Friday, April 13, 2007

Atheist Evangelism

In my article "Why Be a Christian?" I make a reference to the increasingly nasty rhetoric coming from militant atheist fundamentalists. Well, I'm not the only one who's been noticing, not by a long shot...

In Thursday's Wall Street Journal (where else?) there was a very long, interesting article (though not very well written) about the increasing militancy of the atheists of Europe, who seem to be in a war of rhetoric with their none too tolerant counterparts: Islam. However, it's not just Islam that's on the rise in Europe, as Europeans get fed-up with the emptiness and nihilism of their socialist utopias, they are turning back to Christianity, though it's only in small numbers. Still, it seems as if secular humanism has bottomed out, and the non-faith of atheism is taking note.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the human spirit; you can only fill it with so much booze, drugs and sex, then it either becomes numb or angry. The meaning of life is not the pleasure principle; only a fool would be convinced that the meaning of life is maximized pleasure by any means possible, which seems to be the only positive message that the atheists have at their disposal. It's easy to criticize religion, I do it all the time, but it's much, much more difficult to come up with a creditable alternative, and man being the measure of all things simply doesn't measure up.

So here is a nice, long excerpt from the WSJ article:

As Religious Strife Grows,
Europe's Atheists Seize Pulpit

Islam's Rise Gives Boost
To Militant Unbelievers;

The Celebrity Hedonist

April 12, 2007; Page A1

CAEN, France -- With 40 minutes to go before show time, the 500-seat Alexis de Tocqueville auditorium was already packed. A fan set up a video camera in the front row. A sound engineer checked the microphones.

The star: Michel Onfray, celebrity philosopher and France's high priest of militant atheism. Dressed entirely in black, he strode onto the stage and looked out at the reverential audience for his weekly two-hour lecture series, "Hedonist Philosophy," which is broadcast on a state radio station. "I could found a religion," he said.

Mr. Onfray, 48 years old and author of 32 books, stands in the vanguard of a curious and increasingly potent phenomenon in Europe: zealous disbelief in God.

Passive indifference to faith has left Europe's churches mostly empty. But debate over religion is more intense and strident than it has been in many decades. Religion is re-emerging as a big issue in part because of anxiety over Europe's growing and restive Muslim populations and a fear that faith is reasserting itself in politics and public policy. That is all adding up to a growing momentum for a combative brand of atheism, one that confronts rather than merely ignores religion.

Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and prominent British author on religion, calls the trend "missionary secularism." She says it mimics the ardor of Christianity, Islam and Marxism, all of which have at their core an urge to convert nonbelievers to their worldview.

Mr. Onfray argues that atheism faces a "final battle" against "theological hocus-pocus" and must rally its troops. "We can no longer tolerate neutrality and benevolence," he writes in "Traité d'athéologie," or Atheist Manifesto, a best seller in France, Italy and Spain. "The turbulent time we live in suggests that change is at hand and the time has come for a new order."
[Michel Onfray]

As with many fights involving faith, Europe's struggle between belief and nonbelief is also a proxy for other, concrete issues that go far beyond the supernatural. In this case, they involve a battle to define the identity of a continent.

Half a century after the 1957 Treaty of Rome laid the foundations for the now 27-nation European Union, Europe has secured peace and prosperity. But it is deeply uncertain about what binds the bloc together beyond mere economic self-interest. Says Ms. Armstrong: "There is a big fight going on to define European civilization."

In London last month, leading British atheists squared off with defenders of faith in a public debate on the motion, "We'd be better off without religion." Tickets cost nearly $40 but so many people wanted to attend that the event was moved to a bigger venue with over 2,000 seats. It still sold out. The audience declared the atheists the victors, by a margin of 1,205 to 778, with a few score abstentions.

In Germany, a wealthy furniture manufacturer is funding a "think tank of Enlightenment," a group of scientists and others committed to debunking religion. It is named after Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century philosopher and cosmologist who was burnt at the stake as a heretic. In Italy, one fervent nonbeliever has gone to the European Court of Human Rights with a claim that the Roman Catholic Church is guilty of fraud: Jesus, he says, never existed.

