florida, complete with an idiot priest comparing the kerfuffle to a kidnapping. A spokesperson for the Catholic diocese where this occurred said the student’s failure to consume the wafer should be treated as a hate crime. You just can’t make this shit up. Bill Donohue suggested the university might want to consider expelling the student.
I thought Myers did a good job of highlighting the idiocy entailed in those sorts of statements. He was on a roll making fun of silly superstitions and then he had to write this,
So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I’ll send you my home address.
I think publicly asking for a religious symbol so that you can desecrate it for everyone to see on the Internet is possibly the stupidest thing I’ve heard an atheist who wasn’t Madalyn Murray O’Hare say. Myers post reminded me most of the sort of far left activist who thinks the best thing to do for this or that U.S. failing is to burn an American flag which, after all, is just a frackin’ piece of cloth.
In both cases, the only thing being communicated is an incredible lack of disrespect that generally tends to harden opinions on the other side rather than persuade anyone that this is just a cracker/piece of cloth. For me at least, Myers’ asking others to sneak out wafers so he can desecrate them is just as extreme as saying that the student who walked out with one committed a hate crime.