When atheism turns ugly

Nikki Kahn THE WASHINGTON POST On Sept. 17 in California, one group of atheists tore up photocopied pages on the … Continued

Nikki Kahn


On Sept. 17 in California, one group of atheists tore up photocopied pages on the Bible.

Fanatical atheism is no worse and no better than fanatical religion, though it may be more bitterly ironic. There is something pretty odd, dare I say hypocritical, about a bunch of people who call themselves “freethinkers” and “humanists” not only verbally abusing people of faith, but actually tearing up verses from the Bible as an act of protest, as they did on a pier in Huntington Beach, California Saturday morning. It doesn’t sound terribly humane to me, and I am quite sure that destroying texts, however much one may object to them, is the opposite of free thought.

15 members of a group called “Backyard Skeptics,” proved nothing so much as their own ability to act out in the name of no God, in precisely the same obnoxious ways which they associate, too often accurately, with how they are treated by people of faith. Are we really still at the level of needing to recall that two wrongs don’t make a right? Apparently we are. So let me try.

If atheists/agnostics/freethinkers/humanists object to being insulted and talked down to by people of faith, as well they should, perhaps they should refrain from the same behavior. While they may not draw on traditions such as “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “Love your enemy,” there are plenty of parallel teachings in secular thought which are just as ennobling.

Of course, the issue is not the availability of teachings regarding the dignity of those with whom we disagree. Such teachings can be found in virtually every spiritual and intellectual tradition I know, at least any one publicly claimed by those typically engaged in these public demonstrations, be they “Backyard Skeptics” or Koran-burning Pastors to recall a story from last year.

The issue is making the choice to read as seriously those teachings which dignify the lives and faiths of those with whom we disagree, as we do those teachings which don’t. That we fail to do so, so often, says more about us than about the traditions we follow. It’s about the perennial need, felt by so many people, to undermine the beliefs of others in order to feel good about the beliefs which animate their own lives.

If one really can be “good without God” as the California protestors’ signs proclaimed, then why not be so, and let the proof be in the experience of their living? This was not a case of their rights as atheists being abridged in the name of other people’s faith. If it were, I would likely be on their side even though we disagree about God.

No, this was simply one more time when people fanatically attached to their own view of things felt that their sense of things was so true, it justified trampling on the views and sensitivities of others. More than anything, what these people proved was the old adage that the longer that parties are involved in a conflict, the more alike they become.

Imagine the culture wars if more people of faith actually recovered the kind of humility which all faiths supposedly teach. Now imagine also fanatical atheists who freed themselves of the very fanaticism of which they claim to be free because that is only a problem with religious people.

Oh wait, if that happened, we wouldn’t have culture wars. Difference and disagreement? To be sure. But the kind of ugly street theater that was played out in Huntington Beach, no.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • prof_robinson

    From what I’ve seen, atheism is the new gay-bashing. Atheist males act out and antagonize the religious to impress their chicks. It seems to work on liberal chicks, too.

  • godisadouche

    Professor, Yeah right! Umm, Atheists have a large amount of LBGT groups, Unitarians and freethinkers. Yes, I know it hurts your little Christian ego but if you are indoctrinated and continue your worldview based on that indoctrination than you are not thinking freely. Atheists are actually really nice and just like me and you except they have the mind to understand that there is no god and the religious have yet to prove otherwise.

  • prof_robinson

    First of all – not christian. That’s only the first thing you’re wrong about. Most agnostics (like me) are nice people, too… but you and I have both seen a number of atheists that seem to take delight in bashing christians. It’s just as offensive and bigoted as gay bashing; regardless of what liberal trophy groups they belong to.

  • godisadouche


    Being agnostic is just another way of saying you are not ready to be free of the brainwash and indoctrination of your formal religion. It doesn’t put us on equal footing by any stretch but these were Atheists that did this, not agnostics.

  • gcomeau2013

    This is a joke article right?

    It opens with the claim that “Fanatical atheism is no worse and no better than fanatical religion” and to demonstrate this claim it turns to… atheists ripping up *photocopied* slips of paper?

    Oh, the humanity! Those monsters! Those raving fanatics! Surely there can be no reasoning with them.

    Oh, and also they’re not always polite.

    Yeah… that’s totally comparable with the excesses of religious fanaticism.

