In Defence of Militant Atheism

The case for secularism is unanswerable. The alternatives are:
  • discrimination in favour of (and maintenance of the privileges of) a particular religion regardless of how many people continue to believe it – the untenable status quo;
  • discrimination against minority faiths by those in the majority – who might, in some places or given time, be Muslims, Scientologists, or (god forbid) atheists;
  • or
  • or equal rights for all supernatural beliefs – a route to chaos.
Given these considerations, most reasonable people – including (as this recent survey suggests) most UK Christians - agree that there is no sensible alternative to a level playing field for all religions-and-none (in the private sphere) and no case for anyone to have special privileges in the public sphere simply on the grounds of their adherence to certain religious beliefs and practices.

Probably the most pernicious consequence of the UK’s failure to distinguish between church and state is the segregation of school children along religious lines. I find this just as pernicious as the segregation of children along ethnic lines. Of course, given that religion is not randomly distributed among different ethnic groups and (especially) given the special cases of Sikhism and Orthodox Judaism, religious and racial segregation often amount to the same thing.

Again, opinion surveys suggest that most people in this country (including most notional Christians) do not support this kind of discrimination and segregation; and those who do support it struggle to justify it.

Since Baroness Warsi’s recent outbursts against secularism and her rambling incoherent address to the Vatican, atheists have been falling over themselves to emphasise that they are not at all “militant” and have no problem whatsoever with religion practised between consenting adults in private.

As Alain de Botton tweeted:
Atheists should remember that the goal is to clear public space of belief, not private space.
I disagree.

Even religion in the private sphere is highly malevolent.

It is difficult to generalize about religions. For example, according to your specific religion, you may believe in zero, one, or many deities. But certain themes do seem to recur:
  • The devaluing of real human life by contrast with an afterlife (or even an endless succession of lives).
  • The devaluing of real flesh and blood human beings by contrast with some kind of immaterial human essence.
  • Neuroses about sex in general and the female sex in particular.
  • Acceptance that certain things are true just because somebody once said they were true or because a certain community say they are true.
  • Prejudice towards those who adhere to the “wrong” religion.
  • Rejection of moral discourse. [see here for the point being made]
I could go on, but that will do for starters.

Such notions, I submit, poison the private thoughts of those who subscribe to them and ultimately influence their public behaviour – even when that public behaviour is not explicitly religious behaviour. Atheists should do all we can to eradicate such evils.

I do not, of course, suggest that atheists should follow the path carved out over centuries by the devout and use legal sanctions and violence to achieve our aims. As I have indicated, I support the principles of secularism, my intolerance is directed towards the ideas not the people who hold them, and (to slightly mis-use the old cliché) some of my best friends are religious. I do, however, think we should use rational arguments and setting good examples and education and every similar tool at our disposal to wipe irrationality and superstition from the face of the earth.

To that extent I am proud to describe myself as a “militant atheist”.


Partly in response to Paul_H's comment below and partly just because it's an excellent article, here's a link to @mjrobbins on secularism and why Christians should support it just a strongly as atheists.


If Paul Chambers’s conviction is allowed to stand, what should we not do in future?

STOP STOP STOP STOP PRESS Victory! 27-07-2012 Paul's conviction overturned. CPS are not going to appeal.
STOP STOP STOP PRESS Result of the 26-06-2012 hearing tomorrow at 09:45 27-07-2012
STOP STOP PRESS Third appeal (I think - I'm losing count) goes to penalty shoot-outs between an odd number of judges in court tomorrow 26-06-2012.
STOP PRESS Second appeal non-verdict announced today (28-05-2012): the judges can't agree on a verdict. The two High-Court Judges concerned have been thinking about the question I examine in this post for three and a half months and they can't even decide what the law is. This begs the question even more strongly than I beg it in the post below: How on earth are mere mortals, with no legal training, supposed to know how to obey the law on tweeting when it comes to the 2003 Communications Act?
Part of the function of the justice system is “pour encourager les autres”.

