Bless atheists, for they have sinned

Emma Teitel on the problem of modern atheism

Rex Features / CP

The door-to-door religious proselytizer is, like his secular cousin the Cutco knife peddler, a harmless irritant of modern North American life. If you don’t care for his wares, you say no thanks, shut the door and sometimes roll your eyes. But you rarely, if ever, engage. Portland University philosophy professor and proud atheist Peter Boghossian not only advocates engaging religious fundamentalists in debate, he has written the manual on how to do so.

His new book, A Manual for Creating Atheists, could be called the bible of deconversion. Boghossian has a mission: to rid the world of religion through what he calls “street epistemology”—the act of literally talking someone out of his or her faith. Street epistemologists are essentially evangelists of reason, set on shepherding religious people away from the darkness of supernatural dogma and into the light of logic. Sound familiar? Boghossian has taken one of organized religion’s most invasive and possibly problematic practices—proselytization—and turned it on its head.

“Five per cent of the U.S. population does not believe in God,” he writes. “We have a standing ‘army’ of more than half a million potential street epistemologists ready to let loose to separate people from their faith . . . to deliver millions of micro-inoculations (of reason) to the populace on a daily basis.” A Manual for Creating Atheists is, in a way, an atheist’s attempt at Old Testament-style eye-for-an-eye revenge. What better way to chip away at the already dwindling numbers of most major religions than by recruiting from within? Boghossian’s deconversion methods draw on everything from the rhetorical tactics of ancient Greek philosophy to the works of modern atheist all-stars Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins—whom he refers to as atheism’s “horsemen.” Through street epistemology, he hopes the non-believing will “transform a broken world” into a new society “built on reason, evidence and thought-out positions.”

At worst, Boghossian’s approach might appear tongue-in-cheek and harmless, or, if you’re an atheist, noble and necessary. But it points to an unnerving new trend in the world of the non-believing—one that doesn’t merely personally reject religion with a “No thanks, I’ll pass” attitude, but globally opposes it, with the addendum, “And not for you, either, if I have anything to say about it.”  Boghossian’s militant atheism not only attacks religion’s zealous and radical manifestations, but targets its benign and secular ones, too.

When asked what harm a privately religious person could possibly do in the name of his or her saviour, he denies that such a person exists, and insists on characterizing all faiths in the same simplistic fashion—as “pretending to know something you don’t.” Darker still is his tendency to refer to faith as a “virus” and an “affliction.” Every enlightenment has a dark side. Modern atheism’s may be its creeping idolatry of reason and reality, which, in our current political circumstance, gives way to Islamophobia and sexism—things Boghossian doesn’t endorse, but that some of his contemporaries most certainly do. Richard Dawkins has lately been tweeting truisms like, “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” In April, he asked via Twitter whether the New Statesman, a U.K. magazine, ought to publish work by a Muslim journalist who believes “Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse.”

“I used to think of atheists as being more upstanding than your average theist, but it’s simply not true,” says Rebecca Watson, a feminist author of the popular blog Skepchick. Like thousands of women active in the online atheist community, Watson has experienced misogyny verging on the deranged. She is regularly called a c–t and receives death threats that cite man’s “superior evolutionary psychology.” (When you can no longer use scripture to subjugate women, why not try science?)

The animus against Watson seems to have been sparked by a run-in with Dawkins himself. In 2011, she spoke at the World Atheist Convention in the United States about sexism in her community. At the end of the event’s after-party, she was followed into an elevator by a male delegate who asked her back to his hotel room. She declined. Shortly after the incident, Watson made a YouTube video suggesting that men refrain from propositioning women alone in elevators at 4 a.m. Soon after, Dawkins, who also spoke at the conference, declared it ridiculous that Watson complain about an elevator proposition, what with all the “real” sexism that occurs in the Muslim world. Misogynistic missives have flooded her inbox and social-media feeds since. “If Richard Dawkins hadn’t weighed in,” says Watson, “I wouldn’t be getting half the abuse I get. If Dawkins says attack, they attack.” Can anyone say “the voice of God”?

Boghossian would refute the notion that Dawkins has taken on a deity-like role in the atheist movement, just as he refutes the notion that his own in-your-faith atheism is wrong-headed and potentially dangerous. When I challenged him about Dawkin’s Islamaphobic tweets, he was quick to defend his hero. “There’s a difference between challenging an idea and attacking a person,” he said. “Religion isn’t an immutable characteristic of a person.” He’s right. Technically it’s not. Unfortunately, though, the Nazis didn’t care about technicalities, nor did any other non-religious power that killed on the basis of religion. But it takes context to make that distinction, and it’s context—not faith—that today’s atheist agitators sorely lack. For now, I’ll take the guy at the door.

Have a comment to share? emma.teitel@macleans.rogers.com

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