Saturday, 24 August 2013

An atheist ceasefire

Less than a fortnight after Barack Obama's 2008 election victory, the Chief of Staff for the President-elect Rahm Emanuel announced that the new administration would not let “a serious crisis to go to waste”, elaborating that a crisis “provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.” I would hardly say that the controversy of Richard Dawkins' comments on Twitter about Islam constitutes a crisis, but nevertheless it does provide an opportunity that I genuinely believe needs to be exploited to the maximum.

For those who are unfamiliar with what happened, Richard Dawkins sent this tweet about how there are only 10 Muslim Nobel laureates compared to 32 from Trinity College, Cambridge. This single tweet provoked a furious backlash among many, both religious and non-religious, and several enraged articles in the Daily Telegraph and the Independent among others.

Initially I dismissed the furore as an artificial controversy created by journalists bored with the fact that this summer up until that point had been relatively free of major news (although, curiously, Owen Jones is still writing about it now. Has he missed the news about David Miranda's detention at Heathrow or Bradley/Chelsea Manning's sentencing?). For that reason I haven't wrote about it until now. But then it hit me: this “controversy” actually provided all us New Atheists (as they still insist on calling us) with a great opportunity, one which does not deserve to be wasted.

One of the most common criticisms levelled at prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is that what they say and write promotes bigotry. This, they claim, damages the atheist/secularist/humanist cause and alienates moderates on both sides. The implication is that if the New Atheists would only tone it down a bit progress might be made. I personally disagree with this analysis, but for the sake of argument let's say this is true. What if they really did stop? Would that really help? Ok, let's stop then.

On behalf of the New Atheists, I hereby declare a ceasefire from our end. From now on Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss and all the other prominent critics of religion will stop writing about religion.

Now of course it's ridiculous that that I could claim the authority to declare a ceasefire on behalf of all atheists, not even Richard Dawkins has that power. Atheists by definition do not have a leader. But if enough atheists agree to my proposal, I believe it could genuinely gain some support.

Here's the caveat, however. This is not an unconditional surrender but an armistice. We are not surrendering and keeping the ceasefire permanent requires some some concessions from the other side. I do not believe they are unreasonable and unfair and I believe that any religious person who does not consider themselves to be an extremist should be able to accept these conditions with enthusiasm. They are the following:

  1. Stop sexually abusing young children. Whether this is in the context of a forced marriage of a child to an old pervert, the rape of children in religious schools or the genital mutilation of young boys and girls (which all occur in many faiths), this is a hideous and inexcusable crime which cannot in any circumstances continue.
  2. Women are equal to men and are entitled to the same human rights as men to speak freely, work and pursue their dreams. They are not private property to be bought, sold or abused in any way in which their male owner, whether he be her father, brother, uncle, cousin or husband, sees fit.
  3. People who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transexual must be allowed to live their lives freely. They must not be denied their civil rights, bullied, criminalised or murdered for their sexual choices.
  4. Religious people have no right to harass, ostracise, bully or, in some cases, murder a former adherent of their faith who has chosen to convert to another faith or to stop believing completely.
  5. The religious have no right to impose their religion or their interpretation of their religion on those who do not wish to follow it and to discriminate against those who choose to follow another belief system. This is especially important in societies in which a majority of the population adheres to one specific faith and therefore wield the most political power.
  6. Violence or the threat of violence can never be used to silence writers, artists, musicians and critics of religion.
  7. There must be a clear and legally enforced separation between church and state. Theocracy is an unacceptable form of government.
  8. Scientific research and progress must not be impeded because it offends religious sensibilities.
  9. Children have the right to a secular education. Religious studies may be included in a child's education but only on the condition it does not take precedence over other subjects. Children most certainly must not be segregated by sex or by their parents' religious beliefs.
  10. Terrorism which deliberately target unarmed civilians is under no circumstances a legitimate form of protest against any government. All such acts must be condemned unconditionally and unequivocally by everyone, however noble or justified their cause may seem to be.

I should make it clear that none of these these conditions is negotiable and anyone who commits one of these acts or who tries to justify the continued practice of one of these acts is guilty of violating the terms of the ceasefire.

There are those who may say that these conditions only apply to a handful of extremists. My response is that if that is the case, the moderate majority have nothing to worry about and can carry on living their lives as usual. There are also those who may say that, while they don't support the aspects of their religion mentioned above, they feel that this is an attack on their religion in general and on all those who adhere to their faith and for that reason feel they cannot support the terms of the ceasefire. My reply to that is instead of debating and defending the religion as a whole they should debate and defend specific aspects of their faith that they like and condemn the parts they don't like. Speaking from experience, I spent six years of my life living in Italy, a very Catholic country. Most of my friends were Catholic, some of them quite devout. But most of them didn't agree with the Church's teachings on contraception, divorce, and homosexuality. When I discussed religion with my friends, they felt no need to challenge me when I brought up those issues or when I brought up paedophile priests. They didn't challenge me because they agreed with me on those specific issues and felt no need to brand me as an anti-Catholic bigot. Instead we were able to agree that those things were inexcusable. They would only challenge me when we talked about an aspect of Catholicism that we had a genuine disagreement about, such as the morality of the ten commandments or the sanctity of life. If both an atheist and religious person agree on a certain religious issue, the religious person should not feel that agreeing with the atheist on that issue is a betrayal of their faith.


To conclude, this is not an attack any particular religion or even on religious people in general, it is an attack on the practices mentioned above. These are the conditions for the ceasefire. If the religious are able to adhere to these conditions, then atheists will stop attacking religion. We will never say another word about religion if these very reasonable conditions are respected. I suggest a trial period: from now to the end of 2013. That's four months. If by the end of this period these conditions have not been broken then the ceasefire becomes permanent. However, if any one of these conditions is broken, then the armistice is null and void and the attacks will continue. Will this be successful? I genuinely hope so.

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