If I read in the newspaper that a "Paul Chambers" has been convicted for (say) using a hand-held mobile while driving and I wish to avoid a similar fate I can draw the inference that, if driving, I had better not use my mobile (at least without a “hands-free” kit) or, conversely, that if I am using a hand-held mobile, I had better not drive.

In January 2010, his travel plans frustrated by snow, Paul Chambers posted the following piece of hyperbole on Twitter:

"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

and was arrested by anti-terrorist police – so alarmed that they waited a couple of weeks before bothering to take any action. [ref]

At his subsequent (original) trial on 2010 May 10 Paul was convicted of "sending a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003"[ref]. This conviction was upheld at appeal on 2010 November 11 [ref].

Paul goes to the high court today (2012-02-08) to try and overturn the previous two judgments [ref].

But let’s assume Paul loses (again). What inferences can I draw? What should I, henceforth, not do if I wish to avoid a criminal prosecution and avoid losing my job and becoming unemployable?

Perhaps (if there is any doubt about the content of what I wish to impart) I should avoid ringing up airports or sending them emails? But Paul did not do either of these things. He posted on “Twitter” (essentially a website which anyone can view). Paul did not even “mention” Robin Hood Airport (using @RobinHoodAirport or whatever their “twitter name” is – if indeed they have one). But apparently this still constitutes “sending a public electronic message”. So I suppose (subject to an appraisal of what I wish to say) I must never submit anything to the internet or the phone networks or radio networks.

So that part of the equation is clear enough. When it comes to modern technology, there is apparently no distinction in law between sending a message to someone and simply saying or writing something. This seems a bit different from the days when there was all the difference in the world between (say) sending someone a letter and (say) writing something in a newspaper.

But now comes the tricky bit. How — assuming I do not wish to eschew all use of telephony, radio, or internet (and yet still wish to avoid Paul’s fate) — do I censor my productions? As we have learned, it is not enough that I don’t intend menace (or indecency or obscenity). (If Paul had intended to cause anyone to believe there was a threat to the airport, he would have been quite rightly charged under the relevant legislation rather than under the 2003 Communications Act.) Nor does the fact that nobody reading or hearing my thoughts felt any menace (or offence) help. A public electronic message can apparently be menacing per se [ref].

So how do I avoid writing or saying something that is “menacing per se” — menacing by or in itself? What does this mean? Fortunately the appeal court provided some guidance here and considered the plight of an imaginary couple travelling from Robin Hood Airport (even though the airport was closed at the time of the “threat”) who had happened upon the tweet in question [ref]. Now leaving aside the implausibility of constructing any sort of coherent narrative in which a couple begin to feel concerned about their travel plans as a result of consulting Twitter, the legal implications would seem to be clear enough: If some imaginary context can be constructed in which something I have said or written might be considered menacing (no matter how far removed this context might be from the actual context of my remarks) them my remarks are menacing.

So can I tweet “I’ll throttle my son if he doesn’t tidy his bedroom”? After all some people (sadly) do strangle their children and there could be a context in which someone might think such a remark to be menacing.

Can I tweet “My local council need a bomb under them”? Again, some people do plant bombs and there could be a context in which someone might think such a remark to be menacing.

Can I even tweet “I’ll be there in five minutes”? After all, there might be someone out there who has been threatened with violence by someone with a similar name to mine and that potential victim might read my tweet and feel menaced.

I have no idea what the answers are to such questions.

I am an IT consultant with a PhD and two first degrees and I have absolutely no idea whatsoever about what I should not do in future in order to avoid being prosecuted for sending a public electronic message that is of a menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003.

I fully accept that ignorance of the law can never be an excuse for breaking the law.

I refuse to accept that ignorance of the law should be a necessary consequence of the law.

[An earlier blog post of mine related to this topic]
[A template for a letter to your MP about this case]
Postscript: Having tossed and turned all night in bed thinking about this, a free RT for anyone who can see a way out of this quasi-syllogism:

All tweets are messages
Some messages are menacing per se
"Menacing per se" means "it is possible to imagine a context in which someone might feel menace if they read the text in question"
It is always possible to imagine a context in which someone might feel menace if they read any item of text
All tweets are menacing