Atheism Central for Secondary Schools
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"[E]very major religion today is a winner in the Darwinian struggle waged among cultures, and none ever flourished by tolerating its rivals."
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, (First edition, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), p. 144.
above: it is for this reason that atheism (and rationalism) can only
exist in tolerant societies. If intolerant atheists were to dominate
society the result would only be an ignorant society ripe for the return
of religion. Atheism is not compatible with ignorance - it is a choice
resulting from freethought - the freedom to think. Unlike religion
- the freedom to think cannot be imposed on anyone.
"Infidels (agnostics and atheists) in all ages have battled for the rights of man, and have at all times been the fearless advocates of liberty and justice."
Robert Green Ingersoll
"...so long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyranize will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men."
Voltarine de Cleyre
"Blind faith can justify anything. In a man believes in a different god, or even if he uses a different ritual for worshipping the same god, blind faith can decree that he should die - on the cross, at the stake, skewered on a Crusader's sword, shot in a Beirut street, or blown up in a bar in Belfast. Memes for blind faith have their own ruthless ways of propagating themselves. This is true of patriotic and political as well as religious blind faith."
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
"Difference of opinion leads to enquiry, and enquiry to truth."
"In any case, the argument against the persecution of opinion does not depend upon what the excuse for persecution may be. The argument is that we none of us know all truth, that the discovery of new truth is promoted by free discussion and rendered very difficult by suppression, and that, in the long run, human welfare is increased by the discovery of truth and hindered by action based on error."
Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science (New York: Oxford University Press).
Where does intolerance comes from?
If there is any one thing that we humans take pride in collectively it is our ability to work together. There is a special sense of satisfaction in being part of 'a great team'. When we work together we can achieve what no individual can achieve: think of the first huntsmen bringing down powerful big game animals - a collective effort for the common good. And today, in Africa, womenfolk pound their grain together, singing as they work, cementing the bonds of communal feeling and mutual support. It is why people support football teams - and a principle source of satisfaction in a well-managed workplace.
It is adversity, however, that energizes our collective efforts in a way that nothing else can. While we gain great satisfaction from being in favour of something - supporting our team or our political party - nothing makes the communal heart race stronger than being united against a common foe. A kick around amongst ourselves in the park is fine but it is a victory over another team that gives us a real sense of camaraderie, of solidarity with others - of belonging. But our victory involves another team's defeat: for every Pepsi there is a Coke, and for every Apple there is a Big Blue.
For in order for us to feel ourselves to be members of a group there must be nonmembers - and this is the 'dark side'. We define ourselves by our enemies - by those who are different from ourselves. 'My enemy's enemy is my friend' for it is easier to share an enemy than a friend. And if others will not oblige by being different, we create differences in ourselves - our clothing - and our rituals. We create traditions overnight and call them 'ancient'. And if, by chance, we have no enemies, we create them. Hitler chose the Jews, Ayatollah Khomeini chose the 'Great Satan', 1950's America chose communist conspirators (the McCarthy 'witchhunt'). By definition, we are 'good' and others, if not 'bad', are potentially so.
What a pity it is that our finest quality should be our undoing! The sense of unity, purpose, and identity that comes from membership of a society is bought at a fearful price - the waging of war. War is the ultimate tool of social and political control. How it energizes our social relationships! In wartime, perfect strangers do not walk on by - they offer help, suicide rates drop nearly to zero - we forget ourselves when each day could be our last and show our best qualities - cooperation, camaraderie, altruism, heroism, compassion, everything. And how it drives us with feelings of hatred and revenge - goals that money cannot buy - but only blood! And war is a black hole that sucks us in, for once our trust in our fellow human being is lost - once we believe that he will cut our children down with his knife, we will cut down his children and we will continue until exhaustion threatens our own extinction.
not unusual for the very quality that makes something good to make it
bad also. for example, we all admire a sense of community but admire
individuality also. There is a natural conflict between the two. Community
implies conformity with the group while a sense of individuality pulls
us is precisely the opposite direction. It is good to have a strong
sense of community. It is good, but it can be bad also. It's a kind
of paradox. Of the two forces, community is the most powerful - individuality
is a luxury of the most prosperous and stable societies. Community shields
us against the forces around us.
