Chapter 3. Who acts like they are right?
A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets. Arthur Clarke
A useful perspective on the difference between atheism and religion is found by looking at how each group treats its members who quit. Religionists act like a crime syndicate when members quit. Religionists have a special term for those who quit--apostates. “Apostate” is not a term people apply to themselves, it is a term insiders use to label outsiders. The reaction ranges from shunning the apostate, to murder.
Religious scriptures provide stiff penalties for quitting. They are a carryover from a time when religion and government freely mixed. Some theocracies maintain the strict penalties to this day.
The Muslim approach to apostasy remains truest to its scriptures. The Koran says, “They wish that you reject Faith, as they have rejected Faith, and thus that you all become equal[,] like one another. So take not . . . protectors or friends from them, till they emigrate in the Way of Allah. . . . But if they turn back from Islam, take hold of them and kill them wherever you find them.”
The Website Jihad Watch, quoting a paper by scholar Ibn Warraq, notes that only two countries, Sudan and Mauritania, specifically criminalize apostasy:
[In Sudan,] . . . [w]hoever is guilty of apostasy is invited to repent over a period to be determined by the tribunal. If he persists in his apostasy and was not recently converted to Islam, he will be put to death. [In Mauritania,] . . . all Muslims guilty of apostasy, either spoken or by overt action will be asked to repent during a period of three days. If he does not repent during this period, he is condemned to death as an apostate, and his belongings confiscated by the State Treasury. This applies equally to women.
The absence of mention of apostasy in the penal codes of some Islamic countries in no way implies that a Muslim is free to leave his religion. For example, despite the promise of “freedom of religion” in Afghanistan’s Constitution, in 2006 an Afghan man who left Islam faced the death penalty. After pressure from the occupying forces of the U.S., Germany, Italy and Canada, he was released and granted asylum in Italy. Americans almost faced the specter of a country they occupied and financed executing a man who converted to Christianity.
Countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan punish apostates, but under a religious code, not a criminal code. Informal enforcement of religious rules against apostasy is perhaps the greatest danger. Even in the United States, Muslim apostates fear for their lives. As Ibn Warraq puts it, the spread of Islam has been through jihad, “a divine institution, enjoined specially for the purpose of advancing Islam[, where] Muslims must strive, fight, and kill in the name of God.”
If followers of the Judeo-Christian creeds think their scriptures are more tolerant than the Koran, they are wrong. The Old Testament of the Bible, which applies to both Jews and Christians, provides:
If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Even in the New Testament, the number one Christian hero, Jesus Christ, is recorded saying, “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them--bring them here and kill them in front of me.”
The Bible seems to acknowledge the existence of atheists, although not very politely. A passage used to justify discrimination against atheists reads, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.”
Jews and Christians seem to have abandoned the apostate death penalties in their scriptures, but that does not mean they are kind and understanding to apostates. Altemeyer and Hunsberger studied students who converted from religion to atheism and vice versa. Only the students who departed religion reported significant bad reactions. The majority of apostates studied felt their apostasy had cost them a “great deal,” particularly in their relationship with their parents, but also with other relatives. In contrast, atheists who became believers were “hard pressed to find ways in which they had suffered from their turn to religion.” In fact, most of them could not think of any cost at all.
There is no atheist scripture specifying death for those who leave atheism. There are no atheist scriptures whatsoever. Departing atheism and adopting religion might result in a raised eyebrow from an atheist friend, but there is no systematic ostracism, no banishment from the community and certainly no death penalty. Atheists hold no strong animosity toward religionists. We decline to give religion unearned respect, but we wish to help to open the religionists’ eyes to a truth they refuse to see, and that requires contact. In my experience, when I speak to religionists about atheism they often want to cover their ears and run away, not the other way around.
Religionists condemn atheists as evil. Religionists claim atheists are neither patriots nor citizens. Religionists even isolate or kill their members who choose an atheist viewpoint. Atheists respond by inviting religionists to engage in rational dialogue. Atheists take little or no action when an atheist adopts religion. Who acts like they are right? Not religionists who ostracize or kill members who leave their fold and act threatened, frightened, and in no way like people who posses a great truth. Rather atheists, who do not punish members for leaving, are the ones who act like they are right. So who are these atheists? The next chapter provides some answers.