Winter 2010, Vol. 12, No. 3

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

An Army of One

From the Editor:
The End of the Christian Right

The Open and Affirming Lutherans

Angling for Anglicans

The Fighting Atheists

Not in My Canton

China's Lama Obsession

Scientology's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

Letter to the Editor


New books

The Fighting Atheists
by Thea Button

International Blasphemy Day took place for the first time on September 30. Naturally it had its own Facebook page, which announced that its purpose was “to promote free speech and to stand up in a show of solidarity for the freedom to challenge, criticize, and satirize religion without fear of murder, litigation, or reprisal.”

And satire there was.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI), which selected the day to mark the fifth anniversary of the publication of the Mohammed cartoons by the Danish newspaper Jyllensposten, sponsored an exhibit in Washington by “atheist agnostic” artist Dana Ellyn featuring paintings with titles like “Jesus Does His Nails” and “Praying for a Hail Mary on Super Bowl Sunday.”

In Los Angeles, CFI Hollywood displayed several blasphemous short subjects: “Dear Father,” “Jesus Tells a Joke,” and “Timmy’s Wish.” In Toronto, supporters were urged to take up the “Blasphemy Challenge” by uploading their denials of faith to YouTube. Ken Peters of California won the online Blasphemy Day slogan contest with “Faith is No Reason,” and was awarded a CFI T-shirt and coffee mug.

But Blasphemy Day was only the most widely covered expression of Atheism on the March in 2009.

Taking a cue from England and Spain, billboards, buses, and subway stations across America were festooned with localized ads such as, “A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?” From California and Arizona to Maryland and West Virginia, local chapters of the Coalition of Reason paid for billboards showing a blue sky with puffy white clouds and the legend, “Don’t Believe in God? You are not alone.”

The campaign took its cue from celebrated anti-religious intellectuals like science writer Richard Dawkins, historian Susan Jacoby, biologist P.Z. Myers, and—most notoriously—flame-throwing English ex-patriot journalist Christopher Hitchens. (“I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt, and I claim that right,” Hitchens told a capacity crowd at the University of Toronto in October.)

“Most atheists I know don’t care for religion, obviously, but aren’t angry about it.” Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher wrote August 14. “Not so the true unbelievers—the Dawkinsons and their followers—who prove that you don’t have to be religious to be a fundamentalist.”

For the unbelievers, there were new churches as well as old to join. In an October 19 post on the New York Times City Room blog, Jennifer 8. Lee listed Flying Spaghetti Monster Meetup, New York City Brights, New York Philosophy, the New York Society for Ethical Culture, Richie’s List, and the Secular Humanist Society of New York, among others.      

Online, Twitter provided a lively forum for atheist militants, who began referring to themselves as “Tweathens.” A December 16 tweet from BibleAlsoSays captured their spirit: “ALL Brands of Christianity can’t be right, but they can ALL be wrong! In other words, they are ALL Baloney!”

The new atheism did unsettle old atheists like former SUNY Buffalo philosophy professor Paul Kurtz, who established CFI in 1991 to bring together his Council for Secular Humanism and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation for Claims of the Paranormal.

In promoting the gospel of free thought, CFI had taken a moderate line, emphasizing toleration for unbelievers and a secular approach to government. When CFI opened an office in Washington in 2006, Kurtz issued “In Defense of Science and Secularism,” which asked politicians to “base public policy insofar as possible on empirical evidence instead of religious faith…[to] maintain a strict separation between church and state…[and to] protect and promote scientific inquiry.” 

But last summer, Kurtz was overthrown as chairman of the organization in a palace coup led by lawyer and bioethicist Ronald Lindsay. As President and CEO, Lindsey shifted CFI  into a higher gear.

“When we defended the right of a Danish newspaper to publish cartoons deploring the violence of Muslim suicide bombers, we were supporting freedom of the press,” Kurtz told the online Christian Post October 1.

“The right to publish dissenting critiques of religion should be accepted as basic to freedom of expression. But for CFI itself to sponsor the lampooning of Christianity by encouraging anti-Catholic, anti-Protestant, or any other anti-religious cartoons goes beyond the bounds of civilized discourse in pluralistic society. It is not dissimilar to the anti-Semitic cartoons of the Nazi era. Yet there are some fundamentalist atheists who have resorted to such vulgar antics to gain press attention. In doing so they have dishonored the basic ethical principles of what the Center for Inquiry has resolutely stood for until now: the toleration of opposing viewpoints.”

Writing on his New American Mercury blog September 25, former CFI senior vice president R. Joseph Hoffmann called Blasphemy Day a “preposterous exercise in how to be religiously offensive.” It was “as tactless as it is pointless. Pointless because when it’s over I still won’t be able to buy wine after twilight in New York.”

For his part, Lindsay told CNN’s Moni Basu September 30, “We think religious beliefs should be subject to examination and criticism just as political beliefs are.”

And in a November 29 debate on the proposition “Atheism is the New Fundamentalism,” sponsored by the British debating forum Intelligence Squared, Dawkins vigorously asserted the negative. Atheists, he emphasized on his website
( the following day, have a commitment to exploring evidence and a readiness to embrace change, but the passion of their arguments or their refusal to remain silent should not be mistaken for fundamentalism.”

The passion did provoke a bit of counter-revolution, as Daniel Burke of the Religion News Service reported October 15: “The old atheists said there was no God. The so-called ‘New Atheists’ said there was no God, and they were vocally vicious about it. Now, the new ‘New Atheists’—call it Atheism 3.0—say there’s still no God, but maybe religion isn’t all that bad.”

P.Z. Myers, who earned his place in the New Atheist pantheon by driving a rusty nail through a communion wafer on YouTube, would have none of it. Atheism 3.0, he wrote on his blog Pharyngula December 8, is “atheism for people who don’t like atheism, or who want to neuter atheism so it doesn’t challenge a pious status quo…these guys seem to be more interested in hiding the significance of the nonexistence of gods so they can hide behind a façade of superficial religiosity, and appeal to a waffly, wishy-washy middle ground.”

But at the end of the day, Blasphemy Day (and its brethren media events) seemed less about causing offense than about the social construction of a new American atheist identity. For while, according to the 2008 Trinity American Religious Identity survey, the proportion of Americans who do not identify with a religion has doubled to 15 percent of the population since 1990, admitted atheists constitute only .7 percent.

“I think we’re in the same position the gay movement was in a few decades ago,” Dawkins told Wired magazine in November 2006. “There was a need for people to come out. The more people who came out, the more people had the courage to come out. I think that’s the case with atheists.”

Interviewed on the Times City Room June 25, Ken Bronstein, the president of New York City Atheists, said, “I’ve had people call me in tears, and tell me they thought they’d never see a sign promoting atheism in New York.”

And Ken Loukinen, founder of Florida Atheists and Secular Humanists, told the Bismarck Tribune August 8, “If everybody who was atheist came out of the closet, you’d see how many of us there really are.”


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