Blog 058: Secular Atheophobia

David Rand

In an article[1] written in 2008, I defined the term “atheophobia” as “literally, fear of or antipathy towards atheists and/or atheism” and I provided the following more detailed definition:

  1. the belief that atheists are morally inferior to religious believers;
  2. the belief that atheism leads necessarily to moral degradation;
  3. the notion that atheism, especially atheist activism, leads necessarily to extreme repression of religion, to the persecution of religious believers and even to totalitarianism;
  4. fear or shame of being identified as atheist.

This anti-atheist prejudice is the essential kernel of the problem of religion, especially the problem posed by monotheisms which claim to hold a monopoly on matters of morality. Indeed, each and every monotheism condemns any person who does not accept their particular god, claiming that such persons are morally inferior. As for atheists, who accept no god whatsoever, monotheism considers them to be completely immoral or amoral. This is the crux of religious intolerance. It is thus clear that one of the primary duties of every secular activist — whose goal is to protect the state from religious interference and thus prevent threats to the freedom of conscience of the citizenry — is to fight against atheophobia. This dirty old prejudice is at least as harmful for society as is racism and must be combatted with just as much determination.

Now, having been active for several years in various organizations promoting secularism, freethought, humanism, critical thinking, etc., I have occasionally found myself confronted by an unfortunately widespread phenomenon which I call “secular atheophobia.” Secular activists — who have a particular duty to oppose this anti-atheist prejudice — sometimes capitulate to this prejudice or even re-express it themselves, thus betraying their own principles.

The most common expressions of secular atheophobia are those described in definitions (3) and (4). An effort is made to silence the voice of atheists or to hide our existence, especially our presence inside organizations working for secularism, and use of the words “atheist” and “atheism” is avoided. These words are considered to be associated with extreme religious intolerance or totalitarianism — or when popular prejudice which alleges such an association rears its ugly head, the reponse is one of silence, a failure to denounce this prejudice or to counter it. By remaining silent, secularists allow this prejudice to fester and grow.

It is no surprise to find atheophobia spread by some religious persons, but coming from secular activists it is unacceptable and a manifestation of hypocrisy. In fact, secular atheophobia is an example of dishonest marketing. In a context where various anti-atheist and pro-religious prejudices are prevalent among the public, one tries to “sell” secularism by denying the participation of atheists in secular organizations or by using atheists as scapegoats, presenting the image that “We are good tolerant secularists, not bad intolerant atheists!” The goal is to gain a short-term advantage, even if it causes serious damage in the long term. Indeed, this approach fans the flames of atheophobia, and this will inevitably compromise attempts at secularisation sooner or later.

Secular atheophobia is often expressed as a mentality which is simplistically binary, without nuance. Consider, for example, the famous assertion that “Secularism has nothing to do with atheism.” In fact, to make such a categorical demarcation between secularism and atheism is to hide their affinities. In reality, secularism and atheism share a common refusal to acknowledge so-called “divine” will. Secularism is to state governance what atheism is to personal morality.[2] A secular state functions without reference to either gods or supernatural phenomena, that is, its laws and regulations must be based on science, reason and material reality, without reference to the “beyond.” In the same manner, the morality of the individual atheist is based on human and natural considerations, not supernatural ones. Both the secular state and the atheist individual reject divine command theory, the dogma which insists that morality and good government consist in conformity with the will of “God,” a will of which no-one can have any knowledge whatsoever.

I was once active in another association which advocated secularism, an association whose members and spokespersons were sometimes the targets of smear campaigns led by enemies of secularism. (This will come as no surprise to anyone who lived through the experience of the recent Quebec Charter of Secularism, where anti-secularists indulged in defamation like penguins engage in swimming.) They accused us of being, among other things, a “gang of atheists,” an accusation which, although inaccurate, nevertheless had the merit of not being totally false.

