Today is Good Friday, the remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth which Christians believe redeemed all of us from sin. On Sunday, we will celebrate His resurrection, which promises new life and victory over death for those who believe. Two billion people will join in this millenia-old celebration of faith -- but some will see this as a continuing decline towards an abyss of intolerance and genocide.
One of my favorite center-left columnists, E.J. Dionne, tackles the neo-atheists in an excellent Washington Post piece by pointing out that these aggressive anti-religionists seem as attached to dogma as those they criticize:
The new atheists -- the best known are writers Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins -- insist, as Harris puts it, that "certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one." That's why they think a belief in salvation through faith in God, no matter the religious tradition, is dangerous to an open society.
The neo-atheists, like their predecessors from a century ago, are given to a sometimes-charming ferociousness in their polemics against those they see as too weak-minded to give up faith in God. ...
Argument about faith should not hang on whether religion is socially "useful" or instead promotes "inhumanity." But since the idea that religion is primarily destructive lies at the heart of the neo-atheist argument, its critics have rightly insisted on detailing the sublime acts of humanity and generosity that religion has promoted through the centuries.
It's true that religious Christians were among those who persecuted Jews. It is also true that religious Christians were among those who rescued Jews from these most un-Christian acts. And it is a sad fact that secular forms of dogmatism have been at least as murderous as the religious kind.
Let's not kid ourselves here. The 20th Century demonstrated that atheistic systems could be every bit as deadly as theocratic systems, and far more efficient at it. Communism resulted in tens of millions of deaths in its decades of bloody reign across Asia. Stalin himself has the responsibility of massive deaths through deliberate and neglectful starvation, and thousands more murders from his whims. Mao and the Chinese governments that followed from him force women to abort babies and have also starved millions through mismanagement and malice. On smaller scales, the Communist governments in Cambodia and Vietnam conducted massive genocides on their own people.
In the short period of time of human history when atheistic systems that force an end to religious activity have been allowed to rule, the results have been horrific and immensely bloody. And yet the neo-atheists insist that religion is the primary cause of human suffering. Hmmm.
This doesn't mean that atheists are genocidists, any more than ugly examples like the Spanish Inquisition mean that Catholics are torturers. The fundamental flaw of the neo-atheist argument is that faith inherently creates Inquisitions, which is ridiculous. It is the accumulation of unrestrained power -- and the fear of its loss --- that creates both the Inquisition and the Cambodian killing fields. Power corrupts, and it corrupts the secular and the religious alike.
That is why the best forms of government keep power in the hands of the governed and set checks and balances against the abuse of power. They also allow for the free expression of religion for two reasons. First, faith is a personal choice, and any government that forbids or significantly restricts that choice will not stop its thought police at just religious choices for long. Second, societies with free access to religious faith do not create the impulse for religious totalitarianism.
The plan that neo-atheists want would impose a new belief system on people in an oppressive way that rivals any that they claim religions cause. Dionne chooses in his column to struggle through his own questions and doubts to continue to believe in God and retain his faith. As I would keep my freedom, so do I.