I read an interesting article in"The New Scientist" this week about what motivates different types of atheists (although I am sure that believers could be placed into the suggested categories with very little adjustment to the qualifications). It was by Jonathan Lanman, a lecturer on anthropology at Keble College. He spent 2008 researching atheism in the US, UK, Denmark and online and found a "great diversity of atheisms, from a lack of belief in God to a lack of belief in all supernatural agents to a moral opposition to all religions." But he was mainly interested in two main groups, those he labels "non-theists" who have a lack of belief in the existence of supernatural agents, and those he labels "strong atheists" (I refer to them on this blog as "antitheists") who are actively opposed to religious beliefs and values.
The international nature of his research allowed him to come to an interesting conclusion regarding why some atheists are easy going and others are militant. Those atheists living in countries where religion has very little influence on policy, such as Denmark, are mainly non-theists. Those living in countries where parliamentarians often still refer to religious values, such as the US, were more likely to be militant in their atheism.
Lanman concludes that this is because those atheists living in religious cultures fear that their secular ideology, that is as important to them as the theology of evangelical believers, will be stopped from becoming the dominant ideology in their countries by religious groups having the most influence. In other words, as in religions, it is fanaticism, fear and lust for power that motivate anti-theists.
Therefore, the claims of many that antitheists are the same as religious fundamentalists seem accurate. The antitheist belief in the complete rightness of their cause and the complete wrongness of opposing ideologies is no different to the same certainty displayed by the ayatollahs, the pope, Tiber swimming Anglican bishops, the Plymouth Brethren and Rowan Williams. And I think we would all be wise to fear and discourage antitheism with exactly the same commitment we give to trying to stop the rise of fundamentalist Islam. History shows us that all fundamentalists will resort to violence to suppress opposition once they have the upper hand in a county. Militant atheism gave us Stalinism. Militant Islam gave us the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. I fear the main reasons why militant antitheists are not, at this time, exploding bombs in our suburbs is because they know they would get caught and punished and that they believe they have a real chance of becoming the big cheeses in their countries, influencewise. However, I also fear that, as in Islam, if atheist fanatics ever started to believe that they are never going to achieve their aims through propaganda we could see them resorting to guerilla tactics. And don't think for a moment that this is not also true of Christian fundamentalists. The existence of Christian survivor groups in the USA should be enough warning for us of what can, and so often does, happen when ideologists think they are losing the battle for the minds of the people.
Fundamentalists of all hues represent only a very small proportion of the population of our planet. Most people just want to live happy lives with as much freedom as is possible in democratic states. It would appear from Lanman's research that people find these aims in life most possible in nations, such as Denmark and Sweden, where the governments have a healthy, and real, disinterest in both religion and secular ideologies, and just get on with the impossible task of trying to please all of the people all of the time and so get reelected. Reasonable believers, reasonable atheists and all those in between, can help such governments avoid cultural, civil war or persuade religionist and antireligionist governments to drop their affiliations to certain ideological groups within their nations, by uniting together against fanaticism wherever it is found. Personally, I don't think mutual respect is going to work on its own in this situation. I think we all need a bit more humility. I suggest the adoption of a healthy agnosticism by everybody, whether non-believers or believers, should be encouraged. None of us can prove that a particular divine being exists or not. If anybody could then we wouldn't be hurling insults and, far too often, explosive devices at each other. Any believer who doesn't live with a real doubt about the existence of that which he or she venerates just hasn't thought about their faith at all. And any atheist who does not accept that there just might be something intelligent guiding the universe can't have read a science book since they were at school. It is uncertainty which will save the world, not sureness.