RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There are schisms within religions over doctrine or social issues. Now, there's a split among atheists over religion. The new atheists insist that religion is dangerous and should be treated with contempt, while the old guard says they should work with believers. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: On September 30, atheists around the world gathered to celebrate Blasphemy Day, and the freedom to denigrate and insult religion.
Some offered to trade pornography for Bibles. Others de-baptized people with hair dryers. And others committed what the New Testament calls the unforgivable sin.
Unidentified Woman: I deny the existence of the Holy Spirit…
Unidentified Man: I deny the existence of the Holy Spirit, and I am not afraid…
BRADLEY HAGERTY: And the Center for Inquiry Office in Washington, D.C., opened a blasphemous art exhibit. One painting, called Divine Wine, shows Jesus on the cross with blood flowing from the wound in his side into a wine bottle. Another shows Jesus after the crucifixion with nail polish.
Mr. STUART JORDAN: Well, that's Jesus doing his nails, meaning the nail holes in his hand from the crucifixion. And he's made to look kind of effeminate and silly.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Stuart Jordan says he wouldn't have this on his wall, even though he's an atheist. Jordan advises the center on policy issues. He says the controversy over this exhibit goes way beyond Blasphemy Day. It's about the future of the atheist movement — and whether to adopt a more aggressive, often belittling approach toward religious believers.
Mr. JORDAN: Some are very much for it, and some are opposed to it on the grounds that they feel look, this is still a largely religious country. And if it's pushed in the wrong way, this is going to insult many of the religious people who should be shown due respect.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Jordan believes the new approach will backfire. Now, he could speak his mind, since he's a volunteer. But interviews with others associated with the Washington office were canceled shortly before we arrived — curious for a group that promotes free speech.
Ronald Lindsay, who heads the national Center for Inquiry, claims he didn't know why the interviews were canceled. As for the exhibit and other Blasphemy Day events they promoted:
Mr. RONALD LINDSAY (Center for Inquiry): What we wanted were thoughtful, incisive, concise critiques of religion. We were not trying to insult believers.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: But others are perfectly happy to. New atheists, like Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins and journalist Christopher Hitchens, are selling millions of books and drawing people by the thousands to hear a clear message.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Journalist, Columnist, Vanity Fair, Author, "God is Not Great"): I think it should be - religion - treated with ridicule and hatred and contempt, and I claim that right.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair and author of the book "God is Not Great," is just as blunt in an interview.
Mr. HITCHENS: We regard this stuff as ridiculous and sinister - and dangerous.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Religion is dangerous, he says, because it can prompt people to fly airplanes into buildings, and because it promotes ignorance. Hitchens sees no reason to sugarcoat his position.
Mr. HITCHENS: If I said to a Protestant or a Quaker or a Muslim, hey, well, at least I respect your belief even if I don't agree with it, I would be telling a lie.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: And the more outrageous the message, the better, says P.Z. Myers. Myers writes a blog calling for the end of religion. On Blasphemy Day, Myers drove a rusty nail through a consecrated Communion wafer and posted a photo on his Web site.
Professor P.Z. MYERS (Biology, University of Minnesota at Morris, Blogger): People got very angry. I don't know why. I mean, it's just a cracker, right?
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Myers, who teaches biology at the University of Minnesota at Morris, says he received about 15,000 hate emails. He says the provocative approach works.
Prof. MYERS: Edgy is what young people like. They want to cut through the nonsense right away; they want to get to the point. They want to hear the story fast, they want it to be exciting, and they want it to be fun. And I'm sorry, the old school of atheism is really, really boring.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Paul Kurtz epitomizes the old school. He founded the Center for Inquiry three decades ago, to offer a positive alternative to religion. He's built alliances with religious groups over issues like opposing creationism in the public schools. Kurtz says he was ousted in quote, a palace coup, last year. And he worries the new atheists will set the movement back.
Mr. PAUL KURTZ (Founder, Center for Inquiry): They are anti-religious, they're mean-spirited, unfortunately, and I think that does more damage than good. I consider them atheist fundamentalists.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: He hopes this new approach will fizzle.
Mr. KURTZ: Merely to critically attack religious beliefs is not sufficient. What are you for? We know what you're against, but what do you want to defend?
BRADLEY HAGERTY: The new atheists counter they believe in reason, science, and freedom from religious myth. And as Ronald Lindsay, who replaced Kurtz, puts it: We'll take the high road or the low road — whatever it takes to reach people with our message.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.