Fanaticism is not unique to religions. It finds itself in any dogma, in any in-tribe loyalty, in any idea that excludes others. Fanatics can be found in every group even those as seemingly benign as sports teams. In Europe, but it is true all over the world, fans of rival sports teams will brawl with one another and will generally hate passionately anyone who happens to root for the opposing team.
Whenever humans align themselves with an idea, and they hold that idea as a sacred truth, that is, a truth which requires no evidence and that frightens the holder of the idea to even consider, fanaticism rears its ugly head. Of course, this makes religions ample breeding grounds for fanaticism as well as many other species of evil.
Understood simply, when an idea becomes popular to a group of individuals, it means that the idea, whatever its original form had been, must now assume a simpler form in order to inspire and excite the otherwise bored and uninterested masses. Once the masses of individuals come together under the idea that they scarcely understand, they will feel enormous comfort, as they will now feel part of an exclusive and superior group to the rest of outside world. Community has always been the way humans escape the natural feeling of loneliness, which is the true state of man. Phrases like: "I do not wish to die alone." reveals the existential discomfort we all feel when we reflect on the lonely reality of life, and even more so, of death. Community has always been the antidote for such suffering; and communities generally form around an idea. It stands to reason then, that people who attempt to challenge the idea of the community will be met with scorn, dislike, and at times, violence. They may murder countless people in order to protect the idea that binds them, that inspires them, that lets them forget their horrible loneliness.
This is the paradox of philosophers who wish to inspire. On the one hand what they wish to present is of a complex nature and has taken them long hours of contemplation to formulate. On the other, the masses are generally disinterested in difficult intellectual pursuits, and want their wisdom made chewy and easy to swallow. This is why we have not seen many philosopher kings, and why the most successful rousers of the otherwise drowsy public have been simple yet devilishly clever. Simple, for their thoughts are dull and ill-thought out; clever for they pander to the crowds giving them the bite-size inspiration that they so crave. The American Televangelists are a prime example of such rabble-rousers. They possess the unique ability to appear profound, while making sure not to say anything that will confuse the group they wish to inspire. In other words, they have leadership qualities.
Here lies the danger of the growing atheistic movement. Atheism has never caught hold of people as it has today. Atheism has moved quietly, stealthily through the ages. Religion has always been easy for the masses to gather around. Though many of its concepts are truly of complex nature, the clergymen have simplified for either their own benefit - that of power - or because they themselves did not understand the nature of the texts they were preaching. While the church was inspiring the masses to kill men accused of being apostates and burn women accused of witchcraft, the atheists have been quiet*. They have been philosophers, scientists, writers, poets. They have not ruled, they have not united. They drifted through the world, isolated wanderers, living almost entirely within their own minds. Whatever has slipped out from their writings and entered into the public sphere has generally been quotes pulled from much larger essays, and almost by necessity have been wildly misconstrued.
[*It is important to note here, that when I say that atheism has been a quiet idea, I am referring to the idea that we cannot know that God exists and therefore live as if he does not. I have not forgotten nor overlooked the cruelties and atrocities committed by regimes led by men who were atheists. Stalin, Mao, and Lenin, among others, though certainly atheists, did not do what they did because of atheism, they simply replaced the dogma of religion with there own self-serving dogma. This is also why they hated religion and wanted it expunged; for it is far easier to give a dogma to an otherwise dogma-less person, but it is a near impossibility to convince a person who already subscribes a dogma, to give it up for another one. As proven, tragically, by the many religious people who died as martyrs at the hands of these very regimes.]
Today however, the atheist community (as they are now called) is growing. The numbers of young adults casting aside their faith and grasping onto atheism is unprecedented. Discussions and debates are erupting all over the globe. Atheism has become a movement that wishes to see religion abolished or at the very least, tamed. Presumably, the Muslim extremists who are threatening to destroy the human race or submit them to Shariah law have caused the almost sudden surge of people wishing to do away with faith. Either that, or the bigoted Christians in America fighting with a violent rage to forbid the marriage of consenting adults of the same gender. Or perhaps, it is the rising death toll in the Middle East over Israel between the Jewish and Palestinian peoples. With members of both sides calling it a "holy land given to them by God," people have begun to scorn the idea that seems to be playing so large role in the endless conflict. It may be a combination of all three, perhaps it is something I have not here mentioned; either way, atheism as a movement is on the rise.
