There was a discussion on Christopher Hitchens on the journal of poliphilo , one of one of my LJ friends, the other day. Christopher Hitchens is one of the "new atheists", who, along with others like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, are the atheist equivalent of Christian Fundamentalists like Fred Phelps, a kind of atheist Taliban.
I followed it with only mild interest, since the repetition of tired slogans becomes boring after a while, but I then noticed chiller 's contribution to the discussion. It was the usual kind statement in such discussions, that religion is responsible for all the evils in the world and that if religion is removed, all these evils will disappear.
According to chiller, religion is "responsible for war, child rape, witch beating, the stoning of women, the murder of homosexuals - I could go on," and he/she goes on to say "I want to see all organised religion dismantled, and I believe it will inevitably happen. I think we're evolving away from it, and it can't happen fast enough."
Now I've heard all this sort of stuff before, but I still want to (and in this case did) ask whether the record of irreligion was any better.
Enver Hoxha, the former ruler of Albania, took much the same view, and claimed to have abolished religion. For 23 years, from 1967 to 1991, Albania was the world's first and only officially atheist state, in which religion had been abolished. According to chiller's theory, those (and other) evils ought to have disappeared. But did they?
There were other states that, while not officially atheist, were run by atheists who did not actually succeed in abolishing religion, though it wasn't for lack of trying. Were those states free of all the evils attributed to religion?
Even to ask such questions makes at least some atheists lose all semblance of reason (which they often proudly lay claim to) and resort to emotional outbursts. I once asked a similar question in a Fidonet discussion forum called "Holy Smoke" and the atheist friend who had invited me there vowed never to speak to me again, and said he was unspeakably angry with me.
To me the question is scientific, at elementary school level. I'm not up on particle physics and quarks and string theory and quantum theory and all that. But at school we did an experiment to find out if oxygen was responsible for burning. We put a burning candle floating on water inside a gas jar. As the oxygen was used up the water level rose, and when the oxygen was used up, the flame went out. If you remove oxygen, things don't burn. So if you want to see if religion is responsible for war, murder, rape and all the rest, then if you remove religion from the environment, as Enver Hoxha claimed to have done, then all those things should be snuffed out like the flame in the gas jar. If they are not, then there are two possible explanations: (1) religion was not completely removed from the environment or, (b) they were caused by something other than religion.
But most atheists I have enountered go to extraordinary lengths to avoid discussing that. They prove to be expert herders of red herrings, erectors of straw men, and purveyors of emotional outbursts. In the case of the discussion on poliphilo's LJ, it was sidetracked into a discussion of the merits of the secular state, which simply evades the question.
But then it appears that it is not quite as innocuous as it seems. I have to say that I have no problem with the idea of a secular state, though I think that freedom and democracy rate somewhat higher in my scale of importance than secularity does. It is quite possible for a secular state to be decidedly unfree and undemocratic.
But at this point it appears that some people do not know the difference between a secular state and a secularist state. A secular state can be at least to some extent, ideologically neutral. It does not impose a theology, or an ideology on citizens, though there is a rudimentary ideology about the form of the state itself. Liberal democracy, which is the kind of state I favour, is a kind of ideology at the political level.
But it is at this point that things get scary, because it appears from the discussion on Poliphilo's LJ, that some, at least, want not merely a secular state, but a secularist one, in which the ideology of secularism would be imposed on citizens, and "religious" people deprived of civil and political rights, and prevented from influencing the political process in any way.
And so there's the problem. The advocates of secularism resent any suggestion of a comparison between what they want and authoritarian regimes like those of Enver Hoxha, Stalin, Mao and the rest. Yet I fail to see how the aims expressed by people like chiller can be achieved by anything other than authoritarian means. "I want to see all organised religion dismantled, and I believe it will inevitably happen. I think we're evolving away from it, and it can't happen fast enough." So did Lenin, so did Stalin, so did Enver Hoxha. chiller may think it possible to achieve that without gross violations of human rights, but I very much doubt it.