Zealous atheists resemble religious fanatics

Published On Sun May 13 2012

ByDow MarmurColumnist

Some years ago I attended a meeting in the home of a prominent Toronto businessman. Probably because he recognized me as he let me in, he felt compelled to warn me that he was a devout atheist.

Atheism nowadays does indeed require a lot of devotion as it’s on the way to becoming a religion. The title of Alain de Botton’s new book heralds it: Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. He even wants to build temples because “it’s time atheists had their own versions of the great churches and cathedrals.”

His book may be an improvement on the many rabidly anti-religious tracts that have become bestsellers in recent years. Whereas they seem to tell readers what they’re against in religion, de Botton’s is potentially a more positive, albeit eccentric, message.

Frank Furedi is a sociology professor and, by his own admission, a supporter of the British Humanist Association. He writes: “Where atheism was once depicted as a dangerous and subversive creed, today it is often portrayed as an enlightened outlook that perches on the moral high ground.” Perhaps that’s also what my host wanted to tell me as I came through his door.

There was a time when exponents of conventional religion were criticized for being overzealous and dogmatic. Today, in the religious circles in which I mix, openness and tolerance are the order of the day. It’s the New Atheism that, according to Furedi, “expresses itself through a doctrinaire language of its own.”

I’ve, therefore, consistently refused to engage in debates with atheists. They may consider me a cowardly man of little faith who’s afraid of exposing himself to the truth, but impartial observers will know that contemporary atheists are often even more fanatical than religious fundamentalists. Their zeal seems to know no bounds.

This may be due to their realization that conventional religion is here to stay, not as “the opiate of the people” in Karl Marx’s oft-cited description, but as “an ethical and cohesive force,” as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has called it. Conventional religion bestows purpose and meaning on life; atheists may be envious of it.

Because religion is articulated and administered by human beings, it often falls short of its stated ideals — just like atheism. Though atheists are keen to parade the abuses committed by some religious leaders and attack distortions attributed to others, they don’t seem to apply the same criticism to themselves but tend to hide behind what they call reason and science.

Religion, because it’s attuned to and aware of human inadequacies we know as sin, seems to be much more conducive to self-examination and a determination to do better next time.

Joseph Harker, writing last December in the British daily the Guardian, made a strong case for belief in God when he stated that “it offers clarity and opportunity for regular self-assessment, in an atmosphere of genuine humility.” In religion, he wrote, “the world doesn’t evolve around ‘me’; I have to contribute to the world.”

Kristof quotes psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, who writes that religious ritual practices point to a solution “to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.” A religious community gives adherents a home and something of a family. Community members often testify to it and, therefore, remain unmoved by atheist onslaughts. Perhaps that’s why de Botton now wants to imitate religious congregations.

In fact, the most common cause of religious conversion is the security of rituals and the comfort of community. Both help people to experience the caring God who loves them. Atheists, however devout, aren’t ever likely to know it.

Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple. His column appears every other week.


Views: 237

Comment by Tom Holm on May 15, 2012 at 6:52am
Not true. I don't want to go to atheist church every sunday
Comment by John Siqueiros on May 15, 2012 at 11:16pm

The rabbi emeritus ought to stick to preaching the Old Testament. His article purportedly about atheism is horrendously disorganized.

Comment by Sean Core on May 16, 2012 at 8:46pm

"Religion, because it’s attuned to and aware of human inadequacies we know as sin, seems to be much more conducive to self-examination..."

Religion may tell you what you did was wrong but science can tell you why you did it.

Comment by javier on May 16, 2012 at 11:35pm

We as a people unite with communities naturally. It is the need to rationalize our natural nature that drives our species into arguments that religion or lack of religion is somehow relative to this phenomenon. Personally most of my friends are religious and it does not bother us in the least that we are different in one way of thinking. The underlying issue I feel is that as people need to feel special, and we don't. Atheist or godly the need to feel special is a fault.

Comment by Michael on May 17, 2012 at 7:34am

What Alain de Botton is doing is a great thing. Unfortunately I think he could have chosen different language for his ideas. Essentially what he is trying to do is bring back the salons of enlightenment France. This is something I would love to see happen. Atheists and freethinkers all over the world organizing, discussing issues, and coming up with ideas and solutions for societies ills. A second enlightenment if you will.

Comment by Unseen on May 17, 2012 at 9:43am

While I don't believe in atheist zealotry because it just drives most theists further into their delusion, there is a crucial difference in that most atheists are freethinkers who base their views on facts and don't hide behind a doctrine requiring faith. I think if a being calling himself Jesus descended from the sky on a cloud and started performing miracles, many atheists would be forced to reconsider their atheism because they base their views on evidence not on some book put together by a committee millennia ago.

Comment by Doug Reardon on May 17, 2012 at 10:41pm


Comment by Dave on May 18, 2012 at 4:37am

What utter trash.  I had to force myself to read past the half way point.

I think I can be considered among the fairly zealous Atheists, for good or bad, mainly because I detest idiocy and evil.  Having blind faith and brainwashing children not to think critically is foolish and dangerous.  Basing a religion and entire moral standing based on a book that extols the virtue of rape, slavery and blood sacrifice is evil.  I agree that there are some good teachings in the bible, however I learned those lessons without ever being exposed to religion as they are very obvious to anyone with half a brain.

While I agree with Tom Holm about not wanting to go to "Atheist Church" every Sunday, the idea of it got me thinking.  I know there are Atheist meet ups etc but what if there were regular groups who met in community centers and the like (forget this building Atheist temples trash) in order to discuss the theology and mythology surrounding the many different belief structures.  The purpose being that everyone, including the religious would be welcome and treated with respect in order to educate each other to the similarities and differences of past and present religions.  We expose the good/evil parts and how humanity has in fact developed these good traits and moral teachings without the need for sky-daddies.

Comment by Tom Holm on May 18, 2012 at 6:36am
ok I didn't read past the part where you stated religion as on its way to becoming a religion. Atheism as I see it is in no way becoming a religion. More than likely an organization to bite back at religious people getting in our shit! Damn I didn't realize I commented already but I typed too much so..
Comment by Anastasia Vesperman on May 18, 2012 at 7:42am

Fanatics from any background and of any beliefs are a problem. Both theists and atheists _can_ act like big bags of dicks in douchecanoes.

Atheism is not becoming a religion. Atheism means not believing there is a god or gods. Theism means believing in a god or gods. A religion asks devotees to believe in a god or gods and follow a set of morals, and often has a hierarchical structure. A religion may or may not inform a theist's personal philosophy of life. An atheist's personal philosophy is informed by examination of, combined with some acceptance of, the ethics to which they are exposed in their society.

There are of course exceptions to the above. Some atheists do treat atheism like a religion, expecting other atheists to follow a particular ethical code, and treating them like the enemy if they do not.


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