Apropos John Locke, he’s usually considered an Enlightenment avatar of tolerance. Author of the famous A Letter Concerning Toleration, he argued that toleration of multiple religious sects deterred civil unrest and promoted an orderly society. However, he added some caveats to his plea for diversity. One of them applied to atheists. For example, from An Essay concerning Human Understanding:
And perhaps, if we should with attention mind the lives and discourses of people not so far off, we should have too much reason to fear, that many, in more civilized countries, have no very strong and clear impressions of a Deity upon their minds, and that the complaints of atheism made from the pulpit are not without reason. And though only some profligate wretches own it too barefacedly now; yet perhaps we should hear more than we do of it from others, did not the fear of the magistrate’s sword, or their neighbor’s censure, tie up people’s tongues; which, were the apprehensions of punishment or shame taken away, would as openly proclaim their atheism as their lives do.
Atheists have generally been a minority with “different” beliefs, and, as such, a predictable outgroup in a species, such as our own, with an innate tendency to hate, ostracize and despise outgroups. Specious “good-sounding” reasons have always been invented to justify that hate, and Locke had his own, but the Amity-Enmity Complex has always been the real reason. Fortunately, we have been making encouraging progress towards gaining an understanding of human nature in recent years. There is some hope that society at large will finally grasp the significance of the Complex and its disastrous role in promoting the war and violence against minorities that has been so ubiquitous in human history. Perhaps the day will come when most of us will be able to immediately recognize irrational manifestations of ingroup-outgroup behavior, and ostracize and condemn those who fail to control that most destructive aspect of our nature instead of their victims. However, that day has not yet come, and so we remain on the treadmill of trying to stamp out each of the potentially infinite ways in which the Complex can manifest itself as if it were something new under the sun. We invent new names for each of them as the evil they cause becomes intolerable, whether racism, or anti-Semitism, or xenophobia, or homophobia, never seeming to realize that they all have the same root cause, and new isms and phobias will always be waiting just around the corner to take their place until we finally tear up the root itself.
So it is with atheists. Things being as they are, we too must fight our own little piece of the battle in detail. Billboards are one recent manifestation of that struggle. The Friendly Atheist notes a typical reaction to them, in this case from Marcia Segelstein at OneNewsNow:
I guess I just don’t understand. Christians (along with Jews and Muslims) gather in groups to worship. Atheists don’t gather not to worship, so why seek out members? What’s there to be a member of? And why should atheists care about stopping worshippers who are just “going through the motions”? Do they think they might get their hands on money once pledged to churches?
Trying to tear down the belief system of the world’s foremost religion — Christianity — is what seems intolerant to me. Placing prominent ads declaring the birth of Christ to be a myth seems downright hostile. To my mind, these campaigns feel defensive, as though atheists are weighted down with chips on their shoulders, or feel left out of some club.
Well, Marcia, atheists gather in groups for the same reason other people with like interests gather in groups; because we are by nature social animals. The billboard campaigns certainly are defensive, and rightly so. If you still don’t understand why, read Locke’s remark above about the “magistrate’s sword,” or peruse the history of Spain under the Inquisition. If you think “it can’t happen here,” Sinclair Lewis wrote a book with that title that might interest you. There is nothing hostile about disputing Christian or any other religious beliefs. Is it really unimportant whether we base our lives and actions on the truth or not? If the truth is important, how are we ever to approach it unless we are allowed to think about and discuss it?