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No, Atheist Intolerance Is Not Destroying Western Society

Luis Ascui/Getty Images News/Getty

The latest cover story in The New Statesman, the British weekly that The New Republic shares content with, is a controversial article by Cristina Odone, a former editor at the magazine. Titled 'The New Intolerance,' Odone's piece argues that Western liberalism has become intolerant of other points of views, specifically religious points of view, on issues like homosexuality. The article is incoherently argued, and ultimately confusing, but it also manages to highlight an annoying trend that Americans used to the so-called 'War on Christmas' have become accustomed to: the self-pity of religious majorities. Be proud, Americans: the phenomenon has gone global.

The self-pity can be seen in the way Odone frames her piece, which includes this astonishing line: "Once a dominant force in western culture, religion has been demoted to, at best, an irrelevance." Yes, we live in a more secular world, but this is the type of gigantic overstatement that does Odone's argument no good.If religion is "at best" an irrelevance in the west, what about when it's less than best? Are we about to outlaw the concept of God?

Well, not quite. But, Odone writes:

Not only Christians, but also Muslims and Jews, increasingly feel they are no longer free to express any belief, no matter how deeply felt, that runs counter to the prevailing fashions for superficial 'tolerance' and 'equality.'

Any belief!

Odone thinks that people should be allowed to practice their religious beliefs, even if those beliefs include discrimination. (She notes the case of a couple in the United Kingdom who had to close their bed and breakfast because they wouldn't allow a gay couple to spend the night.) I keep waiting for someone like Odone to answer the question of whether one should be allowed to discriminate against, say, a black couple if one claims it is a matter of faith. But no luck.

Odone really should have stuck to ranting about political correctness gone awry, of which she has a couple of reasonable examples, but it soon becomes clear that her feelings are slightly creepier. She says, of a "new" secularism:

As in Europe, it elevates gay rights, women's rights, and pro-choice principles to unassailable values.

This at least makes clear that Odone does not believe women's rights or gay rights are unassailable values, which makes you wonder why a liberal magazine offered her a cover story (no, this is not a question of free speech). Odone then moves to a cheesier style, writing, "Believers should present themselves as ordinary people, men and women who worry about the price of the weekly shop and the size of the monthly mortgage." She then adds that they should "not appear to be "rabid pro-lifers." Excuse me, but what if someone does have a firm belief that abortion is wrong and should be illegal? Shouldn't he or she honestly express it? Odone here is more condescending than she perhaps intends, and oddly similar to the stereotype of western intolerance that she is scolding. Who is urging censorship of belief?

Eventually Odone's screed just becomes dreary. She writes: "Hippies, rock stars, comedians, university students and their professors, draft evaders and military deserters took up arms against the old order." We have heard this story before.

Odone ends by saying that liberals and atheists overreacted to the Salman Rushdie affair, and that not all religious people are intolerant and violent. The second half of this sentence is true, which only made me wonder more why Odone, earlier in the essay, was so intent on defending people who were intolerant. She should make up her mind. In the meantime, she should pause to ask whether there is really something so illiberal about having no tolerance for intolerance.