There is a very good reason our grandparents all agreed to never speak on politics or religion: because no speaker in the world has the capacity to convince somebody of their spiritual wrongness within the space of a single conversation. Online, however, there is nothing to stop any ten year-old who’s watched a few Hitchslaps from dropping an obscene hate-bomb onto any jungle corner of the internet before clicking away, never to be heard from again. But, as Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend in The Social Network puts it: “the internet is written in ink” – and any influence it has upon its usership, which is to say, a lot, is for better or worse, here to stay.
Since the rise of such prominent atheist spokespeople as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, as well as the popularity of such like-minded entertainers as Ricky Gervais, Jimmy Carr and Seth McFarlane, it has become almost somewhat popular in itself to take a public stance against the religions of the world. The problem is that when the average Joe who professes strong beliefs of any kind meets the near-unanimous litany of hate from the users of almost any public internet forum, the result can be tremendously ugly.
This, in turn, leaks out into the real world: I once found myself compelled to quash a God vs. Science ‘debate’ in a taxi on the way to a club – which didn’t exactly provide the foundation for a carefree romp at Cheers.
I adore Christopher Hitchens. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest public speakers of our time, a passionate, brilliant mind, the likes of which the vast majority of his fans can only ever aspire to. I admire the hypnotic sway his rhetoric held over his audiences, and I’ve giggled along with the infamous ‘Hitchslaps’, online videos of Hitchens ingeniously deconstructing the arguments of his opponents in debates of all kinds. Christopher Hitchens was then; there can be no doubt, an extraordinary human being.
His lagacy, however, is something he would surely be disgusted by; that is, the distinct and unfortunate blurring of the lines between atheist and anti-theist. An atheist is, of course, one who rejects the notion of the existence of any kind of god. An anti-theist is a radical atheist, in my own opinion taken a step too far, who believes that all religions of all kinds are harmful towards society, and that the world would be better off without them. Hitchens was an anti-theist. However, he was also somewhat of a celebrity spokesman for atheism, and this is where the two worlds collide.
Simply put, there exists (both online and off) an air of expectation that most atheists are also antireligious. Likewise, many atheists also feel almost obliged to wear an air of disdain towards organised religion, above and beyond the call of duty, as it were, that is necessarily mandated by mere non-belief in a god. With the death of Hitchens and the subsequent explosion of internet activity regarding religion, to many atheism and anti-theism are regarded as one and the same.
The irony of this is twofold: firstly, one of the very pillars of secular philosophy is the championing of individual thought, and this blind mass-agenda against people of religion very plainly defies this. Secondly, a major argument against religion is directed at its capacity to spread irrational hatred towards people of a certain mind – surely in this debate, there is no greater irony.
When asked of my religious views, I like to reply with a curt “non-religious.” It’s a nice, inoffensive term, without the baggage of the word ‘atheist’, and also without the explicit certainty it implies. One’s beliefs should never be something to be ashamed of, nor something that ought to be continually defended, and yet too often this is sadly necessary on both sides of the belief fence.
Too often radical causes fly under the banner of ‘teaching’ – but truthful learning must be factual, never emotional, and this is where strong wills and incomplete educations collide. No opinion is worth listening to unless it is absolutely erudite – take a look at the #Occupy saga, for example, which was a genuine and heartfelt protest against a biased system that became utterly bogged down and reduced to a joke by unfortunate loudmouths who felt the hate, but didn’t know the facts.
The bottom line, then, is that while the internet is a treasure trove of knowledge and the bastion of modern communication, we must always look at opinion with a cynical eye. Promoting hatred – of any kind, with any intent – is a social strangler vine, and it simply cannot ever be the genesis for any sort of good.