Saying is not imposing

What is fanatical atheism? Dan Gardner had some thoughts in the Ottawa Citizen last year.

In the past, I’ve tried to avoid talking about religion in such sharp terms. It’s not that I fear giving offence (which would be something of a limitation in my line of work). Rather, I know, as all humans do, that it’s scary knowing you’re going to die. And if belief in angels on high eases the existential fears of some, I won’t begrudge them. Whatever gets you through the night, as a long-haired prophet once said.

Sure. I don’t go to funerals so that I can tell the assembled mourners that there are no angels on high. I don’t force my views on anyone. But I do feel entitled, and permitted, and free to talk about them among friends and acquaintances, and to write about them here and elsewhere. I draw a distinction between forcing one’s views on people, and talking and writing about them in public places. And this means that I get more than a little tired of people who call atheists who discuss their atheism in public fanatics or too noisy or similar. I get called all those things myself now and then, and I think the charge is fraudulent. I think it’s fraudulent when made of the putative New Atheists, too. No one is forced to buy their books, or to read them, or to listen to them through buds in the ears, and it’s not as if they’ve altered the prevailing culture so radically that religious belief has all but disappeared. So where does the fanaticism come in? Where are the evil snarling monsters of fanatical atheism?

The first problem for the moderate believer comes from those who like their faith hot. You’ve agreed God exists and that He mucks about in the world. You’ve agreed this book contains His holy commandments. So how do you respond when the mad religious zealot says, “hey, here on page 23, it says we should slice open unbelievers and use their guts for garters. And over here on page 75, it says we should bury homosexuals up to their necks and stuff olives up their noses.”…[T]he more common response is to simply pretend the garters-and-olives passages don’t exist and prattle on about how God is merciful and loving.

But the garters-and-olives passages do exist, and lots of people think God is not merciful and loving but wrathful and punitive, at least when dealing with other people. So why is the onus on us to pipe down?

Then there’s the problem on the other side — among the atheists such as Richard Dawkins who have been labelled “fanatics.”…When the Pope says that a few words and some hand-waving causes a cracker to transform into the flesh of a 2,000-year-old man, Dawkins and his fellow travellers say, well, prove it. It should be simple. Swab the Host and do a DNA analysis. If you don’t, we will give your claim no more respect than we give to those who say they see the future in crystal balls or bend spoons with their minds or become werewolves at each full moon. And for this, it is Dawkins, not the Pope, who is labelled the unreasonable fanatic…This is completely contrary to how we live the rest of our lives. We demand proof of even trivial claims…and we dismiss those who make such claims without proof. We are still more demanding when claims are made on matters that are at least temporarily important.

Just what I was saying yesterday. We want good reasons to believe even trivial claims in the rest of our lives, so why is there this fenced-off bit of our lives where we don’t? And why is it considered fanaticism to ask questions like that? (As long as one changes the wording, at least. To ask questions like that in the same words over and over again, day after day – okay that’s fanaticism. You know who you are. Don’t make me write your name on the blackboard.)

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