God is a myth.
Science must ultimately destroy organized religion.
Children must not be schooled in any faith.
While Atheists by definition agree with the first proposition there are among Atheists a range of views as to how these other propositions can and should be pursued. This difference of views emerged clearly at a recent Atheist conference.
The Atheist Alliance recently held its conference "Crystal Clear Atheism" at the Crown Royal Hotel in Crystal City, Virginia. Speakers at the conference included Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins, author Sam Harris and journalist Christopher Hitchens.
The conference reveals some important issues for atheists. Are we a movement? Should we have an agreed "Atheist" program? What is the enemy that we face and how should it be tackled?
Dawkins, with whom I am generally in fairly full agreement, sees the issue in black-and-white as an intellectual battle between atheism and religion. He, like most Atheists, sees religion as "preposterous nonsense"and he compares religion to racism.
His is a hard Atheism which sees no benefit in moderate religion - "so-called moderate Christianity is simply an evasion."
"If you've been taught to believe it by moderates, what's to stop you from taking the next step and blowing yourself up?" he said.
While Dawkins is correct in this, this appproach can fail to acknowledge that in the development of human affairs religion has had its beneficial purposes. It provided a framework around which ethical systems of thought developed and this was useful in the movement towards modern societies. It is not giving up our side of the intellectual debate to acknowledge this. Admitting that religion has contributed some things to the development of human kind does not mean that the arguments for the existence of a God are valid. Neither does it mean retreating on the argument that religion has also had a stultifying effect often on human thought and also often been the cause of great misery.
Just as systems of political thought grew from early systems - none of which we would now want in a modern context - so religion has had its historical role. It is simply now time to move on.
Author Sam Harris reportedly made a more measured speech which was in part a critique of the atheist movement.
Harris also believes science will eventually destroy religion, but unlike Dawkins he sees a clearer place for spirituality and mysticism, calls for understanding of allegedly spiritual phenomena and cautions that all religions are not equally deserving of contempt.
"The refrain that all religions have their extremists is bullshit. All religions do not have their extremists. Some religions have never had their extremists."
Harris sees radical Islam as far more threatening than any fundamentalist Christian sect and thinks Christians are rightly angry when the two religions are treated as though they are the same in this respect. Harris is right about this of course - but only in the immediate current historical context. Go back in time and it is possible to see each religion in a different light. Both are of course equally dangerous in the way that they dull the ability of the adherent to think for themselves.
Harris is also critical of Atheism as a "movement" and uneasy with the use of the word atheist.
"Atheism is not a philosophy, just as non-racism is not," he said. "It is not a worldview, though it is frequently portrayed as one. Rather than declare ourselves atheists, I think we should emphasize reason."
I both disagree and agree with Harris on this one. The word atheist is exactly the right word to describe me. It has a Greek root and means literally "without belief in God". So the word is correct and I stick by it and hope we all will.
There is of course the danger that others try to use it against us as though it describes a set of organised required beliefs ( the oh Atheism is just a religion itself argument).
The worse danger though is if Atheists start to use the word in this way themselves. While we need to have some sense of being a movement if we are to push back the influence of religion in this world we must be extremely cautious ourselves not to become the very thing we so despise - a movement which becomes a cult, dictates a set of right and wrong core beliefs, has its sacred symbols ( the red A?) and its truthsayers and prophets (Dawkins).
Dawkins would have us drop an atom bomb on the whole edifice of religion while Harris seems to argue for a "just shoot the bad ones" approach.
Reportedly Dawkins got a standing ovation at the conference while Harris received just polite applause.
I hope that fellow non-theists will reflect on the fact that Dawkins is not our saviour (and neither is Harris of course - because we dont do saviours do we?). All that drips from his mouth is not gold and not necessarily the final word - no matter how much we might admire and be grateful for putting himself out there on our behalf. He is not the first deep thinking Atheist and he wont be the last and much of his commentaries in his books are by no means novel.
Dawkins is not my prophet and he simply speaks many of the things I had worked out for myself ( like others have done) years ago. He has encouraged us all to express our views and more actively and openly tackle the irrationality of faith based belief. I am happy therefore to give him the last word in this post.
"Religion is not the root of all evil, but it gets in the way of [determining] how we got here and where we find ourselves," Dawkins said. "And that is an evil in itself."
(The Atheist Alliance International describes itself as "the only democratic national atheist organization in the United States.")