It's a common argument in discussions about faith: The atheist will bring up the atrocities committed in the names of the various religions, be it the inquisition, various genocides, wars or the burning of heretics. The believer will then fire back with naming famous "atheist murderers": Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. The obvious flaw here is of course that religious atrocities are indeed committed "in the name of the Lord" or "for the glory of God", while Stalin committed his murders in the name of what he was fond of calling "scientific socialism", not in the name of reason, compassion and critical thinking.
Some believers have realized this and now subtly go about the other way, by saying "I don't lump you with atheists like Stalin and Mao, so don't lump me with other murderers simply because they believe in the same stuff as I do."
This has happened to me today when commenting on a christian blog; somebody telling me that lumping christians together with muslims would be as unfair as lumping all atheists together with said genocidal maniacs. That inspired me to pen a few words addressed at all religious moderates out there, who feel treated unfairly when being lumped together with "those extremists":
The funny thing about the term “atheism” is that it's a non-label. It’s negatively defined as “not being theist”. Unlike its counter part, "theist", it has little descriptive use. If you take a comparative look at me and Stalin, you will not find a single positive thing we share. Of course, we might both have hair that is not black, we might both not believe in astrology, we might both dislike horses and so on. But you won’t find much similarities that go beyond what we both not share with another.
When I look at christians and muslims though, I can easily find a lot of important and positive similarities. Just to name a few:
Both believe that there is a diety that cares about what humans do, especially about what humans do while naked. Both believe that there is a book that carries divine authority to some degree and that conveys the will of a god which, by definition, is universally true for all humankind. Both believe in an afterlife; Both believe that god can hear prayers, and a majority even believe that he answers them. Both believe in the concept of sin and atonement, and both believe in the existence of prophets with a direct link to the beyond.
And I could go on. The point is, the similarities that you can find between me and Stalin are none which are of any consequence for our respective behaviour. Our common non-belief does not lead to similar actions. The similarities I find between christians and muslims, however, do lead to similar behaviours, such as the suppression of women and the opposition to gay rights and abortions. I am aware that there are some very important differences between Christianity and Islam, and I do not deny that. However, for the point I am making those differences are irrelevant.
What is relevant is the belief in some sort of divine authority that is attributed to ancient texts that are barbaric, homophobic and patriarchical. There is a varying degree among believers as to how seriously these texts are taken, but all believers take them to be something more than fiction, and that is the key point.
So yes, I am justified in lumping together huge groups that are largely different for the sake of that argument, because they do share the relevant beliefs, and do exhibit the behaviour that I take offense at as a direct result of those beliefs.
You might well be a liberal person with modern, rational views – and still be religious. But the fact remains that the bible, among many other horrific things, does say that homosexuality is “an abomination” (Lev. 18:22 is perhaps the most famous of the many, many examples). And it doesn’t matter wether or not you personally view that as metaphoric or not relevant to your belief, because as long as the bible is viewed as having divine authority to some degree, any fundamentalist coming along will always have the power to revive the potential for barbaric hatred simply by saying “Look, you haven’t been paying attention. Right here, it says black on white that women mustn’t speak in church. That adultery is to be punished with death. That homosexuality is a sin. That sacrificing your son because you're hearing voices in your head is a good thing. This is the perfect word of our divine creator, and it says so right here.”
As much as those “interpretations” of scripture have become very, very rare in christianity today, they are still possible as long as the bible and the Qur'an are viewed as something more than just old books. As long as there are people like you proclaiming that some god, however liberal and modern in his views and demands, is real, it is you who invest fundamentalists with the power to revive the ancient potential for hatred that sleeps in those texts.
That is something that can never be said of my particular brand of atheism, Humanism. My views do not hold the potential to be abused in that way, they do not hold the potential to do anything but improve the human condition. They can be abolished at best, but they cannot be used or misconstrued to do evil. Yours can. Think about that.