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Militant Atheism

If you have read this blog much in the past you will have gathered by now that I’m a fairly vocal atheist. I’m not worried about expressing the opinion that every religion I know of is both untrue and detrimental to the greater good of civilisation in general. Of course I readily admit that none of this is absolute: we can’t prove for sure that all religions are fake and I don’t believe there are absolutely no good aspects of religion.

Although I’m certainly not worried about making my points firmly and clearly and I don’t think that religion deserves any special amount of tolerance or respect, I still try to avoid being obnoxious and “starting a fight”. For example, I only debate with religious people if they start the interaction themselves. And I try to stick to facts rather than just being insulting.

On the other hand, freedom of speech is important and I have made no secret of the idea that I think criticism of religion is a good thing. But there is a fair and reasonable compromise between respect and criticism which must be found. In many cases in the past religion has been given too much respect but that’s no reason to try to balance that by now giving it too little. A related point is that its OK to criticise beliefs and actions but not so good to criticise people.

So what’s all of this about? In Britain a “militant atheist”, by the name of Harry Taylor is being tried for what is described as “three counts of religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress” after he placed insulting cartoons in a prayer room at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport.

I haven’t seen the cartoons but descriptions indicate some of them are crude and offensive (pigs excreting sausages labelled “Koran”). This does not serve the cause of atheism well and I don’t think that simple insults like this really prove anything except that the person who produced them likes to take serious debate to a crude and primitive level.

Saying the Koran is nothing better than pig excrement is really not the sort of argument which is likely to give the atheist cause a good name. Atheism should be based on rationality and careful examination of the facts, not on simple scatological humour.

On the other hand, there was some quite witty and humorous stuff as well. For example, an image of Christ on a cross next to an advert for a brand of “no nails” glue. (that’s actually quite funny) And Islamic suicide bombers at the gates of paradise being told: ” Stop, stop, we’ve run out of virgins.” (that makes a valid political point, I think).

So would it be appropriate to have any sort of anti-religious material in a prayer room? That is a harder question to answer. If the believers are using the room and not bothering anyone else then there is an argument to say they should be left alone. But there is another argument to say that people who take their religion so seriously that they can’t even take a flight without stopping to pray are dangerous and their motivation should be questioned.

Of course, its unlikely that a poster of any sort would be effective in moving someone from a belief system which is as well embedded in their brains, as tends to be the case with devout believers, so even from a practical perspective its not a great idea.

Sometimes I visit atheist web sites which examine religion from a rational perspective and I see ads (usually provided by Google) which invite me to visit a different site and see how “great Jesus really is” or something similar. So I am exposed (without asking) to material which is contrary to my philosophical perspective.

Is this any different from having an atheist poster in a prayer room? Probably not much as long as the material is reasonably presented and not just insulting. If I did see material insulting to atheists that would lessen my opinion of the believers. I’m sure the same is true for the religious people in the airport seeing the insulting posters.

So I don’t think this case has much to do with free speech. Everyone should understand that free speech must have limits. I would like this person to be prosecuted: not to protect the delicate sensibilities of the believers but to protect the standard we all expect from atheists – even if they are militant!

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