This is where religions come in. Religions use this powerful sense of community more successfully and with greater continuity of purpose than any other human organization. Religions bind individuals together into a community by making them different from others. Religions promote variation in language, dress, and familial culture. Ritual is encouraged - often the more absurd the better - for the ridicule of others is a powerful binding force. Clothing makes people especially aware of their differences, hence such great emphasis on clothing in all the religions of the world - favouring also people's natural love of dressing up and feeling important. But the most powerful machine of community action - a tool no religion with a sense of its own survival will give up - is war. None of the larger religions is pacifist - for all the noble words. Religions decry war but prosper on it as demonstrated by the success of The National Day of Prayer promoted by the Church of England during WW2. And it is no surprise that societies which allow the individual greater voice are harder to bring to war.
In which conditions can atheism thrive?
This is what one prominent atheist, former Catholic priest Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) had to say:
"In my 'Rise and Fall of the Gods' (1931) I traced the weird and ever-changing belief in Gods from the days of man's infancy to our own time. I showed that at every period during the 5,000 years of history when men developed a higher culture Atheism appeared."
Higher cultures can only exist during periods of relative economic and social stability (also see upcoming article on morality due later this year). Only then can some individuals break the moulds of religious upbringinging and take in the nature of the world around them. Religion prospers on poverty and fear, adversity and strife. It is then that it can draw on those collective forces that serve us so well in may ways - integrating itself so deeply into the structure of society that many confuse religion with community itself.
So how should the atheist respond to the religious world around him? The atheist prospers in a society that leaves space for the individual. He should foster the condition that makes overt public atheism possible - the toleration of the individual by the community. Although he may suffer the consequencies of the religious beliefs of those around him he must tolerate them. If he does not tolerate them he is lost - he will create an intolerant society. And religion is born of ignorance and an intolerant society is an ignorant one - so they will win.
So should atheists be wimps? No, of course not. Atheists should take the same opportunity to express their opinions as anyone else. Atheists sometimes make jokes about theists or scorn them - they may be angry, or indignant. The same happens in reverse. These are normal human behaviours and they are not the same as being intolerant. Being intolerant means denying the right to exist to someone you disagree with - or applying sanctions against him which prevent his full participation in society. Being intolerant means preventing that person from expressing his opinions freely in public - or restricting his movements.
Tolerance is a fundamental requirement of democracy - it is the foundation of a pluralist society. It allows the free movement of ideas and information. It is the engine of human progress and the hallmark of civilised life. It give us the opportunity to exercise choice of expression and freedom of thought - for if information is denied to us so is our freedom to interpret it for ouselves.
It is clear, then that Atheists should tolerate religions and that they should tolerate us.
Free Speech - by Kris Haight
"Oppression is based on the lie that some people are better than others. Racists, anti-Semites, sexists and homophobes all attempt to justify their persecution by claiming that their targets are dangerous, dirty, subhuman, and a threat to 'good' people.
Demonizing lies foment oppression by rationalizing cruelty and by intimidating would-be challengers with the threat of being branded a vermin-lover ... As gay people we have seen how oppression depends on lies. Until recently, homosexuality was uniformly presented as a form of mental sickness, criminality and sinfulness. Movies, books, or photos that did not conform to this dogma were suppressed. To suggest that gay sexuality need not be labeled bad meant risking one's reputation, career, and life.
But effectively tackling homophobia, like challenging any oppression, depends on confronting the lies that underpin erroneous notions about one group's superiority over another. Martin Luther King said that to lance the boil of racism that plagues America, the festering, rotten process must be exposed to the healing air and light of the truth. King understood that truth is both the foundation of justice and the fundamental antidote to oppression that poisons both master and slave.
While freedom depends on truth, finding and proclaiming the truth also requires freedom. Sometimes this freedom takes the form of heroic individuals refusing to parrot official lies.
