“Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable. What actually happened when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima”.
Preaching is annoying whether by religious or Atheist fundamentalists. Currently I’m more annoyed by the latter. While the bulk of Atheism is composed of tolerant people, Atheism’s most prominent supporters in the media frequently go beyond arguing their disbelief in God and superstition and needlessly provoke just to prove a point. This is the Muhammad Cartoon School of dickishness: being a dick just because you can. Media publishes articles on why certain celebrities are Atheist when that should just be stated in a biographical piece. Bill Maher devoted his entire documentary ‘Religulous’ to ridiculing and debunking religious beliefs. Richard Dawkins is regularly in trouble for poorly chosen comments and tweets. Public Atheism has transcended a simple disbelief and become another ideology while the rest of us – regardless of beliefs – are unsatisfied with hollow debate between fundamentalists.
Worst of all, public Atheism often criticises religion as the cause of violence and repression which is self serving and simplistic. Dawkins argued in his article ‘What Use Is Religion?’ that religion uses morality and identity to enforce social control including violence and repression. This misses the point entirely: the cause of any repression is politics. Major religious atrocities such as Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, and Taliban repression of women were caused by a collusion of power-hungry, fanatical leadership who provoked and mobilised their followers to do bad things. This is no different than secular violence like the Nazis, Soviet Russia, or any colonial empire. Politics has often captured science too. In a Daily Show interview on September 24th, Dawkins acknowledged that science can be used for evil purposes. He repeats this in a recent interview in the New Statesman, though avoids equating scientific and religious misdeeds. Whether the development of nuclear weapons by the Manhattan Project in the 1940s or the nuclear weapons program of the theological Iranian Government – both leaderships use violent means to consolidate their power.
Prominent Atheist Christopher Hitchens used similar reasoning for religion and celibacy as the cause of widespread pedophilia in the Catholic Church, which again is an ignorant assumption. Pedophilia was possible because of two factors. First, individuals or groups of individuals sought positions where they could access altar boys, students, and care home teenagers under their supervision. Second, senior clergy covered up allegations to protect the infallibility of the church and to protect powerful people and interests. These factors also existed in the ongoing Jimmy Savile pedophilia investigation. Savile used his celebrity and charitable work connections to molest children and those with mental illness at Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital and Stoke Mandeville Hospital, his TV show Jim’ll Fix It, and youth care homes such as the Haute de la Garenne in Jersey. His abuse was suspected by staff at all locations and he was protected by management at the BBC, hospitals, and charitable organisations to protect their reputation, financial interests, and other alleged celebrity patrons involved in similar abuse.
Any organisation is capable of using cover-ups to hide systematic corruption and abuse – corporates, politicians, charities – for self-preservation.
What is clear is that the public increasingly dislikes the role of religion in judging personal lives. Increasing social acceptance of tolerance and diversity clashes with religious orthodoxy. When we see religious figures work with politicians to fight against gay marriage, it isolates many. Selective interpretations of the Bible are political because they preserves power of conservative religious leadership. It is also political because religions have always changed interpretations of social issues for convenience: the Catholics allowed Mass in languages other than Latin, slavery was acknowledged as evil by churches who used to support it, and Ayatollah Khamenei revoked the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. These are political decisions, not religious ones.
Atheism also frequently ignores the popularity of religion in the practical application of religious beliefs. Social services arms of the Catholic Church, Uniting Church, Anglican Church, and Salvation Army here in Australia are popular because they provide needed social housing, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, homeless shelters, food banks, asylum seeker support services, and youth social services. The Salvation Army – which provides $500 million in social services – is far more prominent as a service provider than the $2 billion services of the Uniting Church, despite being a socially conservative church. Having previously worked for a Uniting Church organisation that provided asylum seeker support services, I worked closely with supporters who were members of the Uniting Church, and simply practiced their beliefs while asked nothing in return. We like when the clergy challenges the Australian Government on asylum seekers, war, and the homeless.
Atheists do not address religion in the context of politics that apply to any other institution such as scientific research and government. With an increasingly tolerant society, people want less moral judgement and more advocacy for the issues that matter. People don’t want clergy collaborating with powerful interests but to challenge them and the unfairness of the economic and political system. In times of increasing inequality and poverty in developed countries, religious hierarchy must ask themselves what’s more important: homosexuals or homelessness. Prominent Atheists could reconsider the source of repression and injustice not as something exclusively within religion but corruption within all top-down institutions. Otherwise it’s a massive disservice to history.