Today in the Guardian, Zoe Williams writes a fairly astonishing whinge about the ‘systematic civic exclusion of atheists’. Tucked away within Williams’ piece is my real beef with the New Atheism, and it’s a dark reminder of the kind of intolerance (if an extreme example) that is actually becoming embedded in civic secularism. I believe in freedom of thought; anyone can be an atheist if they want to be, even if to me their philosophical conclusions on the nature of reality are a bit tenuous. But Williams writes about people who believe in a deity:
“I am raising my child to believe you people are mad.”
Williams sees no problem in labelling as mentally ill those who take a philosophical position that there is a deity. And, worse, sees no problem in raising her child to believe that those people are mentally ill. You might think her comment is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a jocular version of the kind of thing you hear all the time from the New Atheists. Presumably she sees no problem in writing off in this way great philosophers like Anthony Flew, Descartes, Isaac Newton…I could go on…and on…? The irony is that she attacks the notion of a child being born a Muslim or a Christian and grandstands the importance of raising children to think for themselves!
Labelling disagreement as an illness is a path well worn by fascists and other totalitarians. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to hold people like that at arms length from civic life.