A handful of atheists (15 to be exact) did a horrible, horrible thing in Huntington, Beach, California last week. Did they throw acid in the faces of schoolgirls? Did they mutilate the genitals of young women? Did they threaten children who masturbated with the threat of hell? Did they make little girls wear cloth sacks, and not venture out without a male relative?
No, none of that. It was far worse. Their crime? They ripped up pages of the Bible. No, not even pages of the Bible: some photocopies of Bible verses (watch the video here). Actually, one particularly vicious and militant atheist did desecrate a single page of the scriptures.
But that was enough for author and rabbi Brad Hirshfield’s to write an intemperate column at the “On Faith” section of the Washington Post: “When atheism turns ugly.” He argues that the destruction of texts is the opposite of free thought (note: they did not destroy any texts; they destroyed some photocopies), an act of fanaticism connoting a complete lack of respect for faith:
If atheists/agnostics/freethinkers/humanists object to being insulted and talked down to by people of faith, as well they should, perhaps they should refrain from the same behavior. While they may not draw on traditions such as “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “Love your enemy,” there are plenty of parallel teachings in secular thought which are just as ennobling. . .
. . . The issue is making the choice to read as seriously those teachings which dignify the lives and faiths of those with whom we disagree, as we do those teachings which don’t. That we fail to do so, so often, says more about us than about the traditions we follow. It’s about the perennial need, felt by so many people, to undermine the beliefs of others in order to feel good about the beliefs which animate their own lives.
Note what Bruce Gleason of the atheist group actually said about the act (in the video): “But we’re here just to demonstrate a point. We’re not here to desecrate the Bible; we’re not here to burn the Bible: actually, we think a lot of the part of the Bible are GREAT. But they’re good for goodness’ sake, for humanity’s sake—not because they’re delivered by God. ”
Yes, we can read the Bible and the Qur’an seriously (after all, parts of the Bible are great literature, though I haven’t found great prose in the Qur’an), but we don’t have to read them as “true”, or treat them with respect. Should we read the ridiculous tenets of Scientology, or the equally ludicrous tales of Mormonim—all palpable fiction—with respect? Why?—especially if those fictions motivate pernicious social consequences in our world. Just remember the things that the words of the Bible have been used to justify: slavery, persecution of homosexuals, oppression of women, and so on. We don’t undermine those beliefs in order to feel good about our atheism, we do it to help make a better world—one free of debilitating superstitions.
And Hirschfield draws the usual parallel between atheists and religious fundamentalists:
No, this was simply one more time when people fanatically attached to their own view of things felt that their sense of things was so true, it justified trampling on the views and sensitivities of others. More than anything, what these people proved was the old adage that the longer that parties are involved in a conflict, the more alike they become.
This is all very curious. For there are many nonreliigous ideas to which people are equally attached, and yet attacking those ideas does not unleash accusations of fanaticism. Take the 2008 Republic Party platform. I despise it and everything its adherents stand for, and would gladly tear it to bits in public. Would Republicans then act with outrage, accusing me of being “ugly,” a “fanatic” or a “militant”? I doubt it: it wouldn’t even make the news. Why not?
What this clearly shows, which we knew already, is that religion is different from all other modes of thought and belief. It’s considered unseeemly and disrespectful to criticize belief in God, but not belief in the death penalty, low taxes for millionaires, or opposition to universal healthcare. I don’t yet really understand this difference between religion and politics (readers might explain it to me), but it’s one of the prime motivating forces behind the New Atheism. Why do corporations, but not churches, have to pay taxes? New Atheists want, above all, to undo the undeserved respect attached to anything connected with faith.
When Rabbi Hirschfield fulminates against atheism, he might remember some of the things done in the name of Judaism, including biting off the foreskins of newborn Jewish boys (causing more than one case of sexually transmitted disease to the children), and, in the more conservative sects, turning women into second-class citizens, regarded as unclean during menstruation and forced to attend synagogue behind a screen. And he might also remember what the word “fanatic” really means.
I can’t resist showing again this well-worn cartoon: