A lot of people I know seem to be talking about atheism/humanism/secularism at the moment, so I thought I’d wade in with my first proper post of the year.
Tom Chivers wrote the initial post in New Humanist‘s debate, “Is it time to move on from the New Atheism?”. For the uninitiated, new atheism is an outspoken anti-religious movement that encourages rational thinking, challenges to harmful religious ideas and powers held in society, and promotes secular culture and politics.
Tom argues that, while many think of New Atheism as something like: Richard Dawkins shouting at people and going very red in the face and think he’s a silly if not odious man and therefore atheists are all like him and just as irritating… perhaps it has actually been quite successful. Atheism has more visibility, it feels like more of a movement, for better or worse, and the heavy-handed tactic has paved the way for those who would rather take a softer approach.
A bit about me
I don’t actually talk about “my atheism” that much any more. In fact, I’ve rarely volunteered to talk about it – generally it’s been other people’s decision to initiate a conversation. I was more outspoken about it at school when, despite never going to church with parents or anything, people would take it upon themselves to tell me I “must be a Pagan”, or “shouldn’t celebrate christmas”, or had no morals and hated everyone (which, ironically, made the latter far more likely every time it was said).
I vaguely remember one instance of sitting in my room and tentatively attempting to pray for something – I can’t remember what – and at the time thinking it was stupid. I recall a Summer Camp at our local Primary School run by a religious group (Edit: of which there are plenty, as the NSS shows), who made us sing songs containing lyrics like:
The name of the Lord is
A strong tower [all shout: TOWER!]
The righteous run into it
And they are saved!
And finding it dodgy that these people were allowed to get on stage to preach to a bunch of 8 year-olds. It was irritating that we had bible readings in assembly every week, prayers, and songs about the Lord of the dance settee (whatever kind of sofa that was, magical it seemed) whether you wanted to or not (it wasn’t even an explicitly religious school). I was in fact Mary in the Year 6 Nativity, and my best mate played Gabriel. I tried to make him laugh, never went offstage, and had to cuddle a pretend baby Jesus at the end. That was probably the end of my acting aspirations right there.
Point being, religion never directly harmed me – it was just around me, and was quite an irritation. My parents never told me what to believe, or what they believed, until I was a lot older and had already made up my mind. I think it took longer for me to abandon Santa than Christianity.
I’ll still criticise religious crap where it crosses my radar, often: new lows from the Catholic church and their inability to protect children from abuse, or indeed actively protecting known abusers, maybe their anti-LGBT activities, HIV-spreading tactics or misogyny; maybe it’s genital mutilation, be it boys in Muslim or Jewish families, or girls sent abroad from the UK by their parents or growing up in African countries; the oppression of women in hard-line Muslim countries (Saudi, Egypt etc.) and indeed generally. There are so many injustices and human rights abuses perpetrated under the guise of religious belief – these need to be addressed on our doorstep and everywhere.
It’s not about having a go at individuals for holding beliefs, despite what our critics think. I don’t feel the need to, unless they give me a reason. It’s about challenging the acceptance of actions otherwise condemned, simply because the motivation is claimed to be religious. It should not be a free pass to discriminate, to oppress and promote prejudice, or to physically harm. But it is. And it’s about challenging disproportionate religious power and voices in governments and justice systems.
For me, it’s just been a useful word that describes my being outside all those belief groups I don’t belong to. Not just “outside” or “other” but something almost tangible. It doesn’t mean anything besides not-religious but it’s part of who I am and have been for the majority of my life.
It’s not the same for everyone. For many it is important to positively identify as an atheist because they were religious in the past and/or suffered because of it and need to have that agency as apostates or victims/survivors. Telling people it’s “silly to define yourself by something you’re not” (which was the take-home message from Alom Shaha‘s contribution to the debate) takes that away from them, and that’s not something we should be doing. [Edit: have expanded on this at the end of the post.]
As Alex Gabriel then pointed out, it seems odd that someone, who has fought hard for the rights of apostates, to expose the harms religion can impose (especially as we’re growing up) and to promote atheism as a choice people can make that can be beneficial, would then say it’s not worth identifying positively with atheism as an ex-religious person. But we all have a tendency to change our ideas and priorities over time, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
As a friend quoted on facebook, “Don’t have positions. Have goals. You can’t move from a position. You can move towards a goal.” – while not technically true, you get the idea. It can often be more constructive to have something to work towards, positive things to take action on, rather than simply naysaying. I have heard people say this is why they like the annual Secular Europe March (most of which I’ve attended), because it’s for something, rather than simply a protest (although mainly it’s anti-Vatican, to be fair).
Of course, simply not subscribing to any of the superstitions about deities that exist in human culture today doesn’t necessarily mean you share any other traits with all the other people who don’t. So it’s hard to say anything about “atheists” as a whole, really. I don’t, therefore, find it surprising that there have been “schisms” and divisions in the “community” (whatever it is), with people signing up to additional atheist-plus (if you like) categories to better define what they actually believe about living.
Martin Robbins wrote a piece suggesting ways for “Atheism” to move forward, past this new atheism vitriol personified by Dawkins and his contemporaries (and disturbing fanclub). Some similar points are made by Ariane Sherine (of Atheist Bus Campaign fame, and a very lovely small, grinning person generally). However, the calm and inoffensive approach isn’t for everyone, might not be all that effective in some cases, and surely shouldn’t be all that’s left – commendable as it is on paper.
I think sometimes we’re talking at cross-purposes. Sometimes we’re focusing on the community and its image; what people think when they hear “atheist” (“oh atheism is just another religion” etc.) and sometimes we’re talking about us as individuals and how we fit into the world, what we want from it, and what we’d like to see. Being so different, I think it’s hard to tell the amorphous whole what it should be doing, or even what it is.
I tend to agree with Alex, too – the anger can be necessary and justifiable. Some aspects of religion are truly abhorrent and deserve the full backlash that secular/humanist/atheist movements can create. Bringing in further off-post discussions, it has brought people to atheism – I’ve spoken to people who, to my surprise, read The God Delusion and it changed their world. It does happen. So just because it’s not relevant to us – we who never had faith, or those who left it for different reasons or by different means, doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. It doesn’t work for everyone, but when is there ever a one size fits all solution?
I also want to be free to criticise people who also share my disbelief in religion when they’re wrong about other stuff. While I don’t consider myself an Atheist-plus, I agree that many of their messages are for people who like to think of themselves as decent human beings who care about others and making things better for everyone. If a bunch of atheists in America want to send endless online threats to women because they’re misogynistic bastards, I’m right behind people laying into them for that, or at the very least distancing ourselves.
Part of the beauty of not sharing anything besides non-belief with other atheists is that none of them represents me. Dawkins doesn’t, the misogynistic Americans don’t, I stand for myself. The community exists only as proof that it’s a popular position, that reason isn’t shunned everywhere and that god doesn’t need to be in someone’s life for them to do good stuff.
The “privilege” problem
It is a buzzword, but I think it’s appropriate. In a similar vein as thoughts I’ve expressed previously on politics and social cohesion, there is an amount of privilege in being able to step back and be calm about these things – when the negative effects aren’t hitting you personally at present (or ever). It takes time and being quite far removed to achieve that, for most people. For many around the world it remains easier to suffer the oppression than speak out against it. And if they do want to speak out, they’ll have to shout or they won’t be heard.
So, without wishing to take away at all from anyone’s efforts in leaving their old beliefs and cultures behind – it’s a great thing to be in a better place in life, to be comfortable in oneself and happy enough that the negative, scary or traumatic things don’t make us angry or upset. But maybe it is often a privilege to be in that position, and perhaps after a long time fighting we can find ourselves in a relatively good situation, one that allows us to change our focus and our goals to more positive ones.
