(This was written shortly after September 11, 2001, for a general audience.)
I've followed, more or less, the discussions about who the "enemy" is, in the "war on terrorism"; the "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, and so forth. I confess I think of it in different terms. The enemy is theocracy. It comes in Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, AND secular forms.
The freethinking, skeptical, scientific "frame of mind" is functionally and emotionally different from the religious "frame of mind"; beliefs may be held religiously, as Truth revealed by authority, or may be held as "working hypotheses", subject to the test of evidence and experience, to be discarded if they don't pass muster. Secular ideologies can be held religiously, and when they are, they cause the same sorts of damage as theistic religions. For example, Marxist beliefs have usually been held religiously.
Since Marxism is usually atheist, in what sense is it "religious"? I would call it religious because of the attitudes of its adherents. Marxism provides meaning and purpose for their lives, and they are not willing to abandon it in the face of contrary evidence. Marxists generally have not taken an empirical or scientific attitude toward deciding the truth or falsehood of Marxism's tenets. Marxism has had its equivalents of scripture, priesthood, and Popes.
Those who MAKE ideology, call them "priests", and those who rule by force, call them "thugs", have always worked in concert; the particular form the alliance takes has varied through the centuries. Before the 19th century, the "divine right of Kings" and the dominion of the True Faith justified war and tyranny; in the 19th century nationalism and imperialism was supported by racist ideology. In the 20th century we saw the ideology of class struggle become an important means by which they sought to rule.
But since that time both racism and Marxism have been discredited. I don't think either will ever vanish entirely, but at present neither is the inspiration for large popular movements. The rising threat to reason and freedom for the 21rst century, strangely enough, seems to be theocracy. Fundamentalist religion is leading popular movements, inspiring revolutions, justifying oppressive states.
What to do about it? A large subject.
Following is one piece of what is needed; challenge any claim of alleged "revelation", and challenge any need for one.
ATHEISTS AND MORALITY
The belief that ethics can only come from religion is the central core of the grandest swindle ever pulled, the main tool of the continuing criminal enterprise that is organized religion. Religion takes many forms, there are many varieties, many different myths and theologies, but they all claim to speak with authority on ethics. The bottom line of them all, without exception, is that everyone is morally obligated to do as the priesthood says.
They all teach that religion is the only possible source of ethics, that atheists are without morals, because their claim to authority in ethics is the source of their power. It is their method, their tool, by which they rule the Earth, as much of the Earth as believes their claim.
Humans are predisposed to learn ethics in early childhood, in the same way, and for the same reason, that they are predisposed to learn language. Both language and ethics are vitally important tools for living, for a species that survives by cooperating in groups. Because we learn it in childhood, we first learn ethics from our parents; we know what is right and wrong because our parents tell us. Morality, for a small child, equals obedience to parents. Religion hijacks this childhood instinct, claiming to report instructions from a Cosmic Parent. Humans are suckers for this sort of claim, it is a weakness of our species.
If there WERE any Cosmic Parent, it would not need human messengers; it could speak directly to whomever it wished. If a divine being wants me to do something, they should tell me, not you. If they have a message for all humankind, they could write it on the face of the Moon, in letters five miles wide. Any alleged "revelation" DELIVERED BY HUMAN BEINGS is presumptively fraudulent.
Their claim to speak for the Great Cosmic Parent is a lie, as even a few minutes of thought will reveal. One "prophet" says "Yahveh decrees death for all who work on Saturday." (Exodus 31:14-15, Exodus 35:2) Another says "This rule is no longer in force, because the Great Gesargenplotz, who created Yahveh in the first place, came back in 1962 and ate Yahveh, setting humankind free." Such "prophets" claim to hear voices in the air, but we have no way to know if they actually do. If they do, we have no way (and THEY have no way) to know WHO is speaking, or whether the speaker is telling the truth. (Yahveh, for example, is reported to lie in 1 Kings 22:23, Ezekiel 14:9, Ezekiel 20:25, and 2 Thessolonians 2:11-12. But neither we nor the "prophets" can tell if this is the "real" Yahveh, much less the "real" Creator of the Universe- it is just as likely to be some demon, imp, or ghost, playing a practical joke.) There are many such prophets, and their teachings conflict on every moral issue; there are "divine" supporters of imperialism and pacifism, celibacy and polygamy, honesty and strategic deception, asceticism and the accumulation of wealth, equality and heirarchy, capitalism and socialism, monarchy and theocracy.
It is not enough for atheists to reject the priesthood's claims to speak with moral authority. Morality is a vitally important tool for living, people will get it from somewhere. We have to offer a workable alternative ethic.
Where can we get "objective" ethics? Look at the consequences of actions for real people in this world. A consequentialist system has an ultimate goal and a lot of derivative values, which are recommended means to that goal. An objective ethic is a consequentialist ethic that has an ultimate goal that is objectively measureable. It then becomes an objective question whether a particular recommended means will in fact lead to that goal, whether another means might be more effective. The statement "If you want X then you ought to do Y" becomes a statement about cause-and-effect relationships that is objectively true or false, and can be investigated by scientific procedures.
What is ethics for? Ethics is a set of rules and policies for maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations among people, so they all can work to pursue happiness, achieve their various goals, within the limits that ethics defines.
Given that humans are biological beings evolved by natural selection, who normally survive by cooperating in groups, we would expect the vast majority of them to desire the health (defined as the ABILITY to survive) of their families and the peace of their communities. This gives us a "natural" standard of ethics: The Good is that which leads to health, The Right is that which leads to peace. A "good person" is a desirable neighbor, from the point of view of those who seek to live in peace and raise families. This standard would be expected to be popular and persuasive across all human cultures, because it is based on universal human nature.
Adopting "the health of your family and adopted circle" as your standard of the Good gives an ethic that is consequentialist, objective, and Aristotelean. "Health", defined as "survival ability", implies other derivative values. The more knowledge you have, the more friends you have, the more freedom, the more wealth, the more wisdom, other things being equal, the greater your ability to survive, and promote the survival of your circle.
Adopting "the peace of your community" as your standard of the Right gives a "social contract" ethic. In THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY, (an introductory textbook), James Rachels writes (p. 129): "The key idea [of the social contract approach to ethics] is that morally binding rules are the ones that are necessary for social living. It is obvious... that we could not live together very well if we did not accept rules prohibiting murder, assault, theft, lying, breaking promises, and the like. These rules are justified simply by showing that they are necessary if we are to cooperate for our mutual benefit."
There are many different ways a peaceful and cooperative society might function. The terms of the implicit peace treaty are constantly being renegotiated. But as the Maryknoll Sisters said, "If you want peace, work for justice". A peaceful society should not leave some part of the population seething to change the treaty, or cheat on it, the first chance they get. Consider the Silver Rule, "Do not do to others what you would not wish done to you." By itself, this might imply that the ideal of peace is best served by Equal Rights and Equal Opportunity for All.
The ethics of Peace give a minimum standard but leave many questions open. The remaining questions can be decided by the ethics of Health. Alternative forms of society can be judged better or worse according to whether they are a "healthy" place for your kin "unto all generations" to live in. The ultimate goal of the ethics of Health is Sustainable Civilization.
We need not, and must not, give the field of morality to religion. We should not invite frauds and swindlers to write the rules of society. We need not defer to mysterious Authority, as if we were children. As adults among other adults, we can understand where morality comes from and what purpose it serves; we can look at consequences and apply reason to the task.