When people are asked who they’d invite to a dream dinner party, the list often features pillars of the world’s religions – Moses sharing grapes with the Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed chatting over a cup of decaf. No one ever imagines the world’s great atheists at the table, probably knowing that they’d just grumble about the seating arrangements and why they weren’t invited to be keynote speakers at the next God-free convention.
I say this as an atheist: My goodness, we’ve become a smug, dreary, proselytizing lot. We, the fervent unbelievers, have won the war and yet are still behaving like persecuted outsiders. Atheists now have their own “church,” the Sunday Assembly, which began in London but has spread to the United States and Australia; we have our own bestselling sacred texts, the most revered of which are Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion.
We have our own rock stars: You need only watch the documentary The Unbelievers, featuring Prof. Dawkins, a famed evolutionary biologist, and American physicist Lawrence Krauss, to witness the reverence with which they’re treated by their young audiences and Cameron Diaz alike. In the documentary, shown at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto this year, the two science-promoting, belief-shredding atheists are greeted with the kind of hosannas you normally associate with pompadoured, holy-rolling televangelists selling the afterlife in glass cathedrals in the American heartland.
And, of course, we have our own pet government in the Parti Québécois, which has brought the secular tablet down from the mountain and called it, with management consultant flair, a “charter of values.” What is bad for religion is sure to be good for bureaucracy, and I intend to apply for the position of Official Measurer of Crucifixes and Stars of David as soon as it’s posted.
Religious observance and worship are down, all over the Western world, and skepticism is up. Even the Pope has thrown in the cassock: In a letter to La Repubblica this week, responding to the editor’s question about what the Catholic Church thinks of atheists, Pope Francis did not write, “Two words: eternal barbecue!” but instead: “The question for those who do not believe in God is to follow their own conscience. … To listen and to follow your conscience means that you understand the difference between good and evil.”
When the Pope’s on your side, you know it’s time to pack up the martyr complex and go home. Prof. Dawkins, who has written about wanting to free believers from “the vice of religion,” acknowledged this week in a Times of London interview that skeptics have the high ground these days. “I think on the whole we are winning,” he told the newspaper. “We are all moving in the same direction. I get the feeling more and more that religion is being left behind.”
You might think this would mean he and other high-profile atheists would be gracious in victory, magnanimous to their trounced enemies. On the contrary, they behave as if they’re still governing from a minority position and lashing out in defensiveness. (Perhaps they’ve been visiting Ottawa?)
Last month, Prof. Dawkins caused an uproar when he decided to drop this poisonous little nugget on Twitter: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” British journalist Tom Chivers spoke for many when he wrote a blog post headlined, “Please be quiet, Richard Dawkins, I’m begging, as a fan.”
This came not long after Prof. Dawkins questioned whether Muslim journalist Mehdi Hasan should be taken seriously, given that Mr. Hasan, by the tenets of his religion, believes Mohammed “flew to heaven on a winged horse.” Prof. Dawkins is an equal-opportunity offender, happily flinging bricks at all belief systems, but he reserves a special antipathy for Islam.
This virulent dislike is shared by other high-profile atheists, such as American neuroscientist Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, who writes about what he calls “the unique dangers of Islam.” There is a protracted and passionate debate going on about whether the New Atheists’ suspicion of Islam, in particular, is a kind of bigotry.
Perhaps what we’re seeing is a schism in the atheist church between the crushers and the appeasers. Prof. Dawkins loathes my own brand of happy-clappy, can’t-we-all-just-get-along atheism, which sees room in the world for the believer and the non-believer alike. “These vicarious second-order believers,” he writes in The God Delusion, “… their zeal pumped up by ingratiating broad-mindedness.” If you want to infuriate him, just say, “I’m an atheist, but …”
The thing is, if the crushers want to draw people to a life based on reason and not faith, you’d think they would learn from religion’s mistakes – contempt and recrimination are not great seduction techniques. Much better to take a lesson from the Sunday Assembly, the atheist congregation in London, which wants people to “live better, help often and wonder more.” As long as they show up on time, that is: “Latecomers go straight to hell!” Now those are people I wouldn’t mind having over for dinner.