But we are lucky to inherit the freedoms already won by others' brave actions. Throughout much of this century, the freedom of speech, press, and assembly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights have been recognised to cover sexual matters. Exercising these freedoms has been the key to persuading more and more people to come out with the truth about homosexuality, thereby rendering homophobic lies powerless.
Given how essential First Amendment freedoms have been to gay liberation, it is disheartening how many gay people seem ready to give them up. All across the country gay organisations have called for hate crime laws to criminalise people for saying the wrong things. University groups have supported campus speech codes that punish students and faculty for words judged 'demeaning' . And recently, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation attempted to organise pressure to dump a website called godhatesfags.com from the Internet because it is 'hurtful'.
Anyone who participates in these campaigns to curtail freedom of expression is a dangerous fool. While 'shut up!' may be an understandable initial reaction to disagreeable expressions, it is not a policy that serves us well. Freedom really is indivisible. Truth does not need the' protection' of any bureaucrat, librarian or web master. Indeed, truth becomes most clear and powerful when allowed to shine side-by-side with all of its competitors. However politically correct or seemingly well-intentioned, 'protected truth' always putrefies into oppressive dogma.
Instead of trying to safeguard only expression we personally approve of, we must fight to expand First Amendment liberties for everyone. As congress and the courts ram through chilling new censorship legislation, and as the President calls for increased regulation of television, telephone, and cyberspace communications, we must resist, not cooperate. Instead of pursuing some officially sanctioned facsimile, we must defend the freedoms that reveal the real truth, the genuine source of our liberation."
Obviously, in the UK the decline in homophobic laws and public attitudes has not been as a result of First Amendment rights but has been substantially aided by decisions of the European Court of Justice over the past few years, e.g., forcing legislation to stop further discrimination against homosexuals in the armed forces. (Strangely, preventing homosexuals from joining the armed forces was not thought to be discrimination against heterosexuals, who would be killed in war while homosexuals stayed at home.) Most recently, a Portuguese man who was banned from seeing his child on the basis of his sexuality has successfully appealed to the court to have this overturned. However, the single most important factor has been cultural change resulting from the increased secularization of society. The UK does appear to have a more broadly tolerant and homogenous society than the US. We are fortunate not to be experiencing the clash of cultures presently occurring in the US. However, the decline in interest in political parties and rise of single issue political (pressure) groups may be leading to an increase in social extremism.
Although all the right sentiment is there, it is far from clear that Kris Haight's admirable but idealistic position is cut and dried. There is a difference between freedom of speech and inciting violence, for example. In the US a web site was banned and the owners sued when it published a list of doctors who perform abortions, together with addresses, car number plates, schools the kids go to, etc., and crossed their names off when they were murdered (7 doctors murdered so far). Presumably it is also wrong to have web sites which show acts of rape, torture or 'snuff movies'. In Germany it has been illegal since WW2 to give the Hitler salute in case this incites political extremism. Arguably, this was an eminently sensible idea. In other words, rather than an absolute solution to the problem of free speech we may have to settle for a fair compromise which minimizes the risks of either extreme.
For a UK approach to the problem of free speech on the internet check the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF): http://www.internetwatch.org.uk/ , http://www.iwf.org.uk which is funded by UK Internet Service Providers. David Kerr of the IWF writes (to Atheism Central) "we do not seek to control offensive material - in fact we take no view ourselves on what might be offensive - but we do want to allow consumers to choose for themselves what they, or their children, see according to their own standards. But we do not advocate any measures which restrict what adults may see or interfere with free speech on the Net." We want to do this by "encouraging the classification of legal material on the Net in order to enable users to customise the nature of their experience of the Net to their own requirements." We "aim to enhance the enormous potential of the Internet to inform, educate, entertain and conduct business by: hindering the use of the Internet to transmit illegal material, particularly child pornography; encouraging the classification of legal material on the Net in order to enable users to customise the nature of their experience of the Net to their own requirements." "Again we are not applying any moral judgements of our own, but simply apply UK legislation to content hosted in the UK."
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