Atheism is not a religion - Response to Rabbi Marmur in the Toronto Star

Rabbi Dow Marmur writes in the Toronto Star that Atheism resembles religious fanaticism and that atheism is a religion:
Atheism nowadays does indeed require a lot of devotion as it’s on the way to becoming a religion.
This is not a good start to his essay and it gets worse from there. There is so much wrongness in his essay that I barely know how to respond, except by doing a point-by-point tear-down. All of the following quotes (with a blue background) are from Marmur's article, which has so many wrong things that I've reproduced almost the whole thing here:
Atheism nowadays does indeed require a lot of devotion as it’s on the way to becoming a religion. The title of Alain de Botton’s new book heralds it: Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion. He even wants to build temples because “it’s time atheists had their own versions of the great churches and cathedrals.”
First of all, atheism does not require any devotion. This is the fallacy commonly made by believers: that atheists have to work hard to not believe in a god. In fact it's quite easy to not believe in a god. Most Christians do not believe in Thor, or Odin, or Loki, or Zeus, or Mithra, or Vishnu, or the Force. It does not require any faith or effort or devotion on their part to maintain this disbelief. Atheists simply add "Yahweh" and "Jesus" to that list.

Secondly, Alain de Botton does not speak for all atheists. He is not a leader of some "atheist church". Atheists do not elect or appoint leaders and follow the leaders' directions. Some atheists are famous for speaking out about atheism, such as Richard Dawkins or P. Z. Myers. However they hold no authority over other atheists and they only have "followers" inasmuch as people usually agree with them.

In fact, Richard Dawkins recently lost quite a bit of credibility among atheists when he essentially told a female skeptic to shut up about her experience being sexually harassed at a skepticism conference. Professor Dawkins is respected only as far as his actions take him; if he offends people then others will stop listening to him.
[de Botton's] book may be an improvement on the many rabidly anti-religious tracts that have become bestsellers in recent years. Whereas they seem to tell readers what they’re against in religion, de Botton’s is potentially a more positive, albeit eccentric, message.
"Eccentric" doesn't even begin to  describe de Botton's message. P. Z. Myers said it better than I can: de Botton wants to take all the creepy parts of religion, such as indoctrination and centralized control, and copy those in secular society. He feels that this is somehow an improvement. But most people who are atheists don't really want to be indoctrinated or controlled. That's often one of the catalysts for their de-conversion: repulsion from the way religious organizations operate.
Frank Furedi is a sociology professor and, by his own admission, a supporter of the British Humanist Association. He writes: “Where atheism was once depicted as a dangerous and subversive creed, today it is often portrayed as an enlightened outlook that perches on the moral high ground.”
Atheism is STILL depicted as dangerous and subversive, usually by religious people. And it IS dangerous and subversive to religion and religious organizations, who cannot maintain their riches and power when they have no followers. But if you tell me that religious people don't also portray themselves as  having "an enlightened outlook that perches on the moral high ground" then I'll call you a liar.
There was a time when exponents of conventional religion were criticized for being overzealous and dogmatic. Today, in the religious circles in which I mix, openness and tolerance are the order of the day. It’s the New Atheism that, according to Furedi, “expresses itself through a doctrinaire language of its own.”
I’ve, therefore, consistently refused to engage in debates with atheists. They may consider me a cowardly man of little faith who’s afraid of exposing himself to the truth, but impartial observers will know that contemporary atheists are often even more fanatical than religious fundamentalists. Their zeal seems to know no bounds.
Anyone can be overzealous and dogmatic. And again: there are lots of religious people for whom "overzealous" and "dogmatic" are polite understatements. The Westboro Baptist Church comes to mind. New Atheism is simply made up of atheists standing up and proclaiming their atheism, so that they are no longer an invisible and silent minority. New Atheism doesn't like religion because there is so much to dislike about it.
This may be due to their realization that conventional religion is here to stay, not as “the opiate of the people” in Karl Marx’s oft-cited description, but as “an ethical and cohesive force,” as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has called it. Conventional religion bestows purpose and meaning on life; atheists may be envious of it.
Wow! What a leap of logic in this paragraph. Conventional religion is actually declining in most developed nations. Atheists do have meaning and purpose in their lives, if they choose: they work to make this life better for themselves and their fellow humans, because it's the only life they have.
Because religion is articulated and administered by human beings, it often falls short of its stated ideals — just like atheism. Though atheists are keen to parade the abuses committed by some religious leaders and attack distortions attributed to others, they don’t seem to apply the same criticism to themselves but tend to hide behind what they call reason and science.
Atheism doesn't have "ideals" - it is simply the lack of belief in gods - though there are some groups who are organized around the ideals of humanism or of combating religion. But typically if any members of those groups "fall short of their ideals" then they are dealt with accordingly. People who fail to perform in their roles are fired. People who commit crimes are turned over to the police. I know of no atheist or humanist or other organization based explicitly on atheist or skeptic or scientific goals that has had a world-wide sex-abuse scandal, or that was stealing babies from politically-disadvantaged women and selling them to the rich, or that advocates for putting all gays behind electrified fences until they die. Religious groups and public figures have many flaws and have been guilty of many crimes that went unpunished; where are the corresponding scandals in the Atheist community? When has the Atheist community protected its own members no matter what monstrous crimes they committed?