The danger of this is clear. As I wrote above, the masses generally do not get inspired by full ideas. Ideas, profound ideas, are multifaceted and require careful analysis if they are to be understood correctly. Atheism, as an idea, is complex, as is religion. Whether we wish to admit it or not, religion has within its tainted chambers many deeply philosophical and frankly, wonderful ideas. Many of those ideas are misunderstood by their practitioners but theologians have been pointing them out for ages. My own childhood faith, Judaism, is a magnificent social system, much of which could serve to benefit mankind, and much of which has! Christianity and Islam, though I am ignorant of much within their texts, have certainly caused a great many people to become refined and sensitive to the needs of others and the world at large. Allegory though it may be, it may still hold deep truths that could help us in the quest toward happiness.
Atheism, in its complexity, is not simply a system of ridicule against religion. It is a vision of mankind, free from dogma, coming together as fellow discoverers of a mysterious and awe-invoking universe. It seeks to perfect the highly evolved intellects of the human race with the goal of creating a better world not just for humans but for all the Earth's inhabitants.
Atheism and religion as ideas, though antipodal, are branches of the same tree: the curiosity to see what is behind the curtain. They are different conclusions to the same mystery. They are not partners, but they are certainly not enemies! Life is an unsolved mystery, and may remain so forever. It stands then that deciding how we should live should be the primary concern of conscious beings.
Atheism as a movement however, runs the very real risk that from within the intellectual garden will grow the wild weeds of fanaticism. Could we not imagine an atheist regime rising and banning religion out of fury of what dogmatic religion has done to the world, or out of fear of what it might do?
It is true that atheism can boast a purity of action in the blood-stained pages of history. Whereas religion must bow its head in shame and talk about moderation or reformation within its texts and practices, atheism can claim, rightfully so, the morally superior past. Denis Diderot rightly said: "The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers." This has been the case in the past centuries, but what of the near future?
One who reads present day atheists speaking of religion will find their words are generally filled with disdain, mockery, or dripping with hatred of religion. The young adults, as is always the case, are filled with even more passionate hatred. The hatred, they always claim, is not against religious people, but religious ideas. That may be, but how long before the line is blurred or all but disappears? "Where they have burned books," the German journalist Heinrich Heine wrote, "they will end in burning human beings." The hatred for an idea does not take long before those who possess the idea are hated.
I must admit, that what I write so far as I know, has never been fulfilled. I have yet to hear of a case against religious people fueled by atheistic passion. What I write then is a warning to those who wish to see a world free of religion, who view that as the only true method to achieve global peace. For when one believes that to be the case, it is not long before he feels obligated to help it along. If discussions and debates do not do the trick perhaps violence would? To rationalize a minimal amount of violence to establish world peace would be a incredibly easy thing to do. Unless we calm the the stirring ocean of anti-religious hatred brewing in the hearts of many young adults, a war waged between the godly and godless seems like a horrible, yet plausible outcome.
This is not to say that we should not criticize ideas that religion promulgates. It does not mean that we should not debate, discuss and critique religion, or any other idea for that matter. Rather we should do so with humility that certainty cannot be met on these topics and that both sides have a voice that should be heard and considered. To claim that any idea is nonsense without first investigating it with an openmind, is arrogant and foolish. Such an attitude will not lead us in the direction of cohesive coexistence. A direction every human should be striving for.
The need then is to return to the journey. Return to doubt about our convictions. Realize the complexity of both religion and atheism as ideas, study them, contemplate them, and finally, and most importantly, realize that no one knows the truth, and we are but fellow travelers down the long and foggy road of existence.