Its standard-bearers swarm across oceans and mountains, propagating a vitriolic doctrine of bigotry and intolerance like a biblical plague. It inculcates its devotees with a fanatical certainty in the verity of its dogma and the simultaneous disdain for all alternative dogma. Of the great religions, only Christianity and Islam can rival the enthusiasm of its proselytizing efforts.
The name of this creed is evangelical atheism. Now, atheism is certainly not a religion, and the phrase “evangelical atheism” certainly appears oxymoronic. But we have witnessed in our time the rise of a virulent strain of atheism championed by Bill Maher, the comedian and star of Religulous, the secularist philosopher Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and their often indignant ilk. For all its schooling and pretense of intellectualism, this godless vanguard unknowingly adopts the very aspects of religion its leaders passionately lambaste and turns atheism into the kind of evangelical ideology it opposes.
The facets of evangelism most repellent to atheists are bigotry, proselytism, and an unquestioning certainty in the tenets of one’s faith. Secular atheism spurns all of these things, but the evangelical atheism of Maher and Dawkins has chosen to embrace them.
During the height of conservative whispers about then-candidate Barack Obama’s secret adherence to Islam, Maher parried the smears with one of his own, saying, “…You can’t be president if you practice a violent, Middle-Eastern religion and worship a genocidal desert god, which is why [Alaska Governor] Sarah Palin can’t be president.”
Maher may be right when he says that a candidate’s literal belief in scripture makes him or her ill-suited for high office due to the importance of having a rational hand on the levers of power. However, Maher then subverts his credibility by condescendingly condemning religious belief as fundamentally irrational, describing belief in God as maintaining that “…You’re in a long-term relationship with an all-powerful space-daddy, who will, after you die, party with your ghost forever.”
But in reality belief in God does not require a divorce from science. It simply requires faith in something that cannot be proven. After all, the logic of religious apologists, though circular, is correct in insisting that God’s existence cannot be disproved, either. Atheism, as opposed to agnosticism, therefore, requires faith as well. By scorning faith in God, Maher is simply scorning beliefs that he does not share but cannot rebut. Surely this sounds familiar.
Posing a challenge to biblical or Koranic literalism has some merits, for such a belief requires a significant rejection of empirical reality. But the ridicule of the beliefs of all religious people, literalist and otherwise, is bigotry, and bigotry reinforced by proselytism.
One would be hard-pressed to find anything more explicitly religious than the use of the language of proselytism itself, exemplified by a page on Dawkins’ website, titled “Converts Corner.” Granted, if one were to ignore the comically narcissistic objective of this blog, whose sole purpose is to allow proselytes to stroke Dawkins’ capacious ego by recounting how his book “converted” them from their religious faith, one could defend such efforts by pointing to their foundation in logic rather than faith. But this contention would only hold true if Maher and Dawkins were proffering agnostic uncertainty in place of evangelical certainty.
By insisting that God does not exist, rather than that we cannot know whether or not He does, and that everyone should believe as they do, Maher and Dawkins venture beyond the realm of skepticism and enter that realm of conviction—religious conviction. Atheism, like the Abrahamic troika with which it competes, requires faith, and when this faith is replaced by certainty, when doubt and healthy skepticism are jettisoned, atheism becomes a religion.
Evangelical atheism is not the answer to evangelical religion, for the problem with the latter stems not from the irrationality of its beliefs, but from the absolute certainty with which those beliefs are held. Responding in kind is not the solution.
Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Straus Hall.