July 18, 2009

What Atheists Can Learn From Right-Wing Enablers

Religious sentiment often become a contributor...Image via Wikipedia
The second most controversial statement Richard Dawkins made in The God Delusion dealt with the shared responsibility of religious moderates for what extremists do in the name of their religion (you can find the most controversial here). This generated quite a bit of discussion, but I think that most atheists would agree that religious moderates who refuse to condemn the violence committed by religious extremists bear at least some responsibility for continued religious violence.

We are now seeing a fascinating discussion of the same phenomenon as it pertains to right-wing extremism in the U.S. Confronted with acts of domestic terrorism committed by right-wing extremists, many Americans are starting to wonder whether those on the right who refuse to condemn these acts or otherwise contribute to the cultural milieu in which they occur might share at least some of the responsibility. While reading a recent post at Quit Your Apathy, it occurred to me that this same discussion might apply to atheists in a slightly different way.

As difficult as it might be to imagine acts of domestic terrorism committed in the name of atheism, some have warned that it is just a matter of time until this happens. When it does, I expect clear and forceful condemnation to ripple through the online atheist community. Since we have no doctrine to defend, we do not have to worry about how criticizing a terrorist might somehow undermine anything about atheism.

But what about those of us who could someday be accused of enabling such acts? If this seems far fetched, I remind you that some Christians are convinced that we eat their babies!

As we look at the relationship between religious moderates and religious extremists or between right-wing moderates and political extremists, should we be examining our own ranks as well? Just because we do not now see atheists advocating violence does not mean that we might not someday see it.

And what about a different sort of enabling that actually is fairly common today? Consider for a moment how many atheists communicate the message that nobody should rock the boat. Couldn't this be construed as a form of enabling those who wish to keep us silent and invisible?

Some boats need to be rocked, and some pots must be stirred. There are many ways individual atheists can speak out and stand up for their rights. As we remain vigilant to the possibility of those among us who might someday advocate violence, we must not allow this to stifle raw passion.

What can we learn from right-wing enablers? I'd like to see us take at least two lessons away from the discussion. First, should we ever see elements in our midst moving toward violence, we need to raise the alarm and have the courage to denounce it. Second, by urging others to keep silent, know their place, or tone down non-violent rhetoric, we risk enabling those who would oppress us.
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