It’s fair to say that, so far, the 21st century hasn’t been an era of happy-clappy harmony between Christians and atheists. In fact, in this young millennium the bickering between believers and non-believers that has rumbled on for centuries went positively mainstream.
What had once been a war of words waged largely through dusty tomes became the subject of chart-topping polemics. Very public bust-ups over everything from the wearing of crucifixes at work to child abuse in the Catholic Church – not to mention gay marriage – suggest the air between the godly and the godless is as bad today as it has been at any time in living memory.
Well, it might be time to park these spats. For right now, what unites Christians and atheists is far more important than what divides them.
They face a common enemy: intolerance – bloody, violent intolerance. Today, it isn’t the content of Christians’ or atheists’ beliefs we should be worried about – it’s their right to believe or not, free from persecution.
This month, Ananta Bijoy Das became the third atheist blogger to be murdered in Bangladesh this year.
Simply for articulating his unbelief on Mukto-Mona, a secularist blog devoted to the promotion of “science, rationalism, humanism and freethinking”, Mr Das, a 32-year-old bank employee, was hacked to death on his way to work. He had been receiving death threats from Islamists.
Intolerance doesn’t get more naked or brutal than this: a man butchered with machetes for what he thought, for what he said, for what he believed – or rather, refused to believe.
Das was incredibly brave. He knew the risks of being an atheist in Bangladesh.
The founder of Mukto-Mona, Avijit Roy, was hacked to death in February. And in March, Washiqur Rahman, another blogger, was murdered with meat cleavers.
This bloodshed in Bangladesh is but a more extreme version of the growing persecution of atheists across the Islamic world.
A non-believer wouldn’t last five minutes in the territories of ISIS. Even in less psychotic states, atheists face official persecution and unofficial harassment.
In Saudi Arabia, atheist blogger Raif Badawi has been in jail since 2012. In January he received the first 50 of 1,000 lashes that he’s been sentenced to for “insulting Islam”. In Egypt in January, a 21-year-old student was jailed for three years for announcing his atheism on Facebook. Egyptian police also shut down an “atheists’ cafe”, branding it “a place for Satan worship”. In Turkey in March, the website of that country’s first Atheism Association was blocked by the courts on the grounds that it was an “insult to religious values”.
Numerous countries have laws that discriminate against atheists. In Algeria, for example, atheist men are forbidden from marrying Muslim women.
If this all sounds familiar, that will be because it mirrors the experience of another harried group, the world’s most persecuted religious people in fact: Christians.
Christians, too, find themselves silenced by the intolerant. So, Christians in Saudi Arabia, the majority of whom are expatriate Filipinos temporarily working in the kingdom, are forbidden from practising their faith openly and must instead pray secretly, and virtually, in online Christian chatrooms.
Like Bangladeshi non-believers, Christians face terrible violence, on a biblical scale. In recent years we’ve witnessed the mass expulsion of Christians from Iraqi cities and the grotesque public execution of Christians in Iraq, Syria and Libya. In much of the Middle East, it’s no longer safe to be Christian.
Some Western secularists have offered solidarity to the Christians of the Middle East. The National Secular Society decries the “religious cleansing” and “unspeakable bigotry” against Christians in Iraq.
Now it’s time for Christians to stand shoulder to shoulder with atheists who find themselves under assault over the contents of their consciences.
Churches must now do what might initially feel quite alien: defend, clearly and loudly, the right of non-believers to reject God, to ridicule the Bible and to criticise Christianity.
It is true that, in recent years, some Western secularists, particularly the New Atheist set, have become cavalier about religious freedom. They’ve jettisoned John Locke’s Enlightenment outlook – which bigs-up the rights of religious groups to believe whatever they want without facing public sanction – in favour of using scare stories and equality laws to demand the closure of Catholic adoption agencies and faith schools.
But today, as both atheists and Christians in the East fight for their rights, and lives, it is to be hoped that Western secularists will rediscover the importance of tolerance, of defending the freedom of conscience of even those you deeply disagree with.
Christians should get the ball rolling on this much-needed believer/non-believer solidarity. That atheists differ from you on many moral questions should be of no concern. For on the greatest moral issue of our age – the right of people to believe and speak as they see fit without facing state punishment or mob violence – Christians and atheists ought to be as one.
This article first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Herald of May 22. Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked Online