In a speech delivered earlier this
week at Georgetown University in
Washington, DC, former British prime minister Tony Blair cast atheists and
violent religious extremists in the same light, as enemies whom people of faith
The larger theme of the speech dealt with building budges
between faiths, to “deeply” respect those of differing religions
“beyond tolerance or acceptance.” Unfortunately, for Blair, atheists
do not warrant even that.
Blair stated that people of faith “face an aggressive
secular attack from without” and “the threat of extremism from
within,” and went further in making an equivalency between nonbelievers
and those who inflict harm and death in the name of their religion, saying:
These challenges are not for Muslims alone or Christians
or Jews, Hindus or Buddhists for that matter. They are challenges for all
people of faith. Those who scorn God and those who do violence in God’s name,
both represent views of religion. But both offer no hope for faith in the
twenty first century. The best hope for faith in the twenty first century is
that we confront all of this together.
Blair never says outright in this address that atheists or
atheist activists are just as bad as, say, Al Qaeda, but even giving him the
benefit of the doubt, the very fact that he would place secularism and
religiously motivated violence in the same context is astounding, offensive,
and shows an incredible lack of depth of thinking–not to mention revealing a
level of animosity toward nonbelievers on the part of Blair that I am surprised
to find exists.
It is also rather ironic that he would cast this blanket
aspersion against secularist activists (I say “activists” because I
can only assume he may not feel as strongly about casual or closeted atheists),
when the point of his speech is to encourage heightened levels of tolerance and
respect between religious communities, almost to the point, it seems to me, of
fetishism for Blair. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Blair reminded
his audience, forgetting that atheists are neighbors, too.
He also emphasizes how faith changes lives “for the
better” and that believers (specifically, Abrahamic monotheists) must
“show why humanity is not made poorer by faith, but immeasurably
enriched.” But, as is often the case, never in his speech makes any claims
as to how this is so. If it is the aforementioned “love thy neighbor”
section, then clearly the lesson is not fully learned by the speaker himself.
Finally, Blair never bemoans atheists by name, but
“those who scorn God.” If we’re to take this wording literally, then
it becomes less offensive, and simply puzzling. Atheists do not
“scorn” God, because there isn’t a God there to scorn. I don’t know,
then, what percentage of the world population wastes its energy actively
dissing or working against a deity they believe exists, but it can’t be sizable
enough or constitute enough of a public nuisance to warrant mention by a former
prime minister or equation with religious terrorists.
But of course, he means outspoken, public atheists, those
who demand their right to be heard and demand the right to criticize beliefs on
their merits. This, to Blair, is an offense so terrible that it needs to be
invoked in the same breath as deluded mass murderers, slaughtering innocent
civilians in religious ecstasy. This is perhaps the most troublesome and most
firmly-fixed obstacle that the modern atheist faces: those for whom
“belief in belief” is so strong that, in their eyes, Richard Dawkins
and Osama bin Laden are in the same out-group.