One of the dominant themes of the new atheism has been a rejection of the idea that we should admire people for their beliefs, regardless of what it is that they believe.
Yesterday, I objected to ESPN opinion columnist Jemele Hill's claim that I should admire somebody to standing up for what he thinks is right, regardless of whether I agree or disagree with his opinion. Specifically, she wrote that Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow deserves my admiration because he has taken a stand on issues that invite criticism of himself and his family.
(See: ESPN.com: Jemele Hill, Laud the courage in Tim Tebow's stand.)
I responded that, by the same logic, I should admire the proud Nazi who continues to assert that the Holocaust was a proud moment in human history in the face of condemnation and ridicule. I should admire the racist KKK leader who is willing to stand on the courthouse steps with a bull horn and sign and to declare his beliefs to the world. And that I should admire the terrorist willing to strap on a bomb and destroy himself for the sake of his beliefs.
The New Atheist movement itself started, not with a rejection of religion, but a rejectioni of this idea that we must admire and respect a person who has strong beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs are or how little evidence one has to accepting them.
Sam Harris's book The End of Faith is an attack on this idea that we must not criticize another person's deeply held religious beliefs. It rejects the long-standing cultural tradition of holding religious beliefs as sacred in the sense that one is not socially permitted to say, "What you believe is not only wrong, it's stupid."
The reason we should feel perfectly comfortable telling people that stupid beliefs are stupid and are nothing a morally responsible person would accept is because insanely stupid beliefs get innocent people killed. Insanely stupid beliefs make it possible for a person to strap on a vest made of C4, walk into a crowded market, and blow herself and a few dozen patrols to bits in the name of fiction, myth, and superstition.
Insanely stupid beliefs make it possible for people to take a gay student, beat him nearly to death, tie him to a fence post, and leave him to die. Insanely stupid beliefs allow parents to bury their teenage daughter alive for the crime of having friends who are boys, or to refuse to get simple medical treatment that could have saved a child's life.
Atheist blog posts are filled with examples of insanely stupid beliefs causing people to do insanely stupid things that, unfortunately, bring a great deal of harm and suffering to people who are not insanely stupid, but who happened to be in the wrong place.
The New Atheists continued this attack on 'believing in belief'. It is an attack on the idea that it does not matter what a person believes in, as long as a person believes in something. It is a position tht holds that religious people are more virtuous than atheists at least by the simple fact that the religious person has belief - is permeated by faith - and the atheist is not. What the individual has put his faith in is not relevant, as long as an individual puts their faith in something.
This is the tradition that Jemele Hill embraced when she told us that we must admire Tim Tebow for standing up for something, regardless of what it is. It is the view that I rejected when I wrote that admiring people merely for the act of standing up for their beliefs means admiring the proud Nazi, the courageous KKK activist on the courthouse steps, and the suicide bomber. It is a view that I reject when I condemn, rather than admire, the parents who kill their daughter for the crime of talking to boys, refuse to get medical care for a sick child, or put countless dollars and countless hours into a campaign to reject gay marriage.
Ultimately, I have more of a reason to admire the person who has these insanely stupid beliefs and who do nothing about them. The apathetic idiot does far less harm than the arrogant and hard-driven idiot with a deep sense of purpose to commit acts that are utterly destructive of the lives of others.
It is said that there is nothing really new in the New Atheism - that this is a misnomer. Yet, in one important respect, this is false. For decades atheists have stood passively by in the face of a social custom that said that we ought not to condemn the beliefs of others. Atheists had been keeping their mouth shut about insanely stupid beliefs, allowing those with these beliefs an uncriticized control of public opinion and public action.
Then 9/11 happened, and atheists in the Western world woke up to how stupid they had been in being unwilling to openly criticize insanely stupid beliefs. In spite of evidence of how insanely stupid beliefs have contributed to human suffering over the years, the sight of airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center made clear some facts that there had already been more than enough evidence to support in the past.
Some insanely stupid beliefs are incredibly destructive, and they ought not to go unchallenged. And it is morally irresponsible to let insanely stupid beliefs go unchallenged, let alone to admire those who decide to devote so much time and effort into promoting insanely stupid and destructive beliefs. Such people do not deserve our admiration. They deserve condemnation and ridicule. And if they are brave enough to continue their stupidity in the face of ridicule, this simply makes them more ridiculous.