I recently re-watched one of my favorite movies: V for Vendetta and it got me thinking about the need for vocal opposition to religion in the public sphere. The movie focuses on the danger of a totalitarian state: in this particular dystopian future, the state has come to power in large part by stressing the need for unity. This unity has been achieved by stressing the importance of religious faith as a weapon against the outsider and the unbeliever, amongst other sinister strategies. While this is obviously a fiction through and through, I believe it highlights one way in which religious people can impact the lives of the non-religious, if only in theory.
I stress the need for outspoken opposition because all-too-often I hear people – people both for and against religion – say that atheists need to be quiet. The motivation comes from many angles, but all too often it simply comes down to people not liking that we are “rocking the boat”, or being “rabble-rousers”. I believe that any person who truly believes in something as important as secularism and/or atheism have a duty to speak out on the behalf of their beliefs; after all, these beliefs are incapable of speaking for themselves.
I’ve written elsewhere that atheism is a hollow idea, insofar as it defines an un-belief. Belief in a god, particularly one associated with a particular faith, has its motivations built-in, whereas atheism lacks any sort of belief robust enough to spur one to action. In other words, atheism is not a motivational belief. In that sense atheism is a neutral belief, though I think it can lead to many positive philosophical benefits for those willing to adopt that position. Secularism, on the other hand, is a motivational belief system. It asserts values that can (and should be) defended, which gives one the impetus to do so.
A Perfect World This is Not
Were we to live in a world where these ideas stayed out of the realm of morality, politics, law, science, education, reproduction, civil rights, gender equality, and every other aspect of human life, I would be happy to leave religion alone. Unfortunately, the fact is that religion regularly insists on giving its opinion on the way things are done in each of these areas, and many others. Worse, it often has the force needed to impose its viewpoint on those who do not share it.
I’m not only talking about those areas where the government is a de facto theocracy, like Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule. I’m also talking about democratic countries, such as the United States, France, Israel, among others. Even these countries, which have strongly worded protections built into the very foundations of their respective governments, are under constant pressure from religious influences, and these religious groups are often opposed to the very protections that have made their particular style of religious expression possible.
Given the way that government can influence the course of our lives through its ability to enforce beliefs by codifying them as laws, any influence on government by religious persons is something that should be watched closely and checked whenever it seems inappropriate. Perhaps this seems like a hysterical reaction to what are generally minor disagreements, but I believe that the devil is often present in these small skirmishes. Take, for instance, the modern struggle to keep creationism (sometimes disguised as Intelligent Design) out of our public schools. This is something that comes up regularly, and it is the constant push back from secularists, dissenting religious persons, and academics that keep that particular scientific charade from taking the stage.
I mentioned people who are not necessarily atheists because it must be understood that it is not only the un-religious that stand to lose from undue influence of religion in public life. Anyone who does not share the same belief system that is doing the suspect idea-peddling is a potential victim. It was long ago understood, by people far more astute than me, that the safest way to prevent persecution was to avoid a situation in which someone has the resources necessary to persecute. The protections against the collusion between church and state in the West are our inheritance of that ideological break-through, and this is an inheritance that we must not squander. The atheism, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Taoist, and Christian all benefit from this détente whether they realize it or not.
I am sure that many people see the stalwart opposition to ideas such as creationism as unfair or ill-intentioned. One need only read the comment section of an article discussing one of these battles in order to witness the vehemence so readily slung at those who would protect the public from unwarranted and unjustified religious influence. One should obviously take anything they see online with a grain of salt, but the sheer volume and consistency of these types of comments is at least sufficient to show that there is enough emotion on the other side – the religious side – to call for wary vigilance from committed secularists.
What's at Stake
One need only look at areas of the world where religion and political/military power are not strictly separated to see the detrimental effects of this insidious arrangement. Persecution abounds, beliefs are enforced through violence (or the threat thereof), and cultural and intellectual stagnation are often the normal. No one wins in the sort of environment, religious or not. This is why I believe in being outspoken. It is not directly for the sake of atheism, but rather for the sake of secularism - under which my atheism and I stand the best chance of survival. In a world that is not dominated by a particular religious ideology, no one need fear the systematic imposition of some group’s religious worldview on themselves or their society.
I think it is safe to say that secular societies have experienced the greatest flourishing – culturally, morally, financially, militarily, and politically - over this last century, which I believe is a testament to the secular political model. Religion has proven itself a potential source of discord so persistent and pernicious that the surest way to prevent civil unrest it to keep it a purely personal affair. Having successfully done so, secular countries have been able to devote their attention to the welfare of their people and the maintenance of civil calm, rather than the persecution of the infidel. Such a long-lasting peace is something for which we should be willing to stand up, and this entails being vocal on the behalf of secularism.
To bring things full circle, atheists should be encouraged to stand up for their un-belief. A passionate, committed, and defiant minority is a powerful defense against those people and beliefs that would ultimately do serious harm to our – indeed, everyone’s - way of life. I, for one, would not bear the yoke of imposed religion well, and while there may not currently be any religious force that threatens to burden me, I cannot think of any better defense than having well-intentioned and similarly minded people stationed on the battlements of a free and secular society.