Damian Thompson

Why Christians should stick up for atheists

Why Christians should stick up for atheists
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Christians and Muslims in Egypt are joining forces to address the challenge of atheism, according to this news report. (It reminds me of the old headline from Northern Ireland: 'Catholics and Protestants unite to fight ecumenism'.)

Christian churches in Egypt say they are joining forces with Egypt's Al-Azhar, a prominent centre of Sunni Muslim learning, to fight the spread of atheism in the country.

'The Church and the Al-Azhar are drafting a constructive mechanism to address atheism,' Poules Halim, a spokesman for Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, told Anadolu Agency.

His statements came following a two-day conference, organised jointly between the Al-Azhar and the church, aimed at forging a 'scholarly response' to atheism, which, Halim said, had been 'spreading increasingly' in Egypt over the past three years ...

'We aim to address the phenomenon [of atheism] in general and those who have bought into its tenets,' he said.

'Both the [Coptic Orthodox] Church and the Al-Azhar have the right to raise awareness about atheism,' Halim said. 'There are atheists [in Egypt], but not many.'

There's a reason for that. Anyone who identifies as an atheist in an Islamic state is asking for trouble. If they're from a Muslim family, they risk being branded as 'kafir' – non-Muslims 'who live their lives as animals', to quote the Islamic sage Mehdi Hasan of the Huffington Post, caught here addressing the faithful on YouTube. In Turkey, the pianist Fazil Say – a dazzlingly inventive performer and composer – has effectively been declared a public enemy because he is an atheist: his cheeky tweets about Islam have earned him a suspended jail sentence.

Apostasy is a terrible crime in Islam, as the ex-Muslim Kiran Opal explains. Even in America, young Muslims who have lost their faith are frightened of 'coming out'; indeed, two of them can live in the same apartment and not know about each other's atheism, so great is the taboo against unbelief. Opal adds that this taboo is reinforced by 'liberal apologists' who sanctify Islamic hatred of apostates with their identity politics.

A similar charge could be levelled at Christians engaged in the interfaith industry, which in Egypt has taken the creepy form of a Coptic-Sunni 'constructive mechanism' to address atheism. The Copts, whose own suffering rightly arouses indignation in the West, are making common cause with their ancient foes. Why? To explore the richness of the theological insights of Islam and Christianity? Oh, please. They're seizing their chance to earn brownie points with Muslims by attacking a common enemy. (Incidentally, when the Orthodox churches say you're their enemy, they tend to mean it.)

We hear a lot from Christians about 'militant atheists'. I'm not sure I've ever met one. Sneering, ignorant, condescending atheists – definitely. You can find them in Parliament (and not just on the opposition benches), in the BBC, in the senior common rooms of universities and, in their millions, on Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr. But their stridency doesn't begin to compare with the properly militant atheism of Soviet Russia or Mao's China.

Most atheists are people who've consciously decided that they don't believe in God. Often it's a painful decision, because you're waving goodbye to the everyday consolations of religion and the promise of eternal life. Also, your family and neighbours may turn on you. In middle America, coming out as an atheist is as awkward as announcing that you're gay. In many Islamic countries, it's as dangerous as announcing that you're gay.

We shouldn't take the analogy between homosexuality and belief too far. People don't choose to be gay: efforts to 'turn' them are cruel, counterproductive and an abuse of their rights. In contrast, if you deprive Christians, Muslims and other believers of the freedom to win converts, or pass on their faith to their children, then you restrict free speech. The challenge for a civilised society is to establish a boundary between evangelisation and coercion.

How do atheists fit into this equation? Surely the answer is simple: they should have the freedom not to believe in God or gods and to try to persuade others to adopt their non-supernatural worldview, often described as humanist (though humanism can mean other things). In other words, they have the same rights as religious believers – whom they resemble more closely than people who can't make up their minds what to think and take refuge in guff about 'spirituality'. But let's leave that topic for another time.