In a growing number of countries, the poohbahs-that-be are clamping down on a group they see as inimical to social order: atheists.
In Egypt, for example, the regime is determined to make it clear that non-believers will be personae non grata. The Ministry of Youth, which sounds like a fun-loving outfit if there ever was one, introduced a program last summer to spread awareness of the “dangers” of atheism. A spokesman, Nuamat Sati (anagram: taut manias), called atheism “a threat to society,” one that must be nipped in the bud early on. Young atheists, who are piping up more shrilly and more frequently on social media, will be given a chance to rethink their position, said Sati – or suffer the consequences, including, apparently, harassment and even imprisonment.
Atheists have it tough all over, but nowhere worse than in Saudi Arabia, where apostasy is punished by death or, worse, by enforced reading of the Koran. The light-hearted Saudis have even established a law equating “atheism” with “terrorism.”
Do we need more practical proof than this that atheism is just another religion?
Religion tends to nurture intolerance, and is there any more close-minded specimen in Christendom than a militant atheist? The hidebound atheist prides himself on his intelligence – that is, on having thought enough to reject the obvious idiocies of a given religion, which even its adherents suspect. But throwing out the baby with the bathwater is such a fellow’s stock-in-trade. Because the Bible is rife with inconsistencies, impossibilities and plain absurdities, should we be blind to the beauty of its poetry?
Is belief a solace, or a crutch? So let it be. The atheist is entitled to his belief, as is the Christian, because all men are entitled, as someone has said, to the pursuit of happiness. Belief can be a bulwark against doubt – the Christian’s doubt concerning the adequacy of his religion to account for the puzzles of existence, the atheist’s nagging suspicion that there may be a divinity that shapes our ends after all.
A man named Bob Churchill is director of communications for the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which recently published the jauntily-named Freedom of Thought Report.
“The theist’s right to theism is the same right as the atheist’s right to atheism,” writes Churchill, who edited the report. “As a moral right it (freedom of thought) derives from our shared human nature; as a legal convention it is written in the international framework, known as Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Freedom of thought is even written into the Bible, you could say, despite Bertrand Russell’s observation that as far as he could remember there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence. Jesus was exercising it, surely, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he beseeched God about whether he really had to go through with it. Matthew and Mark, interestingly, assert that this is what Jesus prayed about even though he was by himself and his disciples were off snoozing, meaning that no one could have heard him. If that’s not a testament to doubt, I’ve never heard one. Doubt is divine.