The Atheist Burden

By Max Fawcett | August 30, 2007


It's a good time to be an atheist. Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Christopher
Hitchens' god is Not Great have
joined Sam Harris' The End of Faith and
Michel Onfray's The Case For Atheism atop
international best-seller lists throughout the Western world, with Dawkins and
Hitchens' books having ranked first and second respectively on the Globe and Mail's best seller list for the past two months. Every major magazine
worth mentioning has covered the resurgence of atheism in recent months, either
as the cover story or as a feature article, and some have begun to publish
pieces critical of the apparent atheist revolution. Things are going so well
for atheists that it wouldn't come as a surprise to learn that Mel Gibson's
next religiously-inspired snuff film will be about Jean Meslier, a little known
French priest who was, as it turned out, the first atheist scholar.

But while the growing interest in atheism will make writers
like Hitchens and Dawkins even richer than they already are, it won't do much
for the long-term prospects of the atheist project itself. The success of these
books may make atheists more confident in their convictions and more capable in
their arguments with those on the other side but they will do little to change
the minds of the faithful, the audience that each writer professes to be
addressing. In other words, while these books will together sell in the
millions, the number of people "converting" to atheism as a result of reading
them won't break a thousand.

These books will fail to achieve their stated goal of
extending the reach, influence, and numbers of atheism because they spend too
much time focusing on what atheism isn't rather than explaining what it is.
Each author devotes the majority – overwhelmingly so in the case of Dawkins –
of their book to exposing the flaws in each major religion, be it the
intellectual contradictions in their holy texts, the barbarism, misogyny, and
racism inherent in their foundational stories, the irrationality of their views
on the beginnings of the universe, or the endless cruelties that people have
committed throughout history in the name of their chosen faith. While it's
important, and even fun, to kick over organized religion's numerous sacred
cows, it is an ultimately futile exercise if a viable alternative isn't
presented in their place. It's difficult, in other words, to convince people to
exchange something for nothing, even if that something is demonstrably flawed.

This is, for atheists, a missed opportunity. While its
leading advocates have managed to place books at or near the top of bestseller
lists across the Western world, it still hasn't made a convincing case for why
atheism is important on its ow
merits. It can't simply exist as a negation of
faith if it is to change any significant number of minds. But because the major
religions are built on contradictory stories, irrational ideas, and a litany of
barbaric behaviour, it is easy for otherwise focused writers, be they academics
like Onfray or polemicists like Harris and Hitchens, to lose sight of the
ultimate goal and instead spend their time knocking down the easy targets that
religious arguments offer. That goal should be the explication of the coherent
set of values, beliefs, and ideas that form the core of an atheist outlook on
the world.

What do atheists believe, then? Atheism is essentially an
adjunct to secular humanism, in that each values respect for the rights of
individuals, freedom of thought and inquiry, the equality of all people, and an
appreciation of natural and man-made wonders. Atheists don't discriminate, they
don't withhold rights from particular groups, they don't fear scientific
progress and the frequently baffling explanations of the world it provides,
they don't wish for the end of the world, and they don't insist upon imposing
feelings of guilt and failure onto the thoughts and actions of others. Perhaps
most importantly, atheists are engaged in the one life that they're given
rather than simply enduring it in anticipation of something better to come.

In order to spread the "gospel" of atheistic beliefs,
atheist writers must spend less time attacking the other guys and more time
building themselves and their values up. But they must work equally hard to
dispel the widely held belief that atheism is, by definition, a rejection of
the existence of God. There are many atheists-in-waiting who refuse to identify
themselves as such because they believe that to be an atheist one must
completely and unconditionally refute the existence of a higher power. This
isn't technically true, because if atheism was rooted in a belief in a Godless
universe it would be called adeism. Atheism is instead the rejection of
organized religion – theism – and the corrosive effects it has on the world,
and as such has a place for people who may still entertain the possibility of a
higher power but refuse to worship him/her/it in a building every week. If atheists
are to achieve any significant social and cultural momentum that confusion
needs to be clarified.

These aren't bad books, and their place and tenure on the
best-seller lists are a testimony to their appeal, both to atheists seeking
affirmation of their beliefs and readers of faith who are interested in
learning more about atheism. They are at once powerful indictments of all the
evils and errors of organized religion and encouragement for atheist readers
who are all too aware of them. But until atheist writers like Richard Dawkins,
Christopher Hitchens, Michael Onfray, and Sam Harris spend more time explaining
the virtues of atheism and less time bashing the vices of faith, atheism will
remain nothing more than another critical discourse among many rather than a
coherent system of values and beliefs in its own right. Whether because of the
profoundly religious and politically reckless administration of George W. Bush,
the surge in fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, the rise of
Islamic terrorism, continued strife in the Middle East, or a combination
thereof, atheism is enjoying a rare moment in the cultural spotlight. But unless
atheists can take advantage of it by spreading their message rather than simply
satisfying themselves with harpooning those of the religious, atheism will be
back in that familiar spot between obscurity and irrelevance very soon.

Toronto, August 30 – 985 w.



  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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