It is often noted that the major religions are divided in and of themselves. Each religion has many groups, each with a different take on the main text of that religion, each applying it differently to their lives and to their treatment of their own and outsiders. The same applies to atheism, a movement that is in danger of splintering and becoming ineffective due to infighting.
I came across a book in Exclusive Books the other day, called Atheism Explained, which in its preface hastened to move away from the work of atheists before it and to try create a different approach. Admirable in its way, as sometimes a gentle middle ground is more convincing than a more radical approach, but it kinda pissed me off that there was this need to almost apologise for the work of New Atheism’s trinity of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens as being too harsh and single-minded. It is to this kind of disclaimer seemingly on behalf of all atheists that I personally object to. (I would also like to correct the deeply misguided author who thought Hitler was atheist. He was deeply, proudly Catholic and all the soldiers’ belts were inscribed with ‘God is With Us’. Atheist my ass. He also wasn’t vegetarian.)
All movements throughout time have a continuum of enthusiasm, if it can be called that. It is deeply necessary that movements have vocal, radical proponents. After all, what many considered extreme feminism was once just the call for women to have the right to vote, work and control their sexuality. Not that long ago, these things were unthinkable, far too radical and untenable for their time. Mary Wollstonecraft in Vindication of the Rights of Woman advocated that women be educated so as to better themselves, their families and society. This was in 1792 and she was reviled by a great many for this outrageous suggestion, called the Hyena in Petticoats. And even then she was still working within the family paradigm of husband, wife and many children. She didn’t dare suggest that women don’t have to get married, or have children. She also had some class issues and suggested that the poor (except for the brilliant ones) be educated separately from the rich. In retrospect, it was a conservative book, but in its time it was explosive.
Which brings me back to my point. At the least, some of us are ostracized by family members. At worst, in some countries atheists can still be stoned for non-belief. Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens continue to attract derision for views that challenge the status quo, views which are quite tenable to me but continue to upset the majority of my parents’ generation, and to a lesser extent, many of my generation. (Hell, I have Christian friends who deeply, deeply pity me.) There are creationists who flatly refuse to believe that evolution is real, and I imagine that it must seem interesting to them that Jesus might have been preaching to mammoths as well. But if there aren’t people who suggest what the future might look like, who are calling for the acknowledgement of a valid system of understanding the universe and how we might treat it, then the idea cannot grow.
Once upon a time, it was unthinkable that black slaves might ever be freed and own property and keep their children. It was laughable that women might one day be presidents, priests and pilots. Right now, people are trying to end the whale trade once and for all, one of the pillars of America’s rise and rise as a superpower. Right now, there are over 30 female presidents and prime ministers. Right now, the world admires Nelson Mandela for all he is, when once upon a time he had to carry a passbook and was called a terrorist.
Things change, and grow, and it is deeply beautiful. But things can only change if some of us are brave enough to argue in advance, to suggest that which might seem dangerous now. All good movements still have a long way to go: animals are still seen as disposable, women weak, atheists evil and blacks untrustworthy, but we have grown. We are making progress. And sometimes, it is the radical ones who do the most work. As a character in Dr Who said, “I can seek the truth because I am brilliant and unloved.” The radicals know that they do not make friends, though they may have admirers. I draw the line at any killing, because the argument is undercut by it, but there is a special place in this world for the radical.
Change is scary, for all sides of the equation. Many Christians think atheists want to burn their churches down and roast babies on the embers. Many atheists are afraid to be more vocal because it might cost them their jobs and the respect of others. Some women are terrified of choosing their career over children in case they miss out. And sometimes its hard to speak up and endure the weight of the majority and its back-up, fabricated or not. This is why each movement should celebrate its vanguard, those who go in front of us and who pave the way.
I often return to it, but Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African farm has the story of the traveler in which a man seeks the bird of Truth. He spends his whole adult life carving one step in the mountain so that others may continue where he finished. He dies with one feather from the bird of Truth, and it is enough.
I hope that one day, I can be a great voice for the things I believe in. A blog is just a starting place, but I’m sure the Pankhurst sisters would have had one, if they could. For now, I’d just like to salute Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. You make me proud to be atheist, and inspire fearlessness in the face of all the revulsion atheists face.