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‘Tis the Season for Holy War Nostalgia

Most atheist writers in America have encountered the phenomenon of “fatwa envy“, where Christian apologists sneer that we wouldn’t dare criticize Islam in the same way we criticize Christianity. (This is false, for the record.) Evidently, they’re jealous of Islamic extremists’ willingness to commit violence in an attempt to silence their critics. Sometimes, it almost comes across as wishing they had more people on their side who were willing to be violent, so they could make us sorry. This isn’t to say that outspoken atheists aren’t already targets of persecution in America, but it’s not of the public-stoning-in-the-town-square variety, which is clearly what the fatwa-enviers have in mind.

All that is strange enough, but today I want to call attention to a related phenomenon: apologists who are openly nostalgic for an era when religious disagreements were settled not through peaceful persuasion, but through violence, torture, and bloodshed in the streets. They think it’s cowardly for atheists to file lawsuits enforcing the separation of church and state. They boast that we could never compete or win out against them if only these disputes were decided, not by who has the best legal arguments, but by who can boast the greatest number of people horribly killed in the service of their cause.

Witness this example from the Catholic apologist Mark Shea, via Unequally Yoked:

You know who you guys could take a cue from? Christian martyrs. Roast ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew, they take a licking and keep on ticking. Gouge out their eyes and they laugh and turn it into a fun feast day… Atheists who screech like little girls at the sight of a world not to their liking are not going to be very effective Vanguards for the Revolution because, you know, sheesh! What a bunch of sorry pantywaists!

And another example, cited recently on Pharyngula. It does seem that there’s a distinct Catholic flavor to this argument, which doesn’t surprise me, since the Catholic church keeps a more meticulous tally of its martyrs than other Christian sects.

Our merest martyr shows you to be a wimp – fourteen-year-old Kizito of Uganda singing hymns while being burned alive. But you, you anemic, lily-livered worms – you quail at pushing the off button on the remote!

It may come as a surprise to some of these apologists, but we don’t live in a medieval theocracy ruled by a king who swears fealty to the Pope. We live in the United States of America in the 21st century, and one of the benefits of that is that we have this thing called “the rule of law”, which means that our disagreements are settled peacefully through democratic and constitutional means. When two sides disagree, they run campaigns, mobilize voters, and try to get politicians elected who will represent their views. When elected officials overstep their constitutional bounds, we can seek redress through the judicial branch, taking advantage of the system of checks and balances built into our republic.

Most people, I assume, would see this as an improvement over the old system of killing people until you get your way. But clearly, some religious apologists don’t like it. They hate that debates nowadays are settled in forums like the courtroom, where each side is expected to make rational arguments and cite evidence in support of its claims. (And, to be fair, that isn’t their strong suit.) They’d much rather argue on a field where they feel more comfortable, namely proving their faith through their willingness to suffer and be killed for it. It’s too bad for them that, while this may demonstrate the unhealthy and even suicidal levels of commitment people can be brainwashed into displaying for their religious ideas, it says nothing about whether those ideas are actually true.


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