My editor over at Raw Story, the very talented Avery Walker, asked for a few changes to my piece on secular extremism. I've chosen to post the new, revised, and hopefully superior version here. I hope it makes more sense to any who may have been confused by the earlier version. If it requires any more changes before publication, you'll have to read the final version on Raw. Sorry, commitment has its limits.Shalom Alechem,Melinda BartonUPDATED AUTHOR'S NOTE: (4/29/06) Unfortunately, the existence of multiple, publicly available versions of this piece has caused quite a bit of uproar. As I noted in the above note, (posted at the time of the writing of this post) this is not the final Raw Story version. I had been experimenting with posting the different versions of pieces as a way to show the writing process and to ensure openness. (And also as a bit of habit as this is how some of the sites I write for would pull my work into their sites in the past.) However, to prevent any misunderstanding in the future, the Raw Story final version (with link) and that version only will be published and that only after at least one week had passed. I apologize for any confusion this has caused anyone who mistook this version for the Raw Story final version. To be honest, so few people read this blog before this controversy that I'd never considered the possibility that my experiment would cause any harm. Regardless of intent, all fault is mine and I apologize.Melinda Barton
The religious nutballs on the extreme right have kept us rational lefties so busy that we've neglected an important although onerous duty -- cleaning the secular whackjobs out of our own attic, the extreme left. (Of course, extremisms of the religious or atheistic nature are only a small part of the sum total of extremism. Each form of thought has its own whackjobs of varying stripes.) Why face off with the secular whackjobs? Because extremism is extremism is extremism. No rational movement dedicated to intellectual courage and honesty should maintain a relationship with those for whom intellectual laziness, dishonesty, and cowardice are a way of life. Doing what must be done to insure the integrity of the left will require identifying our extremists, countering their mythologies, and acknowledging the dangers they pose to a truly liberal society.
First, what is a secular whackjob? The term secular for the purposes of this article will refer to those who disbelieve all religious and spiritual claims, not to those who merely support a separation of church and state. Although all secular extremists are atheists, not all atheists are secular extremists.
The whackjob is a special sort of atheist, one so absolutely certain of the inerrancy of atheism and so virulently opposed to religion that he will latch on to any and all outrageous claims in defense of the former and against the latter. He will meet any criticism of atheism or postive representation of religion as a horrible attack on his way of life or as support for religious extremism and oppression. Just as the religious extremist holds that his belief in a supreme being alone makes him morally and spiritually superior, the secular extremist holds that his belief that no such being exists and virulent opposition to the reverse make him intellectually and ethically superior. Finally, he will ignore any and all reason or evidence that refutes his claims.
So, what are the secular extremist's claims? They are legion, but I will stick to some of the major claims I've encountered in "respected" secularist media and in debate with atheist friends and readers.Outrageous claim number 1: Atheism is based on evidence and reason and is philosophically provable or proven. Atheism is a matter of thought not belief. In other words, atheism is true; religion is false.
In his article "Atheism and Social Progress" found on the website of The Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc, Keith Cornish expresses it the claim this way, "A few years ago a member of the Committee of the Atheist Foundation of Australia proposed a new definition of 'atheism' that removes any hint of negativity and puts the onus of justification right back where it should be - that is, on Christians. His definition is 'Atheism' is the acceptance that there is no credible, scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a God, god/s or the supernatural'. This was accepted as our official definition, though personally I would prefer the removal of the word 'credible' because of its association with 'faith' and 'belief'. It could well be replaced by 'logical'." (Emphasis mine.)
Both atheism and theism contain elements of rational thought and reason. When an adherent of either position examines what the existence or nonexistence of a supreme being means for humanity and how we structure our lives and moral/ethical systems, thought is involved. Ultimately, however, the supernatural's existence or nonexistence cannot be supported by evidence or proven by reason. Both are a matter of faith and therefore belief. In the absense of verifiability, neither can claim to be absolute truth. Placing a burden of proof on either "side" in the matter would be futile as neither could rise to the challenge. Tolerance for differences of belief would be far preferable.
In the middle, as always, are the agnostics who hold that claims about the supernatural cannot be assessed as "true" or "false" because they invoke the unknown, the unknowable, and the incoherent. This is perhaps the most logically defensible stance, however, there are those who hold strong beliefs in the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities who acknowledge this logic as well, accepting the fallibility and limitation of human knowledge and the fact that their belief or disbelief cannot be supported by incontrovertible logical or evidentiary proof.Outrageous claim number 2: Since the natural is all that we have or can scientifically observe and/or measure, it is all that exists.
This claim, one of the fundamental forms of ontological or metaphysical naturalism, is a blatant logical fallacy not to mention scientifically inaccurate. The logical fallacy is easy to refute: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The scientific part takes us into stickier territory.