And science is not something that one "hides behind". To make that claim is to fundamentally misunderstand what science is, how it works, and what its goals are. Science is a process of thought and discovery and invention. The methods and data and experiments and processes used are documented and open. There are no hidden rituals or secret cabals. Anyone can take part in it and take it apart. Science adjusts its views when it is shown to be mistaken. (This process can take time - scientists are human and have egos, like anyone else- but it is guaranteed to occur). Science is about transparency. You can't hide behind a transparent window. Nor do you hide behind science. Science stands on its own merits and falls by its own method, only to stand again stronger than before.
Religion, because it’s attuned to and aware of human inadequacies we know as sin, seems to be much more conducive to self-examination and a determination to do better next time.
Joseph Harker, writing last December in the British daily the Guardian, made a strong case for belief in God when he stated that “it offers clarity and opportunity for regular self-assessment, in an atmosphere of genuine humility.” In religion, he wrote, “the world doesn’t evolve around ‘me’; I have to contribute to the world.”
This is hogwash. First, the fact that a ritualized belief system has, as one of its components, an exhortation to perform self-reflection, has nothing to do with whether or not the god presupposed by this religion actually exists. Joseph Harker's article doesn't even make the claim that god exists, only that religious rituals can help people better themselves. But this is also a non-sequiter: people who want to do self-assessment will do it whether or not they believe in a god, and people who don't want to self-assess won't. Religion doesn't have a monopoly on telling people that they're doing something wrong.

Meanwhile, what most religions call "sins" or "human inadequacies" are merely arbitrary. It is a "sin" for Jews or Muslims to eat pork, or for Hindus to eat beef. Christians can eat anything... as long as it's not meat on Good Friday. Who's right? Why do these rules even exist or matter? Jews are prohibited from working on the Sabbath; a prohibition that extends so far that even carrying a cane for walking is considered forbidden. But it's okay, because they build holy fences around entire cities in order to squeak in under the law. Masturbation is considered a grave sin in the Catholic Church. Yet pretty much everyone does it at least occasionally and it causes no harm. So why is it a sin? The Church demands "self-reflection" and tries to shame you into feeling guilt if you don't follow every little rule, no matter what the actual harm is or how petty or random the rule is.
Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt, writes that religious ritual practices point to a solution “to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.” A religious community gives adherents a home and something of a family. Community members often testify to it and, therefore, remain unmoved by atheist onslaughts. Perhaps that’s why de Botton now wants to imitate religious congregations.
Finally! Finally something that makes sense in this whole ridiculous essay. Yes, it is a well-known fact that people cooperate better when they have a commonality to link them. So essentially: religious people are like Toronto Maple Leafs fans, who keep paying exorbitant prices to watch their team lose again and again, yet stick together because they are sticking together. Go Team!
In fact, the most common cause of religious conversion is the security of rituals and the comfort of community. Both help people to experience the caring God who loves them. Atheists, however devout, aren’t ever likely to know it.
 Atheists often come from those very communities. And often they don't tell tales of security and comfort. They tell different tales: Tales of being made to feel fear and shame for no good reason. Tales of abuse in the name of God. Tales of institutionalized sexism or homophobia. Tales of brainwashing. Community is important. But religion is not the only source of community. And where is the caring and loving God who let Catholic bullies torment Jamie Hubley to death?

Religion may have helped people cooperate in the past. But now religion often stands in the way of progress. The Bible was used as a defence of slavery and racism. It is used to oppress women. It is still being used to oppress gays. Rabbi Marmur says that religion is about tolerance, yet the Catholic Bishops are still trying to suppress equality for gays. Why is it that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and not the Bible, is the tool that makes life better for women, and minorities, and gays, and other disadvantaged people? Why are the Catholic Bishops trying to suppress anti-bullying campaigns in Ontario schools?

Atheism, at its core, is simply about rejecting religion because it makes no sense. But once that step is taken, once the supernatural is removed, all that's left is this world, just this one world we live in. There is no reward or punishment in your next life. There are no second chances. There is only here, and now, and us, and we have to work together to make things better for all of us. But I guess that's a sentiment that devout religious people will never understand.

Takei-Straight Alliances in Ontario Schools

The Catholic bishops of Ontario are all upset these days because the provincial government is passing a law that forces Catholic schools to allow students to form gay-straight alliances: anti-bullying clubs intended to protect LGBT students. The schools currently may or may not reluctantly allow these clubs (some do, some don't), but they are not allowed to be named Gay-Straight Alliances, or any other name that suggests homosexuality. Even names like "The Rainbow Alliance" and the like have been vetoed by the schools.

I guess George Takei's solution is needed.

But the bishops are all upset because they feel that the government is encroaching on their religious freedoms.  Guess what? "Religious Freedom" is not a blank cheque for discriminating against the population. And these schools are funded by taxpayers. That makes the schools part of the government, and the government is prohibited from this kind of discrimination. The taxpayers largely agree: they voted to keep the current Liberal government in power, in part because of the homophobic nutcases running under the Conservative banner.

The views of the Catholic Church regarding homosexuality are wrong. They are wrong and they are hateful and they are evil. Hopefully, the momentum has shifted in these schools, and the future Catholic leaders will make changes. If they don't, they risk alienating their members, who will leave the church for less hateful pastures, and they risk alienating the taxpayers, who will demand the privatization of the Catholic Schools if they don't get in line with modern values.