At my college some students have tried to organize a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance. I don’t know how successful they have been. Mobilizing sophomores and freshmen around not believing in something seems challenging. Militant unbelief is something of an oxymoron—like uncompromising tolerance. It will be interesting to see how this goes.
I do have two concerns, which may be ungrounded, but seem important to avoid. The first is that because it is hard to get excited about not doing something, in this case believing, it may become imperative to demonize those who are doing something. Indeed, recently some writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have gone beyond putting forth arguments for unbelief and attacked religious faith as a great evil. The title of Hitchen’s book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, indicates clearly enough the degree of rage and irrationality present among this new breed of atheists. If one put the word “Zionism” where Hitchens has “Religion,” the title of his book would pass as a piece of Nazi propaganda.
I hope, however, that the Secular Student Alliance can be fierce in the defence of their ideas and humane towards people of faith who disagree. C. S. Lewis when comparing the atheists at Oxford and Cambridge said he liked those at Cambridge better because he preferred “fierce to the flippant.” I too prefer fierce atheism if the ferocity expresses itself in intellectual rigor and a belief that the question of God’s existence is truly central to human existence. I am weary to the bone with mushy atheism that wallows in intellectual sloth or unhappy hedonism. I also prefer fierce atheists to those who claim both belief and unbelief are private concerns, not the proper topics for public discourse. So many have worked to confine theological and religious discourse to the church, it is now more acceptable to talk publicly about one’s sex life than one’s faith.
My second concern is many campus clubs form to provide mutual support to a disadvantaged or mistreated minority. Here the danger is that this requires members to see themselves as victims. Now this might make sense if the club was forming on the campus of a Christian college—Christians (because they too are people) can be mean, and I suppose even being “prayed for” could be a kind of persecution. But at most state colleges and universities, a majority of the faculty are not religious. And although it is always possible for individual students to act like a religious idiot, most state schools offer a thoroughly secularized environment. In most classrooms contempt for religious faith is more common than contempt for atheism. A student losing their faith at college is much more common than one finding it. Therefore to play the role of victim, members of the Secular Student Alliance may be forced to find persecution where there is none and take offense when none has been given. This quest for victim-hood often extinguishes any real dialogue and the kind of intellectual debate and inquiry that colleges should nourish. But perhaps the Alliance will admit at universities they always have home-court advantage. Christians are clearly the visiting team.
But with those two concerns stated, I fully and cheerfully welcome the Secular Student Alliance to campus. I prefer those who take the question of God’s existence seriously. I prefer the fierce.