A favorite game of outspoken atheists is “Punch the Low Hanging Fruit.” It comes often in the form of social media flame wars in which intellectuals take on nonsensical believers making asinine claims about things like biblical inerrancy and Christian morals with no basis in the Gospels. Bill Maher recorded a movie’s worth of footage of himself playing the game with truck drivers, moms on vacation, and a guy dressed up as Jesus. You know, game-changers with tremendous social and political capital.
Sometimes it’s meant for a laugh, while others use it to jumpstart diatribes about the pure, unadulterated idiocy of religious belief. I’m not talking about criticism of homophobic violence, forced marriages, and stonings. I mean, man-in-the-sky talk, calling Jesus a zombie, mocking belief itself rather than its violent by-products. As a fan of the First Amendment, I’m glad that such critics are not silenced for it. But by maligning such a huge swath of Earth’s population, such figures cannibalize their credibility as the primary defenders of religious freedom. Not because they aren’t sincere in their convictions that persecution of all kinds is unjust but because people generally don’t want the public face of their fight to call them complete idiots.
The grim reality is that religious persecution is alive and well in this world. In Myanmar, Buddhist extremists brutalize the Muslim Rohingya minority. In Syria, nuns are kidnapped by Islamic militants while others are given the ultimatum of either converting to Islam or paying a protection tax. Declining either means execution. And that’s just this week. While outspoken atheists are not responsible for this persecution, they cannot expect anyone to want them at the forefront of fighting on behalf of such people after disparaging their religious brethren moments before.
Though not a perfect analogy, imagine a man who regularly spews messages about the moral inferiority of women, their low intelligence, and their inclination toward manipulative and duplicitous behavior. If the same man were to come out as a champion of equal pay and to defend reproductive rights, women would be understandably suspicious. I’d be happy to have his vote but wouldn’t book him for speaking engagements on the topic. For those who say, “You didn’t choose to be a woman, people choose to be religious,” I challenge you to waltz into Syria and tell folks about your atheism. Or go back in time and receive all of your philosophical and scientific education in Myanmar. I’ll wait here.
Before rushing to quote Voltaire saying, “I may disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it!” as the mantra of the mean-spirited atheist freedom fighter, you should know that Voltaire never said that. His biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall was paraphrasing his thoughts on free speech. Secondly, disagreeing with a thought is not the same as calling it utterly stupid. Perhaps we could adopt a new (and attributable!) Voltaire quote, “What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly—that is the first law of nature.”