Responding to Secular Extremists

What is ‘Secular Extremism’? Scattered amongst the recent commentary around the intersection of religion and society you will no doubt have heard the voice of a small but noisy movement of ‘Secular Extremists.’ These are fundamentalists whose doctrine romanticises The Enlightenment. Their primary agenda is to marginalise and silence the influence of all major religions on society: everyone from the Pope to local synagogues and mosques – and youth pastors. Key strategies for this campaign of marginalisation include: 1. using ‘professional academics’ who claim to be able to expose the intellectual flaws in religion; 2. humiliation and public bullying using cynical comedians; and 3. scare campaigns about the hidden missionary agenda of religions in public society. Their ultimate goal is to turn the public against religion, and they are making some limited progress. Just last week, columnist for, Helen Razer, wrote an insightful piece about a recent television talk show panel that included the actor Ben Affleck, controversial American neo-atheist-comedian Bill Maher and one of the High Priests of neo-atheism, Sam Harris. During the discussion, in an attempt to attack Islam, Harris banged on about the virtue of the Enlightenment – reason over religion. Razer points out, however, that in fact, if you think about recent times, the main bodies that are rejecting the findings of ‘good science’ are not so much Isalm, Christianity or any particular religion but are, in fact, governments:

The western failure to act on the overwhelming findings of science is due far less to The God Delusion than it is to the exigencies of a global market, itself a descendent of Harris and Dawkins’ beloved Age of Reason. And the western decision to act, again and again, in Iraq has a fair bit to do with the market as well.

Razer explains that Harris’ big problem is that he wants to replay the ideological war between religion and science that took place during the Enlightenment, and then blame religion for every evil and injustice in the world. But,

when he revives this melodrama by placing himself in opposition to the dumbest fundamentalists he can find and casting them as the Pope, or when Dawkins compares his own fearless inquiry to that of Charles Darwin, he is no longer a freethinker. He is a hopeless, arrogant ideologue who tells us falsehoods about the sites of real power. And he is also a mystic.

Razer’s closing comments are poignant and cutting (emphasis mine):

And no, teapot, I’m not just saying, as others have, that ‘atheists are just as fanatical as religious fundamentalists’. I am saying, in fact, that they are more fanatical because they have evolved such a complex delusion where the methodical doubt they claim to champion is itself impossible. If you convince yourself that you are a champion of pure reason and that reason itself always moves from the laboratory of the individual mind into the world without creating conflict, well, you probably need to go away and learn how to think.

If you watch the discussion you’ll see that what they were promoting was hate speech against Islam disguised as confident intellectual insightfulness. Ben Affleck tried to come to the rescue by calling them out as no different to the other middle-aged-white-racists that are a blight on American society. Unfortunately, while Affleck had good intention, his heated emotions didn’t necessarily help to progress the conversation. For a stronger response watch this example of the American academic Reza Aslan exposing Bill Maher and these CNN presenters as promoting lies about Islam. How should we respond to Secular Extremism? The temptation is to respond to Secular Extremists defensively and to sink to their level. However, I have come up with three simple guidelines:

  • Nuanced Arguments: Secular Extremists might use reductionistic arguments, for example: ‘religion causes war.’  It would be easy to respond by saying ‘what about the murderous atheist-communist-dictatorships of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot?’ Don’t respond to simplistic arguments with a simplistic argument. The better and truer response is that historians know that causation in world history is highly complex and should not be reduced to one throw away scapegoat. Neither religion nor atheism is the simple ‘cause’ of war.
  • Accuracy: Learn your facts. When you talk about other people, make sure you know what you are talking about. As Razer pointed out in her article, Secular Extremists like Richard Dawkins, love to take the eccentric worst example of a Christian loony, and then say that all Christians are the same. Don’t do the same thing. (See the Reza Aslan video mentioned earlier)
  • Cool headed: When applying my second guideline – remember most Atheists are not Secular Extremists. In general, most atheists will be reasonable and respectful of other people’s beliefs. This recent article in The Saturday Paper, which examines Allain de Botton’s School of Life in Melbourne, shows a community of Moderate Atheists at work.

Even as a Christian minister, when I talk to people about my faith I find it daunting: I feel the reality that I am part of a minority. Most Christians I know have this experience. The point for us is not to win any culture war, as such, but to be able to speak in such a way so that others can hear and experience the life changing message of Jesus. Christians are ‘ambassadors for Christ’, and so we have to be careful about what we say and how we say it. People may or may not hear the gospel at first, but they will certainly make a surface assessment of it based on our behaviour.


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