The Friendly Atheist and the State of Atheist Activism

Who is Hemant Mehta? He is an atheist blogger at Patheos for a site called The Friendly Atheist. He often posts news stories about religious people doing bad things. Take, for example, this blog post. It concerned a couple whose child died as a result of their gross neglect, and they were charged with murder. A considerable portion of the Mehta’s post is spent giving us a slideshow of their expressions as they hear the judgment, with commentary that mocks them. He encourages us to watch the whole video “in all its glory.”

I do not believe that Mehta and other atheist activists are right to respond in this way. Simply because someone has been charged or convicted with a criminal offence, or has had some non-criminal moral failure, does not mean they are appropriate targets for whatever scorn we might feel like heaping on them. This is especially true because that person is already being punished by the law or by the scandal of its revelation. It is wrong to twist the knife when someone is at their lowest and to revile them and humiliate them when they are already facing justice. This is especially true for atheist activists who are not really doing so because they are truly upset at the immoral acts (otherwise they would also post about other similar events that are not connected to religion). They are heaping their scorn on these people purely for ideological reasons, purely because the people who did it are religious.

Mehta also, inevitably, tries to argue that when religious people do bad things it must be the result of their religious views. Sometimes it is the case that their religious views inspired their behaviour, but other times, he seems to link the mere mention that the person is religious with whatever bad thing they have done. This must come off as unconvincing even to his fan base. Often, when their behaviour is inspired by Christian beliefs, it is motivated by heterodox or unusual views not held by any denomination. But this is not pointed out by Mehta and other atheist activists.

To post news stories about the bad behaviour of religious people is fairly standard practice for atheist activist organizations. I follow a number of them, including the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Atheist Republic, and one or two more. But Mehta’s blog does the above more often than the others. These types of posts never make clear what these bad religious people are supposed to be evidence for. Are religious people doing bad things evidence against religion? If that is their argument, it is a fallacious one. It is called the ad hominem fallacy and is connected to a fallacy called “appeal to hypocrisy.” Whether someone is a hypocrite or has a bad moral character is not evidence that what they believe about the world is incorrect. Say for example, a Nobel-prize winning physicist is also a real asshole. He’s really arrogant. And perhaps he gets involved in some sort of scandal later on. Does that mean that his work or his ideas are false? Clearly not.

When you turn it around on atheists, there is sometimes special pleading going on. When you point out, for example, that really murderous dictators and oppressive regimes in the 20th century were militantly secular regimes, who had ideas about the unacceptability of religion very similar to atheist activists, then they will make excuses. I’ve heard once that communism was a type of religion, so it wasn’t really true atheism. By that standard any secular ideology is a religion, including militant secularism.

Atheists are a young species. They have only been present in observable numbers for the last 2 centuries in the West. And the few times they have been in power, they have wracked up an impressive body count. Apart from these, there has been sexual misconduct allegations against prominent atheist activists in the past two years or so. Christian apologetics sites don’t post on those. Why not? I don’t know what their reasons are. But I’m going to guess that they (rightly) believe that gloating about the moral failures of prominent atheist activists is not an effective Christian apologetic. More importantly though, kicking someone when they’re down is against the Christian ethic of mercy. When someone has fallen, it is then time to reach out a hand to help. Social and legal disapprobation, the fact that everyone agrees that what someone did is wrong, even severely or horrifically wrong, does not transform that person into a sub-human punching bag to unleash our frustrations on. They are still a creature made in the image of God. He or she has a soul worth saving and a God who wants to save it.

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