Warning: Technobabble ahead! The known laws of physics and the discoveries of quantum physics show that our ability to observe the universe is limited by its and our innate properties. For instance, the impossibility of overcoming the speed of light means we see distant objects as they appeared far in the past, so some event may have happened so far in the past that we can't observe it. Although we are only able to observe three dimensions, many physicists now believe that there may be many that we can't observe and question why we're limited to three. The possibilities opened up by our examination of the universe and the acknowledgement of our own limitations has allowed scientists to consider the existence of a variety of things we neither have nor can observe, including multiple dimensions and multiple universes.
In this context, the supernatural's existence cannot be refuted solely by our inability to observe it. Maybe a supreme being's properties or our own are simply preventing direct observation. It's a logical possibility. It is simply not one for science to consider. In the end, however, it is almost certain that there are things that exist that are beyond any of our philosophies.Outrageous claim number 3: All religion is oppressive.
According to The International Manifesto for Atheistic Humanism, for instance, "Religion is oppressive. The act of subjugating human will to "divine will" is oppressive. The practice of obeying clergy, of letting them make our decisions for us, is oppressive and irresponsible."
This one flies in the face of the evidence. Yes, it's very easy to show many instances of oppression stemming from religion. However, it is also easy to show many instances in which political and social progress were spearheaded by religious individuals based on the teachings of their particular faiths. Study the abolitionist movement or the civil rights movement and you will be hard pressed not to encounter the role of religion in these struggles for liberation. To go beyond Christianity, there is now a movement in Africa that teaches Muslim women how to read the Koran so that they can refute the false claim that that religion demands or even permits female genital mutilation.
Religion, like any system of belief, is subject to the often contradictory nature of humanity and the tides of history. It is one thing at this moment and in this place and something completely different in another time and place. Oppression or liberation (with a few exceptions) are in the application, not necessarily inherent in the system of belief itself. For instance, communism may look fine on paper, but in the hands of the Russians post-revolution, it was used to support one of the most oppressive regimes in modern history.Outrageous claim number 4: The eradication of religion in favor of secularism will bring about utopia.
Marxists and anarchists, specifically, hold that the total eradication of religion is an essential but not sufficient step in the creation of an atheist utopia. In some interpretations of these systems of thought, false though they may be, the eradication of religion is thought to be sufficient to create utopia.
Forgive me for discussing Torah, but I think the story of Adam and Eve (interpreted as a parable) is relevant here. Adam and Eve couldn't remain in the garden because they were fully human, with the free will that that implies. The message: humanity and paradise cannot exist together. In any society, no matter how ideal, there will be discontent, antisocial behavior, criminality, anger, uncontrolled passions, greed, avarice, disobedience, and dissent. There will be, at last, the human animal. Some new system of control and punishment will arise to cope with those aspects of the humanity and free will that endanger society. No utopia can withstand that.Outrageous claim number 5: All religious people want to force you or convince you or coerce you to believe as they do.
This is perhaps the claim I've heard most often in conversations with friends and readers of the atheist persuasion, some of whom condemn it as false. I tried to find an "official" source for this hasty generalization with no luck, but chose to include it here based on personal experience. In addition to the fact that it's a logical fallacy based on a habit of many but not all atheists to judge all religions by their negative experiences with or feelings about Christianity, this claim also flies in the face of reality.
If I may, permit me to speak for those of the religious persuasion. Yes, many religious people do want to convert you, however, some of us could really care less what you believe. Personally, I wouldn't care if you believed that a big head of lettuce were going to come down and give us all strong bones and healthy teeth. Hey, as long as you're not interfering with someone else's rights, all hail the holy radicchio and bully for you. That's your business. Of course, I'm a practitioner of Judaism, which absolutely forbids proselytizing and any attempt at coercing or forcing someone to change his beliefs. In fact, many have even been denied conversion to Judaism and those who are finally accepted face a long and arduous process. Oh, wait. Judaism is a religon!
After that brief foray into snark, we come to the dangers. In modern America, secular extremists as a group don't have the wealth, influence, numbers or power to affect the way most of us live our lives. However, we should learn from what has happened elsewhere and be prepared to meet them if or when they do. While most who believe in the separation of church and state hold that only government support of religion in the public sphere should be forbidden, the secular extremist may take it one step further to forbid the private display of religious symbols in public places. Remember the laws forbidding the wearing of yarmulkes, crosses, hijabs, and the like in France. Such laws are just as much a violation of the liberal ideals of freedom of religion and conscience as laws that require religious practices.
But that's far in the future for America if it ever comes to our shores at all; the greatest danger the secular extremist poses now is to the integrity and success of progressive movements. If we are to truly uphold the liberal ideals of freedom and liberty, we must stand against extremists of all stripes who would threaten those ideals. Secondly, in a nation comprised predominantly of those who believe in some sort of supreme being, our success as a movement depends on disavowing the secular extremist as a legitimate voice of the left. Finally, our commitment to truth demands we counter the fallacies being perpetuated in our name.