Prime Catalyst

Alarm over Islam has acted as the prime catalyst for much of the polemic. Europe's Muslim populace, estimated at between 15 million and 20 million people, is growing more numerous, more vocal and, in some cases, more religious. The clash also feeds on a deeper confrontation that dates back to Europe's Enlightenment, the 18th-century intellectual movement that asserted the primacy of reason over superstition.

"The battle over religion is restarting. It is going to be a difficult one," says Terry Sanderson, president of Britain's National Secular Society, an organization that was founded in the 19th century but has now gained a new vibrancy. Membership has doubled in the past four years, to around 7,000, says Mr. Sanderson. For converts from Christianity, the society provides a certificate of "de-baptism." "Make it official!" urges the society's Web site,

The atheist cause won a big-name endorsement late last year when pop star Elton John, in an interview, said organized religion turned people into "hateful lemmings" and should be banned.

The backlash against religiosity has even seeped into Europe's Muslim community. In February, Mina Ahadi, an Iranian-born woman in Cologne, Germany, set up the Continent's first Muslim atheist group: the National Council of Ex-Muslims. She immediately started getting death threats and was put under police protection.

"Our main message is: 'We don't believe,' " says Ms. Ahadi, talking in a coffee shop next to Cologne Cathedral, a towering tribute to faith that took 600 years to complete. A police guard hovered nearby.

Atheism, Ms. Ahadi says, must confront religion head-on -- and adopt its methods. Her group started with just 30 members in February and a month later had more than 400. It is lobbying European Union officials for restrictions on the veil and organizing a public meeting at which ex-Muslims will explain why they quit. "If you want to work against Muslim movements, you have to be like them," she says. "We have to go outside and say what we're fighting for."

Europe's atheist campaigners have also made a splash in America. "The God Delusion," a book by Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins, has been on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list for 28 weeks. Another British atheist, U.S.-based writer Christopher Hitchens, has written his own antireligious treatise, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," due out in May.

Christianity, once the bedrock of Europe's identity, has been losing worshipers on the Continent for at least half a century, though some opinion polls suggest the downward trend has bottomed out. Around three-quarters of Europeans still describe themselves as Christians. But only a small minority go to church. In Western Europe, according to polls, fewer than 20% do.

The number of atheists is hard to pin down. Some surveys put the figure at under 3%, but others say it is much higher.


Religious leaders are pushing back against the assertive unbelievers. The Church of England's Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, complained in a December statement about "illiberal atheists who have joined forces with aggressive secularists." He was responding to demands that Jesus be removed from nativity plays and that Christmas parties be called "winter festival" gatherings.

Mr. Onfray's atheist tract, recently translated into English, has prompted three book-length rebuttals by angry Christians and a flood of articles. To counter Prof. Dawkins's "God Delusion," an Oxford theology professor wrote his own book, "The Dawkins Delusion."

Both atheists and their foes agree on one thing: God -- declared dead over a century ago by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche -- is making a comeback, at least as a focus of controversy. "Faith is on the public agenda in a way that is unprecedented in recent times," proclaimed the founding manifesto of Theos, a new British-based Christian think tank.

Europe's atheist movement has no Vatican-like central command and springs from many different sources. Some adherents have personal grievance. Mr. Onfray spent part of his youth in a home run by Catholic priests, who he says mistreated him and abused others. Ms. Ahadi, head of the German ex-Muslims group, says her first husband was executed by Islamic revolutionaries in Iran.


Pierre Andrieu, a 63-year-old former executive with BNP-Paribas, a French bank, travels up to Caen each week from Paris for the lecture show. He makes the trip, he says, because he shares Mr. Onfray's take on faith--and fears that religion is making a comeback. "It is far more present than before," he says. "This need for religion is very, very strong. Religion is like magic. It is all about tricks."

SOURCE: Wall Street Journal: 12 APRIL 2007: THE NEW CRUSADERS: As Religious Strife Grows, Europe's Atheists Seize Pulpit

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