YOU would think, wouldn't you, that one of the principal attractions of atheism would be the complete absence of schisms. Where the devout always seem to be working themselves up into a frenzy over some obscure theological point, non-believers can glide through life, absolved, as they are, of the need to negotiate the terms of their disbelief. If there's no God, there is no message. And if there's no message, then there's nothing much to argue about.
Despite this, atheism was last week rent by disagreement, proving that the need for petty, internecine squabbling runs deeper in the psyche than the need to find meaning in existence. The question that is dividing its leading proponents is how much they should be evangelising about their lack of faith. Should they adopt a live-and-let-live approach to the religious? Or should they be shouting their atheism from the rooftops in an attempt to get all the blinkered throwbacks to see the light?
In the live-and-let-live corner are the "old" atheists led by US professor Paul Kurtz, who founded the Center for Inquiry three decades ago to offer a positive alternative to religion. Kurtz – who built alliances with religious groups over issues such as opposing creationism in schools – lit the kindling for the argument when he called the decision to celebrate Blasphemy Day with a contest encouraging new forms of blasphemy a betrayal of the civic virtues of democracy.
In the opposing corner are the new, In-Your-Face atheists – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and PZ Myers – who see it as their duty to launch constant attacks on the faithful. Within their ranks, there is a kind of competitiveness to achieve ever greater degrees of non-belief. Myers once drove a rusty nail through a consecrated communion wafer and posted it on his website.
It's the new atheists, of course, who are in the ascendancy. Their noisy denunciation of religion seems to capture the zeitgeist, even though the vitriolic rhetoric they use has more in common with the clergymen they oppose than with the liberal secularism of our age.
As regular readers of this column may know, I am not hugely devout, my faith, at its lowest ebb, being based more on a desire for God to exist than on an overpowering conviction that he does. If I were to lose the last vestiges of it and become an atheist, I suspect the most liberating aspect would be the prospect of jettisoning, once and for all, any association with the intolerance and invective that has blighted some sections of my own Church for so long. So it strikes me as odd that so-called movement atheists should adopt the very tactics they claim to abhor in religionists to further their own cause.
Like missionaries in Africa, they trample over other people's beliefs in an attempt to replace them with their own "superior" world view. They dislike the way some churches put up The End Of The World Is Nigh posters to try to boost numbers, so they slap up their own message – "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" – on the side of buses, even though, for some people, the thought of life as one long struggle with a big, black hole at the end of it, is not cheering, but deeply distressing.
They complain about parents indoctrinating their charges, but set up atheist summer camps, which encourage "scepticism". "It is a telling fact that, the world over, the vast majority of children follow the religion of their parents rather than any of the other available religions," Dawkins has said. Uh huh. And I think you'll find most children of non-believers also tend to be non-believers.
For all movement atheists are forever going on about their own intelligence, they seem singularly unable to distinguish between organised religion and personal faith, ridiculing both with equal vehemence. I mean, by all means criticise individual religions: Catholicism for its tendency to cover up child abuse; Protestantism for its rejection of fun; Islam for its sometimes dubious treatment of women. There are plenty within those creeds who would agree with you. Feel free to criticise the short-comings of individual practitioners too: there will always be those who don't practise what they preach (although many more are doing their best to live good and loving lives).
But bear in mind believers don't have a monopoly on ruthlessness; or arrogance or mean-spiritedness, as Dawkins so ably demonstrates. Here is a brilliant man who uses his intellect to put other people down. Here is a man so convinced of his own rightness that he treats all who disagree with him with contempt. It's almost as if he considers himself infallible.
Mocking what is sacred to other people – by drawing Jesus with nail polish dripping from his wounds instead of blood, for example – doesn't seem sophisticated or useful, it seems childish; like spoiling someone's else's toy because you don't have one of your own.
The refusal of movement atheists to accept that faith and intelligence are not mutually exclusive, undermines their credibility. But even if they were right: if all believers were sad, pathetic and deluded, I don't see what would be so clever about snatching away their comfort blanket.
The urge to strip away the meaning others invest in life is a brutal one, which is why a schism which benefited "new" atheists would be very bad news indeed.
At its worst, "movement" atheism is more than the passive non-belief in the existence of God. It's a cult which has all the nasty trappings of religion, except the deity. It's a form of secular fundamentalism every bit as bitter, as poisonous and potentially sinister as the doctrines it hopes to replace.