That still doesn’t invalidate anyone’s wish to be actively pushing back – for anyone who is still being hurt, for anyone who is still angry (I’d never question any clergy abuse victim’s right to express their feelings on the matter, and am humbled when I witness it) and I think it’s a bit unfair of people to be saying that the rage should just stop. If people aren’t shown what the harm can be, where does the support come from?
The privilege of being distanced from real harm and direct experience makes people complacent, and prone to focus on such pointless minutiae as mentioned in Martin’s piece. Because when you’re not worrying about your life or physical safety, when you’re not verbally attacked daily, when your beliefs have no real visible impact on your day to day life, it’s very easy to stand back and say “well it’s not that bad”. And it’s not for us. Not now, for which we can be grateful. But basic human rights are still curtailed by religion globally. That’s something we all care about.
Also, when we don’t see these big problems, people who care about people often end up turning on what they do see instead, which can be minor intra-community disagreements, and then they end up looking like dicks.
As Gimpy commented on Twitter: “Evangelism is on the rise in Africa and South America, Asia has its own problems with religious privilege – atheistic ideas need spreading.” It is also privilege that allows us to think there is no need for more forceful and outspoken campaigns. People suffer and die for these ideas – we’re comfortable in a city/country, but not everyone is, and if our principles apply equally to human beings the world over, we shouldn’t be complacent.
Why talk about it?
Well, while it may be pointless to try to “herd cats” in atheism, skepticism or whatever heterogeneous group of people we’re talking about, it’s always worth stepping back sometimes to reflect.
People who whine about “navel-gazing” don’t seem to notice that it’s those who are least self-aware and spend the least time on reflection who tend to be the most annoying and/or harmful. If you never think about your actions and their impact, how are you ever going to learn from mistakes, and avoid making them in the first place?
Of course, it’s important not to only think, but I don’t imagine anyone, really, who just sits and thinks and never does anything. In a broad sense, armchair philosophers notwithstanding. Not that I have a problem with philosophers either.
Disclosure: with the exception of Gimpy and Mr Chivers, I know and like all of these people “in real life”, and, from Twitter-based interactions, these two also seem like good chaps.
Edit: here’s a video of Greta Christina at Skepticon talking about the perception of ‘atheist anger’, how accurate it is, why people are angry and how useful (or not) it is. It’s 48mins long but you could skip through – obviously some American focus, where the anger is arguably both more prevalent and necessary for many individuals. Flagged by Alex Gabriel.
Edit II: Following a Twitter conversation this morning, I’d like to add a couple more points. It seems people sometimes have an aversion to “identifying based on what you’re not”. I don’t think that’s all that unreasonable. Religion is a huge part of human society, culture and history, and rejecting it – gods who give a damn about our business and creating rules to live our lives by – can be an important statement for people to make. “Atheist” as a label can, to an individual, mean many things. It can, by positively identifying as such, validate your movement away from a religion-dominated childhood/community and acknowledge any struggle and persecution that may have gone with it.
Other labels are generally of different meaning. Humanist has other aspects to it – the mere act of rejecting the idea of god(s) is surely worthy of its own descriptive term. In UK society, we are lucky that atheist is pretty much the default now, and entirely accepted except by some hard-line religious people – who wield very little to no power over our lives. That isn’t the case for everyone. Identifying as ‘atheist’ is a bold statement in many communities; or even outlawed. We should respect people’s chosen identities.
Finally a- as a prefix, I think, means more than just “not/non-“. It can also mean “free from”; aseptic, free from infection/contamination. Asexual; without sex (also given sex is important to many/most people on the planet, and influential, asexual people are perfectly within their right to positively identify as having a life free from it).
We are free from religion. Personally – culturally, less so, and that’s where some other labels (secularist, humanist) can come in.
Edit III: A video from BBC world service featuring the excellent Bob Churchill on challenges for many atheists worldwide today
“Even though it’s a disbelief, it’s a belief that I can be ethical and moral through reasoning… not dictated to”