To respond to these accusations, the association’s board adopted a strategy of denial, along the lines of, “We are not atheists, we are secularists.” I categorically opposed this approach which, in my opinion, was dishonest. I suggested that, on the contrary, we should adopt a more transparent strategy and respond stating that, “It is true that many of us are atheists, although it is impossible to say in what proportion because identifying oneself as an atheist or otherwise is not a condition of membership. Our group includes a diversity of non-believers and believers. At any rate, you who make such accusations, what have you got against atheists? Are you so simple-minded as to think that atheists have no morals? Are you that backward?” But my approach was rejected and I decided to leave the organization. (Fortunately, since that time, the organization seems to have evolved towards a more reasonable attitude.)

At around the same time, I knew an individual, an atheist, who was of the opinion that religious beliefs must be respected. I, on the other had, advocated and continue to advocate a completely different approach: we must on the contrary examine such beliefs and, if they are determined to be unfounded, reject them. My approach has nothing to do with either respect or a lack of respect. After a long debate with this individual, he suddenly abandoned his point of view and declared, “OK, I agree: let’s destroy religion.” I was deeply disturbed by this statement: clearly this individual thought that he was rallying to my opinion but in fact he had understood nothing.

I concluded from this experience that it is a waste of time to discuss with an individual whose mind is locked into a simplistic binary mentality, jumping from servile deference (i.e. respecting religion) to extreme repression (i.e. destroying religion) with no middle ground, no discernment. This reminds me of those believers who think that belief in god is necessary for morality: if believers lose their faith, do they therefore become dangerous sociopaths? By the same token, if we nonbelievers abandon our respect for religion, do we then become extremists promoting draconian antireligious policies, such as making belief a criminal offense? The very idea is ridiculous. To criticize an idea does not imply a program of brutal repression of that belief.

No, we atheists have no desire to “destroy” religion. (This is my opinion, but I dare to assume that the majority of atheists would be in general agreement with me.) It would be more accurate to say that we wish to “destroy” the political power of religious institutions, but even that declaration is problematic because the verb “destroy” has draconian connotations which do not appropriately express what we want. Here is a better formulation:

  • We want to eliminate the privileges which religions and religious institutions currently enjoy, so that they will no longer have the political power to impose their dogmas and practices on the entire population.
  • We want to promote and protect freedom of conscience, knowing that this encompasses both freedom of religion and freedom FROM religion, so that both will be equally protected, i.e. so that the rights of non-believers will be protected as much as those of believers.

To achieve these two goals, we must fight against religious intolerance and atheophobia is the most important manifestation of that intolerance. This is what atheists such as myself want. This is also a rather good definition of secularism. They are basically the same program.

To conclude, I define secular atheophobia as the attitude which identifies atheism with extreme intolerance, or which assumes that the general public will necessarily make such an identification and, as a result, instead of fighting against this prejudice, capitulates to it by insisting that atheists remain invisible and silent, at least within organizations which work for secularism. And yet, these organizations are alliances between non-believers and moderate believers, with a common goal, and there is no reason to hide the identity of the various partners.

Secular atheophobia is a backward and reactionary attitude, a losing strategy, promoted by those who are unable or unwilling to understand that criticism of religion and defense of freedom of conscience (including freedom of religion) must occur simultaneously. These two tasks are not incompatible; on the contrary, they are complementary, because the greatest threat to freedom of religion is indeed religion itself, in its fundamentalist and extremist forms.

The invisibility of atheists and atheism can only intensify fear of them. Everyone, including the enemies of secularism, knows full well that many secular activists are atheists. To attempt to deny this obvious fact can only discredit secularists and nourish suspicions of a hidden agenda of repression. Openness and transparency are much to be prefered. The visibility and honesty of atheists can only help the cause of secularism.

Links

  1. “Atheophobia, A Prejudice Thousands of Years Old”, David Rand
  2. “The Relationship Between Atheism and Secularism”, David Rand, talk given at the colloquium “Religion, Secularism and the Rule of Law,” Beirut, Lebanon, 13-14 April 2012

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