The argument that atheists should try hard not to offend people of faith, lest we further polarize the two factions, assumes that the meek will inherit the earth, not the rhetorically courageous. But what historical evidence is there for this assumption? Or does history make the opposite case? Christopher Hitchens suggests the latter.
Towards the end of his new dismissal of religion, God is not Great, Hitchens points to the example of the American revolutionary Thomas Paine:
“Paine’s Age of Reason marks almost the first time that frank contempt for organized religion was openly expressed. It had a tremendous worldwide effect. His American friends and contemporaries, partly inspired by him to declare independence from the Hanoverian usurpers and their private Anglican Church, meanwhile achieved an extraordinary and unprecedented thing: the writing of a democratic and republican constitution that made no mention of god and that mentioned religion only when guaranteeing that it would always be separated from the state.”
Paine may indeed have been one of the first to take on religion with open contempt. But with the possible exception of Bertrand Russell, he was one of the last. Until, that is, the new breed of so-called New Atheists (Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins and Dennett) came along. In the meantime, polite and meek haven’t seem to accomplished all that much, now have they? Confidence in science, scientific literacy and numeracy, belief in evolution — all have been sliding backwards in America, and have gotten nowhere in Islam. Europe seems to fared better, but even there signs of retrograde motion are apparent.
Paine wasn’t an atheist. His nebulous deism, however, did not weaken his disgust for religion as it was practiced in the 18th century. This is a man who wrote of a “Christian Church, sprung out of the tail of the heathen mythology” and who described the story of that particular religion’s founder as a “wretched contrivance.”
Compare such language to that of the New Atheists. Today we hear much gnashing of teeth that this approach will only drive the faithful further away from a new age of reason. And yet, it is hard to deny Hitchens’ argument that Paine’s publications were enormously influential. Could it be that the masses today are so much less open to reasoned debate than they were two centuries ago that passioned and literate argument will only fall on deaf ears? If so, there really will be no escape for the princess this time.