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Killing Atheists

The persecution of secular people, explained

His name was Menocchio. He lived in a small town in Italy in the 16th century. A husband, a father, a miller, and a well-liked member of his community, he was also a non-believer. He publicly declared that it was impossible for Jesus to have been born of a virgin mother, that Jesus was not divine, that much of the Gospel stories were fabrications, that immortality was impossible, and that God may be no more than a figment of human imagination. He was tried for heresy, convicted as an atheist, and burned at the stake.

Another Italian from the 16th century, Giulio Casare Vanini, denied the immortality of the soul, believed that humans evolved from apes, and insisted that religious teachings are false. He had his tongue cut out, was strangled, and then burned to death.

In the 17th century, Casimir Liszinksi of Poland, was harshly critical of priests, argued that the Bible was false, and wrote a treatise called The Nonexistence of God. As a result of his atheism, he had his tongue and mouth burned with hot irons, his hands burned over a slow fire, and finally his whole body was torched.

Also in the 17th century, Thomas Aikenhead, a 20-year old student in Edinburgh, Scotland, was executed because he “maintained…that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense…that the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions” and that Christ was an “imposter,” etc. For such utterances, this first-time offender with no criminal record, was hanged.

These men are just a random few heretics from centuries past who were killed for nothing more than their lack of belief in God. They never harmed anyone. They just had the courage to doubt theological claims. And for that, they were tortured and killed. Countless others met a similar piously pernicious fate.

Today, atheist blood continues to flow.

In Bangladesh, on Feb. 15, 2013, Ahmed Rajib Haider, an atheist blogger, was attacked by religious henchmen just outside of his home; his body was so badly mutilated that his friends could not recognize his corpse. On Feb. 26, 2015, Avijit Roy, another secular blogger, was hacked to death my machete-wielding assailants in the streets of Dhaka. On Match 30, 2015, Oyasiqur Rhaman, another secular blogger, was butchered by religious assailants using meat cleavers. On May 12, 2015, atheist blogger and science promoter Ananta Bijoy Das was hacked to death in Sylhet. On August 7, 2015, Niloy Chatterjee -- a leader of the Science and Rationalist Association of Bangladesh -- was killed in his home by a group of men armed with machetes. On October 31, 2015, Faisal Arefin Dipan – a publisher of atheist literature -- was stabbed and chopped to death in his office. On April 23, 2016, Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique was killed by men with machetes. And on and on. To be sure, it isn’t just the secular who are being cut down, but Hindus and Christians, as well. And yet it is atheists that are being targeted most aggressively.

And it isn’t just Islamic fundamentalist gangs in the streets of Bangladesh that atheists must be wary of. In many countries around the world – all of them being Muslim majority nations, as it were – atheism is illegal. Indeed, our dear ally Saudi Arabia officially classifies atheism as terrorism, and those found guilty of this crime can face lengthy imprisonment, state-sanctioned and state-enforced torture, and even execution. Along with Saudia Arabai, twelve other nations today – including Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, and Nigeria – legislate that atheism warrants the death penalty. Can you imagine: killing some because they don’t believe in God? Insane. It was insane in Italy back in the 16thh century, insane in Scotland back in the 17th century, and it is insane in Nigeria and Iran today.

Why were atheists persecuted throughout much of the Christian world for so many centuries? Why are atheists persecuted throughout much of the Muslim world today?

All such persecution – be it of Muslims who are currently persecuted in Myanmar, along with the Karen, or Baha’is in Iran and Pakistan, or the Hazara in Afghanistan, or Palestinians in Occupied Palestine, or Indigenous peoples in Brazil, or African Americans in Missouri, or Latinos in Trumpland, or gays and lesbians throughout the world -- all of it is rooted in irrational fear on the part of the persecutors. Fear of difference, fear of losing power, fear of differing worldviews and values.

In the specific case of atheists, the strongly religious fear our capacity for moral reasoning that does not require a magical, invisible deity. They fear our ability to be ethical without the threat of hell or the reward of heaven. They fear that our allegiance is not to this or that country, or this or that prophet, or this or that guru, but to humanity as a whole. They fear our emphasis on empiricism and evidence. They fear our skepticism and persistent questioning and doubt, for they can lead to ambiguity, uncertainty, debate, wonder, responsibility, and humility.

At the heart of atheism is an acceptance of the reality that we are here on this planet, alone together, and no magic will save us: no gods, no avatars, no angels, no mantras, no prayers, no prophets, no deities. Just us. We can and will save ourselves. This fact is so terrifying to some, that they wield machetes to try and murder it.

Fortunately, for most of humanity, the promise of atheism does not breed fear and terror, but hope and optimism. And as the world continues to secularize, the forces of violent religion will fade.

If I have faith in anything, then I suppose it is that.

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