  • cprferry

    If we are to count those religious states that sought war against other states or peoples for the purpose of political or social stability in the religious fanaticism category then we must count those same actions by anti-religion states in the atheist fanaticism category

  • cprferry

    Read Maimonades

  • YEAL9

    From the Land of More and More:

    Dear Rabbi Hirschfield (your pink slip is the mail),

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the “bowers”, kneelers” and “pew peasants” are converging these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of “worthless worship” aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, “cultural centers”, temples and synagogues.

  • ticbeast

    “Fanatical atheism is no worse and no better than fanatical religion”


    Not even a little bit. Are you seriously comparing the worst of atheism with the worst of religion? The most obnoxious thing these atheists are doing is ripping up a book. That’s right, they’re ripping up a book and you’re comparing it to extremist fanatics who kill in the name of their beliefs.

  • dodli

    It’s like saying “Fanatical quest to restore truth, sanity and freedom is no worse and no better than the fanatical quest for lies, craziness and enslavement”.

  • YEAL9

    Dear Rabbi Hirschfield (your pink slip is in the mail),

  • cprferry

    Indeed. Therefore there has never been a war of conscience, because conscience can not be won by force. There have been people who claimed religion to advance their language, strengthen their earthly power and seek non-religious material riches. But violence in pursuit of conversion of conscience is 1. pointless, 2. rare, 3. if it exists is a statement about the aggressor’s non-religious pursuits.

  • redmpp

    Atheists tear up pages of their favorite bogeyman book, the Bible, and the world yawns. A marginal pastor says he’s going to burn the Qur’an, the favored book of the left’s protected class, and suddenly it’s a national issue. Does anyone see the disconnect?

  • AndyTK

    Ask Dr. Tiller or the wives, husbands, parents, children and friends of the people that died on 9/11 if ripping up some paper is as bad as what religious fanatics did to them. I dare you.

  • Monkeyshine42

    When the good rebbi stops celebrating the infanticide, murder, and genocide of his holy books, then, he can criticize those you point out the disgusting quality of many of the verses found in the bible..

  • jesuscristsuperstar

    This guy should work for fox news.

  • sderrick

    Burning a bible for an atheist could be much like burning a bra was for the feminist movement. I could imagine it being quite self liberating, especially if you grew up being force fed the scripture and chastised for independent thought. Burn a religious text today!

  • said_nuf

    Everything does have a source. While these folks surely didn’t do the wisest thing on the planet, they do have rights (inalienable rights given by God). Even burning pages of the bible will not get them sentenced to death as they might in other countries — for burning anything other than the bible of course. Ours is indeed a unique system. But let’s look at what they were burning up as represented by these precious pages:

    The bible is the source of the protection of their very lives. No one can take their lives from them, for the bible prohibits it. // It is also the source for the protection of their personal properties. // It is the source of many of our legal benefits like due process under the law, the right to face our accuser(s), trial by jury of our peers rather than some aristocrat // and a minimum of two witnesses is mandated for any testimony in court. It is the source of our republican system of government (known in theological circles as the “Jethro principle”) in which we can choose our own leaders, from among ourselves. No one is of royal blood. Anyone can serve in our government as long as they are an American citizen. // If one is accused of some treasonous act, only that individual gets convicted and not their entire household, the way other countries did and still do. // The bible is the source of the individual civil liberties our system is framed upon. // It is also the source for institutions and agencies like hospitals, law enforcement, and fire departments: common citizens endued with state rights to enforce some of those “thou shalt nots”, protect property and save lives. This stuff does not come out of thin air.

    It was also the source that began our first literacy programs during the founding era. The reason was if we were to be a self-governing people, we needed a source for self-governance. If children can learn to read young, then they would be able to read and understand their state laws when old, and uphold them. For a law-abidin

  • wjmdjm

    Mr Hirschfield, are you saying that tearing and burning the pages of a hate filled fairytale is similar to tearing and burning living human bodies? Because that is what religious people do. Of course its been a long time since anyone has been murdered in the name of god. Right? How long has it been? Days? No. Hours? No. It is pretty safe to say that somewhere on Earth someone is killing someone else in the name of their god.

    I’d like to show a what a fine religious boy has to say. I’m sure you remember this guy.

    “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

    ( Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Ralph Mannheim, ed., New York: Mariner Books, 1999, p. 65. )

  • Ratsnake

    I’ll tell you whats ugly, Rabi, your barbaric practice of circumcision, in the name of the invisible man in the sky.