Must Atheists Go on the Offensive?

A Salon writer embraces topless blasphemy and pope-heckling until religion can be “eliminated.”

By John Zmirak Published on February 25, 2015

In Jeffrey Tayler’s latest piece at Salon, “We Must Offend Religion More,” he urges his fellow atheists to press the limits of free speech against religion. To this end he lionizes Inna Shevchenko, “the 24-year-old leader of the topless, fiercely atheist activist group Femen in France.” Shevchenko recently survived a deadly Islamic shooting attack during a panel discussion on “art, blasphemy and freedom of expression” in Copenhagen.

That wins our initial sympathy. Anyone Muslims are threatening with machine guns deserves the benefit of the doubt. If black-hearted, Jew-hating apocalyptic gunmen want to kill you, you’re probably on to something. And Shevchenko is, along with the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and other provocative European secularists who taunt Muslim killers by mocking Islamic pieties. And indeed, they are right about one very important thing: There is no form of speech that merits our violent retribution, either by vigilantes or the state. However disgusting, uncivil or stupid one’s words may be, insofar as they are simply words, they shouldn’t be answered with fist or truncheon or bullet.

But what’s misleading about Tayler’s piece is his indiscriminately tarring all religions. It was those nations with a Judeo-Christian heritage that pioneered robust free speech principles, giving us the Western ideals of religious and political liberty. The West acknowledged free speech principles centuries ago when it abandoned most blasphemy laws and outlawed the practice of dueling. And the American Declaration of Independence went so far as to ground the right to liberty in a specifically theological idea, that every human is endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable rights.

Apart from actual, imminent threats (such as “I’ve got a bomb, hand over your money,”) there is really no such thing as “fighting words” that justify a punch in the face. Natural law dictates a merely verbal retaliation, while the Gospel goes even further, urging us to turn the other cheek in our personal encounters with those who insult us.

So Inna Shevchenko and company are right about one crucial thing: The government shouldn’t put them in jail, nor should religious thugs gun them down.

Unfortunately, that’s the best that one can say about Shevchenko, Femen or Tayler. Tayler’s article reports:

Femen has pronounced religion, in particular, Islam — a bane on women’s rights and has carried out a number of widely publicized, bare-breasted protests against it, burning the Salafist flag in front of the Great Mosque in Paris and chanting, “F*** Your Morals!” and “Women’s Spring is Coming!” to a furious crowd outside Tunisia’s Ministry of Justice, disrupting a Catholic march against same-sex marriage (also in Paris) and disturbing the pope’s weekly address at the Vatican, and ambushing the Russian Orthodox patriarch as he stepped out of his plane in Kiev, greeting the potentate with cries (in Russian) of “Out, out, Devil!”  (By no means is this list complete.)  Shevchenko herself was forced into exile in 2012 after chainsawing, in support of Pussy Riot activists imprisoned in Russia, a giant wooden cross on Kiev’s central Independence Square.

Tayler isn’t just defending her right to do such things. He’s celebrating the actions themselves. In his narrative, he condemns secular leaders like President Obama for demanding respect for religions, since this amounts to “nothing more than pandering acceptance of ancient myths, harmful ideas and the increasingly gruesome violence to which they often lead.”

But where is the “increasingly gruesome violence” that Christianity has provoked since . . . 1648 at the latest? You would think that more than 360 years of increasingly good behavior on this front might get Jesus out of the dock. And what has poor, persecuted Judaism done lately to merit Tayler’s abuse? (Perhaps Tayler is a secret Hellenist, still outraged at the Maccabean Revolt of 160 BC against Roman domination.)

Since 1789, believing Christians were far more likely to be victimized by the state for living their faith than to gain its help or protection. In the 20th century, the rabidly secular National and international Socialists targeted members of “Abrahamic faiths,” racking up millions of casualties. Sometimes they killed people for their faith, sometimes for their race, but both regimes wielded genocidal violence in support of purely secular ideologies. While some Muslims cooperated with Hitler in persecuting Jews, millions of others perished in Stalin’s ethnic cleansings. If there’s one thing we can say about the age of the great genocides, it’s that the killers were mostly atheists, and the victims mostly believers.

Tayler seems to envy the anti-religious crusaders of the early 20th century, and to share their vulgar rejection of every theological precept:

The Abrahamic faiths have never been simply matters of conscience; they have always served as weapons to impose control, especially over women and their bodies, sexual minorities and education.  Weapons need to be kept under lock and key, or better yet, eliminated. [emphasis added]

So the free speech absolutist Tayler considers religious creeds the moral equivalent of pistols — which the state should carefully limit, or better yet, “eliminate.” Some people’s speech is clearly more equal than others’.

Tayler even suggests a legal foothold for an attack on parental rights and freedom when he calls the religious education of young people “child abuse.” In Europe, such arguments have already been used, for instance against the Romeikes, a Christian German family who lost their daughter to a psychiatric hospital because they insisted on schooling her at home. The tolerant, secular liberals who persecuted the Romeikes, with the full support of the EU’s Court of Human Rights, were not even embarrassed at the provenance of the law prohibiting home schooling: It was passed by Hitler’s government, in 1938.

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