Since the turn of the millennium, a new militancy has arisen among religious skeptics in response to three threats to science and freedom: (1) attacks against evolution education and stem cell research; (2) breaks in the barrier separating church and state leading to political preferences for some faiths over others; and (3) fundamentalist terrorism here and abroad. Among many metrics available to track this skeptical movement is the ascension of four books to the august heights of the New York Times best-seller list—Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great (Hachette Book Group, 2007) and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)—that together, in Dawkins’s always poignant prose, “raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral and intellectually fulfilled.” Amen, brother.
Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance. I suggest that we raise our consciousness one tier higher for the following reasons.
1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail. Atheists cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe. As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises warned his anti-Communist colleagues in the 1950s: “An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. Its passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be.”2. Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.”
3. Rational is as rational does. If it is our goal to raise people’s consciousness to the wonders of science and the power of reason, then we must apply science and reason to our own actions. It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind. As Carl Sagan cautioned in “The Burden of Skepticism,” a 1987 lecture, “You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don’t see things as clearly as you do. We have to guard carefully against it.”
4. The golden rule is symmetrical. In the words of the greatest consciousness raiser of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr., in his epic “I Have a Dream” speech: “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.” If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same.
5. Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.
As King, in addition, noted: “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion.
Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic (www.skeptic.com). His latest book is Why Darwin Matters (Henry Holt, 2006).