Biology professor and popular blogger PZ Myers is one of the more outspoken public atheists, and a recent incident involving a gelato shop owner has roused Myers’s legendary ire. While I’m not completely sympathetic to his fierce and combative style, I do agree with many of the points he makes in his blog-post-cum-rant. Specifically, the charges he lays against those in the skeptic community who shy away from applying their vaunted skepticism and critical thinking to religion are spot on. Religious beliefs shouldn’t be exempt from the same level of scrutiny and evidential demands applied to UFO claims, conspiracy theories, psychic powers and Big Foot sightings.
I also agree with the spirit, if not the delivery, of Myers’s rant against ‘fair weather atheists’, which I take to mean atheists who adopt a holier-than-thou attitude towards their fellow unbelievers who are so vulgar as to noisily advocate for atheism. Knowing a few such fair weather atheists myself, I wonder if they realise that their freedom to not only not believe, but to also not have to fight for their right not to believe, is contingent on several factors: that they live in a mainly secular society, that they have been brought up in an environment conducive to tolerance of differing creeds and lifestyles, that they are protected by laws prohibiting discrimination against atheists or agnostics, that their social circle mostly consists of like-minded individuals who prevent them from feeling like they’re lonely islands of reason in an ocean of religious fervour.
It’s much harder to be a smug fair weather atheist when you’re an unbeliever in, say, Pakistan, or Iran, or the American Bible Belt. And the values that atheist advocates – from Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens to Myers, Greta Christina and Maryam Namazie – are standing up for are universal. They are fighting for the intellectual freedom and basic human rights of people everywhere, the sort of human goods that may be taken for granted by fair weather atheists, but most assuredly not by atheists who are harassed, persecuted, assaulted, killed or otherwise viciously discriminated against because they happen to be unbelievers in a society that hasn’t quite elevated snark and noncommittalism into a hip cultural institution.